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Context and Culture

The Largest Standing Stupa in Afghanistan: A short history of the Buddhist site at Topdara

Jelena Bjelica 16 min

A dome-shaped ancient Buddhist shrine, the Topdara stupa to the north of Kabul was described by 19th century British explorer Charles Masson as “perhaps the most complete and beautiful monument of the kind in these countries.” Since Masson’s visit in 1833, the Topdara stupa saw few visitors and had fallen into neglect until recently, in 2016, when an Afghan cultural heritage organisation began its preservation and excavation work. When AAN’s Jelena Bjelica visited the stupa in spring 2019, she found its beauty and grandeur largely restored. In this dispatch she pieces together the history of the stupa from various historical and contemporary records (with input from Jolyon Leslie).

Topdara stupa seen from the back (west-facing). The history of the Topdara stupa is still unknown. However, given its location near the site of the ancient city of Kapisa (around or in what is now Bagram, a small bazaar town mainly known for the gigantic air base nearby), it may have been commissioned between 200 and 400 CE. Photo: ACHCO, 2019

The Topdara stupa, repairing the drum and excavating the base

As one approaches Parwan’s provincial capital Charikar on the main highway from Kabul, the Topdara stupa can be seen on the left, set against the Koh-e Safi mountains. The stupa stands like a crown on an area of high ground above the village of Topdara, surrounded by orchards and barley fields. On an early April morning when AAN visited, staff from the Afghan NGO, the Afghanistan Cultural Heritage Consulting Organisation (ACHCO)  were busy doing preservation and excavation work on the site. The conservation is taking place in collaboration with the Ministry of Information and Culture, with staff from the Afghan Institute of Archaeology undertaking the excavations.

ACHCO’s work on the stupa began in 2016. Three years later when AAN visited, the stupa’s drum had been repaired and preserved, and almost the entire base of the stupa excavated. The structure, however, is still scaffolded as preservation work is ongoing. The drum – the dome-shaped upper part of the stupa – was damaged by Masson when he opened it up in the 19th century (see his drawings of the stupa as well as a photo from the late 1950s on page 83 in this 2017 British Museum publication).

A view of the Topdara stupa in 2016 before the ACHCO began the preservation and excavation work. Photo: Robert Nickelsberg (ACHCO), 2016.
A view of the Topdara stupa in 2016 before the ACHCO began the preservation and excavation work. Photo: Robert Nickelsberg (ACHCO), 2016.
The Topdara Stupa in 2017. The drum of the stupa covered with scaffolding has been completely repaired and preserved. Photo: ACHCO, 2017.
The Topdara Stupa in 2017. The drum of the stupa covered with scaffolding has been completely repaired and preserved. Photo: ACHCO, 2017.
TThe front (east-facing) view of Topdara stupa from April 2019 after ACHCO excavated the base of the stupa. Photo: Jelena Bjelica, 2019.
The front (east-facing) view of Topdara stupa from April 2019 after ACHCO excavated the base of the stupa. Photo: Jelena Bjelica, 2019.
The back (west-facing) view of Topdara stupa from April 2019 after ACHCO excavated the base of the stupa. Photo: Jelena Bjelica, 2019.
The back (west-facing) view of Topdara stupa from April 2019 after ACHCO excavated the base of the stupa. Photo: Jelena Bjelica, 2019.

The principal structure at Topdara is the stone stupa and its drum, which measures 23 metres across and stands almost 30 metres high above the surrounding fields. The drum is ornamented with double ‘S’-shaped curves, which give it a decorative band of 56 identical niches framed by rounded arches. The arches are supported by engaged piers, or little pillars, in a classical style, over which pointed ‘hoods’ project. These hoods are, in turn, separated by slender pilasters formed from small pieces of schist, a mineral rock. Each niche has a small aperture in the centre where figures can be fixed, now long disappeared. Facing east above this frieze is a tri-lobed arch niche where three figures of the Buddha are thought to have once been mounted. According to this 2017 British Museum publication, this assumption is based on the remains of a stucco halo of what is thought to have been ‘the principal image’ of a standing Buddha, with what would probably have been two smaller seated Buddhas on each side. (1) The frieze is aligned with a ceremonial stair that faces the valley where the capital of the Kushan empire, Kapisa, once was.

The drum stands on a square base, which measures 36 metres on each side, that ACHCO has recently excavated. They discovered that the base is also ornamented with classical style pilasters and has two pairs of stairs, on its east and west points. The base was an integral element of the rituals followed by Buddhist pilgrims, who would have circumambulated around the stupa.

A narrow outer plinth or base surrounds the main platform on all sides, also articulated with engaged piers made from schist fragments. Traces of stone paving have been found around this outer plinth, indicating that this level might also have been used by pilgrims for circumambulation. According to ACHCO, the stupa would have been plastered and painted, with gilded parasols on the apex of its dome, flanked by flags and banners that would have been visible by pilgrims progressing along the slopes below.

In 19th century English sources, stupas were generally referred to with the term ‘tope’, which may or may not derive from the Dari word for hill or mound, tappa. The name of the village and the stupa, Topdara, could then mean Valley of the Stupa. For example, English orientalist H.H. Wilson (1786-1860) notes in the first chapter of the book Ariana Antica (1841):

The edifices which have of late years attracted so much attention in the north-west of India and in Afghanistan, have been known by the general appellation of Topes, a word signifying a mound or tumulus, derived from the Sanscrit [sic] appellation Sthupa [sic], having the same import. [Ariana Antica pp 28-9.]

According to Masson’s explanation in the second chapter of the same book:

The term Tope, which is applicable to the more prominent and interesting of the structures under consideration, is that in ordinary use by the people of the regions in which they most abound. A tope is a massive structure comprising two essential parts, the basement and perpendicular body resting thereon. The latter, after a certain elevation, always terminates after the manner of a cupola, sometimes so depressed as to exhibit merely a slight convexity of surface, but more frequently approaching the shape of a cone.

Speaking about the Topdara stupa, one of the three stupas he examined “to the north of Kabul, and in the districts of Koh Daman and the Kohistan,” Masson wrote: “The next [tope] occurs at Dara, about twenty-five miles from Kabul, and is perhaps the most complete and beautiful monument of the kind in these countries, as it is one of the largest.”

Little is known about the history of the Topdara stupa regarding who commissioned it, when it was built and how it was used. Archaeological research in Afghanistan has been episodic and the number of properly excavated sites in country is still tiny, compared to neighbouring Iran or Pakistan. Serious archaeological explorations in Afghanistan only began with the creation of the Délégation Archéologique Française en Afghanistan (DAFA) in 1922, which had obtained a monopolistic licence from the country’s then-ruler, Amanullah (more about him in this AAN dispatch). Subsequent wars, both World War II and the 40 years of conflict in Afghanistan since 1978, prevented the follow-up of much in-depth archaeological research. Masson’s written accounts from the 19th century, therefore, still offer an invaluable insight into the distant past of Afghanistan and its region.

Charles Masson (1800–53), explorer and collector of coins

Charles Masson was born in 1800 as James Lewis in Aldermanbury, which today is in the heart of the City of London. He grew up in a diverse community among Italian and French émigrés (see the British Museum publication, The Charles Masson Archive: British Library, British Museum and Other Documents Relating to the 1832– 1838 Masson Collection from Afghanistan). Although little is known about his early life, he was an educated man who started out knowing both Latin and Greek. The 2017 British Museum publication noted that Masson “certainly had a flair for languages, later learning to speak Hindustani and Persian. He also acquired some Pashto […]”.

After a quarrel with his father, James Lewis enlisted as an infantryman in the army of the British East India Company in 1821. He sailed to Bengal, where he served in the Third Troop of the First Brigade, the Bengal European Artillery, until 1827 when he deserted his regiment, then stationed in Agra, and took on the alias of Charles Masson. Under his assumed name he began a journey on foot from Agra through Rajasthan. He reached Peshawar in June 1828 and from there, several months later, travelled the Khyber Pass into Afghanistan with an unnamed ‘Pathan’ friend.

During his visits to Afghanistan he explored stupas mainly in the pursuit of coins. In the early 19th century, numismatics – the study and collection of coins – was popular in Great Britain, as was the deciphering of history through coins.

The first Buddhist site Masson visited in Afghanistan was Bamyan in late 1832, which he visited only once. Between 1833 and 1835, however, he surveyed and recorded over a hundred other sites around Kabul and Jalalabad, along the Kabul river, and in Wardak. He collected over 30,000 coins belonging to different periods of Afghanistan’s distant history and recorded the details of the stupas with the help of a camera lucida (an instrument in which rays of light are reflected by a prism to produce an image on a sheet of paper, from which a drawing can be made).

In January 1835, Lord Ellenborough, the British Governor General of India, requested a royal pardon for Masson, as he deemed him useful for the exploration of Afghanistan, a country of interest to Britain, which was soon to intervene for the first time (in the 1839-42 First Anglo-Afghan War). Masson was granted a royal pardon later that year. Lord Ellenborough’s plea described Masson as follows:

He is possessed of much science and ability. He has acquired and communicated much useful information respecting the condition of the People and Territories bordering on the Indus, and is now engaged in prosecuting his enquiries more of a Scientific than a Political nature to the north of the Hindu Kush… This person, whose private character appears to be unimpeached, except as regards the crime of desertion … seems disposed to atone as far as he can for that crime by useful contributions to the ancient history and to our present knowledge of the nations in the vicinity of the Indus.

All Masson’s finds went to the British East India Company, in return for its funding of his exploration of ancient sites in Afghanistan. The finds were sent on to the India Museum in London. When this closed in 1878, the British Museum was given all archaeological artefacts and a portion of the coins.

Masson’s accounts about the stupas

Masson’s written accounts of his explorations offer little on the history of the stupas he opened. But it was pioneer work nevertheless – like the contemporary French explorations in Egypt, it predated the establishment of archaeology as a science by almost 40 years.

Masson ventured to Charikar for the first time in June 1833. The 2017 British Museum publication on Masson writes that:

… a primary object of his ‘rambles’ in Kohistan was to find Alexandria ad Caucasum [a colony of Alexander the Great, one of many designated with the name Alexandria] or as Masson put it “to ascertain if any vestiges existed which I might venture to refer to Alexandria ad Caucasum, the site of which, I felt assured, ought to be looked for at the skirts of the Híndu Kush in this quarter.

Upon arrival in Charikar he soon discovered the Topdara stupa. In his 1842 Narrative of Various Journeys in Balochistan, Afghanistan and the Panjab, he wrote that 58 kilometres north of Kabul and 5 kilometres south-west of Charikar:

[…] we came in a line with Topdara, celebrated for the magnificent tope it contains… Passing through [the village], we proceeded to the Tope, and I occupied myself for some time in making sketches of it. About the monument were numerous caper-trees of spices similar to that of the Baloch and Persian hills. Proceeding a little up the dara, which had a fine brook running down it, whose volume of water was considerably augmented by the earthquake of last year [June 1832], we found a convenient place to rest in, and were supplied by the villagers with mulberries.

On this first visit, Masson simply sketched the stupa and took a few bearings from a hill overlooking the plain. He opened the stupa in the same year. In Ariana Antica (pp. 116–17) he wrote:

[…] I examined it in 1833, and found in the centre a small apartment, formed by slate-stones, and containing the same materials as the mass of the building; amongst them I detected a fragment of bone, but no more useful result: the inner surfaces of the slate-stones had been covered with red lead [probably red ochre]. This was the first tope I opened, and subsequent experience led me to believe I had not proceeded far enough in the examination of the structure; in all events, it would have been satisfactory to have continued it.

The 2017 British Museum publication says that “Masson tunnelled into the dome at a point fairly high up the drum on both the east and west sides”, judging by “the visible holes that pierce the arcade of arches and pilasters.” The holes have now been repaired by ACHCO.

Although Masson’s chapter in Ariana Antica does not provide historical information about this particular stupa, it offers some valuable general observations about these structures in Afghanistan. For example, he said:

Topes must be considered as fronting the east, both because many of their basements are provided with flights of steps at that point, and because others of them have niches facing the east, over their ornamental belts. That these niches once held statues is almost certain, from the holes or apertures seen in them, as is observed in the smaller niches among the caves and temples of Bamian, which we know were occupied by statues or idols, from their mutilated remains still to be seen in some of them.

The Topdara stupa’s drum is ornamented with double ‘S’-shaped curves, which give it a decorative band of 56 identical niches framed by rounded arches. Photo: Jelena Bjelica, 2019.
The Topdara stupa’s drum is ornamented with double ‘S’-shaped curves, which give it a decorative band of 56 identical niches framed by rounded arches. Photo: Jelena Bjelica, 2019.

Masson also observed that stupas had been built on elevations overlooking the valleys. He wrote:

The locality and position of these structures demand attention. The favourite sites selected for them are at the skirts of hills, on elevations separated from each other by ravines. The topes of Kabul, Chahar Bagh [west of Jalalabad], and Hidda [sic – correct: Hadda], are remarkable for the distinct nature of their situation with reference to each other.

He also noticed [Ariana Antica, pp 48-9] that:

Water is constantly found near topes and their appendages, and it would appear to have been a leading principle in the selection of their sites, that springs of water should be at hand. It was, of course, indispensable to the conveniences of the communities secluded in the caves, and to their performance of their rites and ablutions; and it was also necessary that it should be pure and flowing from the rock.

The Topdara stupa, as Masson also described on his first visit, is also located in the vicinity of a mountain stream. During our visit in April 2019, the noisy stream, swollen from the melted snow from surrounding peaks, echoed through the nearby barren slopes. The Topdara stupa in its glory days might have been a truly meditative and peaceful site.

European discovery and explorations of Afghan Buddhist remains

Masson’s discoveries of Buddhists sites in the mid 19th century are probably the first relatively detailed accounts of this cultural heritage in Afghanistan. In fact, Europeans seem to have only become aware of the extensive Buddhist remains of Afghanistan, in particular those close to the main route between Peshawar and Kabul through the Khyber Pass, in the 1820s, the decade before Masson visited. The earliest travellers to report on the archaeological sites were William Moorcroft (1767–1825), veterinarian and superintendent of the East India Company, and George Trebeck (1800–25), geographer and draftsman, who were together on an expedition in search of new equestrian breeding stock. (2)

Some ten years later the Buddhist heritage in Afghanistan was still questioned by Europeans. In 1833, for example, Alexander Burnes (1805-41), a British explorer and diplomat associated with the Great Game and killed during the First Anglo-Afghan War in Kabul, published an article in the Journal of Asiatic Society about the Bamyan Buddhas. There he offered several different interpretations about the origins of the giant statues. He writes:

There are no reliques of Asiatic antiquity which have more roused the curiosity of the learned than the colossal idols of Bamiyan. […] It is stated that they were excavated about the Christian era by a tribe of kafirs (infidels), to represent a king named SALSAL and his wife, who ruled in a distant country, and was worshipped for his greatness. The Hindus assert them to have been excavated by the Pandus, and that they are mentioned in the great epic poem of the Mahabharat. Certain it is that the Hindus on passing these idols at this day hold up their hands in adoration, though they do not make offerings, which may have fallen into disuse since the rise of Islam. I am aware that a conjecture attributes these images to the Buddhists, and the long ears of the great figure make it probable enough.

Even in 1841 the Buddhist remains in Afghanistan were still not being fully recognised as such. An officer in the navy of the East India Company, who in 1836 was appointed to take part in a mission to Afghanistan led by Alexander Burnes, John Wood (1811–71), wrote in his book A Journey to the Source of the River Oxus: “the road by Bamiyan, although circuitous, rewards a stranger with a sight of its colossal idols, caves, and other records of the existence of a race of men unknown either to history or tradition.”

A sixth century travelogue about a journey from China to the Buddhist sites in today’s Afghanistan and Pakistan, entitled “Si-Yu-Hi” or “Record of the Western Countries” by Huan Tsang, a Buddhist monk, finally indisputably confirmed to Europeans that the statues in Bamyan were indeed Buddhas, when the text was translated into English in 1906.

It was in the end the de facto work of Charles Masson that largely uncovered the Buddhist remains in Afghanistan. Although the excavations by a medical officer from the Austro-Hungarian empire in Sikh services, Johann Martin Honigberger, in the 1830s were lauded in the 19th century, in hindsight they turned out to have been rather modest. Recent discoveries of documents point out that Honigberger only documented seven, while claiming that he examined 20 stupas. (3) Masson’s finds were much more numerous and better documented. Only in Ariana Antica, for example, he published small illustrations of a selection of 48 key sites. But this, according to the 2017 British Museum publication, “barely skims the surface of his unpublished records held in the India Office Collection of the British Library.”

H.H. Wilson in Ariana Antica said the two men “have been most distinguished for their researches amongst the topes.” He then proceeded to analyse the stupas discovered in Afghanistan and compared them with those scattered over the then-vast British Empire. He concluded:

[…] all are agreed that the topes are monuments peculiar to the faith of Buddha: there is some difference, not very material, as to their especial appropriation. Lieutenant Burnes, Mr. Masson, and M. Court, adopting the notions that prevail amongst the people of the country, are inclined to regard them as regal [sic] sepultures; but I am disposed with Mr. Erskine and Mr. Hodgson, and, I believe, with those learned antiquaries who have treated of the subject in Europe, to regard them as dahgopas on a large scale, that is, as shrines enclosing and protecting some sacred relic, attributed, probably with very little truth or verisimilitude, to Sakya Sinha or Gautama, or to some inferior representative of him, some Bodhisatwa, some high-priest or Lama of local sanctity.

Topdara – out of focus for almost 200 years

DAFA began formal excavations in Afghanistan in the 1926, focusing on Hadda, near Jalalabad. There, between 1926 and 1928, Jules Barthoux worked on a site containing the ruins of eight monasteries and around 500 stupas. The excavation yielded approximately 15,000 sculptures, only a relatively small portion of which were transferred to the National Museum in Kabul and the Guimet Museum in Paris. Other sculptures were kept in an open-air museum at Hadda, which was destroyed and looted during the fighting in the time of the Soviet occupation (1979-89).

Topdara was not the focus of DAFA’s research. However, in the Afghanistan Quarterly Review from 1953,  the founder of the Afghan Historical Society (Anjuman-e Tarikh-e Afghanistan) and the then-curator of the National Museum (est. 1931), Ahmad Ali Kohzad (1907–83) did mention the site. Kohzad wrote that the excavations of 1921 and 1922 had discovered “new sources of evidence concerning the local religion and the civilization of the Kushan era in Bagram, including small elephant statues pertaining to the guardian of the mountain.” (4) “This mountain” he said “is located on the western edge of Kapisa. In Buddhist times a great Buddhist temple had been built at the foot of this mountain, the ruins of which, according to M. Fouche, still exist at Topdara, in front of Tcharikar.”

The stupa was photographed in 1967 by Japanese sinologist and archaeologist Seiichi Mizuno, who had been to Afghanistan and Pakistan to supervise the excavation of Buddhist sites between 1959 and 1967. See his picture of Topdara on page 83 of this 2017 British Museum publication). The Topdara stupa was, however, never properly excavated until 2016, when ACHCO started its work. Whether the site hides a great Buddhist temple under the dirt, as suggested by Kohzad, remains to be seen.

The history of the Topdara stupa is still unknown. However, given its location near the site of the ancient city of Kapisa (around or in what is now Bagram, a small bazaar town mainly known for the gigantic air base nearby), ACHCO thinks the stupa may have been commissioned in around 400 CE. (5) Buddhism thrived in and around Kapisa for several centuries, as indicated by the many Buddhist monuments in this area, some explored and excavated, others unattended. Topdara seems to have been one of many stupas along the main road from Kabul to the ancient city of Kapisa, now Bagram, which included the Tepe Iskander stupa located 15 kilometres north of Kabul, and the site three kilometres south of the district centre of Mir Bacha Kot, also known as Saray-e Khwaja) (see here and here). A better-researched and documented history of the Topdara stupa, and the civilization it was part of, is, however, yet to be written.

Edited by Thomas Ruttig and Martine van Bijlert

(1) The 2017 British Museum publication, “Charles Masson and the Buddhist Sites of Afghanistan: Explorations, Excavations, Collections 1832–1835” edited by Elizabeth Errington, describes the drum of Topdara as such:

The drum is decorated with an arcade of ogee arches and Indo-Corinthian pilasters, with an upper tier of Indo-Persepolitan pilasters in the spandrels. There is a dowel hole in each archway for attaching a statue. On the east side, above this frieze, is a recessed tri-lobed arch (width 3.7m), which still contained the remains of the stucco halo of the principal image. This was probably a standing Buddha, flanked by a smaller kneeling figure on either side.

(2) According to H.H. Wilson, the first stupa that came to British attention in the region was discovered at Sarnath, in India, where an urn and a Buddha statue had been discovered by a local in 1794. This stupa was opened in 1835. Wilson also mentions explorations in Ceylon (Sri Lanka), accounts of which had been published in 1799.  On Afghanistan stupas, Wilson said:

The use of the term tope in connexion with monuments of this shape was first adopted when the next building of the class was discovered in Upper India. In 1808 the embassy to Kabul, conducted by Mr. Elphinstone, when upon their way back to India, arrived at a part of the country between the Indus and the Jhelum, in which, according to the notions of Colonel Wilford, the capital of Taxiles [now known as Taxila, in today’s Pakistan], the ally of Alexander, was situated. A party left the camp to explore the neighbourhood for relics of antiquity, in confirmation of this opinion; and they met with this edifice, the Tope of Manikyala, a solid circular building of masonry, surmounted by a dome, and resting upon a low artificial mound.

(3) Honigberger spent around five months in Afghanistan in 1833. He gives a short rendering about this part of his journey in his Früchte aus dem Morgenlande oder Reise-Erlebnisse nebst naturhistorisch-medizinischen Erfahrungen, einigen hundert erprobten Arzneimitteln und einer Heilart, dem Medial-Systeme (Vienna 1851), translated into English under the title Thirty-five years in the East. Adventures, discoveries, experiments, and historical sketches, relating to the Punjab and Cashmere; in connection with medicine, botany, pharmacy, etc. (London 1852, online here). He only stated that “At Cabul … and Jellalabad … I opened a great many cupolas (tombs)” but he did not give their exact locations. He further mentioned that his collection from then had been sent to and published by the Asiatic Society in Paris in 1835. Another part of his collection which had been sent to Vienna was lost.

According to a 2017 British Museum publication, Honigberger claimed “to have opened a total of 20 stupas in the Kabul and Darunta regions, but he only documented the seven stupas containing relic deposits: Shevaki 1, Kamari 2, Seh Top 2, Kotpur 1, Barabad, Bimaran 3 and 5.” The publication further said:

However, Masson provides information on a further ten sites, bringing the total of identified Honigberger excavations to 17: the stupas of Korrindar and Topdara in the Koh-i-Daman to the north of Kabul (Masson 1841, Topes pl. IXc–d); Guldara on the southern side of the Shakh Baranta ridge and, west of Jalalabad, the Darunta sites of Kotpur 3, Passani 2, Bimaran 2, Deh Rahman 2, Surkh Tope and Nandara 1 and 2.

(4) These ‘elephant heads’ were called ‘Pilo Sara’ and ‘Pilo Solo’ in Sanskrit and Chinese before the Islamic era. In current-day Afghanistan, ‘Fil’ (colloquial ‘pil’) is also the word for elephant in Dari and Pashto.

(5) Although Buddhism could have been established in Afghanistan at any time during the last two or three centuries BCE, it is not until the advent of the 1st century CE that there is any tangible chronological evidence in the form of dated inscriptions and the inclusion of coins in the relic deposits (see here).



19th century explorations of Afghanistan Buddhism in Afghanistan Charles Masson Topdara stupa