The Temple of Naubahar


Abdul Hai Habibi


Over four thousand years ago the Arian people crossed the Oxus river and settled in the pastures of Bakhdi (Balkh). The Aryans established a civilization in this land and their king Yama, son of Vivasvat, was ordered by Ahura Mazda to construct a “wara” or “wahar” (abode). This structure was a small fortress in the beginning and later became the center of Zoroastrianism and Zoroaster’s son Urvatatnara was its superintendent.

When Buddhism came to Afghanistan this Zoroastrian fire-worshipping temple was converted to a Buddhist house of prayers. The Buddhist altered the temple into a Buddhist temple of idols and called it Naowehara. This name was not peculiar just to the Balkh temple. Under the patronage of the great king Kanishka such temples were constructed in different places and were called naubahar.

Wara, wahar and bahar are from the same root. First it meant a small adobe and later it was used to mean a temple. The root of this word is seen in the names of several cities and places such as Nangarhar, Kandahar, Chaparhar, and Nandahar. It is this Aryan word from which the Indian “ore” has been derived such as Lahore and Babore.

The Naubahar of Balkh was the center of ancient human civilization and for the first time the Aryans settled in this land where they built a city, and started raising livestock. It was in this cradle of human civilization that the principles of monarchy and governance developed. 

When the Arabs arrived to Khorasan 1,300 years ago they heard that temples were referred to as bahar. Khwarazmi, author of Mafateh-al-Uloom writes that the temple of idol worshipping is known as bahar. Al-Biruni also notes the same in Asar-al-Baqiya regarding the Buddhists. He writes: places and relics of idolators are known as baharat in Khorasan.

The Chinese pilgrim, Huen Tsang who was in Balkh on 20 April 630 A.D. states that Nawa Wahara is a large temple of Buddhism here. Islamic historians write that high green flags fluttered in the wind on this temple and people could see them from Termez (Ma’jam-al-Baladan of Yaqut). We see that these high flags have been mentioned in association with the Naubahar of Balkh in Avesta and other Zoroastrian books.

Nezami, the famous poet of Dari language praises the Naubahar of Balkh as such:

        A heart-rendering Bahar was in Balkh

        Whose beauty surpassed the red tulips.

        Beautiful maidens walked in this

        Idol-temple of spring’s grandeur.

The Naubahar of Balkh was famous among historians and poets because members of the Barmakiyan family, before the advent of Islam, were the guardians of this temple. When they established ties with the Abbasids in Baghdad they were respected as they were an established family of the Naubahar of Balkh. An Arab poet, after the killing of Jafar Barmaki, states with the death of Jafar Naubahar was destroyed, and this was a temple which was preserved by the Barmakians.

Beside this Naubahar, in Khorasan and Sind, other temples also had the same name.  For example in 713 A.D. in the capital of Sind, Aurwar (Ruhari) there was a temple of naubahar which has been mentioned in Chach Nama. Similarly there was a nuabahar in Samarkand also and one of its gate was famous by the same name. In the Naubahar of Balkh a tooth, broom and pan of Buddha were preserved in 630 A.D. These items were adorned with precious stones. The northern stupa of the temple was 200 feet tall, and according to historian Masudi, its green silky flags were 1000 yards tall. The temple had a high dome and 360 rooms for disciples and people and kings visited it from as far as China and Kabul. This Naubahar was intact until 660 A.D. After which Balkh was beseiged by the Arab conqueror, Qaisal bin Haytam Salmi, who destroyed the temple and the structure was abandoned.

In 794 A.D. when Fazl, son of Yahya Barmaki, became the governor of Khorasan he tried to demolish the structure so that a mosque may be erected in its place. But the edifice was so strong that it was difficult to destroy it totally and it was abandoned. He then razed one part of the temple and built a mosque in one corner of the structure. The mosque was destroyed by Chenghis Khan but the Moslems rebuilt it and it remained a renowned mosque until the time of Ibn-e Batuta.

Naubahar has been extensively mrntioned in Dari literature as a symbol of beauty. Poets use the name to denote pulchritude and excellence and this is because Naubahar was a center of beauty and attraction. Farukhi Seistani in praise of Mohammad son of Sultan Mahmud, the Ghaznavid emperor  writes:

                        Greetings O Balkh Bami with the spring breeze

                        Enter it through Nawshad gate or the gate of Naubahar.

                        Hail that delightful Naubahar of Balkh

                        Which brings the tidings of spring through Balkh.

                        The Balkh people are found of the gale of Balkh

                        But I prefer to live in Gorgaznah

                        The Naubahar of Balkh glows in my eyes

                        As they revealed the Bahar of Gozgahah to me.

Ansuri, another poet of the Ghaznavid period mentions “bahar khana” and “naubahar” as such:

                        When they removed the idol from the “Bahar Khana”

                         Who turned the world like “Naubahar” on me.

Arzaqi Herawi in his poem describes the beauty of spring and the standards of Naubahar as such:

                        The gales of spring will blow for a few days

                        The plain of Naubahar will resemble Kandahar.

                        When the night reveales  the new year’s moon,

                        Spring will come and the fluttering of Naubahar’s flags.

Osman Mukhtari Ghazni has written a homogenous poem which describes different meaning of spring whose first lines are:

                        My love is not like the beauty of spring,

                        But her appearance to me is like the bliss of heaven.

The writings of Chinese, Indian and Arab historians reveal that for centuries the Naubahar of Balkh was a center of culture and worship in Central Asia. Zoroastrianism, Buddhism and other religions were preached and preserved in this temple as was art and artistic industry.

When the temple was abandoned during the Islamic period its Barmakyan protectors converted to Islam. They were a people who were endowed with their ancient culture and managed to transfer their cultural heritage to Baghdad’s Abassid court and they took over the administration of the Abassid caliphate. They became famous in Islamic history to the extent their fame has filled the pages of Arabic history. All this was a result of the religious and cultural heritage of Naubahar temple which resulted in enlightening Baghdad, the center of Arabic caliphate. It was from this cultural treasure that the Khorasani-Islamic culture developed and one cause of this development was the presence of the temple of Naubahar.[1]





[1] Naubahar, p. 4. Published by the Book Publishing Organization, Kabul.