Taxila is known from references in Indian and Greco-Roman literary sources and from the accounts of two Chinese Buddhist pilgrims, Faxian and Xuanzang. Literally meaning “City of Cut Stone” or “Rock of Taksha,” Takshashila (rendered by Greek writers as Taxila) was founded, according to the Indian epic Ramayana, by Bharata, younger brother of Rama, an incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu. The city was named for Bharata’s son Taksha, its first ruler. The great Indian epic Mahabharata was, according to tradition, first recited at Taxila at the great snake sacrifice of King Janamejaya, one of the heroes of the story. Buddhist literature, especially the Jatakas, mentions it as the capital of the kingdom of Gandhara and as a great centre of learning. Gandhara is also mentioned as a satrapy, or province, in the inscriptions of the Achaemenian (Persian) king Darius I in the 5th century bce. Taxila, as the capital of Gandhara, was evidently under Achaemenian rule for more than a century. When Alexander the Great invaded India in 326 bce, Ambhi (Omphis), the ruler of Taxila, surrendered the city and placed his resources at Alexander’s disposal. Greek historians accompanying the Macedonian conqueror described Taxila as “wealthy, prosperous, and well governed.”
Within a decade after Alexander’s death, Taxila was absorbed into the Mauryan empire founded by Chandragupta, under whom it became a provincial capital. However, this was only an interlude in the history of Taxila’s subjection to conquerors from the west. After three generations of Mauryan rule, the city was annexed by the Indo-Greek kingdom of Bactria. It remained under the Indo-Greeks until the early 1st century bce. They were followed by the Shakas, or Scythians, from Central Asia, and by the Parthians, whose rule lasted until the latter half of the 1st century ce.
According to early Christian legend, Taxila was visited by the apostle Thomas during the Parthian period. Another distinguished visitor was the neo-Pythagorean sage Apollonius of Tyana (1st century ce), whose biographer Philostratus described Taxila as a fortified city that was laid out on a symmetrical plan and compared it in size to Nineveh (ancient city of the Assyrian empire).
Taxila was taken from the Parthians by the Kushans under Kujula Kadphises. The great Kushan ruler Kanishka founded Sirsukh, the third city on the site. (The second, Sirkap, dates from the Indo-Greek period.) In the 4th century ce the Sāsānian king Shāpūr II (309–379) seems to have conquered Taxila, as evidenced by the numerous Sāsānian copper coins found there. There is little information about the Sāsānian occupation, but, when Faxian visited the city at about the beginning of the 5th century ce, he found it a flourishing centre of Buddhist sanctuaries and monasteries. Shortly thereafter it was sacked by the Huns; Taxila never recovered from this calamity. Xuanzang, visiting the site in the 7th century ce, found the city ruined and desolate, and subsequent records do not mention it. Excavations begun by Sir Alexander Cunningham, the father of Indian archaeology, in 1863–64 and 1872–73 identified the local site known as Saraikhala with ancient Taxila. This work was continued by Sir John Hubert Marshall, who over a 20-year period completely exposed the ancient site and its monuments.