Despite an ever-present and growing threat from an iconoclastic fringe in Pakistan, successive governments in Islamabad have managed to preserve the Islamic country’s Buddhist heritage that exists as archaeological findings.
This is all the more creditable since the remnants of 2,200-year-old Gandhara Buddhist civilization are still substantially intact in the Swat Valley of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province (KPK) though KPK is the epicenter of present-day Islamic terrorism. Among Pakistan’s provinces, it is the KPK which bears the brunt of the fury of Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).
Interestingly, news of the discovery of a 2200 year-old Buddhist temple at Barikot in KPK (counted among the “Top 10 Discoveries of 2022” by Archeology Magazine) came as TTP gunmen and Pakistani commandoes fought a pitched battle at Bannu, a town in KPK. 33 terrorists and two commandoes were killed in the shootout.
According to Sana Jamal of Gulf News, the 2nd Century BC temple at Barikot was discovered jointly by archaeology professor, Luca Maria Olivieri of Ca’ Foscari of the University of Venice, the Directorate of Archaeology and Museums KP Province, and the Swat Museum. It is the oldest known Buddhist temple in the Swat region that was a center for the exchange of goods and culture between the civilizations of the Middle East, Central Asia and India from 6th Century BC.
“The temple’s ruins are around ten feet tall and consist of a ceremonial platform that once housed a stupa or dome often found in Buddhist architecture. The structure includes a smaller stupa at the front, a room or cell for monks, a podium or pillar, a staircase, vestibule rooms, and a public courtyard that overlooks a road,” Jamal says. A stupa is a Buddhist structure containing holy relics.
Swat is also home to the renowned Dharmarajika stupa, locally known as Chir Tope, located near Taxila, a seat of Buddhist learning between the 3 rd., Century BC and 7th.Century AD.
Pakistan has been working hard to let the world know of its pre-Islamic past, which includes Mohenjodaro of the ancient Indus Valley Civilization, the Buddhist University at Taxila, Gandhara art and Buddhist stupas containing sacred relics.
During the tenure of Pakistan High Commissioner Seema Baloch in Sri Lanka (2011-13), Pakistani Buddhist relics were, for the first time, brought to Sri Lanka and publicly exhibited at various places in the island. A group of 40 Buddhist monks were taken to see sites of Buddhist interest in Pakistan. This did help correct (albeit only to a small extent), the image that Pakistan had nothing to offer Buddhists and had little or nothing to do with Buddhism.
In June 2016, Pakistan High Commission held an exhibition of Gandhara Art in Colombo, in which coffee-table books in both English and Sinhala sold like hotcakes. “I had to bring in replenishments from the High Commission several times to meet the constant demand,” remarked the then Press Attache, Intesar Ahmad Sulehry. Later the High Commission showed a documentary on Gandhara Art jointly made by a group of Pakistanis, Sri Lankans and Indians.
Pakistan is now 95% Muslim and Islam is the official religion, but Buddhism once flourished in the KPK, then called Gandhara. The region was subject to Achaemenian Persia in the 6th and 5th centuries BC and was conquered by Alexander the Great in 4th Century BC. It was thereafter ruled by the Mauryan dynasty of India, under which it became a center for the spread of Buddhism to Afghanistan and Central Asia. Gandhara was successively ruled by Indo-Greeks, Shakas, Parthians, and Kushans. After its conquest by Mahmud of Gazni in 11th century AD , it came under a series of Muslim dynasties.
Gandhara was the home of a distinctive art style that was a mixture of Indian Buddhist and Greco-Roman influences. Depictions of the Buddha and Bodhisatvas (Enlightened Beings) were the mainstay of Gandhara art. Sculptures that have survived the ravages of time and the depredations of iconoclasts, show various aspects of the Buddha’s life.
However, it is the representation of the Buddha in human form that went on to influence art in China, Japan, Korea, and other parts of East Asia. It is said that the Gandhara region has the world’s only statue of a “fasting Buddha” – a Buddha in skin and bones with ribs jutting out.
The ancient Buddhist sites and the art therein, which had been neglected for centuries, were discovered by British archeologists in the colonial period. Their work was continued by Pakistani archeologists after independence in 1947. Successive Pakistani governments, except the one led by Gen.Zia-ul-Haq (1978-88), had sustained the archeological and conservation projects.
However, in 2006-2007, the Taliban banned the preservation of these objects because even the existence of idols in the midst of Muslims was “haram” or forbidden. The Taliban damaged the face of a giant Buddha statue in Swat. However, the then President, Gen.Pervez Musharraf, stood like a rock behind the conservationists and negotiated the withdrawal of the Taliban from their destructive project. Archeologists and art lovers in Pakistan and abroad breathed a sigh of relief.
Pakistan also started exhibiting Gandhara art in various places in the world, including the US. At an exhibition in New York of Gandhara art brought from the Lahore and Karachi museums, the then Pakistani Ambassador in the UN, Abdullah Hussain Haroon, waxed eloquent about the Buddha. He said that the Buddha was a human being whose “ethereal qualities and enormous wisdom showed the path to several others like Gandhi down the centuries.”
In 2016, Pakistani archeologists discovered an ancient site at Bhamala in Swat in which there was a 14 meter (48 ft) long Kanjur stone “Sleeping Buddha” statue. This 3 rd.Century AD statue is the world’s oldest Sleeping Buddha statue.
When the finding was presented to the world, the President of the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf (PTI) party, Imran Khan, said: ” It is a world heritage site and because of that, people will come for religious tourism and see these places. The majority of the Pakistani population wants such sites restored.”
Apart from the government, individual Pakistanis have also rendered yeoman service in preserving and protecting Buddhist sites against depredations by idol thieves and smugglers. Osman Ulasyar had stopped local boys from playing cricket in a field full of Ist. Centry AD Buddhist stupas. And, at this own cost, he built a 300 ft wall to protect the stupas.
Reuters quoted Dr.Abdul Samad, Director of Archeology and Museums in Khyber Pakhtunwala province as saying: ” Gandhara was the center of religious harmony. It is here that one finds Greek, Roman, Persian, Hindu and Buddhist gods in a single panel in the Peshawar museum.”
But tragically, the common Pakistani’s awareness of his non-Islamic past is either non-existent or pathetically low because school history books have blacked out the pre-Islamic past. This grievous flaw will need to be corrected at the earliest in the interest of the preservation of Gandhara art and the enormous tourist potential which is in it.
The other danger that lurks constantly, is the destruction, stealing and smuggling of ancient artifacts by treasure thieves. The government has armed itself with the Antiquities Act to protect the sites and also to prevent domestic and international sale of these antiquities. Success in this area is by no means insignificant since the Gandhara sites are still there for all to see. Many of the artefacts are kept safely in museums.