Pakistan is predominately an Islamic country and Sri Lanka, a Buddhist country in main. So, presumption of many is that there is no cultural nexus between the two countries. As if to dispel such presumption and to woo Sri Lanka, Pakistan has now beefed up its diplomatic engagement with Sri Lanka to rediscover ancient, civilizational and religious ties between the two countries.
The two nations have enjoyed excellent bilateral ties, but the focus was on the political front, military and economic fronts. The scope of cultural relations have widened over the years since Pakistan steps up activities every year.
The recent years witnessed a sharp rise in cultural exchanges. Pakistan has made it a point to bring the Buddha’s relics kept at Taxila museum for exposition and veneration in Sri Lanka during annual Vesak celebrations.
In what appeared to be an extension of such cultural diplomacy in a scholarly perspective, the Pakistani High Commission organized at an International Seminar on ‘Buddhist and Gandhara Civilization: The Cultural Nexus between Pakistan and Sri Lanka’. The event organized in collaboration with the Buddhist and Pali University, Homagama on March 11.
The seminar afforded the opportunity for a slew of academics from the region to present their thoughts formulated in academic papers covering multiple aspects of Gandhara civilization in Pakistan with special focus on its rich Buddhist art, culture and literature.
The scholars from China, Germany, Pakistan and Sri Lanka were the keynote speakers at the Seminar. The scholars include Prof. Dr. Li Xiguang, Director, Tsinghua University International Center for Communication, China, Prof. Dr. Hugh van Skyhawk, University of Mainze, Germany, Brig. (R) Agha Ahmad Gul, Former Vice Chancellor, University of Balochistan, Pakistan, Dr. Safdar Ali Shah, Director General, High Education Commission, Pakistan, Prof. Dr. Ghani-ur-Rehman, Director, Taxila Institute of Asian Civilizations, Pakistan and Ven. (Senior Prof.) Dr. Gallelle Sumanasiri Thera, Vice Chancellor, Buddhist and Pali University of Sri Lanka.
Gandhara was an ancient state lying about the Rivers Indus, Kabul and Swat in the present day Southern Afghanistan and northwestern Pakistan. It was bounded on the north and the west by the Hindukush and Suleiman Mountains, and Safed Koh range in the South. The cultural and political hegemony of Gandhara prevailed up to Kabul and Bamiyan Valleys in Afghanistan and the Potowhar plateau south of Islamabad of today.
"The most important is the rule of Chandragupta Maura who is the grandfather of emperor Ashoka who propagated Buddhism"
According to former Vice Chancellor of University of Balochistan in Pakistan Agha Ahmad Gul , the name Gandhara may have had several origins but the most prominent and geographically supported theory is that the word Qand/Gand is evolved from ‘Kun’ which means ‘well’ or ‘pool of water’.
“It holds to reason that the territory could have been known as ‘Land of the Lakes’, with many small rivers crisscrossing along with three major Rivers, Kabul, Swat and Indus,” he told in his paper presented to the seminar.
In his paper, he noted that Pakistan had inherited four civilizations; Mehrgarh is a Neolithic period 7000 BC-2000 BC, located to the west of River Indus near the Bolan Pass,100 miles south of Quetta. It is believed to be perhaps the earliest known farming area and herding in South Asia.
“It was succeeded by Indus Valley Civilisation which comprises two ancient civilizations of Harappa and Mohenjo-daro. These were the earliest urban settlements of Bronze Age, which existed during the period of 2500-1500 BC with similar characteristics. The fourth is Gandhara Civilisation.Gandhara was the name given to the land and its associated civilization that existed in what is now northern Pakistan and Afghanistan from about 500 BC to 900 AD. It was ruled by many dynasties but nearly all were linked by their adoption of Buddhism as a religion for the most part. The Buddhism and the Indo-Greek artistic tradition became its cultural identity,” he said.
In its political history, Gandhara civilization flourished through several dynasties such as the rule Achaemenids and Alexander, Mauryans Rule, the rule of Indo-Greeks, Scytho-Parthians, Kushans,White Huns and Hindu Shahi.
Agha Ahmad Gul though said Gandhara civilization was subject to several invaders with varied cultural backgrounds over the centuries, the archaeological evidence showed the uniformity of its cultural tradition that persisted in spite of these changes in rule. “Although the territories of the kings were often spread over vast areas, the cultural boundaries of Gandhara were well defined and allow us to identify,” he noted in his speech.
The most important is the rule of Chandragupta Maura who is the grandfather of emperor Ashoka who propagated Buddhism. That is the point which makes Gandharamore and more relevant Sri Lankans.
"The two nations have enjoyed excellent bilateral ties, but the focus was on the political front, military and economic fronts"
During its centuries old civilization, Gandhara has developed arts, architecture and culture. According to the scholars who spoke at the event imposing stupas with gold plated minarets, stonework, monasteries edicts carrying the messages of the Gautama Buddha mutely bear witness to the rich cultural heritage of Gandhara.
After the region was conquered by the White Huns around 450 AD, the decline of Buddhist culture started. It happened as the new invaders embraced Hinduism which was the mainstream religion of India even at that time. “They adopted India’s dominant rulers’ religion, Hinduism. The new religion changed the social fabric. With that started the decline of Buddhism, cultural change, intolerance and migrations. The new culture and migrations started the fall of Gandhara Civilisation. A golden period which lived for some 800 years was thus ended,” Brig. Gul said.
He also said, “ What was left of Gandhara thereafter, was put to sword and fire by the succeeding Muslim conquerors who mercilessly sacked, burnt and razed to the ground numerous stone built cities, monasteries, monuments and sculptures. However, he said the archeological discoveries done by the British rulers during the 19th century revived the forgotten Gandhara Civilization.
The seminar was part of Pakistan’s rigorous pursuit of culture diplomacy in engaging Sri Lanka. During Vesak season, top level religious and official delegations are invited to see Taxila which was considered the highest seat of learning in Buddhist history at that time.
The sacred relics, kept at the Taxila Museum is brought annually to Sri Lanka for public venation. The latest academic seminar was an exercise to present facts from a scholarly point of view to Sri Lankans. It aims at encouraging Sri Lankans to look at Pakistan through a different prism; that it is a country sharing common civilizational and cultural ties with Sri Lanka.
In fact, the promotion of culture diplomacy has twofold significance. One is to bring the two countries close to each other, and the other to develop tourism by encouraging Sri Lankans to visit these Buddhist sites.
Moreover, Press Attache of Pakistani High Commission Intisar Ahmad Sulehry played a key role in the promotion of culture diplomacy between the two countries during recent years. He is a key figure behind the organization of this event.