“Pakistan is an Islamic nation, where there is no Buddhist population. Buddhism was discouraged and Buddhists
A Buddha head carved in schist by a local artisan in Taxila
Meditation chambers and votive stupas (the empty niches once had statues of Buddha)
The circumambulatory path built completely of Lapis Lazuli
forcibly converted to Islam and that is the reason behind an absence of a flourishing Buddhist population in Pakistan.”
These and others are some of the common statements that I hear from my Sri Lankan friends and acquaintances who have never been to Pakistan. Am I surprised? Yes. Am I disappointed? No. And that is because I believe it’s not their fault. There is a general lack of awareness on the subject, and the presence of false negative propaganda against Pakistan that results in such a discourse.
If someone believes or propagates that Pakistan has no Buddhist heritage or that Pakistanis disrespect Buddhism, nothing can be far from the truth. In fact, Pakistan is home to some of the holiest Buddhist heritage sites and most sacred relics of Gautama Buddha. I write this article to fill the awareness void that exists in this regard and I sincerely hope that a lot of misconceptions (if not all) will be clarified in my readers’ minds as I attempt to expound some of these wonderful places, artefacts and icons in Pakistan which are priceless treasures of our national heritage and answer some common questions.
What was Gandhara?
The Gandhara Civilization existed in what is now North Western Pakistan (from Peshawar to Swat) and extending southwards to Taxila (Taxila is in Pakistan folks!) and the Potohar plateau, and North Eastern Afghanistan, from the middle of the 1st millennium BCE to the beginning of the 2nd millennium CE. Although multiple major powers ruled over this area during that time, what they all had in common was a great reverence for Buddhism and hence it is popularly known as the Gandhara Buddhist civilization.
Disappearance of Buddhism from Pakistan a recent phenomenon?
The answer is no. Buddhism disappeared centuries ago from the territories that now form Pakistan. Although there are small pockets of Buddhist population in the south of the country, the last sizeable communities had already disappeared in the 10th and 11th centuries. One of the reason of this sudden disappearance is linked to the progressive decline of the political patrons of the monastic communities; first the Kushana and their local allies; then their forerunners who were once considered the leaders of a globalized empire but were then reduced to “petty aristocrats”. Another reason cited by historians was the coeval rise of an organized Brahmanism from the Gupta to the Shahi era (5th to 10th century). Many Chinese Buddhist pilgrims of the time record that Gandhara was going through a transformation during these centuries. Buddhism was declining, and Hinduism was rising. Faxian writes that when he traveled across this region, Buddhism was flourishing. 100 years later, when Song Yun visited, a different situation was described: the area had been destroyed by the White Huns.
Numerous incidents of violence were reported during the period of White Huns who had come from Central Asia and had made several raids into the Gandhara region now comprising North Western Pakistan. According to archeologists, the discovery of severed heads, dismembered bodies, and skulls bearing the marks of blows at Dharmarajika Stupa in Taxila is evidence of widespread violence. The charred wood and half burnt wheat in one of the monastic courts (now preserved in Taxila museum) also suggest arson. Mihirakula (a White Hun ruler) is said to have become a “terrible persecutor” of Buddhists who had to flee from Gandhara to secure their lives and faith. The rise and fall of Buddhism in what is now in Pakistan was thus in line with the decline and abandonment of its great urban centers.
Pakistan: Proud custodian of Sacred Buddhist Relics
What a lot of people don’t know is that some of the most sacred relics of Gautama Buddha are preserved in Pakistan. These include fragments of his bones, one of his teeth as well as his body ashes. In fact, the first anthropomorphic sculptures of him were made in what is now Pakistan.
Prominent Buddhist Heritage Sites
Taxila was an important Buddhist center of learningfrom the 5th century B.C. to the 2nd century A.D. Buddhist monuments throughout the Taxila valley transformed it into a religious heartland and a destination for pilgrims from as far afield as Central Asia and China. The Buddhist archaeological sites at Taxila include the Dharmarajika complex and stupa, the Khader Mohra grouping, the Kalawan grouping, the Giri monasteries, the Kunala stupa and monastery, the Jandial complex, the Lalchack and the Badalpur stupa remains and monasteries, the Mohra Moradu monastic remains, the Pipplian and the Jaulian remains, and the Bahalar stupa and remains. The ruins of four universally meaningful settlement sites at Taxila (Saraidala, Bhir, Sirkap, and Sirsukh) reveal the pattern of urban evolution on the Indian subcontinent through more than five centuries. According to UNESCO, “Taxila is the only site of this unique importance on the subcontinent.” Although it is said that around a thousand Buddhist monasteries were destroyed and Buddhists persecuted badly by the White Huns during their invasions, the city of Taxila till this date is known as the “City of Stone Carvers” with its residents carving beautiful Buddhist sculptures from schist and stucco since generations. Although there is no Buddhist population in Taxila now, the reverence and dedication with which the sculptors carve Buddhist art pieces is astounding.
Mohenjo Daro comprises two sectors: a citadel area in the west where a huge Buddhist stupa was constructed with unbaked brick over the ruins of Mohenjo Daro in the 2nd century AD. According to UNESCO, “The Archaeological Ruins at Moenjodaro comprise the most ancient planned city on the Indian subcontinent, and exerted great influence on the subsequent urbanization of human settlement in the Indian peninsular. It is the most ancient and best preserved urban ruin in the Indus Valley dating back to the 3rd millennium BC.
Takhi-i-Bahi (Throne of Origins) is a monastic complex, founded in the early 1st century A.D. It is spectacularly positioned in the KPK province, on various hilltops ranging from 36.6m to 152.4m in height (typical for Buddhist sites). The complexes cover an area of around 33 hectares.The Buddhist monastery was in continual use until the 7th century AD. It is composed of an assemblage of buildings and is the most complete Buddhist monastery in Pakistan. The buildings were constructed of stone in Gandhara patterns (diaper style) using local dressed and semi-dressed stone blocks set in a lime and mud mortar. The Buddhist Ruins of Takht-i-Bahi and Sahr-i-Bahlol in their setting, architectural form, and design and construction techniques are most characteristic examples of the development of monastic and urban communities in the Gandhara region between the 1st to 7th centuries AD.
Jaulian (meaning Seat of Saints) is a Buddhist monastery dating from the 2nd century CE located about 45 km from the capital Islamabad. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and considered one of the oldest Buddhist universities in the world. It has a statue of Buddha in a votive stupa with a hole in the navel which is very unique and called the “Healing Buddha”. Pilgrims put their fingers in the icon’s navel and pray. Doing so is believed to cures various ailments.
Pakistan-the jewel of Buddhist Heritage
In the 2nd century B.C., it was in the region now called Pakistan that Buddhism was adopted as the state religion which flourished and prevailed here for over 1000 years, starting from 2nd century B.C. until 10th century A.D. During this time Taxila, Swat (Uddiyana) and Charsaddah (Pushkalavati) became three important centers for culture, trade and learning. Hundreds of monasteries and stupas were built.
It was from these centers that a unique art of sculpture known as Gandhara Art spread all over the world. The government of Pakistan under the premiership of H.E. Imran Khan is working on developing holy sites of minorities. Kartarpur Corridor was opened for the Sikh community to facilitate them to visit one of their holiest sites-Kartarpur Sahib. Now the government is working on the establishment of a sacred Buddhist trail which will start from Taxila and go till Swat, covering all prominent Buddhist sites. State of the art facilities will be provided to the visiting Buddhist pilgrims including security and logistics.
Is it not, therefore, imperative for the Sri Lankan and Pakistani governments to work closely on religious tourism, cultural exchanges as well as academic linkages in order to promote people-to-people ties? The Sri Lankan people deserve to know and experience the glorious Gandhara Buddhist heritage of Pakistan. This will not only generate enormous goodwill between our people but will also go a long way in promoting interfaith harmony and understanding, as well as clarify the misperceptions created by negative propaganda machines.
The author is Aaishah Abu Bakr Fahad, who is the Second Secretary (Political), attached to the High Commission of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan Colombo, Sri Lanka.