Restoring Pakistan's Buddhist past

The recent news about the restoration of the defaced Buddha’s images in Swat is a strong message to those who had been on a spree of vandalizing the pre-Islamic heritage in the region. Beginning in 2001 with the destruction of the colossal Buddha images in Bamiyan, Afghanistan the mischief had infiltrated in the North Western Pakistan, Vishakha Desai, the former Director General of the Asia Society, New York, was one of the first to report the damages in 2007. Read here.

Many archaeological remains in Pakistan have already been victims of time, weather, waterlogging, thefts and neglect of officials. Almost nine decades ago, Sir John Marshall had described the sorry state of the remains of the ‘largest and the highest’ Buddhist stupa of Sindh.

“The dome of the monument has long since disappeared and all that is left is the lower part of the circular drum, which is still standing to a height of 8ft. 4in. above the plinth…long before Mr. Banerji’s arrival, villagers are said to have excavated beneath the hollow middle of the drum, to a depth of some 14 feet, in the hope of finding hidden treasures and to have lighted upon a relic casket. Some fragments of this relic casket, which was of alabaster, were subsequently found by Mr. Banerji in the debris but not enough to its reconstruction.” Sir John Marshall.

That outer wall of the lower part of the circular drum still exists and crowns the site of Moen-jo-Daro, the metropolis of the Indus Valley Civilization (2600-1900 BCE), located in the Larkana district in upper Sindh.

In 1919 when R.D. Banerji, superintendent of the Western Circle of the Archaeological Survey of India, surveyed the stupa he had no idea that a whole city, separated by three thousand years laid buried only few feet below its foundations. However, once the city was exposed Sir John Marshall, Director General of the Archaeological Survey of India, announced its discovery with a bang. On September 24, 1924 by publishing an article in the Illustrated London News he informed the World about the greatest archaeological discovery of British India. It was a discovery that led to the identification of the fourth ancient civilization of the World (Three other known civilizations at that time were in China, Egypt and Mesopotamia). But let’s not forget the value of the fragments of the relic casket as it is an important clue to understand the lesser-known Buddhist period of Pakistan’s history. The caskets containing fragments of Buddha’s charred bones and ashes had attracted British archaeologists and officials to the Buddhist monastic complexes scattered in India. With the dawn of the twentieth century they had reached the North Western fringes of their empire where Buddha, according to a legend, had forecasted the flourishing of his religion. Here they rummaged through the cinerary stupas, special stupas that preserved caskets.

Historical records confirm that Buddhism was prevalent in the Indus region at least from the times of Asoka Maurya (273-232 BCE). The King, who after fighting the horrifying battle of Kalinga, converted to Buddhism and looked forward to victories of Dharmmavijaya, the victory of the faith

Amongst his many contributions to Buddhism, Asoka had also retrieved Buddha’s remains entombed originally in eight stupas and redistributed these in smaller portions to many other stupas. Mauryan dynasty ended violently in 180 BCE but the strong Brahmin reaction failed to uproot Buddhism in the region. Two centuries later a second grand era of Buddhism was ushered in by the Kushan dynasty which lasted for 125 years. Kushans territories extended from the Indus region to Gandhara which is parts of Punjab, North West Pakistan and Eastern Afghanistan.

Hieun Tsang, a Chinese monk who visited India during 630-644, just about half a century before the Arab invasion listed the Buddhist monasteries. In Sindh alone there were 460 with 26000 monks. Most of these were in lower Sindh, concenterated in the Central Delta area, Mirpur Khas, Sehwan and Makran in the Balochistan, province.

Fa-Hien or Faxian another Chinese pilgrim who had visited earlier, some two hundred years after the Kushan rule, describes Taxila, the city known for education, religion and great trade. Today, its ruins composed of three cities built in different time zones, is a window to diverse cultural layers. Conquered and constructed one after another by Darius, Alexander, Chandragupta Maurya and the Greco-Bactrian King Demetrius it had been a melting pot where Persian, Greek, Hindu, Jain, Buddhist and Bactrian cultures merged. Taxila located on three important routes was also a trading center. The Silk Road provided opportunities to Buddhist traders and craftsmen to sell their goods and raise money to support their monastaries. The bloom of Gandhara art in the region suggests not only an amalgamation of Indian and Greek styles but also an immense prosperity that afforded monumental artworks. It was in such lavish times and place under the Kushans that Buddha, for the first time, came to be represented in human form. The largest Buddha sculptures in the mountain walls of Bamiyan were constructed under their patronage and Moen jo daro stupa was built during their rule.

Kanishka, the most known Kushan King too reached for Buddha’s remains scattered by Asoka and stuffed these in precious caskets. When one of these was discovered in an excellent shape in a stupa in Peshawar it made big news was reported in a full page article in the New York Times in 1909. Another casket was discovered from Kahu jo Daro in the suburbs of Mirpur Khas in my home district Tharparkar in lower Sindh. During my childhood days I remember passing by it and even playing around in the spacious yard around the stupa and being overwhelmed by Buddha’s images in relief.

Stupas in Sindh were also discovered at Depar Ghangro, Thul Mir Rukan, Jherruck, Mitho Dero, Sudheran jo Daro and as these awaited a thorough search, strong rumors of a relic casket buried in the stupa on top of the unexcavated mounds of Moen jo Daro reached the British officials. But while the early intruders searched in vain for treasures in the abode of a religion that renounces worldly treasures by the time Banerji reached the hollowed drum the region itself was empty of Buddhism. Peshawer casket had been handed over officially to the Burmese monks in a ceremony that symbolizes the final expulsion of Buddhism from the land where it flourished for thousands of years. Nonetheless the presence of Buddha’s bones- many lost but few found- in a close proximity to each other in Pakistan indicate that the land must have enjoyed an exalted sacred status in the Buddhist world.

Indus region is still dotted with some of the most spectacular Buddhist remains in Punjab, Swat and Khyber Pakhtunkwa province whereas many have perished in the saline land and air of Sindh. The ASI reports as early as of 1919 had described Kahu jo Daro infected with ‘kalar’ salt encrustation and appealed to the Director to dispatch a chemist from Bombay to cure the problem. In my lifetime Kahu has withered away and the mounds do not bear any semblance to the stupa that I saw half a century ago. It is time to preserve as much heritage as possible.

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  1 comment for “Restoring Pakistan's Buddhist past

  1. mashaikh@hec.gov.pk'
    Shaikh M. Ali
    July 28, 2012 at 7:32 am

    Hats off, Prof. Talpur.

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