Tourism for peace

By Dr Ramesh Kumar Vankwani
May 26, 2023

Being the chairperson of the task force on Gandhara tourism formed by the prime minister of Pakistan, I have decided to celebrate the birth anniversary of Gautama Buddha today (May 26) at the Islamabad Museum.


Known as the messenger of peace, the Buddha was born in our region around 2,500 years ago. Other members of the task force include Secretary National Heritage and Culture Farina Mazhar, Managing Director Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation Aftab ur Rehman, the tourism secretaries of all provinces, and the director general of the Foreign Office. DG of the Department of Archaeology and Museums Dr Abdul Azim is performing his duties as the secretary of the taskforce.

While presiding over the meeting held last Tuesday, I expressed that Pakistan is a holy place for the followers of the Dharmic religions of the Subcontinent, including Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism. The ancient Gandhara civilization of more than 2,000 years in the northern region of our country reflects our glorious past based on tolerance, harmony and brotherhood. However, the Gandhara civilization should not be limited to Buddhism because during this period the followers of other religions also enjoyed complete religious freedom.

From the historic city of Taxila to Swat and Gilgit-Baltistan, there are numerous sacred Buddhist stupas and religious sites. All the members of the task force supported my stance that we must focus on Buddhist tourism on an urgent basis so that a roadmap could be devised for convincing the federal and provincial governments. Taking concrete steps to promote faith tourism to the historic holy places established during the Gandhara period is urgently needed.

In my article ‘Festival of flowers’ (April 9, 2021), I paid tribute to Gautama Buddha, who was born in the royal family of a Himalayan state around 2,500 years ago. On his birthday, astrologists had predicted that the child would grow up to be either a great king or a great saint and that his name would be known forever with great respect. This child named Prince Siddhartha is now known as Gautama Buddha, who founded Buddhism in order to find the true purpose of life by saying good bye to all worldly comforts.

Gautama Buddha’s birth date is generally determined by the Asian solar-lunar calendar, which alternates between April and May according to the Gregorian calendar. The Buddha’s birthday is celebrated in most Buddhist-majority countries in Asia, including Nepal, Japan, China, Koreas, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Singapore, Bhutan, Hong Kong, Laos and Mongolia, as well as in Russia, the US, Canada, Australia and other Western countries. A large number of Buddhists, on the occasion of the Buddha’s birthday, wish to visit the centuries-old Buddhist stupas and temples located in Pakistan.

During the recent meeting, I was pleased to know that the Pakistan Tourism Department Corporation (PTDC) has successfully identified 38 Gandhara heritage sites across the country. Generally the Gandhara civilization has been attributed to the northern regions of Pakistan but the information available from the maps provided by the PTDC was surprising to me as it showed that the sacred stupas of Buddha are also present in Shaheed Benazirabad (formerly Nawab Shah) and Tando Muhammad Khan in Sindh.

The Karakoram Highway is considered as a wonder of the modern times, connecting Pakistan and China by land. For centuries, travellers have passed through the paths between the high and rugged mountains of the Himalayas and the rocky cliffs. Many pilgrims expressed their devotion to Gautama Buddha, engraved in ancient scripts and pictographs on the rocky cliffs.

The Kargah Buddha, carved in the 7th century on a 50-feet high rock in Gilgit-Baltistan, is a place of devotion for Buddhist followers around the world. Undoubtedly, the promotion of rock arts tourism in the context of the Gandhara civilization is a unique suggestion.

I believe that protecting the sacred ancient heritage of Gandhara could play a big role in promoting a positive image of Pakistan in the eyes of international tourists, especially from the friendly countries of East Asia. Similarly, it can help neutralize extremism in our society.

The writer is a member of the National Assembly and patron-in-chief of the Pakistan Hindu Council. He tweets RVankwani