Home >

Between a Buddhist past

The challenges and future tourism The challenges and counter-narratives of Pakistan’s Buddhist heritage

July 16, 2023


ast year, a group of female teachers blocked the road near Taxila as part of their protest. Among their many demands, such as an increase in their salaries to the minimum wage and a fair contractual procedure, which cannot be denied and were justified, they also demanded the removal of the school principal. They claimed that he was educating school students about the Gandhara civilisation on Fridays, considered the holiest day of the week for Muslims. In the presence of local media, a teacher narrated, “Daikhain Yeah But’on ki tehzeeb parha rahe hn” (Notice! The principal is teaching the civilisation of idols). Completing their sentence, a local news reporter said, “Yani Islami Shoo’ aayr ko khatam kr dia gia hy” (This means that Islamic teachings and customs have been forgotten).

This protest ended peacefully, but the teachers’’ understanding of the Gandhara Civilisation remained the finest example of the public’s memory of Pakistanis towards Buddhism. This occurred when the state was carving its Buddhist identity to attract Buddhist pilgrims and in a country where the ruling dynasties once patronised Buddhism.

Has Gautam Buddha ever travelled on the lands now part of Pakistan? If so, what are the places and events associated with Buddha? Why is the knowledge and discourse on Buddha’s journeys during his lifetime absent in local production and discussions on the Gandhara civilisation? These questions remain unanswered in Pakistan, where recent discourse has been dominated by Buddhist relics, museology, and archaeological surveys aimed at attracting Buddhist tourists and pilgrims.

While new discoveries in Gandhara continue to captivate the world’s attention, the tracing of Buddha himself is absent from intellectual debates on Gandhara. This is happening at a time when the country celebrates its civilisational past, projecting an image of tolerance and welcoming Buddhist pilgrims. Significant developments have occurred in recent years, with Pakistan making efforts to mainstream itself as a Buddhist-friendly country. Monks from East Asian countries have the freedom to practice their religious prayers publicly.

As Pakistan prepares to welcome tourists and pilgrims from Buddhist-majority countries, efforts are being made to reclaim its non-Muslim heritage by restoring and rehabilitating Buddhist religious sites and inviting monks to offer prayers at ancient Buddhist sites in Pakistan. However, accepting non-Muslim heritage and history still requires changes in curriculum books and assurance of equal constitutional rights for non-Muslims.

For the last seventy-five years, especially during the Cold War era, Pakistan has struggled to reclaim its stolen or illegally transported Buddhist relics. This struggle has hindered any government-level initiatives to highlight the country’s Buddhist history. In recent years, tourism promotion has been a part of political rhetoric without introducing any structural changes to attract tourists. However, it has contributed to the creation of a new narrative emphasising the Buddhist heritage as a tourism and pilgrimage attraction.

The most recent rhetorical narrative suggests that the Gandhara civilisation will be a “game-changer” for a country striving to establish its Buddhist identity in diplomatic relations and attract investment. While some countries base their diplomatic relations on religious lines, it is important to note that not all developed countries with a significant Buddhist population have Buddhism as their state religion, such as Bhutan and Cambodia.

Fostering cultural linkages solely based on religion, especially in countries where Muslims are a minority, can be a misunderstood approach. It is worth mentioning the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar, a predominantly Buddhist country, where Muslims faced persecution and developed a reactionary mindset against Buddhism in Pakistan.

The construction of Pakistan’s Buddhist identity is a critical matter. Celebrating Pakistan’s Buddhist heritage and its inclusion in the national identity, distinct from India’s Buddhist identity, has been challenging.

The acceptance of Buddhist indigeneity, separate from an East Asian theme or one that doesn’t appear imported, has been lacking. The Shah Allahditta Buddhist caves in Islamabad are significant sites connected to Buddhist monks. However, a month ago, the local administration displayed a misleading and incorrect photo of the Bhaja Buddhist Caves in Lonavala on a directional board. This incident reflects the limited knowledge and awareness among Pakistanis regarding Buddhism.

In 1955, right after eight years of the birth of the country, the first and notable work of the history of Buddhism in Pakistan was published in Karachi by an unknown person who only mentioned ‘A Pakistani Buddhist’ the author and historian who kept identity private most likely in fear to loss social cohesion this work of history critically examines Buddhism in Pakistan included a pictorial form of Buddhist sites of West Pakistan and talked about Buddhism in East Pakistan as well. A Pakistani Buddhist historian writes in the book Buddhism in Pakistan, “The advent of Buddhism was of particular importance for the North-West regions of Pakistan. The devotees of this religion, within three hundred years of the death of their Tathagatta (Buddha), made this region a holy place. Buddha, who in his lifetime did not probably come out of the boundaries of Magadha and modern Uttar Pradesh, was by tradition imported to several places of the North-West to add to its glory and sanctity. The shrewd monks and their zealous followers could not sit content with a few visits of their lord to their beloved homeland. Many more new places were consecrated where, according to their mythology, Buddha had lived in his previous existence or where some of the previous 24 Buddhas had moved the “Wheel of the Law”.

The construction of Pakistan’s Buddhist identity is a critical matter. Celebrating Pakistan’s Buddhist heritage and its inclusion in the national identity, distinct from India’s Buddhist identity, has been challenging. Unfortunately, this topic has never been brought into the intellectual debate in Pakistan. In an article, historian Andrew Amstutz highlights the significance of Buddhist iconography in India’s national flag and emblem and the global recognition of Buddhist sites like the Ajanta Caves and Bodh Gaya. In contrast, Pakistan’s engagement with its own Buddhist heritage has received significantly less attention.

India’s claim of civilisational ownership over Gandhara can be attributed to various factors. Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister, drew inspiration from Ashoka. Nehru envisioned the newly independent India as a continuation of Ashoka’s India, symbolised by the integration of Ashoka’s chakra (the dharmic wheel) into the national flag of the Republic of India, replacing MK Gandhi’s charkha (spinning wheel). The Ashoka Pillar capital from Sarnath, featuring lion faces (a similar one can be found in the Lahore Museum), became India’s state emblem. Ambedkar, who played a crucial role in framing India’s constitution, was instrumental in changing the Indian flag to include a blue chakra. He later converted to Buddhism himself. Buddhism is reflected in various state symbols and honours in India, such as the Bharat Ratna.

The ownership of Gandhara was reinforced in 2016 when the Indian envoy delivered a speech at the UN General Assembly at Takshashila University. Postcolonial India has constructed Chandragupta Maurya as a heroic figure in its narrative.

Pakistan lacks an institutionalised approach, as universities have not produced significant knowledge on Gandhara. Moreover, the recent NGO-isation of the history and heritage of the Gandhara region has led to a misunderstanding of the Buddhist past, resulting in minimal contributions to knowledge production and collective literacy. Unfortunately, in the 1980s, Japan’s project to establish Ashoka University in Taxila did not materialise. Had it come to fruition, it could have been a major breakthrough in knowledge production on Gandhara and a means to highlight the Pakistani Buddhist identity.

Literature is an essential art form through which people appreciate the creativity and technique of writing and delve into the realms of imagination and the past. However, a limited amount of local literature focused on Buddhism, and works of historical fiction on the subject have been scarce. One remarkable example is “Aag Ka Darya,” an Urdu novel by Quratulain Haider that explores the Buddhist history of the region spanning over 2,000 years. This novel remains one of the few widely read Urdu novels on this theme.

In 1983, the first Urdu translation of Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha by Asif Farrukhi and his subsequent discussion with Saleem Ahmed on the novel became a significant addition to Urdu literature. Asif Farrukhi also translated Jatak Kahaniyan or Jataka Tales. In the same year when Farrukhi’s translation of Siddhartha was published, a long essay by IA Rehman titled Pakistan’s Heritage: Valuable Only to Foreigners? acknowledged, “Obviously, the antiquities of Pakistan are in great demand somewhere, even if they are not valued within the country.”

As ancient Buddhist sites were not actively used for religious purposes during the creation of Pakistan, unlike Hindu, Sikh, and Jain religious sites, the term “re-functionality” should not be applied to these Buddhist sites. It is both logically and historically incorrect. While these sites were not abandoned, they did face challenges, as seen in Swat when the Taliban destroyed a rock carving of Buddha using dynamite, similar to the Afghan Taliban’s destruction of the giant Buddha statues in Bamiyan in 2001. The recent events celebrating Pakistan’s Buddhist past can be seen as a construction of a counter-narrative.

The public memory of Pakistanis regarding Buddhism is influenced by the events of communal riots during the country’s inception and the subsequent desecration of Pakistan’s non-Muslim heritage following the Babri Mosque Demolition. This situation has led to the emergence of a binary perception of built heritage, dividing it into non-Hindu and Hindu categories. Consequently, the term ‘Hindu’ has become an umbrella term encompassing various traditions, including Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Zoroastrianism, and Sikhism. The apathy towards these diverse heritages has been similar to that towards Hindu heritage.

As a result, ordinary Pakistanis have a general perception that any statue or idol is associated with Hinduism. Unfortunately, this perception has persisted over time. Today, an average Pakistani might mistakenly refer to a statue or idol of Krishna or Buddha as belonging to the same religious tradition.

The writer is a historian, travel writer and translator. He has extensively write on non-Muslim history and heritage of Pakistan in different capacities and now turning it into the shape of history writing.