The northern territories of Pakistan were once an integral part of Buddhist-dominated ancient Gandhara civilization, which extended from the 1st century to the 7th century. Many historical monuments and holy places of worship are located in different parts of the country including Taxila, Takht-e-Bahi, Swat and Gilgit-Baltistan (GB).
According to historians, at least 19 ancient sites are situated in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), five in Sindh, one in Balochistan, 10 in Punjab and four in GB. The mysterious caves of Shah Allah Ditta in Islamabad prove that once the federal capital of Pakistan was also part of the ancient Gandhara civilization.
After the passing away of Gautama Buddha – who dedicated his entire life to spreading the message of peace and harmony – his ashes were preserved in eight different stupas, among which the Dharmarajika Stupa of Taxila was the most prominent. During the reign of Ashoka the Great, Buddhism became the official religion, and thousands of more stupas were also built at various locations throughout the vast empire.
Historians believe that the first statue of Buddha was created in Taxila. Similarly, the world’s most ancient university in human history was also established in Taxila where great philosopher Chanakya used to teach students. Even today his masterpiece books, ‘ArthaShastra’ and ‘Chanakya Niti’ are the most popular with a huge readership throughout the world.
The Gandhara era is generally attributed to the rise of Buddhism, but it is an undeniable fact that followers of Jainism, Zoroastrianism and Hinduism were also allowed to live happily during this period. Several temples related to Dharmik religions – including Jainism, Parsi and Hinduism – located around the various stupas of Buddha reflect that there was complete religious freedom.
For the past few years, several news reports have emerged in the media that Buddhists from various friendly countries, including Thailand, Korea, and Sri Lanka, have started a series of pilgrimages to Gandhara sites located in Pakistan. Most recently, for the first time in the history of Pakistan, a highly influential Buddhist leader from Thailand has visited Taxila with his followers, which I consider to be a great step towards the promotion of Gandhara tourism.
Today, it is believed that over seven per cent of the world’s population (approximately 520 million people) comprises Buddhists. Several Asian countries including Japan, the two Koreas, China, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Singapore, Bhutan, Laos, and Mongolia have large Buddhist populations. In China, 18 per cent of the population, consisting of around 244 million people, is Buddhist.
All these countries of Asia Pacific are considered friendly countries of Pakistan on the international diplomatic front. A good number of followers of Buddhism also reside in Russia, India, the US and other Western countries.
During my foreign tours, especially to Asia Pacific countries, I observed that Buddha statues and sculptures created in the Gandhara region of Pakistan are considered the most sacred ones. Every Buddhist wishes to visit the holy stupas located in Pakistan before breathing their last or at least keep the Buddha statue made with the sacred clay of Taxila for seeking prosperity and blessings in their lives.
In my view, Gandhara heritage is our most valuable asset to promote a positive image and attract foreign tourists from Buddhist-majority friendly countries. However, we must not limit Gandhara to just arts or heritage, as the great civilization also reflects our glorious past based on tolerance, brotherhood and interfaith harmony.
If the government focuses only on the promotion of Gandhara tourism, I am quite confident that we cannot only improve our global image but also earn a large amount of foreign exchange in a short period. If Pakistani artists with expertise in creating Buddha statues and sculptures are patronized at the government level, the regularized export of Gandhara art can also strengthen our national economy.
The writer is a member of the National Assembly and patron-in-chief of the Pakistan Hindu Council. He tweets @RVankwani
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