Sunday October 01, 2023

Promoting Gandhara

February 04, 2022

Today, on February 4, the people of Sri Lanka are celebrating their 74th Independence Day to commemorate their freedom and sovereignty from British imperialism. The 5,000-year-old ancient island is also described in the sacred Hindu book ‘Ramayana’ as Lanka where Sri Ram had fought with the demon king ‘Ravana of Lanka’ who abducted his wife Sita.

According to historians, this beautiful island, currently sharing maritime borders with India and Maldives, has a human population for 3000 years, which belongs to different religions including Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam. Many Sindh-origin people also emigrated from the Sindh province of Pakistan to the country.

On the diplomatic front, Pakistan and Sri Lanka are considered close allies that support each other on several international issues. The bilateral ties between the two countries are linked with cultural, military and diplomatic cooperation. Sri Lanka has faced insurgency in the form of the Tamil Tigers. The cooperation by Pakistan during this critical time is highly regarded and valued by Sri Lankan leadership.

In my view, faith tourism is another initiative that has brought Pakistan and Sri Lanka even closer. Present-day Pakistan was once considered a significant centre of the Gandhara ancient Buddhist civilisation that extended from the 1st century AD to the 7th century AD. Many Buddhist monuments and worship places are located in various places from Taxila to Swat.

Also, Sri Lanka used to host cultural exhibitions under the name ‘Gandhara Art of Pakistan’ regularly. Most recently, the high commission of Pakistan in Sri Lanka and Siddhivinayak Cine Arts (Private) Limited with the support of and in coordination with the Ministry of Buddha Sasana, Religious and Cultural Affairs of Sri Lanka have jointly produced a documentary titled ‘Gandhara’ with a focus on a visual journey along the Gandhara Buddhist heritage sites of Pakistan.

Thakshashila, the most ancient university of known human civilisation was based in Taxila, where a great philosopher and teacher, Kautliya Chanakya, used to teach his students. Even today, his books including ‘Arthashastra’ and ‘Chanakya Niti’ are most popular with a huge readership throughout the world.

Historians believe that the first sculpture of Buddha was created in the region now called Pakistan. There is also a huge global demand for Buddha statues made in Pakistan. In the historic city of Taxila, there are many talented sculptors who have learned the art of making statues from their ancestors. According to international media reports, these Pakistani sculptures are sometimes smuggled in the international black market and sold for $10,000. On the other hand, the sculpture artists are paid a few thousand rupees for their hard work.

The Pakistan Hindu Council has taken up the task of projecting a positive image of Pakistan in the eyes of the international community. In this regard, faith tourism could play a pivotal role. I wish we could start special international flights with Sri Lanka for facilitating Buddhist followers interested in visiting Gandhara heritage sites.

Similarly, Pakistanis could be facilitated to visit Adam’s Peak in Sri Lanka. The more than 7,000 feet tall conical mountain contains the ‘sacred footprint’ which in Buddhist tradition is held to be the footprint of the Buddha, and in Hindu tradition that of Shiva. However, some Islamic and Christian traditions describe it to be Hazrat Adam’s first footprint when he landed from the paradise.

Apart from Sri Lanka, other Asian countries including Japan. Korea, China, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Singapore, Bhutan, Hong Kong, Laos, India, and Mongolia also have large Buddhist populations. China’s 244 million people (18 percent population) are Buddhist followers. Similarly, there is a good number of Buddhists residing in Russia, the United States, and some Western countries.

Today, while extending my best wishes to Sri Lankans on their Independence Day. I would like to urge our authorities to promote Gandhara heritage as a symbol of international peace in order to attract foreign tourists from Sri Lanka and other Buddhist-majority countries.

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

He tweets @RVankwani