The disappearing Gandhara

January 29, 2023

A promenade through the past and present of a region that was once a choice destination for transcontinental travellers and traders

The disappearing Gandhara


he overzealous impulse to rewrite national histories often impacts civilisational, regional and local heritage. It impacts the social, societal and cultural psyche too. Imagine changing the date of birth of an individual after a couple of decades of the actual birth. Dozens of documents need changing, and factual or fictional reasons have to be cooked up to justify the action. Any enlightened society shuns such practice as odious. In Pakistan, we do this all the time – rewriting history with retrospective effect. And we relish it.

While Covid-19 was reshaping the world medically, economically and societally between 2019 and 2021, it provided many people - myself included – the opportunity to go roaming in their immediate neighbourhoods. Since international travel had almost become a nightmare and because offices were reduced to hand-held machines courtesy 4G connections, I drove to destinations that were hardly a few hours’ drive from Islamabad and offered day trips of amazing worth. Three of the six UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Pakistan were on the menu, apart from a long list of Buddhist monuments in Rawalpindi, Attock, Mardan, Charsadda, Peshawar, Malakand and Swat districts. It was as if Pushkalavati, Purushapura and Takhshasila were calling – see us, know us, love us.

The disappearing Gandhara

The pleasure of exploring the civilisational marvels excavated by inquisitive men like John Marshall in the early 20th Century was immense. Walking the lands once ruled and run by the Persian Achaemenid Empire, the Greeks of Macedon, the Mauryan Empire, the Indo-Greeks of Bactria, the Scythians of Eastern Europe, the Parthian Empire, the Kushans of Central Asia, the White Huns, the Hindu Shahis of northern India is no mean feat. Peeking into past can help plan the present so that a future can be secured.

But the pleasure fritters away swiftly and transforms into pain as one discovers how this centuries-old heritage is facing wanton pillage and plunder by a people with little regard for heritage or history. Isn’t it ironic that dozens of Turkic, Afghan and Iranian armies that passed through present-day Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and northern Punjab ostensibly to fight the “infidel” Indians and capture vast swathes of territories spared the remains of Buddhist religious and cultural icons? And yet, we now look adamant to wipe out our historical, civilisational, social, societal and regional heritage by maliciously trespassing onto world heritage sites.

Instead of writing an epitaph for the bygone times when religions coexisted, commerce flourished through the Silk Route, caravanserais cropped up and multicultural towns emerged, I want the readers to put imaginary VR headsets on and accompany me on a promenade through past and present of a region that was once a choice destination for transcontinental travellers and traders.

Scene One-Past: Towns built on a grid close to rivers or rivulets, neat lanes, clean green environment, shops serving locals and travelling merchants, law and order along with basic civic amenities assured, agrarian economy, trade and craftsmanship feeding citizenry.

Scene Two-Present: Unstructured, unplanned lanes, chaotic and dirty human dwellings, in-your-face poverty, absence of local economy or industry to curb constant migration, weak administration, questionable law and order.

Scene Three-Past: Dirt tracks connecting towns through green fields or barren patches, caravanserais to house travelling traders; robbers taking their chances, life moving in a slow, peaceful routine.

The disappearing Gandhara

Scene Four-Present: Networks of metalled roads lined with riff-raff shops, galling traffic, unclean driver restaurants, mechanics’ workshops, the territorial separation between towns long evaporated, overflowing sewers, garbage littered all over the place. Brooks and rivulets turning into stinking streams.

Scene Five-Past: Multi-religious, multi-ethnic, multicultural societies; bhikkhus and bhikkhunis, the shifus, the bodhisattvas and possibly a Buddha around. Buddhist stupas and monastic seminaries exist alongside Zoroastrian temples and the occasional Christian residence of a saint.

Scene Six-Present: Abysmal religious harmony with religious minorities living a sub-human life. Freedom to practice and preach religion exists only for the majority community. Several religious communities once native to the region have migrated to other countries, so that there is no chanting in the temples and no bells toll in the churches.

Scene Seven-Past: Town administrators are mindful of their duties, building regulations are impossible to violate, accountability is the norm of the day; people are aware of their societal status and, by and large, trust their overlords.

Scene Eight-Present: Colonial administrative structures exist in books and gazetteers; petty corruption runs deep in bureaucratic veins, thereby facilitating a flagrant violation of all regulations – from traffic rules and running shops and markets to building manuals.

Scene Nine-Past: Nature at its best and humans at peace with their surroundings. Towns and villages, wrapped around by beautiful hills, ultimately connected to Hindukush and Karakoram ranges. Leopards, various kinds of wild goats, bears, wolves and other animals thrive alongside humans.

Scene Ten-Present: Necessitated by an out-of-control population bulge, human residential encroachment is getting dangerously close to heritage sites. Persistent failure of officials to stem the tide of illegal construction raises the spectre that the current generation might be the last one to witness the erasure of history. The powerful stone-crushing industry ruining the Margalla Hills. For decades, cranes and trucks have been busy taking away the majestic hills by blasting, “quarrying, drilling and crushing bulky limestone rocks into pebbles” that end up building houses, roads and motorways.

Safeguarding heritage has never been high on successive Pakistani governments’ agenda. Officials and ministers love talking about attracting global tourists to the country’s rich heritage and monumental geography, but Pakistan falls short of putting in place mechanisms and infrastructure to ensure these treasures last a few generations. If it were not for the international pressure and financial support, these Buddhist relics and remains might have vanished like the Bamiyan Buddhas in the increasingly intolerant, lawless, ignorant and introverted society that we are fast turning into.

The author works for Jang Group

The disappearing Gandhara