‘Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam peacefully co-existed in Bhanbhore’

March 5, 2023

‘Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam peacefully co-existed in Bhanbhore’

Dr Valeria Piacentini Fiorani has been a professor (now retired) of history and institutions of the Islamic world at the Faculty of Political Sciences of the Catholic University, Milan, Italy. She worked there as a director of the Centro di Ricerca sul Sistema Sud e Mediterraneo Allargato (CriSSMA). Earlier, she had graduated from the Sapienza University of Rome with a specialisation in Arabic and Persian culture and literature. She has conducted fieldwork in the Middle East and Central Asia, including historical-archaeological projects in Harmuzgan, Iran (1982-1985), Makran and Kharan, Balochistan (1987-2002), and Bhanbhore, Sindh (2010-present). She regularly publishes her findings in prestigious research journals. The following excerpts from an interview with The News on Sunday touch are orgnanised under specific themes.


he News on Sunday (TNS): How do you, looking back, see the contribution of Italian archaeologists in Pakistan?

Dr Valeria Piacentini Fiorani (VPF): Italy has contributed a lot. Two events have been particularly important in the development of Pakistan’s archeology. The first was Arduino Desio’s Karakorum Expedition in 1954, and the second the agreement between the Italian archaeology mission for Pakistan and the government of Pakistan in 1955 resulting from an initiative taken by Prof Dr Giuseppe Tucci. I think these two events paved the way for Italian archaeologists taking interest in Pakistan’s rich archaeological heritage. For this scholar, it was impossible to separate history and textual evidence from non-textual evidence provided by archaeology.

TNS: Please tell us more about Prof Tucci.

VPF: Dr Tucci was a professor of oriental religions and philosophy at the University of Rome. He was an Indologist, a scholar of East Asian studies, Buddhism and Tibetan culture. An envied trait of his was regular writing and continuous travel. His work is spread over sixty volumes. He wrote over two hundred articles. However, he was criticised for his links with Italian fascism. He also worked at Rabindranath Tagore’s Shantiniketan (India) but left around the autumn of 1926. It is said that Tagore’s views on fascism compelled him to leave the place. However, it has also been claimed that he left because the Italian government stopped funding the Shantiniketan.

In 1956, Dr Tucci launched a reconnaissance survey, leading to Udegram and Butkara I excavations. These archaeological sites are located in Mingora and Swat areas. We may say that in the toddler years of Pakistan’s archaeology, Italy supported it and helped establish field schools. He asserted that three elements provided the foundation for writing about past human events: personal contact with the territory where these took place (the stage), the investigation into its various cultural aspects and the archaeological data as material evidence.

TNS: What was your first impression when you visited the Bhanbhore site?

VPF: In 2010, I visited the Bhanbhore site as a part of an international team. I found it very mysterious. There are unanswered question related to it. I accepted the challenge. The Department of Antiquities issued a licence that covered a five-year period from 2010 to 2015. Let me pause here to applaud Dr Asma Ibrahim and Dr Monique Kervran for their professional contributions; Dr Niccolo Manassero is credited for Italian archaeological investigation. At the institutional level, I am thankful to the Ministry of Culture, Tourism, Antiquities and Archives; Department of Antiquities and Archaeology, Government of Sindh; the Italian Ministry for Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, the Italian embassy, the Italian consulate in Karachi, and the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Milan.

TNS: Could you appraise us about the outcome of excavation and research in the first five seasons?

VPF: At the beginning of 2023, I am better positioned to say something about the Bhanbhore site. However, in 2015, the study of the majestic bastions and their towers, the material brought to light in our deep trenches (Trench 7 and 9, Italian – and Trench 1 French), comparisons with other sites and other archaeological evidence (pottery, metal-working, glass, and others) provided precious data on our site’s “age”. It stretches for at least 15 centuries, from Alexander the Macedonian and Parthian-Seleucid empires (4th Century, BCE) to the end of the 12th Century CE. It was only a first step into one of the most important phases of a common cultural heritage. These five years marked the discovery of a positive ‘grand system’, Banbhore site: a maritime and fluvial system, a citadel place and its neighbouring areas, a system that had survived the rage of the times and had rebuilt itself on the shoulders of its past, a dominant, economically commanding and powerful bastioned centre.

TNS: After you long engagement here, what are your conclusion about the Bhanbhore phenomena?

VPF: Our archaeological excavations and study of the related textual sources suggest that, long ago, Buddhism, Hinduism and later Islam peacefully co-existed in Bhanbhore city. Besides religious harmony, the site was an important fortified town, harbour and cultural hub. In recent excavations, our team has found ivory workshops and other pieces of evidence of an artisanal quarter of luxury goods (glass, metal-working and shells etc) that flourished during the last phase of peopling of the citadel (early 11th – 12th Centuries CE). These workshops prove that the site was a marketplace of luxury items. Its port had trade relations with Iran and inner Central Asia, China, India and other regions of the Indian Ocean.

TNS: So you see it as an active business city?

VPF: Historical readings, as well as excavations, inform us that rich Zoroastrian, Buddhist, Hindu and Zenji groups used to converge to Sindh markets during the monsoon seasons to bargain, buy and sell their merchandise. At the same time, rich Arab, Indian and Iranian communities – established in Sindhi socio-political system since pre-Islamic times – carried out profitable business in the region’s markets and trading centres, including Bhanbhore. Most of them were land-owners. They waited for ships and trading caravans, provided them with fresh water, meat, fruit, vegetables, rice, sorghum, millet and others commodities, bought from them, and then sold to a third party. They earned through bargains and margins. Today, archaeology confirms and complements with material evidence this worldwide trafficking.

TNS: Do the artefacts discovered here support the claim?

VPF: Yes, the material types, workers’ skills and the distribution network of the artefacts prove the statement as far as the last centuries of the site’s life are concerned. These artefacts are made from glass, ivory, bone, iron, copper, wood, clay and some alloys. These items confirm the city’s commercial activities, workers’ capability and the existence of various sophisticated technologies related to their craft. In this regard, a notable feature of the Bhanbhore site was its production-chain mechanism. Each workshop produced a discrete item, and it was sold to the next production stage. Amazingly, these items were graded into cheap and expensive typologies. I think these facts are enough to claim that Bhanbhore was a thriving business city and connected to the trade networks in the region and beyond.

TNS: What was the background of Muhammad bin Qasim’s attack on Daybul?

VPF: We must understand that from earlier times, regional sea routes were under the control of Iranians. The basic conflict was for control of sea routes and harbours. Daybul was one of the important harbours of the Sassanid network. An attack on Daybul should be looked at from that angle. Muhammad bin Qasim was resisted by Sindhis. He took Daybul by force and many including some Buddhist priests were killed and valuable items were confiscated. Muhammad Bin Qasim outlined a space for the Muslims to reside in and built a mosque where once a Buddhist temple had existed. He did not displace the local mercantile class and allowed the merchants to do their international business. The Arab army that conquered Sindh had excellent warriors: loyal and well-trained. However, they had little bureaucratic competence.

TNS: How did Muhammad bin Qasim govern the conquered cities and towns?

VPF: Muhammad bin Qasim at Daybul devised an effective strategy. It contains two actions, he signed pacts with local chiefs; and delegated administrative and civil powers to the local bureaucracy, known as the katibs. He didn’t erase the cities or towns; or disturb the local institutional and economic system. Orders from the governor of Iraq were clear: not to destroy sources of income after pacts of surrender, but to establish a collaboration. Sindh survived the Muslim conquest and soon became the richest province of the Arab caliphate. In our excavations, there is no sign of a break between the pre-Islamic and Islamic life of the site. The same was published by Niccolò Manassero – an independent archaeologist from the University of Torino, specialising in the art and archaeology of pre-Islamic Central Asia – and Dr Monik Kervran, head of the French archaeological mission in Sindh between 1989 and 2002.

TNS: What was the background of the katibs?

VPF: Khusrav Hanushirwan, at the end of the 6th Century CE, had introduced certain administrative reforms. Through those, local officials became part of the Sassanid empire. These were the people whom Muhammad Bin Qasim had handed power to manage the conquered towns. They had been secretaries to the previous Iranian officials. Katib, is an Arab word and meaning writer or scribe. The katibs operated within rules. Their positions were temporary and their powers were arbitrarily amended. The emir was authorised to promote or demote them, increase or reduce their powers, and revoke or delegate what he deemed fit. They ran cities and towns around the second half of the 8th Century in that framework.

TNS: Did the power-sharing between the emirs and the katibs continue in the later centuries?

Bhanbhore site - Covered Well. Picture courtesy: Sudharath J
Bhanbhore site - Covered Well. Picture courtesy: Sudharath J

VPF: No. By the start of the 9th Century, the katibs had become too numerous and influential. They had emerged as an unavoidable socio-political entity. This affected the institutions and economic structures of that time.

TNS: Did katibs’ empowerment upset the political regimes?

VPF: Yes. They could upset every political regime because they never broke their links with traditional networks. Gradually, in a way, they became indispensable. They ensured and enforced a cultural continuity between the ‘past’ and the ‘present.’ They patronised, managed and controlled the silk route and its sub-routes. The continuity is visible in some stratigraphic sequences in excavation - like Trench 7 and Trench 9.

TNS: What was the socio-cultural impact of the katibs’ control?

VPF: They emerged as the custodians of social and cultural institutions. They also encouraged the institutions to carry out activities in their own way. We may say that the arrival of Islam didn’t change the traditional life. It did not alter the urban traditions of Sindh’s cities. The authorities introduced Islamic laws and built mosques and madrasas, but the old patterns continued. The life in the port city and trade centres continued with the flavour of a cosmopolitan society.

TNS: How do you see the decline of Abbasid’s Great Sindh, particularly from the second half of the 9th Century to the 11th Century CE?

VPF: Sindh saw a successful rule under the Barmakids. It also witnessed the end of the Barmaki family. What had been the Great Sindh got fragmented into five states. These were: Mansurah, Multan, Makran, Turan (which included Khuzdar) and the independent realm of Buddha. Reforms introduced by the Barmaki governors had spurred discontent among rival groups. The last Abbasid governor was Harun bin Muhammad bin Abu Khalid. He was posted to calm down Tamimis and Yemenites who had deep political, religious and commercial differences. The Tamimis openly challenged the caliph’s authority and assassinated Imran bin Musa Barmaki, the governor. Then came Harun bin Muhammad bin Abu Khalid and he met the same fate. Finally, the caliph accept Umared bin Abdulaziz al-Habbari as the new governor. Umar consolidated his power and eventually refused to pay tribute to Baghdad. This was the beginning of the dynastic rule of the Habbari family. It continued for roughly 170 years.

TNS: Were the Habbaris connected to the power centres in Iraq and Syria?

VPF: The Habbaris were one of the earliest Arab tribes who had migrated to Sindh. They had acquired land-related properties, engaged in trade and maintained links with powerful groups in Iraq and Syria. In this way, they had secured the favours of the Abbasid caliphs.

TNS: Was the success of Umar bin Abdulaziz embedded in his character?

VPF: Yes. He was a shrewd, tolerant and visionary man. During his early days in power, he strengthened his position and forged unity between Arabs and new Muslims. He avoid taking part in any clash and didn’t object when Sivistan (Sehwan Sharif), Kirman and Makran were granted to Yaqub Bin Layth al-Saffar. He maintained Sindh’s territorial integrity and neutrality, established peace and initiated hereditary governorship.

TNS: So the trade routes were secured? Do the Bhanbhore excavation findingd suggest the same?

VPF: Yes. The field notes of Dr Agnese Fusaro, who is part of the Bhanbhore excavation mission, show that there was neither a change in the mode of production nor a change in technology. According to her, the pottery of Bhanbhore, Multan, Sivistan Mansurah was similar. The identical artefacts suggest a regional unity. Likewise, the uninterrupted arrival of items in bulk from the regions of Iraq and Iran indicates a prosperous trade along the land routes connecting the west with the emirate of Manusrah. From a cultural point of view, from the second half of the 9th Century to the 1030s, it is possible to witness a gradual process of Indianisation of the language, bureaucracy and costumes and the introduction of elephants in the army and for agriculture.

TNS: How did the Habbari era end?

VPF: Around 1020 CE, the northern boundaries were disrupted by pressure from peoples of the steppes, the Ghaurids and the Qara-khanids. They attacked Mansurah and pillaged and razed the magnificent capital city of the emirate to the ground. This marked the end of the Habbari dynasty. Archaeology confirms the tragedy. Some people managed to escape the massacre. They flew to the well-bastioned Daybul and sought refuge there. Daybul, too, was attacked, but it could hold on thanks to supplies and support from the peoples of the river and rebuilt itself. These groups survived Mansurah’s massacre with their political and administrative skill, mercantile intercourses, overseas family connections and matrimonial allegiances. Once again, it is possible to perceive the katibs’ presence and their part in preserving and rebuilding Daybul, the traditional Habbari political and economic asset.

TNS: Did the Turkish army lay siege to Daybul?

VPF: Yes, a decade or so later, by the Turkish army of the Seljuk sultan. Once again, the citadel held on. The sultan proposed ‘pacts’. The terms were accepted by the Daybuli leadership. Daybul then became the capital city of an autonomous territory under a native ruler, which included coastal Sindh and Makran.

TNS: Do the present Italian excavations cover the era of autonomous coastal territory, including Makran?

VPF: In a way, yes. More precisely, the present Italian excavations could be about a rebuilding of the urban plan of Bhanbhore site. We are confronted with an artisanal quarter of luxury goods rebuilt on imposing architectural structures of the past; a wall hurriedly built separating it from the palatial quarter excavated by FA Khan in the 1950s. The archaeological evidence confirms the historical report, complementing it with the plastic image of an economic international splendour and power. Dr Agnese Fusaro and I presented these findings in the Proceedings of the Seminar for Arabian Studies, 2022.

TNS: Why was Sindh so important to the Umayyads and Abbasids?

VPF: In the general political, military and commercial context, Sindh and the deltaic region of the Indus River were a strategic region between the East and the West, the core and hinge of the Indo-Iranian world, the northern terminal of the monsoon routes and Africa’s wealth; main station of Chinese goods. In other words, Sindh had always been – and still is – a profitable source of revenue. The revenue was not coming from a single source. It came through three sources: taxes related to inland traffic, earnings from fluvial lands and sea-ports incomes. It was a rare combination. Therefore, the caliphs, their Iraqi governors and local emirs were always interested in keeping Sindh in their domain. Having Sindh also meant having control of a powerful and well-fortified city-fortress on the delta.

G. Tucci at the library of Tibetan Minister of Finance for Chushul (1948)
G. Tucci at the library of Tibetan Minister of Finance for Chushul (1948)

TNS: Could we say that Bhanbhore and Daybul are the same place?

VPF: So far, there is no inscription, no numismatic evidence that the Bhanbhore site is Daybul. No parchment or local archives have so far come to light. FA Khan found much epigraphic evidence but no place name. An accurate re-reading of the wealth of written sources in Arabic and Persian points to only one great harbour and port on the Indus delta for Sassanid and Islamic times. Our site’s non-textual evidence, when correlated with textual sources, is in harmony with thos, complements them and provides a material picture of what is nicely described in chronicles and geography about the harbour.

According to written sources, Daybul was also a system – a shahristan: a political, administrative, economic and cultural system. Politically and bureaucratically, we can look to our site with its katibs, that is, the city, a well-defended bastioned city in the region. However, textual sources minutely describe Daybul as a vast territory gravitating towards its city from economic, religious and cultural points of view. There lived and settled farmers and merchants with their peasants and artisans. However, regarding the army, peoples of the river and peoples/sailors from Arabia whose fleet – when needed – could become a military asset, plus the force and armies of the rulers of the moment. At the Bhanbhore site, we find all the markers of a great, dominant city. It is the only site with such connotations in Sindh.

TNS: What is your opinion about the building of the so-called Partition Wall at the Bhanbhore site?

VPF: There is no unanimous answer. It is confirmed by the excavations (Trench 7 and Trench 8) that it was a late structure built around the very start of the 11th Century.

TNS: Can we say that it was a defensive wall against the nomads’ attacks?

VPF: There is more than one possibility: perhaps, when the urban plan was reorganised, it had the function of dividing the citadel into two quarters. Or a much later structure hurriedly built at the very end of the site’s life, maybe. In my and Manassero’s opinion, it had no religious function.

TNS: How did the end and the final abandonment of the Bhanbhore come about?

VPF: The abandonment was gradual. There are reports about new incursions by nomadic hordes hampering the local market and magazines around the end of the 12th Century CE. An earthquake is also recorded in chronicles. However, we have found some evidence (pottery and other markers) of sporadic later periods of temporary peopling. I think the next field season (2023) will help us come up with more evidence in this regard.

The interviewer has a PhD in history from the University of Malaya, Malaysia. His areas of interest are peasant history, colonial history, heritage and history of archeology. He may be reached at junejozi@gmail.com

‘Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam peacefully co-existed in Bhanbhore’