The (un)claimed Gandhara

July 26, 2020

The condemnable decimation of a recently-discovered Buddha statue at Takht-i-Bahi in Mardan calls for serious reflection on our attitude towards pluralities of cultural heritage and history

Ruins of Takht-i-Bahi.

The decimation of a recently-discovered sculpture of Buddha at Takht-i-Bahi in Mardan district of Khyber-Pukhtunkhwa, has been widely condemned on social media. Fanatic thinking and iconoclastic propensities, spurred by certain groups in the majoritarian context of Pakistani politics, have been blamed for the callous destruction of the rare Gandharan heritage. Since the issue relates to history and heritage, the broader context of marked indifference towards history, calls for serious review.

Some people would, empathetically, call Gandhara a ‘disowned child’. This, however, is too simplistic a judgment. Let us say instead that the problematic nature of the ownership/custodianship of the Gandharan heritage is an issue.

At least three claimants can be readily identified for Gandharan ownership/custodianship: the state of Pakistan (ignore Afghanistan for our present concern), archaeologists and practitioners concerned with history and heritage and ethnic groups (especially Pashtuns). Understandably, the state owns and controls Gandharan heritage through laws and relevant institutional dispensations. Scholars and workers have been engaged in related exploration and research. And sections of ethnic groups imagine themselves as progenies of the ancient Gandharans. These claimants have conflicting interests currently and lack common ground for genuine cooperation and productive work. I have reasons to say that government institutions and scholars alike, and not without ulterior motives, have been indifferent and insensitive towards public and community archaeology.

Archaeology professionals in Pakistan are notoriously for being wanting in commitment and competence. They have failed, therefore, to bring the discipline to a par with its practice elsewhere in the world. They can claim little of value in terms of research and preservation. They have suffered disciplinary chauvinism and segregation and we can hardly expect any growth in Gandharan archaeology. The problem has been aggravated by the ideological orientation of the state.

The state has an ambivalent attitude towards its pre-Islamic heritage. When it comes to the ideological basis of the country, the pre-Muslim cultural strata become both a religio-cultural and temporal other, bereft of any value. This outlook has something to do with the nineteenth century periodisation scheme worked out by James Mill.

Mill divided Indian history into Hindu, Muslim and British periods. The scheme was predicated on two monolithic identities - Hindu and Muslim – and was dismissive of plurality. The three periods were viewed as glorious, tyrannical and rational-modern, respectively. Since late nineteenth century, such interpretations of history have resulted in what is termed as ‘cultural nationalism’. Pakistan has long been defined as an Islamic country whereas a battle between the forces of Hindutva and secularism has been going on the other side of the border. What can be expected from this religion-driven nationalism(s) except the blatant destruction of Babri Masjid in India and Buddhistic icons in Pakistan and Afghanistan?

Having set this general context, let us discuss the nature of Pakistan’s involvement with Gandhara. It has a paradoxical trajectory. During the first three decades after independence, Buddhism, and Gandhara were intellectually related to the entry and spread of Islam in the subcontinent. The advent of Buddhism was interpreted in terms of resistance to the prevalent Vedic-Brahmanic socio-political order marked by exploitation and oppression. It was argued that similar circumstances, after more than one thousand years, led to the victory of Islam in the region. Resistance to oppressive systems was viewed as being common to Buddhism and Islam.

This association with an ancient Indian religion had a vital dimension of political-cum-cultural diplomacy in relation to the Buddhist countries of Southeast Asia. Historian Ishtiaq Hussain Quraishi visited many of these countries and delivered lectures on the subject. It is difficult at this point to assess the extent of success of this argument and its diplomatic aspect. There is no doubt however that the scholarly inquiry was subservient to modern political interests.

More recently, the interest of Pakistani power elites in Gandhara is one of attitudinal inconsistency and obscure cultural understanding. Spontaneous and momentary attention might surface at times. The triggers for it could be no more than personal dilettantism or short-term economic concerns. Consequently, when it comes to contacts with archaeology professionals, an understandable lack of communication between the stakeholders mars the project.

Notwithstanding the failure of two of the three custodians of Gandhara, one can still entertain some hope regarding heritage protection. A vital role can potentially be played by local communities. Unnecessary hopes vis-à-vis foreign workers’ contributions may also be avoided. They have simply been here with limited programmes: to dig, to study and to share their results with Western cosmopolitan academics. The real stakeholders can be the concerned (marginalised) locals.

It is tempting to talk about indigenous communities with respect to heritage management but in practice it is difficult to approach them. Local communities are by no means homogenous in their worldview. They are marked by ethnic, religious and socio-cultural fissures. For some, Gandhara may be a religious other, for others the story of their ancestors’ achievements. The former resulted in the destruction of the Buddha’s statues at Bamiyan (2001), Shakhurai or Jahanabad (Swat) (2007) and very recently the giant image at Takht-i-Bahi. The latter reflects concerns for heritage preservation. It represents an ethno-cultural nationalism often buttressed by historiographical traditions inspired by a particular orientation towards history.

The nationalist (Pashtun) historiography goes back to the decades prior to the mid-twentieth century. Pashtun literati from across Durand Line have also contributed to it. Colonial interpretations have influenced these works — much like nationalist and majoritarian historiographical concerns in India and Pakistan. An unguarded nationalist interpretation of history, at any level, can be potentially dangerous.

The Pashtun nationalism identifies radical religious establishment as an enemy guilty of complicity not only in human but also cultural purges. In terms of archaeological heritage, iconoclastic violence both in Afghanistan and Swat and, recently, Mardan, is seen as embedded in a hegemony-directed vandalism. It allegedly aims at depriving the area of its historical personality. There have been poetic compositions in Pashto that mourn the Buddha’s annihilation at Bamiyan, Swat and now Mardan with a simultaneous feeling of belonging to Gandhara.

A sense of history is valuable as far as it is not triggered by the presence of a real or imagined enemy. We cannot deny the existence of oppressive systems and ideologies, but the nature of resistance should be essentially different from coercion. I warn against the danger of exclusionary ideas concerning historical memory. It denies the ‘others’ any role in a civilisational saga.

This is also true of the Pashtuns’ historical consciousness and memory. Their nationalist historiography is valuable insofar as it enables them to raise new questions and search for new answers. Many of its notions such as the ‘Aryan race’ and ‘exclusive Pashtun-parenthood of Gandhara civilisation’ are as untenable historically as they can be potentially catastrophic in identity-driven politics.

All said, we need a reconsideration of history, culture, politics and academia. The cultural policy of the state should be revisited to make it vibrant and accommodative of multiple strands of identity. Academics, both Pakistani and foreign, should transcend their traditions in order to be able to successfully engage the wider society in relation to archaeological research and heritage management.

Lastly, a guarded historical consciousness should be created among people, lest heritage obsession and historical interpretations turn into abuse of history.

The author has a PhD in history/ archaeology. He is an assistant professor at Taxila Institute of Asian Civilizations, Quaid-i-Azam university, Islamabad

The (un)claimed Gandhara: Decimation of recently-discovered Buddha statue calls for serious reflection on our attitude