Cultural treasure

January 9, 2022

A heritage centre in Islamabad will highlight the Gandhara civilisation

Cultural treasure

The federal cabinet’s approval for the setting up of a Gandhara Heritage and Cultural Centre in Islamabad should be welcomed. The emphasis now should shift from the security-obsessed approach to nationhood to the diversity embedded in our heritage. The shared legacy should be the rallying point of our being together.

Gandhara is one of the most significant periods in the history of our land. The civilisation was extremely rich in its cultural expression and had a lasting imprint on the sensibility as avowed in the arts for a long time. Besides its impact on the kneading of our cultural matrix, it also attracts or should attract a large number of tourists and visitors from abroad. Actually, the main strength of the museum in Peshawar and one of the main strengths of the museum in Lahore have been their Gandhara holdings.

The individuality of each civilisation that has flowered in the region that is now Pakistan should be acknowledged and recognised and its significance registered. It should not be seen as a contributing factor in the eventuality that became Pakistan, the present name given to a part of the region.

This land has had a very rich history and holds within its layers the truth of many cultures and civilisations. It so rich in relics that we are not in a position to identify and name all of them. That is the beauty of countries located on ancient lands. What we see today is the present shape of a long roll out that has not come to a halt. It continues and may take many more shapes, territorially and politically, if the past is any indication of the future.

This point is being emphasised because in some of the collections and museums that have sprung up in the recent past the identity of the past civilisations has been toned down or treated as a lead up to the present and the present described as the ultimate destination. One should always doubt such narratives and not accept them gospel truth. They amount to a denial of the historical process.

In Pakistan, one has heard ad nauseam the slogan that the region holds many valuable sites and is therefore a magnet for tourists, those attracted by archaeological remains, those drawn in by religious compulsions and those wanting to experience the coming together of various cultural strands. However, for several decades, the country has not been able to draw the required or desired level of tourists and visitors. Even when the present political setup came to power, the mantra of being a popular destination for tourists was trumpeted. It has rung hollow in its execution. The number of tourists visiting the country has not seen a significant or dramatic rise nor has the doddering economy received the promised shot in the arm.

The reason for this disappointment is not very difficult to identify. It is the impression of the country being unstable and having a society where diversity is frowned upon. The desire to impose a set of values and culture has scared away many wanting to come to Pakistan. The conditions that facilitate tourism as a relaxed imbibe rather than a tedium are what attract most people to a place or an area. This land is the birth place of Sikh religion and some of the most sacred sites of the Hindu faith are also located here. Buddhism flourished in this north western nook like in no other place but the number of tourists or pilgrims so far has been small.

It’s hoped that the centre in Islamabad will give due deference to Gandhara as a distinct phase and not as a run up to the ultimate configuration matured in the name of present-day Pakistan and Pakistani culture. It is important that it is seen as an individual epoch and not interpreted in the context of the present paradigm, which is extremely reductive and serves only narrow political ends.

Museums in the past were no more than a collection of precious holdings. These day, they are meant to be centres that also host live activity. They should be more in the nature of a centre where various forms of artistic activity get a platform. The Pak-China Centre is hugely underutilised. The basis of Chinese-Pakistan interaction can have greater solidity if it rests on cultural sharing and togetherness. That will strengthen the strategic as well as the economic aspects that have dominated the relations so far.

The writer is a culture critic based in Lahore

Cultural treasure