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Reviving the Past | Gandhara Journey from Antiquity to Modernity

July 18, 2023

The northern territories of Pakistan were once an integral element of the 1st-to-7th-century Buddhist-dominated Gandhara civilization. In various parts of the country, including Taxila, Takht-e-Bahi, Swat, and Gilgit-Baltistan (GB), there are many historical monuments and holy sites of worship.

At least 19 ancient sites are located in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), five in Sindh, one in Balochistan, ten in Punjab, and four in Great Britain, according to historians. The mystifying caverns of Shah Allah Ditta in Islamabad are evidence that the Pakistani federal capital was once a part of the ancient Gandhara civilization.

After the death of Gautama Buddha, who devoted his entire life to spreading the message of peace and harmony, his ashes were preserved in eight distinct stupas, the most prominent of which was the Dharmarajika Stupa of Taxila. During the reign of Ashoka the Great, Buddhism became the state religion, and tens of thousands of stupas were constructed across his extensive empire.

According to historians, the first Buddha statue was constructed in Taxila. Likewise, the world’s oldest university in human history was founded in Taxila, where the renowned philosopher Chanakya taught students. Even today, his masterpieces ‘ArthaShastra’ and ‘Chanakya Niti’ continue to be the most widely read books in the world.

It is an undeniable fact that followers of Jainism, Zoroastrianism, and Hinduism were also permitted to exist in peace during the Gandhara era, despite the fact that this period is commonly associated with the rise of Buddhism. Several temples associated with Dharmik religions, such as Jainism, Parsi, and Hinduism, are located around the various stupas of Buddha, indicating that religious freedom was absolute.

In recent years, it has been widely reported in the media that Buddhists from a variety of neighboring nations, including Thailand, Korea, and Sri Lanka, have begun a series of pilgrimages to Gandhara sites in Pakistan. Recently, and for the first time in Pakistan’s history, a highly influential Buddhist leader from Thailand visited Taxila with his followers, which I consider to be a significant move towards the promotion of tourism in Gandhara.

Over seven percent of the world’s population, or approximately 520 million individuals, are Buddhists today, according to estimates. Numerous Asian nations, including Japan, the two Koreas, China, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Singapore, Bhutan, Laos, and Mongolia, are home to substantial Buddhist populations. Buddhists account for 18% of China’s population, or approximately 244 million individuals.

All of these Asia-Pacific nations are considered Pakistan’s diplomatic allies on the international stage. A substantial number of Buddhist adherents also reside in Russia, India, the United States, and other Western nations.

During my travels abroad, particularly to Asia-Pacific nations, I have observed that Buddha statues and sculptures created in the Gandhara region of Pakistan are regarded as the holiest. Every Buddhist hopes to visit the holy stupas in Pakistan before passing away, or at the very least, to retain a Buddha statue made from the sacred clay of Taxila in order to bring prosperity and good fortune into their lives.

In my opinion, the Gandhara heritage is our most valuable asset for promoting a positive image and attracting tourists from countries with a Buddhist majority. However, we must not limit Gandhara to arts and heritage alone, as the great civilization also reflects our magnificent past founded on tolerance, brotherhood, and interreligious harmony.

If the government concentrates solely on promoting tourism in Gandhara, I am confident that we can not only improve our international reputation but also earn a substantial amount of foreign currency in a short period of time. If the government supports Pakistani artists skilled in the creation of Buddha statues and sculptures, the regularized export of Gandhara art can also contribute to the growth of our national economy.

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