A pluralistic past
ONE of the most peaceful places in Pakistan is the Buddhist monastic complex of Takht-i-Bahai near Peshawar. Situated on a hill, the grand cluster of stupas, courtyards, residential cells, and meditation chambers remains enveloped in mist and mystery.
The site’s beauty and sense of timelessness inspires awe, but also melancholy that comes with the realisation that Pakistan’s greatest treasures are undervalued and endangered. It is no secret that millions of dollars worth of ancient Buddhist relics are smuggled out of Pakistan each year. Our authorities have long overlooked this pillage, but it’s time they took serious notice — never before have these artifacts mattered more. An Associated Press article published recently highlighted the fact that the government lacks the funds, resources and political will to protect the hundreds of Buddhist monasteries and other sites littered across the northwest. As a result, antiquities are regularly smuggled out of the country for sale in Europe, the US and Far East.
In July, Karachi police seized an illegal shipment of 400 Gandharan artifacts, including life-sized Buddhas and decorative plaques, worth millions of dollars. Although such smuggling is considered a criminal act, punishments are weak, involving small fines rather than imprisonment. Meanwhile, the growing practice of making fake Buddhist relics to smuggle out of the country is reducing the perceived value of genuine artifacts.
It is obvious why the smuggling of Buddhist relics continues unabated: no one cares. In a country wracked by insurgency, sectarianism, ethnic conflict, urban turf wars, infrastructure collapse and financial instability, the list of things people don’t have the luxury to care about grows longer each day. Even on this list — which includes things as valuable as human rights and free speech — cultural heritage is an especially low priority. But the way things are going, by the time we make it down the list, there will be no culture left to preserve.
Preservation has now become a must. As Pakistan’s history is being rewritten to service a violent, exclusionary narrative of Muslim identity, we have to embrace our cultural heritage as a reminder of our pluralistic past.
Thanks to a host of extremist organisations and right-wing ideologues, Pakistani identity is being made synonymous with a particular kind of Islamic identity at the expense of all other identities and with an Arab World-oriented, rather than South Asian, focus.
This evolving (or is it regressing?) identity underpins the spike in sectarian violence, maltreatment of religious minorities, and anti-West conspiracy theories that taint sound policymaking. By embracing our cultural heritage — as embodied in historic sites and ancient relics — we can attempt to stave off this isolationist and intolerant identity.
After all, little threatens the extremist articulation of an Islamic identity like evidence of a pre-Islamic, pluralistic past. That’s why the Afghan Taliban destroyed the Bamiyan Buddhas in 2001, and Pakistani militants blew up the face of a 1,500-year-old rock carving of Buddha in Swat in 2007. These objects tell their own stories, which can’t be corrupted through vitriol and hate alone. They also offer tangible proof of shared humanities and multi-faith societies and through their beauty challenge extremist stereotypes of other cultures and religions as nefarious or perverse.
Beyond challenging the extremist narrative within Pakistan, historic sites and relics can help the country project soft power abroad. For example, the Asia Society Museum in New York last year hosted a show titled ‘The Buddhist Heritage of Pakistan: Art of Gandhara’, featuring Buddhist sculptures, architectural reliefs and gold and bronze artifacts.
For those who visited the show, northwestern Pakistan transformed from a holding pen for bearded terrorists to an ancient and beautiful place — the cradle of multiple civilisations, an incubator of artistic sensibilities, and the first home of figurative images of the Buddha — with a tragic trajectory.
At the time, the New York Times wrote that it was “remarkable” that these objects hailed from museums in Karachi and Lahore, and for once these cities were affiliated in the international media with something other than suicide bombings and violent protests. Visitors to the show also absorbed a more nuanced image of Pakistan as an Islamic state that is also the caretaker of invaluable sites and artifacts that are sacred to other faiths. Projecting such an image is vital for Pakistan at this stage; after all, it is easier to disrespect and drop drones on a place that has no past.
On a more cynical note, beautiful and fascinating sites such as Takht-i-Bahai, Taxila, Mohenjodaro and countless others are of interest to people around the world (if not for enough Pakistanis). If preserved and promoted, they can attract significant amounts of tourist revenue and drive local economies. If for no other reason, the government must take its responsibility to disrupt smuggling networks and protect Pakistan’s pre-Islamic cultural heritage far more seriously.
As a start, the authorities should pressurise museums, private collectors and auction houses around the world to no longer deal in the antiquities black market. This is a task that Pakistan’s elite diaspora in places like New York, London and Singapore can be well marshalled for. Subsequently, the government must arrange security at historic sites, introduce chapters on Pakistan’s pre-Islamic heritage in the public school curriculum, and encourage local communities to develop tourist industries around precious sites and relics. But before any of this can happen, some higher-ups in the government have to start to care.
The writer is a freelance journalist.