Pakistan's Buddhist Gandhara heritage

By Janaka Perera, Asian Tribune, June 18, 2008

Colombo, Sri Lanka -- Sri Lankan Buddhists commemorate the arrival in this country of Arahat Mahinda with the message of the Dhamma. Yet Gandhara – the pinnacle of Buddhist Civilization at the time Venerable Mahinda's father, Emperor Ashoka, ruled a greater part of the Indian sub-continent – seems to have received little attention among the majority of Buddhists here. It is from Gandhara that Buddhism spread to Sri Lanka and other Asian countries during Ashoka's reign.

With the recent appointment by Sri Lanka's Tourism Minister Milinda Moragoda of a the Sub-Committee to work out a Buddhist Pilgrim Travel Trail programme covering the SAARC region the time has come to focus greater attention on the great Buddhist heritage of Pakistan – especially in view of the forthcoming regional summit.

The name Gandhara is virtually synonymous with Buddhist art and culture throughout the world. Yet it is the most un-explored area by Sri Lankan Buddhists. There have been very few Sri Lankan Buddhists - mostly scholars – who have visited these sites whereas a large number of Japanese, Chinese and Thai Buddhists regularly visit these areas.

During last year's Gandhara Week – part of the Destination Pakistan 2007 Programme – with the theme "Historical review of the world's ancient Buddhist civilization," Pakistan's then Tourism Minister said, "We welcome people from all over the world to see the place that our history originates from."

The lack of ordinary Sri Lankan Buddhists visiting these areas has been attributed to the lack of knowledge and effective publicity. Except for Buddhist sites in India and Nepal, the average Sri Lankan has very little knowledge of Pakistan's Buddhist sites or monuments. In fact many of them hardly know that Gandhara is in Pakistan.

Although there is hardly any Buddhists or Buddhist clergy in Pakistan today but it is a land blessed with the world's vast cultural treasures linked to the glorious Gandhara Civilization that flourished in the country's northwestern areas. It was here that a sculptural representation of the Buddha first emerged during the rule of Indo-Greek kings who finally embraced Buddhism. The statues - inspired by Greco-Roman art – became an inspiration for Buddhist art in Sri Lanka and other Asian Buddhist countries. Buddhist monks and scholars who traveled to Central Asia, China, Korea and Japan introduced Gandhara Art to those countries.

Gandhara is an insight into the richness of the ancient civilization that remained the cradle of culture and seat of learning and legacy of the ancient world. Most of ancient India's basic philosophy, science, physics, mathematics, medicine, and grammar originated from this region where most famous specimen is the Taxila University. Named after the city where it is located, this university, the world's oldest seat of higher learning having been in existence even before the time of the Buddha and even before the Achaemanid rulers who occupied the Taxila valley in 6th- 5th century B.C. Taxila (or Takshasila), which came under the UNESCO's World Heritage List in 1980, figures prominently in Buddhist literature. The city flourished from fourth millennium B.C to the 6th Century A.D.

During Emperor Asoka's reign, the network of Buddhist monastic institutions expanded throughout the Mauryan Empire and in Sri Lanka, Kashmir, Gandhara, and the Swat Valley. Archaeological remains of stupas and monasteries established during the Mauryan period show that Buddhist centers in these regions functioned as bases for the transmission of Buddhism to Southeast Asia and Central Asia.

One of the world's best collections of Gandhara art, including statues of the Buddha and bodhisattvas are housed in the Peshawar Museum.

The statue of the fasting Buddha sculpted around 2nd century B. C. is in Pakistan's Lahore Museum – the oldest and one of the best in Pakistan. It was brought to Sri Lanka during Vesak Month two years ago (May 12, 2006) and exhibited at 'Temple Trees' where President Mahinda Rajapaksa, the First Lady and members of the Cabinet paid homage to the statue.

Currently, Sri Lankans visiting places of religious significance in Gandhara do so without any promotion and it is the private sector that totally handles this part of travel.

Beside Buddhism, many sacred historical places of other religions particularly Sikhism are also present in Pakistan at Hassanabdal, just 15 kms away from Taxila.

Gandhara is the earliest symbol of Buddhist culture and civilization. Sri Lanka's Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake, addressing a seminar organized in Colombo on May 17 to introduce two books written by Pakistani scholars on Buddhist Gandhara, expressed his gratitude to Pakistan for protecting and maintaining the country's Buddhist heritage.

In the words of the Nepalese Buddhist Monk, Venerable Lama Mama, "Pakistan is like an ocean rich in Buddhist treasure." (Reloaded Gandhara – 2008)