A glimpse of Gandhara Buddhist heritage

By Janaka Perera, Asian Tribune, June 7, 2011

Colombo, Sri Lanka -- The exhibition in Sri Lanka of Sacred Relics of the Buddha and other Buddhist artifacts from Pakistan during this Poson season (June) should widen the horizon of ordinary Buddhists here on the great Gandhara Buddhist civilization.

Although many of them are aware of the Buddhist heritage of other Asian Buddhist countries, not many Sri Lankans – even of they have heard of the name Gandhara – know where exactly it is and that it was seat of Buddhist civilization in the Indian subcontinent.

To Sri Lankan Buddhists these artifacts are of religious value while to Pakistanis they are of archaeological importance, since they are part of that country’s pre-Islamic heritage. The ancient Gandhara kingdom which stretched across parts of present-day Pakistan and Afghanistan was a vital commercial center for West Asians at the time. It was here that a sculptural representation of the Buddha first emerged during the rule of Bactrian-Greek kings who finally embraced Buddhism which had spread far and wide during the reign of Emperor Dharmasoka.

The statues – inspired by Greco-Roman art – became an inspiration for Buddhist art in Sri Lanka and other Asian Buddhist countries.

Ten years ago the senseless destruction of the Bamiyan Buddha statues drew the world’s attention to the Gandhara civilization. These statues however were only a part of the ancient heritage that included many other pieces of rare works of Buddhist art, some of which have been either destroyed or damaged over the centuries.

During Indian subcontinent’s pre-colonial era it was Mogul Emperor Akbar the Great (1556 to 1605) –whose unprecedented kindness, compassion and reverence for many religions other than his own Islamic faith – that largely helped to preserve many of the ancient Buddhist monuments.

The well-guarded Taxila museum, which is the first stop for any tourist, is an ideal place to visit and get an idea about the archaeological significance of the area. The Museum is located 35 km from Islamabad on the Grand Trunk Road to Peshawar. There the almost century-old Pehawar Museum displays the world’s largest ancient art collections depicting Buddha’s life. The unique stone sculptures tell a complete story of the Buddha from birth to parinibbana – all in episodes – including Queen Maya’s dream, interpretation of the dream, birth of Prince Siddhartha, bathing scene, seven steps, marriage, palace life, renunciation, great departure, ascetic life, fasting first meditation, attaining enlightenment, first sermon, death scene, cremation of the Buddha, distribution of relics and building stupas on the relics.

The Gandharan arts pieces in this museum can be dated back to the 2nd Century AD to the 5th Century AD, except a few Hindu scriptures which can be dated from the 9th Century AD to the 11th Century AD. The main Gandhara collection of Peshawar Museum came from excavations of the Archaeological Survey of India, Frontier Circle from 1921 to 1941 and donations from the public and purchases, according to the museum authorities.

In Taxila city most of the sites – dating back 600 BC to 500 CE – are located around the Taxila Museum. It houses one of the best collections of Gandhara Buddhist art in Pakistan; a display of artifacts detailing the daily life of the inhabitants of ancient Taxila, and a exact model of the whole valley showing all the archaeological sites. The ancient teachers of Taxila – known as disapamok – figure prominently in Buddhist literature.

The many Buddhist artifacts recovered in excavations at Gandhara – now on display at this museum – include carvings depicting the various aspects of Buddha’s life story including his birth as Prince Siddhartha, Enlightenment and Parinibbana, like those displayed at the Peshawar Museum. There are 4000 objects displayed, including stone, stucco, terracotta, silver, gold, iron and semiprecious stones. Mainly the display consists of objects from the period 600 B.C to 500 AD.

Buddhist, Hindu and Jain cults are well represented through these objects discovered from three ancient cities and more than two dozen Buddhist stupas and monasteries and Greek temples.

The museum’s six galleries present the material subject wise. Among the exhibits is a complete stupa from the Buddhist monastery of Mohra Moradu, stucco sculptures from Mohra Moradan, big stucco Buddha heads, relic caskets, a sleeping Buddha from Bhamala monastery and an Aramaic inscription of Emperor Piyadasi Asoka (Dharmasoka).

During the emperor’s reign, the network of Buddhist monastic institutions expanded throughout the Mauryan Empire and to Sri Lanka. 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 the Buddha Dhamma to Southeast Asia and Central Asia. Much of the early destruction to the Buddhist sites in Gandhara were caused during the invasions of the White Huns who came wave after wave from the middle of the 5th century A.D. and soon became rulers of what is now Pakistan.

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 five 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.

The Lahore Museum, popularly known as Lahore Ajaib Ghar is the oldest in Pakistan. First established in 1864 under the name Industrial Arts Museum of the Punjab its collections represent the cultural history of the country from earliest known to modern times. Some of the museum’s major collections were divided between Pakistan and India at the time of Partition resulting in awkward gaps which the museum administration is trying to fill by fresh acquisitions.

One section of this museum is the Hindu, Buddhists and Jaina gallery which is divded into various sections that display Hindu, Buddhist, Jaina and Tantric art from Pakistan, India, Nepal and Myanmar.

Today the Gandhara sculptures occupy a prominent place in the museums of England, France, Germany, USA, Japan, Korea, China, India and Afghanistan, together with many private collections world over. Buddhism left a monumental and rich legacy of art and architecture in Pakistan. Despite the vagaries of centuries, the Gandhara region preserved a lot of the heritage in craft and art.

It is the duty of the Pakistan Government to protect its ancient Buddhist heritage from vandals and extremists and preserve it for posterity. When the country’s security situation improves it would no doubt give the government a better opportunity to attract Buddhist pilgrims and other visitors to see the sites.

During Gandhara Week 2007 – 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.”