By PKBalachandran / Daily Mirror
Colombo, November 30: The remains of the Buddhist civilization of Gandhara in Pakistan are a sight to see, not only for Buddhist pilgrims but also for art lovers. Towering stupas with intricate and realistic carvings depicting various events from the Buddha’s life and past births abound in the Swat Valley in northwestern Pakistan on the border with Afghanistan.
It is amazing that a declared Islamic country, where idols are seen haram (forbidden), has carefully preserved these masterpieces, against all odds. Fortunately, the icons escaped the Islamization campaign of President Zia ul Haq (1978-1988).
In 2006-2007, when the Taliban banned the conservation of these objects because even the existence of idols among Muslims was “haram”, President Pervez Musharraf negotiated the withdrawal of the Taliban from his destructive plan. In 2016, when Pakistani archaeologists discovered an ancient site in Bhamala, Swat in which there was a 3 rd that was 48 feet long. In the century CE, the statue of the ‘sleeping Buddha’, Imran Khan, then a leader of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (and chairman of the Pakistani party Tehreek-i-Insaaf) said: âIt is a World Heritage Site and because of this, people will come for religious tourism. The majority of Pakistani people want such sites restored.
Besides the government, Pakistanis have also helped preserve and protect Buddhist sites from depredation by the Taliban, idol thieves and smugglers. There is the case of Osman Ulasyar who prevented local boys from playing cricket in a field full of 1st century CE Buddhist stupas (burial sites containing relics). Then, at his own expense, he built a 300 foot wall to protect the stupas.
Documentary on Gandhara
The Pakistani High Commission in Sri Lanka and the Sri Lankan Ministry of Buddha Sasana recently produced a documentary on the civilization of Gandhara. The documentary, of Hollywood quality in both its size and its technical finesse, was produced by a mixed team of Pakistanis and Sri Lankans and was launched by Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa. The Sri Lankan partner in the production was Kaushalya Wickramasinghe of Siddhivinayak Cine Arts (Private) Limited, a filmmaker trained in India. The manager was Mateen Saherai from Pakistan and the production controller Sajjad Mohommad was a Pakistani from UK. Fri. Agrahera Kassapa Thero was the senior content advisor, and the concept and script were prepared by the project’s consulting director, Vidyajothi Prof. Nimal Silva. The famous Lankan manufacturer Chandran Rutnam was an advisor and some large Lankan companies were among the sponsors.
Significantly, there were no reservations among Pakistani collaborators about the display of the Hindu Siddhivinayak Cine Arts logo which was an image of Lord Ganesha (or Gana Deviyo in Sinhala). The commentary did not obscure the belief that the Hindu gods, Indra and Brahma, had supported the Buddha from his birth until his death.
The documentary took viewers on a continuous journey through various Gandharan heritage sites. Key events in the life of the Buddha were effectively narrated, with the sculptures providing appropriate visuals. The panoramic views of the stupas of the picturesque Swat Valley were breathtaking.
In the Gandhara stupas, the stories of the Buddha’s Jataka (birth) and his previous incarnations are described with “imaginative detail and with a warm feeling,” comments Dr. Ihsan H. Nadiem, author of Gandhara Buddhist. Some of the stories depicted in the sculptures are: Dipankara Jataka; Visvantara Jataka; Dream of Queen Mahamaya; Interpretation of the dream; Birth of Siddhartha; Seven stages of the child; Horoscope; Marriage of Siddhartha and Yasodhara; Life at the Palace; Siddhartha’s First Meditation; Waiver; Great departure ; Farewell to Chandaka and Kanthaka; First meeting with the Brahmins; Fast for salvation; Temptation and attack by the host of Mara; Great Lights; First Sermon; Miracle of Sravasti; Death of the Buddha; Incineration; and the distribution of the relics of the Buddha. The art of Gandhara has recreated life in detail.
Objects of daily use such as beds and vases, etc. can be clearly seen in it. Gandharan art provides insight into all aspects of life in the region during this time.
Gandhara finds the mention in 5 th. The Greek accounts of the century BC. In 327-326 BC it was conquered by Alexander the Great who introduced Greek art. In 321 BC, the region came under the influence of Chandragupta Maurya of Magadha in Bihar. His grandson, the Buddhist Emperor Asoka, brought Buddhism to Gandhara. However, Gandhara’s Buddhist civilization reached its peak under ruler Kushan Kanishka, who came to power between AD 78 and AD 144. A convert to Buddhism, Kanishka built countless stupas containing relics of the Buddha and Buddhist scholars. âFascinating works of architecture and art were produced in Gandhara under Kanishka,â says Nadiem.
âIn the second century BC. The remains of a Zoroastrian temple from this period still exist in Jandial, directly north of Taxila, âsaid Brigadier (R) Agha Ahmad Gul, former vice-chancellor of the University of Balochistan. Unlike today’s religious groups who take each other by the throat, the people of Gandhara lived in harmony despite ethnic and religious variations, ânoted Brig.Gul.
Gandharan civilization should be a model for today’s countries where intolerance is growing, Dr Abdul Samad, director of archeology and museums at Khyber Pakhtunwala, told Reuters. âGandhara was the center of religious harmony. It is here that we find the Greek, Roman, Persian, Hindu and Buddhist gods in a single panel, âhe stressed.
However, in 460 AD, an invasion of the White Huns crippled civilization. Subsequently, waves of iconoclastic Islamic looters from the West and Northwest looted and established a new order. Yet vary many valuables have survived.
On Gandhara art, Nadiem says that in light of the contacts of the Kushan rulers with the West, there has been a development of a style quite distinct from the mainstream Indian tradition and in some ways prone to the Western form, although the subject throughout remained local and Buddhist.
âThe Kushans frequented foreign artists probably because they were foreigners themselves. They could not therefore be taken into the fold of Hinduism. Their status has led them to embrace Buddhism and favor foreign culture, âadds Nadiem.
According to the sergeant. Agha Ahmad Gul: âAlexander’s stay in Gandhara was short (327 BC), but he left a large population of Greeks in all the regions he conquered, including Gandhara. Craftsmen, soldiers, and other followers were encouraged to marry and blend with the locals, bringing Greek civilization to the conquered regions that affected their history for centuries to come.
One of the greatest contributions of Gandhara Buddhist art is the depiction of the Buddha as we now conceptualize him, showing Greco-Roman influence. Nadiem says that the Buddha was first depicted in human form (and not just symbolically) in the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD following the emergence of devotional Buddhism during the time of the âGreat Buddhist Councilâ of Kanishka. And it is also in Gandhara that there is the only statue in the world of a fasting Buddha.
Pakistan assiduously uses its Buddhist heritage to forge cultural ties with Buddhist countries and also to promote religious tourism. Buddhist relics were brought to Sri Lanka for display and trips were organized for Buddhist monks to visit Gandhara. And now a Gandhara documentary has been made.
Currently the images and relics of the Buddha are safe in Pakistan and the museums there are well maintained. But iconoclastic Islamist groups inspired by the Afghan Taliban or ISIS do exist and could strike at any time. The attempt to make Pakistan a tolerant multicultural country could suffer a serious setback if the Islamic fanatics are left unchecked.