Diplomacy, Heritage, and Cultural Pride: Reviving the Buddhist Legacy of Islamic Pakistan
Predominantly Islamic Pakistan is not the first country that comes to mind when one mentions Buddhism. Many archaeologists, historians, and Buddhists are aware of the fact that Pakistan’s Buddhist heritage actually flourished from the 2nd century BCE until the 10th century CE. The province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, along with the Swat Valley, Taxila, Buner, and Bajaur regions, once comprised the ancient kingdom of Gandhara where Buddhism existed side-by-side with Jainism, Hinduism, and Zoroastrianism. Gandhara was particularly famed for pioneering one of the earliest schools of Buddhist art thanks to its Indo-Greek culture.
In recent years, the country has made the savvy move of reaching out to nations with large Buddhist populations—China, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Singapore, and South Korea—to build bilateral relations on the foundation of a shared spiritual heritage.
Royal Buddhist ties
At a meeting on 13 January with Suchart Liengsaengthong, the Thai ambassador to Pakistan, Abdul Ghafoor Khan, managing director of Pakistan Tourism Development Corp. (PTDC), stated that numerous Buddhist sites in Pakistan are of great interest to Thais, the majority of whom are Theravada Buddhists. He also remarked that the improvement of law and order in Pakistan has attracted more Thai tourists over last two years. He said that Pakistan needed to learn from Thailand’s booming tourism industry, which attracts over 33 million tourists each year.
PTDC plans to sign a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with Thai Airways International to promote tourism in Pakistan. Pakistan is also in the process of inviting Buddhist monks from Thailand and arranging trips for tour operators and travel agents. Pakistan will invite four chief monks as guests to whom the PTDC will extend local hospitality. Abdul Ghafoor Khan said he has chosen the slogan, “Truly Paradise Pakistan.”
Other plans in discussion at the meeting included a Buddhist conference for scholars and tourist operators, and an exhibition of the Buddha’s Thai relics to attract Buddhist tourists to see the Buddhist sites of Taxila, Thakt-i-Bhai, and Swat. Both countries will introduce packages to promote mutual tourism. “We will also provide links to the Thailand Embassy [sic] in Pakistan and Embassy of Pakistan in Thailand on our website. PTDC will invites [sic] travel writers to project Ghandhara heritage and highlight tourist attractions of Pakistan to enhance the soft image of Pakistan in Thailand,” said Abdul Ghafoor Khan. (The News) Thailand has pledged assistance for the restoration and maintenance of Gandhara archaeological sites in Taxila and Swat.
Rediscovered ties between Old Ceylon and Gandhara
Sri Lanka and Pakistan have been quietly building Buddhist ties since the 2000s. In 2006, the Pakistan High Commission launched Sri Lankan professor emeritus J. B. Dissanayake’s Sinhala translation of Pakistani academic Ahmed Hassan Dani’s Gandhara Art in Pakistan (1992). The following year, the Pakistan High Commission had M. S. Hussain translate Pakistani musicologist and archaeologist Ihsan H. Nadiem’s book Buddhist Gandhara—History, Art and Architecture (2003). In 2009, Seema Baloch, the then-Pakistani high commissioner to Sri Lanka, set up a project to rediscover Pakistan’s ancient links to Buddhism, which included dialogue with Sri Lankan specialists.
The Pakistan High Commission’s press attaché Muhammad Daud Ehtisham was well-known in diplomatic circles for promoting Buddhist and cultural ties between Pakistan and Sri Lanka between 2010 and 2016. In 2010, at the request of former Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa, former Pakistani president Asif Zardari sent Buddhist relics from Gandhara for exhibiting in Sri Lanka. In June 2011, to mark the 2,600th anniversary of the Buddha's enlightenment, the government of Pakistan passed two Buddhist relics to Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan government organized a month-long exhibition of these relics before presenting them to the monks of Bodhigyana Kapuwa temple in the suburb of Kaduwela near Colombo.
During an official visit in January 2016, Nawaz Sharif visited the holiest Buddhist shrine in Sri Lanka, the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic at Kandy. In May of the same year, by invitation of the Pakistani government, a 43-member delegation of Sri Lankan ministers, monks, scholars, and journalists visited Pakistan to attend the first Pakistani Vesak Festival at Taxila.
To celebrate Vesak last year, Pakistan sent to Sri Lanka two sacred bone relics of the Buddha in a golden casket and a reliquary, all of which were from a collection at Pakistan’s Taxila Museum. These objects were displayed publically in a series of exhibitions at temples across the island nation. Sri Lankan president Maithripala Sirisena and prime minster Ranil Wickramasinghe held an inauguration ceremony at Temple Trees (the prime minister’s official residence in Colombo) in the presence of monks, scholars, and dignitaries from Pakistan.
South Korea’s debt to Pakistan
In March 2016, Pakistan’s Tourism Ministry and PTDC jointly hosted an international gathering to showcase Gandharan culture and treasures. The South Korean delegates paid particular tribute to Buddhism’s diffusion into Korea by a Gandharan monk named Maranatha in 384 CE. The UNESCO World Heritage-listed Seokguram Grotto, part of Bulguksa Temple in Gyeongju, South Korea’s North Gyeongsang Province, is said to have been inspired by Gandharan art. The posture of the Korean gilt-bronze sculpture “Maitreya in Meditation” (National Treasure No. 83) is also thought to derive from Gandharan images. At a press conference held at the Pakistani embassy in South Korea on 9 November 2015, Pakistani ambassador to South Korea Zahid Nasrullah Khan said Pakistan wanted to build Buddhist cultural bridges with the Korean people.
China and Singapore help to project Pakistan’s Buddhist image
In September 2012, the Pakistan High Commission and the Singapore Buddhist Federation jointly organized a seminar titled “Buddhism in Pakistan and China” to re-establish the shared Buddhist heritage of Silk Road arts. This would be done through Pakistani-Singaporean cultural exchanges. At the event, Dr. Ashraf and Dr. Ghani of the Taxila Institute of Asia Civilization at Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad, invited the Singapore Buddhist College to establish a linkage program with Taxila Institute.
On 13 February this year, the governments of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and China’s Shaanxi Province met to discuss sustainable bilateral development under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor project. Professor Wang Jian Xin of the Silk Route Research Institution of the Northwest University of China, and Li Tao, director at Xian Centre along with other delegation members, signed an MoU with the director of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Archaeology to work together to preserve cultural heritage and Buddhist archaeological sites.
Although there is effectively no more living Buddhism in Pakistan, its incredible Buddhist legacy will continue to link it to other countries in Asia, in turn providing a firm footing to explore new relationships with Buddhist nations in the age of One Belt, One Road.
Pakistan custodian of Gandhara Buddhist civilisation: PTDC managing director (The News)
Outgoing Pakistani diplomat helped promote Buddhist ties between Pakistan and Sri Lanka (The New Indian Express)
Pakistan’s Gandhara ruins to receive Korea’s Buddhists (The Korea Herald)
Pakistan is the Land of Rich Cultural Heritage of Buddhism (Quaid-i-Azam University)
China to Help KP Preserve Archaeological Sites (Dawn)
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