Five days in Gandhara: The Other Side of Pakistan

Features Issue 57 Jul, 2010
Text and Photo By Dinesh Rai

One doesn’t often get a call from the Embassy of Pakistan. It was an invitation to the “2nd Gandhara Week” promising a five-day trip to the legendary Gandhara region in North West Pakistan. On the 22nd of April, with twenty minutes left for curfew time, I rushed to the airport to catch flight PK 268 to Karachi. Leaving behind a nation reeling under the longest general strike and incessant curfews, we flew away with a tinge of guilt in our subconscious. Our only justification being, “We would have stayed home and watched the action on the telly anyway.” But we wouldn’t be home when history was unfolding.

2nd Gandhara Week 2006
They say traveling changes one’s perspectives. Our trip to Pakistan on the invitation of the Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation (PTDC) was an eye opener. In fact, the five of us who represented Nepal returned home enlightened. On the opening day of the “Gandhara Week” at Islamabad (24th- 30th April ’06), the renowned and learned Professor Fidaullah Sehrai stunned us when during his welcoming speech he said, “Padmashambhava, or Guru Rinpoche, who introduced Buddhism to Tibet was born in Swat, which lies in present day Pakistan.” He had us exchanging skeptical glances a little later when he informed us, “The first images of the Buddha’s likeness were made in Gandhara, Pakistan.” The two revelations were enough to make the trip worthwhile. The great professor was right after all, but we were in for bigger surprises once the tour began.

“Gandhara Week” is an annual event organized surprisingly, to promote Buddhist tourism to Pakistan, as Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, Minister of Information (he was to become Railways Minister the very next day) explained why, “Tourism is one of the biggest industries in the world.....we don’t get even 10% of South Asia’s tourism revenue.” 40 delegates from seven Asian countries including Nepal were shown a splendid time. The land that is today the Islamic Republic of Pakistan was once the cradle of Buddhist Civilization that gave birth to the famous Gandhara Art, known all over the world and even mentioned in the Rigveda. Today, museums around the globe display artifacts that belong to and represent the glory of the Gandhara Civilization and there is still a great demand for such works of art. Gandhara Art flourished from the 1st Cent BCE to the 5th Cent CE and lingered on to the 7th Cent. Buddhism spread to the north of Gandhara and to the far east. Along with it, Gandhara Art reached China, Korea and Japan.

Gandhara, the ‘Land of Fragrance’, was a place of learning and worship where people came from far and wide to seek education. The Jatakas (stories related to the many incarnations of the Buddha) speak of how the kings of old sent their sons for education to Taxila (once a part of Gandhara). Sir William Meyer in his ‘Lectures 1940-41’ said, “Taxila was a seat of advanced studies and not elementary education. Its students are spoken of as being admitted there at the age of 16 or when they “Came of age”. Among the subjects were three Vedas and eighteen Sippas or Arts. Among them were Archery, Hunting, ‘Elephant Love’ appropriate for princes. It was also known for special schools of Law, Medicine and Military Science.” 

Our tour in the Gandhara region began from Taxila (once known as Takshashila), a place we had all heard about, which lies in the North West Frontier Province of Pakistan. (The other provinces are the Punjab, Sind and Baluchistan.) We had already seen an impressive collection of Buddhist artifacts in the Lahore Museum, but that was just the tip of the iceberg. Every museum we visited from Taxila to Swat to Peshawar, was replete with Buddhist images in stone, stucco, terracotta or bronze.  The Taxila Museum, which lies 35 km from Islamabad has a vast collection of Gandhara Art. Director of archeology, Dr. Mohammad Ashraf Khan in his briefing said, “Over the years, we have discovered over 500,000 objects from the various civilizations of the past ranging from terracotta, tools, and coins to more sophisticated sculptures. Our museums can only display around 10,000 objects, and so every couple of years, we change the display.”

We then visited the ruins of stupas and monasteries that once stood proud in a Buddhist kingdom. The Julian’s Remains (also written as Jaulian) is a classic example of Gandhara Art with votive stupas (these are smaller than the main stupa, decorated on the base with sculptures in relief), images of Buddha in stone and a well-designed monastery. The monastery once had meditation cells, classrooms and a refectory all well defined and still discernable among the ruins after all these years. Here also is the famous Buddha image with a hole in the navel. Once monks placed their fingers in the hole while praying, but today it is believed your wishes will come true if you make a wish instead. (A Nepali visitor once asked for a son and promised to name him Siddharth. Her wish was fulfilled and she kept her promise.) We then went to see the ruins of Sirkap as well as the rock edicts of Ashoka (also known as ‘Dharmaraja’) at Shahbaz Garhi [The Mauryan Emperor Ashoka the Great (273-236 BCE) conquered a vast region of the sub-continent, but later repented and converted to Buddhism. He was one of the most influential individuals in the propagation of Buddhism. He built thousands of stupas and numerous rock edicts, which can still be read today.] Professor Sehrai explained how his people (the Pushtoons) pronounce it as ‘Garha’ and that “The Ashoka edicts are in the Kharoshthi script, written from right to left. Through his rock edicts, Ashoka gave the citizens a set of rules to follow: how to respect elders, how to treat animals kindly, etc.” In the evening we drove up to the beautiful, green and peaceful surroundings of Saidu Sharif (258 km from Islamabad), the present administrative capital of Swat. Here PTDC has  its own motel.

Swat (the old Uddiyana)
The Swat valley was one of the important centers of Buddhism, which spread in the vast region both sides of the Indus. Gandhara stretched west of the Indus to Peshawar valley, to the hills of Buner, Swat in the north, including Dir and Bajaur. Its capital was once at Pushkalavati (today known as Charsadda) and later in Peshawar. The eastern boundary extended to Taxila and  even as far as Jhelum east of the Indus while in the west it is said to have reached Bamiyan in Afghanistan. We were now in the region known as Swat, the birthplace of Padmasanbhava and a great center of Mahayana Buddhism when it was known as Uddiyana. Swat is also believed to be the birthplace of Tantric Buddhism or Vajrayana, which became popular in Nepal.

The next morning we were driven to the Swat Museum. Here we admired the massive footprints of the Buddha on a stone slab that was brought from the excavations of Tirat. The first survey in the Swat valley was carried out in 1926 by the renowned explorer, Aurel Stein. The museum has in recent years, received much aid from the Japanese government. In the museum, we also noticed images of Buddha with elaborate headdresses, moustache and some with a halo. These are unusual depictions of the Buddha for someone from Nepal. Moreover, the Buddha is covered from shoulder down in drapes with deep folds reminiscent of Roman sculptures (see pg. 51). On our way back from the museum, we halted at Mingora Bazaar and here some of us took the opportunity to mingle with the local Pushtoon people who have remarkable European features. Alexander the Great from Greece conquered the Parthians of Swat in 327 BC. It is said that many of his troops remained behind when the great Greek emperor marched his troops back to Babylon where he died on 11th June 323 BCE.

Shingardhar Stupa, Dir Museum (Chakdara) & Takht-i-Bahi
We left Saidu Sharif soon after breakfast and on our way stopped at the Shringardar Stupa (see pg.47), an ancient ruin that lies near a small village called Ghaligai. This large stupa was identified by Col. Deane and Aurel Stein with the famous stupa built by King Uttarasena. Legend has it that the stupa was built at the spot where the white elephant that carried the king’s share of Buddha’s relics halted. Here the elephant is said to have suddenly dropped down and dying, changed into a rock. The king had the stupa erected beside this legendary rock. Huien Tsang visited this spot in the 7th Cent AD. Our next stop was the Dir Museum in Chakdara (217 km from Islamambad) where Professor Sehrai informed us, “In the late 1960s, rampant smuggling of artifacts was the order of the day and there were excavations everywhere. The university of Peshawar was requested to excavate and I was assigned here. The Frontier government decided to start a museum and so Dir Museum came into existence.” This museum houses more than 1,444 Gandharan pieces in all. A unique miniature representation of Maya Devi’s dream catches your eye. Here, western influences are also evident, with scenes of merry making, dancing, etc. But a vast majority of the antiquities represent pre-birth stories on Dipankara, Maitreya, Amara, Syame and Visvatara jatakas and the life of the historical Buddha. The prized possession of the museum is however, a sacred relic of the Buddha, zealously guarded and kept safely in a tiny casket housed in a circular box (see pg. 53).

After lunch we got off the bus and climbed up countless steps under the scorching April sun to reach one of the most beautiful sites, Takht-i-Bahi in Mardan District (54 km. from Peshawar). Dating back to the 2nd-5th Cent CE, this has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site (see pg.48) . Although a ruin, much can be made out of its architectural splendor. With the guidance of Professor Sehrai, we could discern a court of mini stupas, monastery, assembly hall and dark and cool underground chambers. He went on to explain, “These monasteries were built on hills away from farmland and the sites were always well chosen. The monks held fortnightly as well as emergency meetings here, and people of other religions were also allowed to attend the discourses. Their downfall came when the funds that they received from patrons dried up. The monks then slowly came down from the monastery and mingled with the general public.”

By 4:15 pm, we were in Peshawar (160 km from Islamabad), the first capital of Gandhara where the Kushans ruled from in the 1st Cent CE. It was then known as Pushpura and the greatest of Kushan rulers was Kanishka, under whom Buddhism enjoyed its golden period. We headed straight for the Peshawar Museum, which was established in 1906. Professor Sehrai served as Director here for 16 years from 1972 to 1988. According to the professor, “This was a dance hall during the British Raj and today it houses most of the Gandhara Art excavated from Takht-i-Bahi and Sahri Bahlol.” There are large images of Buddha with a moustache and halo. According to Dr Ihsan Ali, Director of the museum, 2,578 Buddhist sites have been found in the Gandhara region and the Peshawar Museum has the largest collection of Gandhara Art in the world (4,247 artifacts, 936 on display and 3,311 waiting in stores). Here too the theme is the pre-birth stories and the life of Buddha. Incidentally, Aurel Stein was the first curator of this museum in 1906.

The last stupa we encountered was the Saphola Stupa, near Landikotal on the way to the Khyber Pass. It was just a passing glimpse (managed to get a shot though) as we rattled down the tracks on the famous Khyber Steam Safari, a railway built by the British between 1908-1913. This was a thrilling trip for the 40 odd delegates although it reminded us more of the British Raj than Gandhara, but what a privilege! We chugged through the tribal Pathan region where houses look more like fortresses, and wound up our tour with a lunch at the famous Officers’ Mess of the Khyber Rifles (another privilege no one should miss, if invited) near Torkham (Pak-Afghan Border).

With the closing ceremony at the Marriot Hotel, Islamabad on 29th  April, it was time to say goodbye. It had been an extraordinary eight days with five glorious days spent exploring the historical sites of an ancient civilization called ‘Gandhara’! — Undoubtedly, an unforgettable experience.

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