TRULY is it said, reality is stranger than fiction — especially here in Pakistan. Since 1894, when it was donated upon being discovered, the Gandhara-era statue of the ‘Fasting Buddha’ has been considered the jewel of the Lahore Museum. Images of it adorn postcards and newsreels, and proud citizens make it a point to take visitors to see it as an indication that whatever else the country may be, a cultural wasteland it is not. This statue, priceless in terms of historical significance, has for a long time had a crack on the left arm. Investigations by this paper, upon receiving a tip-off, have confirmed an unbelievable story: back in April, 2012, the crack widened while being cleaned and the statue was given over to the museum laboratory’s tender ministrations. But, instead of the scientific, delicate and professional handling that an artefact of this stature demanded, an attempt was made to fix it by applying the common adhesive epoxy, which remains shiningly evident on the statue’s surface and has caused irreparable harm. The trail of destruction isn’t hard to trace, given the standards at the moment: the current lab technician worked earlier as a gallery attendant and driver, while the lab conservationist used to be a peon.
What can be made of this but the utter disregard Pakistanis tend to show towards history and culture? This is hardly the only example of this mindset. It turns out that 2012 was an inauspicious year for Gandhara-era artefacts. That summer, the police intercepted a large consignment of such relics that had apparently been about to be smuggled out of the country. But during the recovery process, the police ended up damaging many of them, unprepared perhaps for their weight and certainly unmindful of their value. In the case of the Lahore Museum, the qualified chemist employed at the lab was retired in 2009. No replacement has been found. This is unsurprising, given the importance attached to archaeology and history in the country.
Published in Dawn, June 27th, 2014