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A case for Gandhara

Updated February 19, 2015

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The writer served as secretary-general of Parliamentarians for Global Action 1996-2013.
The writer served as secretary-general of Parliamentarians for Global Action 1996-2013.

GROWING up in Lahore I wondered about the gap in my history textbook between the end of Indus Valley civilisation circa 1500 BC and the invasion of Sindh by Mohammad bin Qasim circa 711 AD. In friends’ homes were signs of an Indo-Greek-Buddhist civilisation flourishing in those 2,000 years — peaceful stone figures swathed in togas with Apollo’s features and dangling ears. One was told “these are Gandharas found on our lands”.

My father filled in the blanks thanks to the Gymkhana library on the Gandhara Mauryan dynasty and on the Buddha himself. On a visit with him to the Lahore museum I was transfixed by the Fasting Buddha — the dedication of this prince giving up earthly pleasures for enlightenment. His faith spread across Asia, but disappeared from most of South Asia.

Today in the region of ‘Gandhara’, Gandhara itself is missing from school curricula while museums and archaeological sites have been looted, their contents ending up in more drawing rooms at home and abroad. Restoring, preserving and showcasing this historic legacy is key to a stronger international image for Pakistan and to a cohesive national identity.

At the recent farewell reception in New York for Pakistan ambassador Masood Khan, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, whose mother is a devout Buddhist, stated how critical a link the Buddha was for Pakistan’s relations with Korea. “I was also deeply touched that [ambassador Khan] helped arrange a visit [for me] to the archaeological site in Taxila [in 2013]. … Historians claim that the monk who spread Buddhist teachings throughout the Korean peninsula back in the 4th century — Monk Maranantha — hailed from present-day Pakistan. Three centuries later, a Korean Buddhist monk, Hyecho … travelled through the Punjab, including Taxila. …His tales about his journey are widely read in Korea to this day.”


The gaps in our history textbooks must be filled.


Recognising the importance of Gandhara as a link across Asia, former UN ambassador Hussain Haroon overcame insurmountable odds to help bring the first Gandhara exhibit from Lahore and Taxila museums to the Asia Society, New York. A digital catalogue of the exhibit “was given to both Lahore and Taxila museums; I also hosted an annual celebratory dinner on Buddha day at Pakistan House with other Asian diplomats,” he said.

The federal government’s National Action Plan includes registration and regulation of religious schools. However, it does not include an equally important reform of secondary school curricula — both public and private. Youth is easily radicalised if they have gaps in their collective memory of who they are as a people. As Masood Khan underscored “For de-radicalisation, our own collective narrative should be so strong — we have a long civilisation on record.”

Restoration faces an additional challenge — the 18th Amendment which devolved education to the provinces. Under the federal legislative list are now standards in institutions for higher education, research, scientific and technical institutions. A countrywide core curriculum and central board examination would have provided national coherence; unfortunately, Anjum Iftikhar, principal, Lahore Grammar School, Cantt branch, confirms the Balkanisation of school education.

Politics in the name of religion is already being played with textbook purges in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. While in countries such as the United States and India, religion-inspired changes to the states’ science curricula are beginning, India retains federal control through the Central Board examinations transferring credits nationally. According to Prof Karthik Muralidharan at the University of California, “Education remains on the concurrent list, the central government having the power to override textbook approval.”

Standardisation of texts and testing across the country with an inclusive history builds a collective identity and national pride. In January 2005, I organised the first event of a UN HIV/AIDS Asian parliamentary series in Islamabad. Suggestions of taking foreign delegates for lunch to Murree were rejected by the late Dr Noor Jehan Panezai, who was chair of the organising committee.“Mountains are everywhere” she scoffed. Her eyes lit up at the name of Taxila; with her inimitable chuckle she said, “I know just who should lead the tour.”

An initially hesitant state minister of culture, sports and youth affairs, Muhammad Ali Durrani, was the host at Taxila. The ministry’s lead archaeologist gave the delegates, many of whom were Buddhist, a detailed lecture tour. Sri Lanka’s health minister was among those in tears to see the place of the Buddha’s holy relics up close. At the end of the tour, minister Durrani declared to the media that the Buddha was also a great son of Pakistan!

The first step towards restoring this collective narrative is to fill the historical gaps in our textbooks and to refill our museums. The world’s great museums have private collections on loan, digital exhibition catalogues on their websites. The Gandhara artifacts, public and private, should be in our textbooks and museums where Pakistan’s schoolchildren and general public can see them as our own.

The writer served as secretary-general of Parliamentarians for Global Action 1996-2013.

Published in Dawn February 19th , 2015

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