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FOOTPRINTS: THE MYTH OF THE PRESENT

January 29, 2017

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THE stupa at Sirkap, Taxila, sits on a hill outside the main city, alongside a monastery. The city is over 2,000 years old and was once the centre of the Gandhara civilisation. Alexander the Great ruled here for a short time, evidenced on some structures by carvings of the Greek titan Atlas holding the world on his back. The city is now a Unesco-protected site and work is under way to restore the Kunala Stupa, with the Punjab Department of Archaeology and Museums initiating a Rs1.1 million renovation project here.

When I visited, though, work at Sirkap was moving at a languorous pace with no labourers present at the actual stupa on the hill. When those nearby were asked what they were doing, workers simply said, “We were told to dig here.” They did not know why. Further on, it was evident that a fire had been set to burn either the grass or some other waste, leaving black ash amidst the ruins. It may be that conservation work is a challenge here but Taxila and some other historical sites in Pakistan have of late been promoted as a way of establishing the diversity portfolio of the government and the country.

Such sites are meant to transport the traveller back into the past. This is the way they are marketed worldwide and Taxila is no exception. Visitors expect to feel as though they are walking back through the civilisations, breathing air before industry, touching bricks carved by hand, seeing something that will never be replicated. It is a form of escapism from the world we live in — to walk in one that has long ceased to exist. It is also a way of connecting the past to the present.

The Unesco description for Taxila reads: “From the ancient Neolithic tumulus of Saraikala to the ramparts of Sirkap … and the city of Sirkush … Taxila illustrates the different stages of development of a city on the Indus that was alternately influenced by Persia, Greece and Central Asia and which, from the 5th century BC to the 2nd century AD, was an important Buddhist centre of learning.” This is the world one expects to walk in when visiting Taxila, a journey through time in a place where multiple cultures met and left their imprints — a place where one can experience the ancient history of South Asia from which Pakistan has emerged.

A guide at the site told us about the how the structures looked when they were built, how tall some of the Buddhist statues were, and the influence of Greek civilisation on some of the structures. It was interesting to be able to touch the ruins, and climb the steps of the ancient stupa, which made for a more intimate experience than at other, more protected travel destinations. We were told that only 10 per cent of the site has been properly excavated, that one of the stupas was the site from which some of Buddha’s ashes were recovered, and that the city was the capital of the Gandhara civilisation as well as having the oldest university in the world. The guide then offered to sell us coins found at the site, much like the ones on display at the Taxila museum. A booming fake artefact industry is said to be flourishing at Taxila, with unsuspecting tourists in search of a literal piece of history as the target.

In Pakistan, difficulties are often faced in creating worlds that signify a history that is different from the linear trajectory of an Islamic nation. Given the obsession to reimagine history on this side of the Indus as beginning with the arrival of Muhammad bin Qasim, the recasting of Jinnah as an Islamic figurehead, and the denial of Pakistan’s roots in cultures and practices that predate Islam — that also enjoyed a syncretic relationship with Muslim culture — where does Taxila fit into the imagination of this nation? What is the significance of such sites, that are spread throughout the country?

“Taxila has been re-appropriated as purely a Buddhist site,” says author and cultural critic Haroon Khalid. “However, we are completely silent about the Hindu past of Taxila that was also as important as its Buddhist heritage.” Khalid argues that Taxila does not unhinge the overall narrative of Pakistan being a separate nation from India as long as it is disconnected from its earlier Hindu roots. And this appears to have been a concerted project on the part of its caretakers. While the guides do mention Hindu rulers as a prelude to Ashoka, the information boards at Taxila make no mention of a Hindu heritage. Rather perplexingly, neither does the Unesco website description, not even in mentioning that Taxila played a central role in the development of the Sanskrit language.

Walking amidst the ruins, taking in the history that is fed to visitors through signboards, guides, and museum curation, one does not always realise that the history preserved at these sites is not representative of what actually existed thousands of years ago. It is more a product of how the nation chooses to reinvent the past to serve its present narrative.

Published in Dawn, January 29th, 2017