While expecting tourism boom in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa this year in light of the better law and order situation, experts push the provincial government for taking measures to attract more and more people both from within the country and abroad to its tourist destinations, including the structures left behind by ancient civilisations.
Insisting the province has a lot to offer to foreign religious tourists, especially Buddhists, they call for the establishment of a desk for foreign travellers at the Peshawar Bacha Khan International Airport, provision of safe police escort to them, creation of traditional food and entertainment outlets on heritage sites, and opening of Qila Balahisar and Khyber Pass to them.
The expert say people from Buddhist countries will flood KP if they’re provided with access to Khyber Pass through Safari train as well as the required facilities, especially security.
According to them, Chinese people are interested in research, while Koreans are eager to visit holy sites related to Buddha’s reincarnation narratives.
International tour consultant Mohammad Usman Mardanvi told Dawn that several of KP’s heritage sites were directly or indirectly related to Buddha, which needed excavation, restoration and preservation for overseas pilgrims.
He said heritage sites in Ranigat, Aziz Dheri, Tharele, Takhtbhai, Tokar Darra, Ranigat and Abashib areas of Mardan, Swabi and Buner districts could interest archaeology researchers and Buddhist worshipers from Korea, Sri Lanka, Japan, Thailand, Bhutan, Nepal, Mongolia, Laos, Hong Kong, Singapore, China, Malaysia, Indonesia and some European countries.
“I strongly believe that if the KP government takes some key measures, religious tourism can help improve our world image and attract thousands of visitors from the regions, where Buddhism is practiced and respected,” he said.
Mr Mardanvi said noted among the sites directly related to Buddha’s life was Tharele, which was 20km in the north west of Mardan district between Jamal Garhi and Shankar villages.
He said Tharele site excavated by Japanese archaeologists in 1960 and spread over a vast area in separate chambers had four rectangular stupas, a big hall, living rooms for monks, and Buddhist monasteries, where scholars used to teach students.
The consultant said Japanese experts had found statues, coins and precious items reflective of Gandhara art from the site in 1964 that dated back to the second to fifth century.
He regretted that no signboard had been fixed for visitors at the site leaving even local residents unaware about it.
“This beautiful Buddhist complex needs to be restored. A signboard should be fixed there for visitors,” he said.
According to Mr Mardanvi, another major tourist spot for Buddhists stands in Budhi Dheri area of Swabi district, where Buddhist monk Mara Nanda was born in 384AD, who travelled through China and preached Buddhism in Korea.
The site located around six kilometers from the main Chota Lahor city doesn’t have any signboard and therefore, only few locals know about it.
Another important heritage site is Mekha Sanda (male buffalo, female buffalo) in Karamar range near Shahbaz Gahri to which the myth of Vishvanthra Jatkaka about the pre-birth Buddha stories was associated.
The expert said the site was unexplored and therefore, expertise was needed to explore and do research on its significance as mentioned in the scripture of Buddhism.
He said another heritage site, Ranigat, was located on the top of a ridge with the remains of the region’s largest Buddhist monastic complex, including stupas, monasteries, shrines, drainage networks, and other buildings.
“Ranigat is a 2500-year-old Buddhist archaeological site, which belongs to the Gandhara civilisation. It is a good evidence of the Buddhist past of the area,” he said.
According to Mardanvi, the word Ranigat is the combination of ‘rani’, an Urdu word meaning queen, and ‘gat’, a Pashto word meaning a huge rock, and thus, meaning queen’s rock.
“The referenced rock is on top of a mountain, which is visible from distant places,” he said.
Mr Mardanvi said Ranigat was a collection of second century Buddhist ruins spread over an area of four square kilometers and dating back to the Gandhara civilisation.
“Ranigat is located in Buner valley. The archeologists say it remained the centre of Buddhist art and culture for centuries. Ranigat has been a celebrated part of folklore with songs and stories having been written about it,” he said.
Former Peshawar museum curator and Peshawar University archaeology department assistant professor Nidaullah Sehrai said every kind of tourism, including religious one, was closely linked to favourable law and order situation, safe access to the sites, and provision of facilities to tourists to enjoy sights and sounds.
He said KP was a treasure trove of Buddhist relics and the historical Khyber Pass, too, would fascinate visitors.
Published in Dawn, March 2nd, 2019