In my university days it was routine for me and a friend to visit the Lahore Museum every working day. Invariably we would spend the most time watching the ‘Fasting Buddha’ in utter awe and silence soaking in the utter beauty of the sculpture.
The Lahore Museum has a special place in our hearts and mind, and the meditative silence we acquired has kept our deep respect for each other alive for almost half a century. But today I would like to talk about a book that is more than a century old and it is about the Lahore Museum and the ‘Fasting Buddha’ and other exquisite masterpieces of the museum, which today has, undoubtedly, the world’s finest collection of Gandharan sculptures and inscriptions and coins. After 1947 the museum lost a number of excellent pieces in the exchange with India under a treaty between sub-continental museums.
The ‘Fasting Buddha’ of the Lahore Museum is considered among the five finest sculptures of the ancient world. Mind you a political leader, not of Lahore, allegedly tried to “acquire” this masterpiece. The local Press went ‘viral’ about this matter and so the famous statue remained in place. They wrongly blamed him for the damaged arm, but then a rare 18th century Archaeological Survey of India document of the excavation tells us that the arm was discovered at some distance from the main statue among the debris.
This masterpiece from the ancient Gandhara period excavated from Sikri and donated to the Lahore Museum in 1894, represents a time period before his ‘enlightenment’. So the correct description should be ‘fasting Bodhisattva’ or better still ‘starving Siddhartha’. The statue depicts the skeleton-like body of Gautama and every vein is correctly displayed. In a way it is an amazing sculpture given its details. In the end the ‘enlightened’ Buddha realised that starvation does not lead to enlightenment, but the correct route is ‘mental cultivation and insight’. It is a lesson all of us need to understand better.
For us in Lahore we have a special connection to Buddha for he, allegedly, visited our city for three months on one stop in his virtually unending journey. The sacred book of Buddhism - the Tripitaka – written in Pali specifically mentions this 90-day stop in a disciple’s house to the right of the southern gateway. To my way of thinking this could well be ‘Mohallah Maullian’ in Lohari Gate for this is the oldest portion of the ancient Lahore and situated on a mound. So no matter how inexact my presumption of location that special spiritual connection to him is there.
For a very long time in antiquity Lahore was a purely Buddhist city, as later it was a Jain city and for a very long time a Hindu city. After the Muslims invaded in 1021 it was a mixed Hindu-Muslim city, slowly to become a Hindu-Muslim-Sikh city. It became, statistically, a Muslim majority walled city after 1947. But back to the exquisite statue and that century-old book.
The old manuscript of 1908 about the Lahore Museum was written by Percy Brown, the very first Curator of the museum from 1899 to 1912. He was also the Principal of the National College of Arts in this period. He was a renowned British scholar, writer, artist and archaeologist, who after leaving Lahore became the Curator of London’s famous V&A Museum. The manuscript was printed at the C&MG Press Lahore and the blocks had to be prepared by Wiele and Klein of Madras. Among the contributors were Dr J.P. Vogel, the Dutch Sanskritist and epigraphist, and Alfred Woolner, another great Sanskritist and VC of the Punjab University, as also other experts. Woolner’s statue can be seen outside the old campus of the Punjab University on The Mall.
Among the rare collections of the museum is an exquisite Gandhara sculpture of the Greek goddess Athene, which is helmeted and armed in a Grecian costume. Also among the collection are inscribed stones in Tibetan and Brahmi scripts. There are also Jain stupas and reflect the ancient connection of Lahore with Jainism and Buddhism. Mind you after Alexander’s time the ruler of the sub-continent was Asoka, who was a Buddhist and Lahore was part of his kingdom.
A lot of other contributors to the museum were Dr Honigberger, who was Ranjit Singh’s physician, as also the maharajah’s various army generals including Ventura, Court and Cautley. A large collection from Lahore was shipped to London in 1885 by Gen. Cunningham, which they claimed sank on the ‘high seas’ in the steamer ‘Indus’. After this it was decided that selected pieces should be stored in Lahore and not exported to England. That is why probably some amazing pieces still lie in the basement of the museum, including Victoria’s statue removed from the canopy opposite the Punjab Assembly in the ‘pious’ days of Gen Ziaul Haq.
The list is endless, and it is not possible to detail them in this brief piece. But two issues should be researched. Firstly, there is need to understand the true scale of the collections, both on show and, more importantly, lying in the numerous basements. Secondly, there is a need to understand why Pakistan handed over some amazing pieces to India under a treaty. Research into what happened needs to be undertaken.
But it would be a massive challenge for the Punjab Government, to try to come up with plans to expand the Lahore Museum given its restricted and limited space. If the Punjab Public Library is shifted to another place and the entire premises, including the ‘baradari’ of Wazir Khan, built in 1635 as part of a larger Nakhlia Bagh, it can be used after adequate architectural restructuring to come up with probably the largest museum in the sub-continent. Lahore richly deserves such changes. Given the state of the frozen Punjab Government, incapacitated by a suspect bureaucracy, such enlightened moves seem impossible. Change is not in their DNA.
But let me be daring. Let me suggest a larger plan. If the Punjab Public Library and the amazing Punjab Archives, the largest after the British Museum Library, be both moved to the magnificent Freemasons Hall, which today serves as one of the Chief Minister’s three offices, it will earn this government, or any future one, immense respect the world over as an enlightened one.
Also the decaying Bradlaugh Hall should be converted into a Partition Museum so that our future generations fully understand and appreciate the pains of the 1947 Partition, which is Pakistan’s Holocaust. Written proposals to the effect are lying on the desk of the Chief Minister and the Chief Secretary of the Punjab for over a year now. My take is that even our Oxford-educated leader cannot make the CM give up his grand office to work only from his grander GOR office as also his grandest Secretariat office. Vanity and illiteracy go hand in hand. He probably needs a fourth office to function.
Till some positive moves are visible, all that this scribe has are the beautiful memories of us watching our heritage in utter awe and silence in our university days. That is a rich heritage we live with, and that is one our children should live with and wish ‘change’ finally does come.
Published in Dawn, March 15th, 2020