US repatriates 46 smuggled artifacts to Islamabad

Published October 23, 2022
The antiquities that have been returned to Pakistan by the US government. — Dawn
The antiquities that have been returned to Pakistan by the US government. — Dawn

ISLAMABAD: The US government has repatriated 46 artifacts back to Pakistan, including the most notable $1.1 million Buddhapadha, that now fill the central space at the Islamabad Museum.

The Kushan period footprints of Buddha (Buddhapadha) were stolen from an unknown archaeological site in the Gandhara region of Pakistan in the 1980s, and smuggled to the United States.

A Japanese art dealer Tatsuzo Kaku was involved in smuggling the sculpture.

“The footprints of the Buddha were recovered by the Manhattan district attorney’s office in New York during the investigation and prosecution of a criminal case involving international smuggling and sale of stolen antiquities,” said Assistant Director Department of Archaeology and Museums (DOAM) Dr Mehmoodul Hassan. He elaborated that the artifact was detected at an auction where it was put up for sale for an estimated $1.1 million.

Kushan period footprints of Buddha among antiquities now showcased at Islamabad Museum, say officials

He said the ancient region of Gandhara, Swat and Taxila were thickly dotted with Buddhist archaeological sites of 1st to 5th century CE.

“These sites are situated in the far-flung mountainous areas and subject to the clandestine excavations and cultural heritage artifact recovered by antique hunters are taken to the international antique markets through illicit means,” he added.

The new display showcased DOAM’s efforts through four years of patient diplomacy and bureaucratic challenges to get the valuable antiquities repatriated.

Dr Hassan said that after completion of the legal procedure the Manhattan district attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr handed over the second century CE Buddhapada to the consulate of Pakistan, New York at a repatriation ceremony.

After completion of all formalities, the footprints of Buddha along with 45 other specimens of Gandhara were restituted by the Department of Archaeology and Museums, National Heritage and Culture Division, Pakistan, on September 16, 2021, with the active support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The footprints (Buddhapadha) are made of green schist, explained Assistant Director DOAM Abdul Ghafoor Lone.

“These footprints are 116 centimetres wide and 90 centimetres high. The footprints are divided by Corinthian pilasters. The upper border is decorated with undulated garland which is atypical Gandharan style influenced by Graco-Roman architectural traditions,” Mr Lone added.

The decoration of the footprints consists of sacred symbols of Buddhism - symbols of three pronged triratna (three jewels) representing Buddha, his doctrine and his followers, he elaborated. “The symbol of dharmachakra (wheel of law) denotes Buddha’s doctrine and lotus flower symbolises Buddha,” he said.

Among other showstoppers are the several 1st century BC stone panels depicting the palace life, scenes of dancing devotees before Buddha’s enlightenment.

Besides Buddha’s relic caskets, equally striking pieces of rescued antiquity include bath trays, depicting Greek sea god – an art form that later inspired Buddhist stone structures, said Mr Lone.

“Antiquities are vital to modern society. They provide insight into human history. When shared with the public, they create inroads to learning about interesting and fascinating cultures of world,” said Director General Department of Archaeology and Museums Dr Abul Azeem.

The Buddhapadha is now on display in Islamabad Museum, Sir Syed Memorial Society building.

In his recent visit to the new display, US Ambassador Dr Donald Blome wrote in the comments register: “Thank you for preserving and caring for this remarkable collection, demonstrating the incredible riches of Pakistan’s heritage.”

The US government has also already handed over another consignment of 104 confiscated artifacts to the Pakistani authorities in the US.

Another 191 ancient treasures believed to have also been spirited out of Pakistan would be returned to the country after working through diplomatic and legal means.

Published in Dawn, October 23th, 2022

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