Setting up of Gandhara Cultural Authority on the cards

Published July 16, 2023
A bird’s eye view of the Buddhist Gandhara heritage in Pakistan.  — Photo courtesy Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad’s Twitter account
A bird’s eye view of the Buddhist Gandhara heritage in Pakistan. — Photo courtesy Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad’s Twitter account

 Dr Ramesh Vankwani
Dr Ramesh Vankwani

ISLAMABAD: The first international ‘Gandhara symposium’ held in the federal capital has not only opened huge opportunities for Pakistan to boost Buddhist tourism but also to utilise it for image building internationally.

However, at the same time, there is a need to remove certain flaws that seem to be giving rise to a negative image of the country.

The symposium was termed a great success by senior monks and scholars coming from several Buddhist countries where not only Pakistan but the Muslims too were having image problem, such as Myanmar and Vietnam.

In response to the feedback from the dignitaries, Pakistan is likely to establish a Gandhara Cultural Authority to streamline hindrances restricting the popularity of Gandhara civilisation at the global forum.

Foreign religious figures ask govt to also attract non-Buddhist tourists

The scholars and religious figures who attended the symposium have asked the authorities to further the initiative and expand its horizon to attract non-Buddhist tourists too, who would like to know more about the ancient Gandhara civilisation.

There were some unanswered questions raised softly by the visitors the most frequent being “Why do terrorists re-emerge in Pakistan and why do they attack places of worship?”

However, such queries were largely ignored by the organisers and even officials present there.

The most venerable, Anil Sakya, honorary rector World Buddhist University Thailand, suggested that Pakistan should restructure its security style.

“I am a man of peace and talk of peace for all, but during my last visit to Pakistan I was photographed with two guns,” he said and added that the authorities have to adopt ‘soft security’ where guns remain hidden but always ready to be used when needed.

Apart from the security issue, one of the key lacunas for the development and promotion of tourism in the country was lack of institutional support for the visitors.

Dr Mee Deung, who is also a high priest as well as the director of Central Buddhist Museum in Seoul, expressed concerns over the difficulty in obtaining a Pakistani visa.

He suggested that more Gandhara sites should be opened and experts allowed to visit them.

 Dr Mee Deung
Dr Mee Deung

Dr Deung was in Pakistan for the first time and said his impression of the country was same as that of anybody else but soon after visiting the holy sites and looking at the original relics he was overtaken by emotions.

“My heart was pumping out and my mind went back to history as I saw the stones and rocks that host the roots of Buddhism,” he said adding: “But Pakistan has to map these places properly with historic references and conduct studies with the help of experts belonging to the Buddhist world.”

Currently, only Korea is operating Gandhara preservation and conservation project at 31 sites with 15 being in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and 16 in Taxila. The project is scheduled to end in 2025, but the Korean authorities plan to extend it for another five years (to 2030) and it is likely that GB will be included in that phase.

Meanwhile, talking to Dawn, the chairman of PM’s task force on Gandhara tourism Dr Ramesh Vankwani said based on the input and feedback from the participants a draft of ‘Gandhara Cultural Authority’ had been prepared.

“It has been forwarded to the prime minister’s office for initial consent and after getting the nod the draft will be forwarded to the law division for vetting,” Dr Vankwani said.

Among the main functions of the proposed authority will be to approach universities and cultural offices around the world to promote research work on Gandhara civilisation.

“Gandhara is a combination of both, a seat of great ancient culture as well as religious and pilgrimage sites for the Buddhists,” he said, adding: “Western universities and archaeology departments are interested in getting knowledge of this ancient civilisation.”

The authority will also be responsible for establishing and monitoring souvenir shops at all the museums.

“We need some responsible agency to ensure that quality standard replicas are produced in Pakistan and that only replicas of the artefact are sold at souvenir shops,” Dr Vankwani added.

The authority will be the focal point for all international and intra-provincial coordination to promote Gandhara civilisation as well as facilitation of the tourists.

While PM’s task force and Dr Vankwani have ambitious plans to promote Gandhara civilisation as well as pilgrimage for the followers of Buddhism, two key issues could hamper the achievement of the goals.

All the historical as well as religious sites are under the jurisdiction of provinces after the 18th amendment and any political differences between the centre and any of the governments in Punjab or the KP in future could undermine the functioning of the authority.

The other key impediment in promotion of Gandhara culture is materialising the demands of Buddhist visitors to establish a place of worship for the monks at any site. This could invite ire from the extremist religious elements in KP or Taxila.

Published in Dawn, July 16th, 2023

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