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Precious Gandhara relics seized

July 06, 2012

A man arranges seized ancient statues in a police station in Karachi.—AFP Photo
A man arranges seized ancient statues in a police station in Karachi.—AFP Photo

KARACHI, July 6: Police seized a large number of artifacts and relics dating from the Gandhara civilisation during search of a trailer-mounted container in Landhi early on Friday morning and caught two people.

Some of the heavier stone artifacts were damaged due to defective packaging, transportation and careless unloading from the container at the police station.

The haul comprised statues of Gautama Buddha, life-sized idols, plaques and utensils.

Gandhara was a Buddhist civilisation which evolved in the Peshawar valley and in parts of what is now eastern Afghanistan over 2, 000 years ago.

The artifacts enjoy protection under the Antiquities Act of 1975. The law restricts digging of and trade in protected objects, prescribing long prison terms and heavy fines, Qasim Ali Qasim, an official of the Sindh Culture Department, told Dawn.

Majeed Abbas, a police official, said the truck was intercepted on a tip-off. He said the artifacts and relics were kept in a godown in Ibrahim Haidery, a coastal fishing village near Karachi. From here they were being transported to Sialkot when the police intercepted the trailer and brought it to the Awami Colony police station.

The police have detained the driver and the cleaner. According to police, the two identified the owner of the contraband consignment as Arif Butt. No more arrests were made till Friday midnight.

In reply to queries by Dawn, National Museum chief Mohammad Shah Bokhari said till late in the evening inventory had been made of 38 artifacts while five huge boxes would be opened on Saturday morning.

Mr Bokhari had gone to the police station along with an authority on Gandhara civilisation, Ejaz Illahi. Many of the artifacts are life size and some even bigger. The pieces, mostly grey- or blue-coloured, are made out of stone. They date back to between AD 1 and 500. He said a large number of brooms and related items were used to cushion, as well as camouflage, the priceless pieces.

According to Mr Qasim, the Culture Department director, one of the statues was a Boddhisattva (Buddha before achieving Nirvana). Among others was a “Hariti” (a witch who, as the legend goes, used to kill children, but after meeting Gautama Buddha repented and was transformed into a protector of children); and a “Jataka” — a stone panel depicting the scene at the time of Buddha’s birth.

A good number of the sculptures were three to four metres long and very heavy. Since police did not realise that these were priceless gifts from antiquity, they did not bother to seek labourers’ help for unloading the relics. The objects were damaged as these were hurled down to the ground from a considerable height.

“When I saw the recklessness, I advised police to get some help, mechanical or manual. Sense prevailed and soon two mechanical lifters were pressed in,” Mr Qasim said.

He said that it was mystifying why the artifacts were brought all the way from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to Karachi if their destination was Sialkot. “Probably the smugglers intended to smuggle these out of the country through Karachi port or airport, but after failing to do so, they decided to send the consignment to Sialkot dry port for eventual shipment overseas,” the director speculated.

This is not the first time that a large haul of artifacts has been seized. A few years ago over 1,500 artifacts — including over 400 Gandhara sculptures, pre-historic (Balochistan) and Islamic era relics — had been caught by anti-narcotics authorities at Karachi port.

In another seizure over 500 artifacts — including Islamic-era pottery and coins — were seized in a post office by the Customs.

AFP adds: Mr Qasim said he believed the items had been brought to Karachi a piece or two at a time.

“The thieves and mafias involved in this business dig in the northwest, which is filled with Gandhara sites with little control by the authorities,” he said.

“They dug up ancient pieces, accumulated them in Karachi and then intended to send them to Afghanistan in the garb of a Nato vehicle after Pakistan reopened the route.”