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Pakistan 1 - Karachi, Islamabad, Peshawar and Swat Museums etc.

PAKISTAN | Tuesday, 12 October 2021 | Views [231]

Gandharan Buddha, Karachi Museum

Gandharan Buddha, Karachi Museum

Pakistan 1: National Museums etc. in Karachi, Islamabad, Peshawar and Swat

 Arrived in Karachi without any idea of what this trip would bring. I had tried on numerous occasions to travel to Pakistan, but something always came up.  After being here, I am glad I waited as while I was working, I needed a steady internet connection and that doesn’t exist in the northern portion of the country. Pakistan is geographically and demographically quite diverse. It stretches from the Arabian Sea and deserts of the south to some of the highest mountains on earth in the north. It is the fifth most populated country on the planet with 226,343,318 people according to the Worldometer website, only about a third of which live in the very large metropolitan areas, and it is a young population with a median age of 22.8. While Sunni Muslims are in the vast majority, there are large Shia and Ismaili populations  as well as some Sikhs, Hindus and Christians. There is a fairly notable Christian pilgrimage site in Maryamabad not too far from Lahore. Unfortunately, there wasn’t time to visit it. The name Pakistan, which means spiritually pure and clean, is supposed to come from the names of the various regions: Punjab, Afghania (the northwest), Kashmir, Iran, Sindh and Baluchistan. These regions have distinct ethnic groups, some of which have long-standing animosities towards each other and very different traditions.  This makes it a difficult country to govern and the previous see-sawing between the Muslim League and the People’s Party, both of which have been notoriously corrupt, has left many in the rural communities behind. The current Prime Minister, Imran Khan, seems to be highly respected among the majority of the population I spoke with, as he appears to be trying to make needed changes while navigating the political morass he inherited. There is much to be done, and it is to be hoped that he can succeed.

As I’m not partial to big cities other than for their cultural amenities, I planned on going to the Karachi National Museum in the morning before catching an afternoon flight to Islamabad.  That worked out well, although it seemed that none of the three drivers I got in touch with had any idea where their national museum was located.  Finally, the last one, the one directly from the hotel, had a GPS system and got me there.

The museum is nicely laid out, although, as I was to find in all the other museums, renovations were underway.  This meant that two of the collections I had wanted to see were closed, i.e., the Pre-historic and Late Harappan. The galleries that were open were excellent and provided a good overview introduction to the arts of the various cultural eras of the country. Information about the pre-Islamic communities included those of the Neolithic, Indus Valley and Gandharan cultures.

Mehrgarh, which was active from about 7000-5500 BCE, was perhaps the earliest site of farming in and herding in South Asia. There were also a number of pre-Indus Valley sites in Baluchistan that were influenced by other Near Eastern Neolithic communities. Metal artifacts, both copper and bronze, have been uncovered in the region. The later Indus Valley civilizations, most notably Mohenjo-Daro ca. 3000-2000 BCE, and Harappa, 2600-1800 BCE, were built with urban planning in mind, including water supply and drainage systems, large non-residential structures and backed brick houses along set streets. Archeologists have suggested that they housed between 30,000-60,000 people in their heyday, while the civilization as a whole may have had 1-5 Million people. These early cultures worshipped the Mother Goddess and there are both male and female burnt clay votive figures on display. The women wear jewelry, but the men are always bearded and naked. Both were apparently painted a light red, although the meaning behind this is unknown. Many of the faces look squished with pointed noses, similar to those of the Sanxingdui culture of Chengdu, China.  It also appears that horns were considered sacred, as they were depicted on headdresses and seals, perhaps to symbolize the connection between the spiritual and material worlds as in ancient Egypt or the Divine Bull of Mesopotamia. It isn’t clear what precisely caused the downfall of the Indus Valley civilizations; it may have been a combination of floods and the arrival of the horseback riding Aryans from the north, which led to the Gandharan Grave Culture from about 1700 -500 BCE. The official Gandharan culture, centering around the territory of Gandhara, stretching from the Peshawar valley to the hills of Swat, the Buner and Taxila valley, was first mentioned in the Rig Veda. The name also appears in Persian inscriptions as one of Darius I’s (528-486 BCE) satrapies. The Persians used timber from Gandhara to construct their palace at Susa. Gandhara later became a center for Buddhism and the site of the first images of the Buddha.

 Traveling along in time and space, the ride to the airport from the museum was interesting. There was a sudden downpour from late monsoon rains and traffic on the highway simply stopped. I wasn’t sure why until we crawled by on the side and saw a mass of motorcycles standing under the underpass blocking all the regular traffic lanes. It was understandable that they wanted to wait out the rain, but that they all had to do so in the middle of the road was new to me.

After checking in for the flight, a man directed me upstairs to a waiting area. I dutifully followed after stopping at the bookstore. It turned out he wasn’t an official airport employee, but someone who was working for the lounge upstairs that one could use for a fee. I chose to head back down to the gate and start to read one of the two books I had just purchased; Declan Walsh’s Nine Lives of Pakistan and Kamala Shamsie’s Home Fire. As the first was by a journalist describing the history and politics of the country, that is the one I read first.  It is an excellent introduction to the vagaries and roller coaster politics and social climate of modern Pakistan and I would recommend it to all who want to do business in the country or to those who simply want to know more about it. The second, a novel, dealt with upper class Karachities and those who emigrated to England, and how innocents can get caught in the crosshairs of jihadis. It was a good and provided food for thought.

Upon landing in Islamabad, Amyn, the guide I had arranged for the trip through Concordia Expeditions, was waiting for me with Iqbal, the driver.  The three of us were to spend the next couple of weeks together. The two men proved to be fabulous companions and I am very thankful and lucky to have met them. They took me to the Akbar International Hotel in Rawalpindi for the night, while they went back to Amyn’s nephew’s apartment. Unfortunately, I can’t recommend the hotel, even though the lobby looks nice and the staff are friendly.

The next morning was the official start of the tour.  Making our way through the dirty, dusty traffic of ‘Pindi’, we came to the tree lined super highways of Islamabad, where I wanted to get to their National Museum as a first stop.  According to the website, the museum was open, but when we got there, we were told that it was closed, although I could see a bus load of German tourists on their way inside.  It took some convincing from both Amyn and Iqbal, but the guard finally caved in and let Amyn and me enter, while Iqbal stayed with the car. Renovations were underway and there were spots where we had to go around cleaning equipment to see the artifacts, which didn’t present a problem. The Islamabad collection rivals that of the previous capital city, even if it is considerably smaller. The Gandharan Buddhist collection is excellent, but there are only a few pre-historic artifacts on display. The entire second floor is dedicated to the relatively short history of the country.

From the museum, we drove to Taxila, a leading archeological site, where people lived, worked, loved, and prayed from the 6th C BCE until the White Hun invasion and destruction in the 5th  C CE. Taxila means city of cut stones, and each of the site guides repeated the same story almost verbatim. The cut stones form precise corners in the architecture of the buildings, while the artisans of the sites created detailed Buddhist reliefs on the stupas and religious sites.  Most of the artifacts have been removed from the sites and moved to museums across the country, which is one of the reasons I wanted to get to the museums first, but the artifacts really only come alive if one can imagine them in their original location. The Murree Hills surround Taxila, which is dissected by two rivers. The excavated areas comprise  perhaps only 10% of the original sites. The city was located at a strategic crossroad for the subcontinent and Central Asia.

The city was founded by the Achaemenid Persians and was subsequently taken over by Alexander in his quest East.  Alexander’s and the Greeks’ influence is seen most dramatically in Sirkap, which is laid out in traditional ancient Greek city fashion along a main corridor with perpendicular side streets. The city complex saw the vagaries of early 3rd C BCE -5th C CE politics in that Chandragupta of the Mauryans took over from the Greeks, then came the Bactrian Greeks, followed by the Scythians, Parthians, Kushanas, and Sassanians until the White Huns swept down from the steeps in the 5th C CE to destroy everything. It was from Taxila that Chandragupta’s grandson, Ashoka, and the Kushana Emperor, Kanishka, heavily influenced the development and spread of Buddhism across the subcontinent.

The complex today comprises three major city sections that were constructed sequentially, but all within a 3 ½ mile radius. It was the primary site of Gandharan Buddhist art. Ashoka, the Mauyran Emperor, ruled in Bhir Mound and it was from this location that he started his missionary work.  The Dharmarajika Stupa is from his era and is the earliest stupa in the region. Excavation in some of the votive stupas, off to the side of the main stupa, uncovered gold, ivory and stone relic caskets. According to Ahmad Nabi Khan’s Gandhara: The Enchanting Land of Buddhist Art and Culture in Pakistan: “…  the ashes of the Buddha were divided into eight parts to be deposited in eight stupas in important cities in the subcontinent. These principle stupas were later opened under the orders of Ashoka who redistributed the relics into several parts to be redeposited into a number of stupas throughout his empire.” (49) The Dharmarajika stupa is said to have contained a Buddha relic, a tooth. Sir John Marshall, who was the first successful excavator of the site, found a “silver scroll with a Kharoshthi script recording that the associated relics were those of the Buddha himself.”  (50)

Ashoka promoted the first turning of the Buddhist wheel, Hinayana Buddhism. After conquering Gandhara, the Kushana emperor, Kanishka, converted to Buddhism, but he wanted to promote a different, newer form, namely Mahayana. He built the third and largest of the Taxila cities, Sirsukh, as well as monasteries and stupas throughout his realm, which covered huge tracts of modern Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bharat, India. (78) Sirsukh was constructed in what seems to be an almost rectangular shape, but this section has barely been excavated, so the actual dimensions are unknown. One of his stupas and monasteries can still be visited in Taxila, at the Mohra Morada site. The main stupa with surrounding votive stupas are decorated with images of the Buddha, Bodhisattvas and Devas. They are behind a fenced off area, but the local guide was kind enough to let us in. Kanishka’s legacy includes that he was the one who brought foreign artists, primarily Roman and Greek, but also possibly those from India, to Taxila to carve sculptures of the Buddha in stone and reliefs of his life story to fit into niches on the stupas and monastical buildings. The greatest invention of Gandharan art is the invention of the Buddha image. The Buddha is represented as a man wearing a monastic garment with the peculiar marks of Buddhahood as the usnisha, or the protuberance at his crown, and the urna, or mark between the two eyebrows. (88) Traditionally, Buddha is said to have had thirty-two such marks of greatness on different parts of his body.  Gandharan Buddhas often have thin moustaches, although not always, and there is a transition in the connection on the necklace from that of snakes to clasps.

 Most of the reliefs depict scenes from the Jatakas (stories of the previous lives of the Buddha) and those of his lifetime, including the dream of Queen Maya, the birth of Gautama, his childhood, his departure from the palace, march toward enlightenment, attainment of Buddhahood under the Bodhi tree, 1st sermon of the turning of the wheel, and other miracles of his life and death, also the dividing of his ashes and their burial in stupas.  (79) As the artists were not necessarily Buddhist nor were many of the local population, some Indian deities were also carved including Indra, Brahma, and Vajrapani, Panchika and Hariti, the god of riches and goddess of fertility, the Nagas, Garunda, the Yakshas & Yakshis, spirits associated with fertility, the Kinnaras – two classes of celestial musicians and the Gandhavas. The Yakshis have the ideal sensual female form. There is even a sculpture of a helmeted Athena or Roma wearing a chiton and holding a spear that still survives. They also depicted what they saw around them in local dress, social gatherings and even love-making (88)

 Taxila was also home to one of the two leading early Buddhist universities, the Jaulian, a few kilometers north or Sirkap.  The other major university was Nalanda, in Bihar, India. Jaulian has an elaborately decorated main stupa and a number of equally elaborate votiv stupas, as well as a sizeable monastic area. These were constructed fairly late in Taxila history, ca. 400-450CE. Chinese Buddhist pilgrims visited both of these universities and brought back the teaching and texts to China. Nalanda lasted longer, but Jaulian was quite influential in the development of Buddhist thought.

 From Taxila we continued on crossing the Kabul River and a number of towns and villages along the highway to Peshawar. The change from one ethnic group, the Punjabs, to the other, the Pashtuns, was evident in the clothes the people were wearing. The Pashtuns are far more conservative and, rather than being an anomaly, the women were primarily covered, fairly often in complete colorful burqas. These weren’t the light blue burqas of Afghanistan, but orange, ochre, red, blue and black. They were always in one particular color, not mixed and matched the way the Shalwar Kameezs are.  This region borders Afghanistan and the Pashtun tribe was split in two by the Durand Line during Partition.  This border created by someone who had no on-site knowledge of the culture has led to a series of problems not just for the Afghanis and Pakistanis.

We didn’t spend any time in Peshawar other than to go to the museum, which has the world’s largest collection of Gandharan art. The Buddha is displayed in four poses, the Dhyana (meditation), Abhaya (reassurance), Dharma Chakra Mudra (Turning of the Wheel), and the Earth-touching pose. He is portrayed both sitting cross-legged and standing. Greek, Roman and Persian influences are visible in the hairstyles.  There are also a number of Fasting Buddha images as well as an entire storyboard of Jataka Tales in relief.  One of the images that I was surprised to see throughout the Gandharan art collections, was that of Atlas, the Greek god holding up the world. The Greek artists must have had a special relationship with him.

From Peshawar, with armed guards in front of the hotel, we headed to Swat.  I thought Swat meant the valley with Takht-i-Bahi when I arranged for the trip, but I was mistaken. Swat is really another name for Mingora, which I had wanted to get to as well.  Unfortunately, I didn’t get to the sites near Mardan.

Swat is supposed to have been Uddeyana, a place of meadows and snow-capped mountains. The museum in Swat, i.e., Mingora, has a fairly substantial collection of Gandharan art from the region. A few stupas, including the Shingardar, are still visible from the road.  Butkara was one of the main centers where Buddhist artifacts were found and, as elsewhere, the majority are now in the local museum. In the 9th-10th C Swat was a center for the Diamond Vehicle of Buddhism or Vajrayana. Local legend states that Padmasambhava set out from here to Tibet, although many other places across the Himalayas say the same.  Hinduism co-existed with Buddhism in the region and there are reliefs of Shiva, Ganesha and Surya in the museum.

 After spending time in the museums, it was time to head up into the mountains.  I had thought we would drive to Chilas and then to Hunza after Mingora, but when the opportunity to visit Chitral presented itself, all three of us decided this would be a good thing to do. I had thought that Chitral was closed to tourists, but it isn’t and is well worth visiting.



Reference: Khan, Ahmad Nabi. Gandhara: The Enchanting Land of Buddhist Art and Culture in Pakistan. Karachi: Department of Archaeology and Museums, Government of Pakistan, 1994.

Tags: cities, history, museums, towns

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