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Pakistan’s Ancient Relics

By Mahnaz Nadeem
March 21 2013




I wonder how many people are aware that there is a piece of Ancient Pakistan on public display in London. Many British Pakistanis hail from an area in Northern Pakistan which was at one time part of the great Gandhara Civilization. The Kingdom of Gandhara lasted from the early 1st millennium BC to the 11th century AD.  It was at its zenith during the 1st century to the 5th century, under the Buddhist Kushan Kings.  It was during this period that Gandhara became the cradle of Buddhism from which the faith spread to the East as far as Korea and Japan. The Gandhara Empire stretched from Bamiyan (in present day Afghanistan) in the West, to North West Punjab (Pakistan) in the East. The major towns of cultural and civic importance included Swat, Taxila, Charsadda and Peshawar.

In room 33, on the first floor of the British Museum, there is a gallery dedicated to South Asian history. It includes a small selection of artefacts from Pakistan’s Indus Valley Civilization and a larger selection from North Pakistan’s Gandhara Empire: showcasing an Indo-Greek period when two foreign cultures, Greek and Buddhist, blended and produced one of the most magnificent civilizations: a rich tapestry of sculpture, architecture, religion, learning and trade.

I am personally filled with a sense of pride that Pakistan’s cultural heritage is linked to one of the greatest civilizations the world has known. I see no contradiction in celebrating this fact, just as modern day Egyptians preserve and celebrate the Pyramids – tombs to the Pharaohs, people of Pakistani origin should be equally proud of their own great pre-Islamic civilizations. It is with great excitement and wonder therefore, that my children and I often visit the galleries to see not only the wonders of the world but to catch a glimpse of our own ancient heritage.  At the Museum, one can find stuccos and Hellenistic sculptures of Buddha, the serene Bodhisattvas and monks, ancient coins, bowls and burial trinkets.  The exhibits from Pakistan were first excavated by the British during the 19th Century.  Rightly or wrongly many relics found homes around the world, including a large quantity in London, brilliantly showcased for all to see.

Alas, however, very few British Pakistanis take an interest in these ancient wonders. Many of us understandably flock to the various Islamic galleries in London to see the magnificent religious and arabesque artefacts; however, rarely, do I hear of anyone admitting an interest in Pakistan’s great pre-Islamic culture. As is the case with many who have fallen prey to the Islamists’ agenda:  Ancient Pakistani culture is inaccurately described as “foreign” and narrow-mindedly rejected because of its pre-Islamic status.

Having grown up in Britain, I have taken an interest not only in British history, but also the history of the land of my forefathers. I was always aware that the large garrison town of Jhelum, where I was born, was eponymous with Alexander the Great. The Ancient Greek name for Jhelum,  Alexandria Bucephalous was named after Alexander’s faithful steed. Indeed, it was on the banks of Jhelum’s river that the site of the Battle of the Hydaspes between the armies of Alexander and Porus took place. It appears for sometime the remnants of an Indo-Greek past were part and parcel of the landscape; it was not uncommon for people to find Greek coins in the region and further north sculptures of Buddha were etched into the topography.  A few decades ago North Pakistan’s Indo-Greek heritage was taken for granted and parents would proudly name their children Sikander after the great soldier. However in recent years, there has been a concerted effort to arabize and disassociate ourselves from our ancient past.

Over the past few decades, the Taliban and Saudi sponsored indoctrination have inculcated in many Muslims a disdain and vehement rejection of non Islamic history resulting in closed-mindedness, and at its worse iconoclastic vandalism. The most notorious act, bringing worldwide outrage, being the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas, back in the 1990’s.  For me, the Gandhara Civilization does not represent idol-worship or “Shirk” as many zealous puritans would undoubtedly argue, but instead represents a rich pluralist dimension to my own heritage.  We should be encouraged that a steady and increasing number of ordinary folk, historians and intellectuals from within Pakistan are taking ownership of the past, demanding that history books be rectified, that governments do more to protect and preserve Pakistan’s decaying world heritage sites.  I believe British Pakistanis can support this tidal wave of ownership by taking more interest in our Vedic, Indus Valley and Buddhist past, reading about, researching and visiting places like the British Museum to get a better understanding of who our ancestors were and how they lived. Let us not forget that British Pakistanis have origins in the sub-continent, with links to not only Arab history, but one that encompasses Hindu, Persian, Indo-Greek, Buddhist, the Indus Valley, Mughal,  Sikh, Turkic and British histories.

The stripping away of our non Islamic history has publicly portrayed Pakistanis as, albeit temporarily, a one-dimensional religious entity; this portrayal is unfair and untrue. People of Pakistani origin must take ownership and honestly re-evaluate themselves, acknowledging their multi-layered and pluralist past where diverse arts, religions, cultures, music, ethnicities languages, seats of trade and learning thrived. Seeking out Pakistan’s past at the British Museum is a good way to start!.


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