The disappearing Gandhara | Footloose
The overzealous impulse to rewrite national histories often affects civilizational, regional and local heritage. It also affects the social, societal and cultural psyche. Imagine changing a person’s date of birth a few decades after the actual birth. Dozens of documents have to be changed, and factual or fictitious reasons have to be invented to justify the action. Any enlightened society shuns such a practice as abominable. In Pakistan we do this all the time – rewriting history retrospectively. And we enjoy it.
While Covid-19 changed the world medically, economically and socially between 2019 and 2021, it offered many people – including me – the opportunity to be out and about in their immediate vicinity. With international travel almost a nightmare and offices reduced to portable machines thanks to 4G connections, I drove to destinations barely a few hours’ drive from Islamabad that offered amazing value day trips. Three of the six UNESCO World Heritage sites in Pakistan were on the menu, apart from a long list of Buddhist monuments in Rawalpindi, Attock, Mardan, Charsadda, Peshawar, Malakand and Swat districts. It was as if Pushkalavati, Purushapura and Takhshasila were shouting – see us, know us, love us.
The pleasure of exploring the wonders of civilization unearthed by inquisitive men like John Marshall in the early 20’sth century was immense. Wander through the lands once divided by the Persian Achaemenid Empire, the Greeks of Macedonia, the Maurya Empire, the Indo-Greeks of Bactria, the Scythians of Eastern Europe, the Parthian Empire, the Kushans of Central Asia, the White Huns, the Hindu Shahis of North India Task. A look into the past can help plan the present so that a future can be secured.
But the pleasure quickly fizzles, turning to pain when one discovers how this centuries-old heritage is subject to wanton pillage and plunder by a people with little regard for heritage or history. Isn’t it ironic that dozens of Turkish, Afghan and Iranian armies that marched through present-day Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and northern Punjab, ostensibly to fight the “infidel” Indians and conquer vast tracts of land, sparing the remains of Buddhist religious and cultural icons ? And yet we now look determinedly at wiping out our historical, civilizational, social, societal and regional heritage by maliciously trespassing on World Heritage sites.
Rather than writing an epitaph for a bygone era, when religions coexisted, Silk Road trade flourished, caravanserais sprang up, and multicultural cities sprang up, I want readers to put on imaginary VR goggles and take me on a stroll through the past and present of a accompany region that was once a popular destination for transcontinental travelers and traders.
Scene One-Past: Cities built on a grid near rivers or streams, manicured lanes, clean green surroundings, shops for locals and itinerant traders, law and order, and basic civic amenities that feed citizens, farming, trade and crafts.
Scene Two-Present: Unstructured, unplanned lanes, chaotic and filthy human habitation, outright poverty, lack of a local economy or industry to stem the constant migration, weak administration, questionable laws and regulations.
Scene Three-Past: Dirt roads connecting towns through green fields or desolate patches, caravanserai to lodge itinerant merchants; Robbers taking their chances, life moves in a slow peaceful routine.
Scene 4-Present: Networks of paved roads lined with shacks, murderous traffic, unclean driver’s restaurants, mechanic’s shops, the territorial division between cities long since gone, overflowing sewers, garbage strewn everywhere. Streams and rivulets turn into stinking streams.
Scene Five-Past: Multi-religious, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural societies; bhikkhus and bhikkhunis, the Shifus, the Bodhisattvas and maybe a Buddha around. In addition to Zoroastrian temples and the occasional Christian residence of a saint, there are Buddhist stupas and monastic seminars.
Scene 6-Present: Abyssal religious harmony with religious minorities living subhuman lives. The freedom to practice and preach religion exists only for the majority community. Several religious communities that were once native to the region have migrated to other countries, so there is no singing in temples and no bells in churches.
Scene Seven-Past: City managers are aware of their duties, building codes cannot be violated, accountability is the norm of the day; People are aware of their social status and by and large trust their overlords.
Scene Eight – Present: Colonial administrative structures exist in books and gazetteers; Petty corruption runs deep in bureaucratic veins, facilitating blatant breaches of everything from traffic laws to the operation of shops and markets to building instructions.
Scene Nine-Past: Nature at its finest and people at peace with their surroundings. Cities and villages surrounded by beautiful hills ultimately connected to the Hindu Kush and Karakoram mountain ranges. Leopards, various species of wild goats, bears, wolves and other animals thrive alongside humans.
Scene 10-Present: Driven by rampant population growth, the encroachment of human habitation is coming dangerously close to historic sites. The continued failure of officials to stem the tide of illegal construction raises the specter that the current generation may be the last to witness the erasure of history. The powerful quarrying industry is ruining the Margalla Hills. For decades, cranes and trucks have been busy taking away the majestic hills by blasting, “quarrying, drilling and crushing bulky limestone outcrops into pebbles” that eventually lead to the construction of houses, roads and highways.
Protection of cultural heritage has never been high on the agenda of Pakistani governments. Officials and ministers like to talk about luring tourists from around the world to the country’s rich heritage and monumental geography, but Pakistan is failing to put in place mechanisms and infrastructure to ensure these treasures last for a few generations. Without the international pressure and financial support, these Buddhist relics and remnants like the Bamiyan Buddhas would have perished in the increasingly intolerant, lawless, ignorant and introverted society we are fast becoming.
The author works for the Jang Group