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Gandhara's Heritage in Pakistan: Research and Conservation.

THE ARTISTIC TRADITIONS OF GREATER Gandhara covered a vast geographical area and flourished over a long span of time. A variety of stylistic developments exemplify the chronology of different periods. Texts and archaeological and art-historical evidence are like the tesserae of a complex cultural mosaic: only by putting together a significant number of pieces can the picture be seen as a whole. A number of new sites have been excavated in Greater Gandhara which shed further light on the region's artistic traditions as well as civilizations. The threats to the maintenance and conservation of the sites, manuscripts and objects are several: urbanization and "development", but equally, apathy or societal disconnection. These were matters outlined in a 2015 UNESCO report. This essay discusses the state of education, research and conservation of Gandhara's heritage. It looks into the work being done on the ground and the efforts being made for the conservation of the diverse range of sites and artefacts found in the region.

Gandharan sites are found in Pakistan from the Jhelum river to the Swat and Peshawar valleys. The art is significant because it continued the legacy of Hellenistic culture, and in turn, once assimilated, it further impacted the arts of China, Korea and Japan. Peshawar, Swat and much of northern Pakistan lay astride a portion of the old Silk Road, the ancient highway that transported riches between the East and West. Later, in the 7th century, the Swat valley remained a significant centre of Tantric Buddhism, and the Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang described the valley as home to hundreds of Buddhist sculptures, monasteries and stupas. There are thousands of sites scattered along the various routes and passes leading to Afghanistan and China. Only a fraction has been excavated so far.

Gandharan Cultural Studies in Pakistan

The initial pioneering work on the Gandhara region by British and Italian missions led by Alexander Cunningham, John Marshall and Giuseppe Tucci before independence have been well documented, but the work of local institutions has received little attention. At the time of independence there was hardly any institution in Pakistan where archaeology as a subject was being taught at graduate level. A few professionals who had trained under British archaeologists were doing the practical work under the umbrella of the government's Department of Archaeology. After independence, Professor Ahmad Hasan Dani, one of those trained by Mortimer Wheeler, made significant contributions in the study of Gandharan art and architecture. He started teaching in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) but later joined the University of Peshawar to establish the Department of Archaeology there in 1962. The aim of his programme was to train professional archaeologists and equip them with the latest practical techniques as well as the history, languages and ethics of archaeology. These graduates later filled the requirement of the government department and in turn also served their academic institution. The Department of Archaeology at Peshawar is still at the forefront of teaching and research. As its head, the first successful enterprise of Dr Dani was the discovery of a prehistoric cave at Sanghao, Mardan in 1962. The second major discovery was that of Gandharan grave culture in Timergara, Dir and Swat valley. Dr Dani also excavated Shaikhan Dheri near Charsada and found a courtyard house of a Buddhist teacher named Naradhaka (Arif and Mahmood-ul-Hasan 2014: 73-83). After Dr Dani left the department in 1962 to join the University of Islamabad, Dr Farzand Durrani took charge as head. The department regularly publishes a bulletin Ancient Pakistan that includes research articles and excavation reports with an emphasis on Gandhara.

Dr Ahmad Hasan Dani served as the Dean of Social Sciences and Professor of History at the University of Islamabad (now Quaid-e-Azam University, QAU) while continuing to supervise archaeological and historical research. In 1967 QAU was authorized by the Ministry of Education, Government of Pakistan, to establish a Centre for the Study of the Civilizations of Central Asia in order to cooperate with UNESCO as a participating member, representing Pakistan in its programme on Central Asia, QAU set up the centre and the name was changed to Taxila Institute of Asian Civilizations (TIAC). In 1997, Dani became its Honorary Director and held the position until the time of his death. In 2005, TIAC collaborated with the Exploration Branch of the Department of Archaeology, Government of Pakistan, in the excavation of the monastic complex of Badalpur (Ashraf Khan et al. 2014:85-116). The work on the stupa still continues today (figures 1 and 2). The actual limestone buildings were made using semi-ashlar and diaper construction in mud mortar with Kanjur stone mouldings. The same technique was applied by conservators when replacing the falling stone blocks. During excavations the archaeologists and students of TIAC discovered a huge number of antiquities such as pottery, gold and copper coins, seals and sealings, beads, iron objects and grinding mills dated from the 1st to 4th century AD. But the most remarkable discovery has been a Mathura-style sculpture of the Buddha made from reddish sandstone. The sculpture depicts a cross-legged Buddha seated on a throne with Dharmachakra symbols on the soles of both feet. The right hand is in abhaya mudra with a wheel of law on the palm. A bodhi or pipal tree is engraved at the back of the sculpture. A similar Mathura-style Buddha has also been unearthed from the surface of Bhari Dheri in Taxila valley. These discoveries make clear that images of Buddha were brought from Mathura and presented to the Gandharan monasteries by devotees/monks in the 2nd century AD. Other excavated works include a Bodhisatva Maitreya and a stupa-shaped relic casket in schist stone. Apart from the main monastery compound, there is another relatively smaller monastic compound on the southern side of the main monastery with a water tank in the middle.

In 2010 the institute was permitted to enrol students in MSc, MPhil and PhD programmes in Archaeology. Other institutes of higher learning are also imparting specialized training according to the regions in which they are located. The Department of Archaeology, Shah Abdul Latif University Khairpur (established 1976) specializes in Indus Civilization sites. It also publishes the periodical Ancient Sind, largely focused on the protohistoric period. Between 2002 and 2008, the government of Pakistan decided to promote higher education in the country by establishing new universities in each district and founding new departments in existing universities. The Department of Archaeology, University of the Punjab (that specializes in the Indus Civilization) was established in 2004. In the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) departments of archaeology were set up in the newly established Hazara University (2008) and University of Malakand (2011). The universities specialize in Gandhara art and architecture. Hazara University also publishes a research journal Pakistan Heritage which focuses primarily on Gandharan heritage. These departments undertake small-scale excavations, collaborate with the foreign missions and work with government organizations.

Federal and Provincial Departments of Archaeology

Prior to 2010, the Pakistan Department of Archaeology was the sole organization to manage the sites and permit licenses to undertake field exploration. It also managed provincial departments, field offices and museums. In 2008, after the passage of the 18th Amendment to the Pakistan Constitution, the provinces were empowered to manage their own sites and museums, and to undertake exploration and conservation. In this situation, the jurisdiction of the Federal Department of Archaeology is now limited to the capital territory of Islamabad, while provincial departments of archaeology manage the heritage within their respective regions. Surveys have been conducted to make a complete inventory of sites and monuments. The Department of Archaeology KPK alone has more than 6,000 sites, the majority of them belonging to the Gandhara period. The federal and provincial departments work in close collaboration with universities and a number of projects are underway. Some of these have received financial support from foreign donor agencies.

The Federal Department of Archaeology previously excavated Jinnan Wali Dheri in Haripur district (figure 3). Important finds include fragments of mural painting in the corridor of the monastery. The stupa and monastery was conserved with the financial support of the American Ambassador's Fund in 2012 (Ashraf Khan and Mahmood-ul-Hasan 2008: 302-07). The Department is currently busy excavating a Kushan-period stupa site built between 200 and 400 ad, located about two kilometres from the Giri Buddhist monastic complex in Taxila valley, and two kilometres from the Shah Allah Ditta caves in Islamabad. The preliminary excavation exposed the archaeological remains of a colossal Buddhist structure, which measures 10.15 x metres. The base of the stupa is made of lime and kanjur stone, with semi-ashlar and diaper masonry. The base was originally coated with lime plaster, and the drum was made of kanjur stone extracted from the Shah Allah Ditta caves. The exposed architecture of the stupa presented masonry similar to that done during the reconstruction of the Dharmarajika stupa in Taxila, which dates back to the 3rd century AD, as well as the Bhamala and Badalpur stupas. The Federal Department of Archaeology and Peshawar University also have conducted important excavations since the 1960s, particularly in the Swat valley. The work has brought to light several important sites, the most significant being Andandheri, Butkara III, Chatpat, Marjanai, Nimogram, Gumbatuna and Shnaisha, significantly enhancing the record since colonial times.

The Department of Archaeology KPK also excavated the world heritage site of Bhamala, in Taxila valley, along with Hazara University and the University of Wisconsin, usa. A total of nine chapels on the eastern side of the stupa facing west have been exposed (figures 4-6) and archaeologists have also discovered the remains of a huge statue depicting the Buddha's Mahaparinirvana, which, at 14 metres long, is the largest known Gandhara statue (figure 7). This is one of the very few sites to have a cruciform foundation for the stupa--a stupa type, it has been suggested, that was usually reserved for the Buddha himself.

The colossal image's right leg and a portion of the left are covered with drapery. Its feet are bare and shoulders broken. While no further information is available so far, the pattern of the drapery indicates that the shoulders were also covered with it. Iconographically, another important discovery is of images of the Buddha with double halos which are unique and do not exist in the other Buddhist sites of Gandhara. The Parinirvana scene was flanked by other images in terracotta which were exposed in a fragmentary state during the course of the excavation. All these sculptures are part of a long chamber to the west of the main stupa facing towards east. Access to this chamber was through three openings at regular intervals. The chamber was made of stone in semi-ashlar masonry. In addition, a total of 510 antiquities, among them terracotta and stucco sculptures as well as architectural elements like iron objects including nails, hooks and door fittings, were unearthed from the surface of Bhari Dheri in Taxila valley. Hair clips, copper artefacts and 14 coins of the later Kushan period were also recovered (Samad 2017:1-10; Hameed et al. 2017: 97-104).

Problems and Threats

Located near residential areas and on hilltops, these heritage sites are facing a host of issues. On the one hand, considering the value of the artefacts, there are cases of illegal excavations and theft. The shortage of staff and lack of funding prevents the management of these sites. However, urban expansion and modern development perhaps pose greater threats to preservation.

The Swat Motorway is located along the Gandhara Cultural Heritage Corridor (GCHC). This mega project needs a large quantity of filling and other material (soil and stones) and related products from the nearby mountains. Of all the sites located in GCHC, the Chanaka-Dherai site is in the Red Zone in terms of high risk and threat of annihilation, for two reasons. First, its excavation by the Japanese Archaeological Mission in the 1960s was not followed by any proper preservation, conservation and restoration. Second, it is less than 500 metres from the new route and an easy prey for contractors. Although the Department of Archaeology KPK remains on high alert, some sites have already been disturbed. In the Manglaur valley at the locality of Shingrai, a stupa remains ruined on the right side of the Banjot Khwar: it was blasted by the landowner for the construction and extension of his house. In Banjot village the reliefs near the bus-stand were blasted for road extension. Near the main bridge of Manglaur in the locality of Salanda, just above the road leading towards Malamjaba, there was a rock-carving, now blasted by the locals for construction of a mosque.

The stone-crushing industry has also damaged Gandharan sites. Apart from the locality of Shahbaz Garhi, a number of archaeological sites in the Pajja hills in Mardan district are also under high risk as these hills are the only source of mining for construction material in the region. Although the Supreme Court of Pakistan has taken serious note of the illegal crushing industry, the Department of Archaeology KPK has to stay vigilant to the constant threats in the Mardan hills so that sites do not disappear.

The rock-carvings at Thalpan in Chilas, Baltistan, will be submerged after the construction of the Diamer-Bhasha dam on the Indus, estimated to be completed in 2023. It is predicted that 37,051 carvings on 5,928 rock-face boulders will be inundated after the construction of the dam. As far as is known, no measures have yet been taken for their protection.

Officials apart, the lack of awareness about the importance of heritage among the public at large is equally a significant threat. Unexcavated sites near settlements are frequently encroached on for the construction of houses, one instance being the important site of Sarai Khola in the Taxila valley. Remains are removed before authorities get wind of them so as not to stop "development". This is worsened by the pilfering of artefacts from unprotected sites. Unauthorized excavations are being carried out in remote areas. The government does not have enough resources to protect all the sites and instal proper mechanisms for their security.

The frequent illegal excavation of the precious heritage of Gandhara and its smuggling to foreign countries is an alarming issue. A large number of sculptures have been removed from stupa sites located near the Wapda colony at the site of Ghazi Barotha. Rock-carvings near Sapalbandai bridge in Mughazar valley, and the one near Slampur area known as Baluo, are now completely missing. Similarly the owner of the land has blasted the rock-carving and inscription of Teerat area in Madiyan. In July 2012, the police seized a large container filled with nearly 400 artefacts in the southern port city of Karachi, waiting to be smuggled out of the country. About 40 per cent were found to be genuine, including nearly 100 Gandhara sculptures.

Management and Conservation

Gandhara heritage is spread over a large territory and the Department of Archaeology KPK has limited manpower and staff to safeguard these sites. The main emphasis has been only on preservation and arresting further decay. In this situation archaeology departments all over Pakistan are enclosing the sites with barbed wire. The wild growth of vegetation and accumulated water cause disintegration of the stone masonry; and most efforts are directed to preventing such destruction. Recently, an extensive exercise was done to remove vegetation from the entire Sirkap site (figures 9 and 10).

The actual conservation of historic sites and monuments is very limited. Six years after the overthrow of the Afghan Taliban in Kabul in 2001, the Pakistani Taliban attempted to equal its militant brethren's infamous bombing of the Bamiyan Buddhas by trying to destroy an enormous meditating Buddha sculpture in Swat valley. The 6-metre-tall Buddha, one of the largest in the world, was chiselled into a cliff in Jahanabad in the 6th century (figure 8). Unlike the Afghan Taliban, which used artillery shells and high explosives to reduce the Bamiyan statues to rubble, the Pakistani Taliban managed only to deface the Buddha at Jahanabad, as well as a statue of Padmapani on an isolated rock in the middle of an apple orchard. No different was the story of the rock-reliefs in the area of Kokarai village in the Jambil valley (Sardar 2016: pp. 63-77). 2012, the Italian Archaeological Mission in Swat started the restoration of Buddha's face. Advanced 3D scanning techniques, using equipment from the University of Padua, were used to model the sculpture. The process lasted four years and was eventually completed in October 2016.


A significant number of Gandharan sites and artefacts in Pakistan still need to be explored, researched and conserved. Although questions of style, iconography and chronology have been discussed by scholars, much can be potentially redressed if the new material is included in their research. A state-of-the-art Gandhara Research Centre fully equipped with conservation laboratories and a library is required in the heart of Gandhara, which could also impart education in ancient languages such as Sanskrit and Kharoshti to decipher historical inscriptions, for which there is a scarcity of scholars at present. The desire for cultural tourism must be accompanied by strong efforts towards better awareness about the need for preservation and conservation of this universal heritage.


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Caption: 1 Ruins of the monastery at Badalpur. COURTESY THE AUTHOR.

Caption: 2 Sculptures recovered from Badalpur. PHOTOGRAPH: TIAC.

Caption: 3 Remains of the stupa complex at Jinnan Wali Dheri. COURTESY THE AUTHOR.



Caption: 6 Excavation and conservation of monastic cells at Bhamala. COURTESY HAZARA UNIVERSITY, DEPARTMENT OF ARCHAEOLOGY KPK. UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN, USA.

Caption: 7 Remains of the 14-metre-long statue of Buddha's Mahaparinirvana at the Bhamala stupa. COURTESY HAZARA UNIVERSITY, DEPARTMENT OF ARCHAEOLOGY KPK. UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN, USA.

Caption: 8 The Jahanabad statue after restoration. COURTESY THE AUTHOR.

Caption: 9 Operation to remove vegetation from the remains at Sirkap. COURTESY THE AUTHOR.

Caption: 10 Remains of the Kunala stupa near Sirkap. COURTESY THE AUTHOR.

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Author:Rehman, Abdul
Publication:Marg, A Magazine of the Arts
Geographic Code:9PAKI
Date:Jun 1, 2019
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