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IN THE AUTUMN OF 2001, WHILE WORKING with the then Department of Oriental Antiquities at the British Museum, I had a chance to speak of Afghanistan with the Guardian Sunday Observer. As the only available curator for South Asia, I was asked to voice the Museum's official response at that critical juncture--notwithstanding my apprehensions about gaining the requisite composure at a mere 26. The reporter who rang via satellite phone said he was in the control tower at Bagram airfield from where he could see US stealth bombers carpet-bombing the area.

I was shocked. "Not in My Name" read our placards, as I too had taken to the streets of London protesting Blairite Britain's decision to join the allied forces against Afghanistan, to no avail. I couldn't believe that "Begram", a site under which lay extraordinary evidence of nearly 2,000 years of migrations and layers of history, was being carpet-bombed. I had, in fact, just begun my career wondering if it was the fate of art historians to find their vocation only by scavenging through one wasted civilization heaped on another.

The "Begram" excavations had been known for 40 years, but were shown scant regard. The site was destroyed. My dilemma was that the attacks were funded by me as a taxpayer on the payroll of a British civil service, even as I was an Indian citizen who genetically came from Bannu, less than 250 kilometres as the crow flies from Bagram. I seemed liable to be in a conflict of identity.

Identity defeats objectivity, we were cautioned at university. But what, after all, is the 21st-century diasporic migrant's identity? Migrations are not a modern dynamic, but have been the norm for the region of Gandhara for millennia. The valleys of Kandahar, Ghazni and Peshawar that once attracted migrants from all over the world now export them. All this went through my mind in a snap second as I gave the reporter our "official response". Bluntly and boringly, unable to tell him all that I was thinking, I just said it was "tragic".

Of what use are graves if we neither respectfully let the ancients lie there nor harness the memory of the procession of civilizations past to pinch, irk or at least inform our present and remind us of our mistakes of needless violence and hatred--if we cannot move toward the richness that accompanies consciously bearing witness? Have we unlearnt nothing? How were past conflicts resolved, and how were terms for coexistence negotiated?

Tragically occupied as a land of terrorism, Gandhara continues to matter to us today not just for its natural resources and politics, but because of its role as a crucible of history. All over the world, from the most serious academic research projects and major art exhibitions (documenta 14, for instance) to television programmes and popular novels, the public is being encouraged to look at the ancient art of Gandhara again to see what lessons it can teach us about dealing with the migrations of large populations and the anxieties that come with globalization. The region has witnessed many waves of conflict, particularly in recent times; but it also has a long history of cosmopolitanism that allowed different local practices to coexist.

The Gandhara region's material culture is unique. On the one hand, the area is archaeologically rich as it was home to some of the earliest settled societies of Central and South Asia. At the same time, it has shifting nomadic societies, with rich performances, rituals and medical practices--which leave little archaeological record. The whispers of these intangible traditions are now being patiently reconstructed by historians. Thus, while we know that Gandhara was once the home of Zoroastrianism and Vedic cultures, these ancient non-image-worshippers did not leave behind much archaeological material that reveals their religious practice. The region has been examined by scholars for evidence of the earliest Sanskrit-speaking communities which coexisted with several ancient animistic, shamanistic and image-worshipping cults. Subsequently, its most well-known epoch was the period of Hellenistic cultural impact in the centuries following Alexander the Great's conquest which was to have a decisive impact on the history of Central and South Asia. The region then became the heartland of Mahayana Buddhist culture and was enriched by the traditions of its contiguous regions in north India from where these practices spread also to China, Korea and Japan. By the 5th century, Hindu temples had started being constructed in Bannu and by the 7th, there were several more in central Afghanistan. These Hindu-Shahis were followed by another dynasty called the Barmakids, famous because Ayurvedic physicians from their region set up the "Bimaristan" or hospital for Harun al-Rashid, the Caliph at Baghdad. Yet, little is known outside highly specialized circles about what happened in Gandhara between the Kushans and Timurids--and whether the art and architecture reveals evidence of coexistences that were harmonious or competitive and fraught.

A melting pot for lingual diversity and knowledge exchange, well-known translators and grammarians, be they experts in Sanskrit, Arabic, Bactrian, Greek, Pahlavi, Sogdian, Uyghur, Tokhari, Farsi, Hindko or Dari, have worked here for centuries. The land of the Ghaznavids and subsequentiy the Timurids, thus, inherited a formidable legacy which they, in turn, developed further. Once again, the region became a nodal point of disseminating ideas for the many Sultanates and Mughals of South Asia.

This issue of Marg provides a rich view of some extraordinary artistic masterpieces that have been carefully curated to reveal overlapping traditions of Gandhara's history. These, along with the selection of essays (with detailed notes to further readings), explore the region's lesser-known epochs to build bridges between the more celebrated chapters of its past. They examine migrations during different periods--from the Bronze Age, to those following Alexander the Great, to the establishment of Hindu temples under the Shahi kings and the movement of Ghaznavids and Mughals from there to other parts--to see what an enormous impact the region has had in shaping Asian culture and allow us to celebrate the coexistence of its multiple identities.

Caption: Head of the Buddha, Gandhara, c. 4th-5th century AD. Stucco with polychrome; 29.2(h) x 18(w) x 19(d) cm.

This iconic head of the Buddha remains one of the most famous objects from Gandhara and was used for the cover of a volume of Marg in 7985. Much has changed in our understanding of the region's history, and this present issue takes us beyond the binary of "India and Greece" to explore the many other traditions that met in the region. The head was previously attributed to Hadda, but it is likely that it may have come from the Taxila region. It probably belonged to a life-size figure modelled in high relief that would likely have been part of a large-scale narrative panel. Gandharan stucco, as visible here, was originally richly polychromed: the lips, eyelids and hair show traces of red. The face was shaped from a mould; the hair and other features were modelled by hand. Examples of such moulds have been found in excavations at Gandharan monasteries close to where the finished pieces were installed. Sculpting in stucco and fired clay carried on well into the 8th century, by when artists had shifted to making Hindu deities instead.

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Author:Ahuja, Naman P.
Publication:Marg, A Magazine of the Arts
Geographic Code:9AFGH
Date:Jun 1, 2019
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Next Article:Bronze Age Relationships between Central Asia and the Indus: Archaeology, Language and Genetics.

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