KARACHI CHRONICLE: The market for Gandhara art

Business Recorder (Pakistan)
JULY 14, 2012 NARGIS KHANUM

The large number of relics and artifacts seized by Police last week, from a trailer-mounted container in Landhi and a godown in Korangi, indicates there is a flourishing market for Gandhara art. If there were no buyers, there would be no smugglers. This is a matter that requires the attention of the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) so as to prevent the total loss of a unique heritage.

The potential buyers of smuggled Gandhara art are people for whom the relics and artifacts have a religious significance. They are concentrated in Asia. Other buyers are connoisseurs and collectors of antiques, especially art surviving from ancient times. They are to be found among the idle rich all over the world. Neither type of people feel guilty about buying smuggled goods.

The theme of Gandhara art is Buddhism. It includes art in sculpture in stone, bronze, and stucco, in coffers, plaques and bowls and objects of all descriptions. It had its birth in the reign of Kanishka, Emperor of the Kushans (128-51 C.E.) in the Peshawar valley. Buddhism flourished in the entire Pathan belt from what is now Pakistan to Afghanistan since the time of the Mauriya King Asoka. But until the time of the Kushans Buddha was not represented in any art form because he was revered as a sage who gave the world its first system of philosophy based on tolerance and compassion, called the Hinayana (Lesser Vehicle). Kanishka, appearing 200 years after Asoka, elevated Buddha to a divinity or god. And when there is a god there have to be idols for people to worship. Kanishka also crafted the Buddhist religion, called Mahayana (Greater Vehicle).

It is astonishing that a place like Peshawar is the birth place of a religion and a pictorial art form. The place is so thoroughly Muslim in culture that it is hard to believe it could ever have been the originator of idolatry. Eversince the Pathans embraced Islam in the 11th-century C.E., they have pretended they were never anything else, neither Buddhists nor Hindus; but history and the existence of Gandhara art is a cruel reminder of their past idolatry. Early attempts to get rid of the evidence were not efficient since most of the objects and sculptures were massive. They did, however, scratch out the faces of figures in the relief stone sculptures. Religious fanaticism as well as the availability of such things as bombs and hauling equipment and transport capable of moving heavy objects, the vandalism of Gandhara art and its smuggling has picked up apace.

The obliteration of Gandhara art seems to have the approval of religious fanatics. At least the smuggling has their tacit approval, if not aid and abetment. This is evident also from the fact that wary politicians, social leaders, our so-called intellectuals and art lovers did not express shock to learn about the huge number of relics and artifacts seized by the Police in Karachi. Some may have clicked their tongue in disapproval, but none dared speak out in defence of a heritage gradually disappearing.

The world was shocked at the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamian but is silent about the on-going destruction and disappearance of Gandhara art from Pakistan and Afghanistan. Surprisingly, even Hindu Indians were shocked when the Buddhas of Bamian were blown up. Hindus disapprove of Buddhism and have done their utmost to obliterate it from their country. It now exists only among the Dalits or untouchables. In the Peshawar valley, too, they were the first who vandalized Gandhara art and torched the great wooden relic tower built by Kanishka at Ganj Gate outside Peshawar city. This was in the period when they ruled in Peshawar valley and did their best to impose Brahminical values. (The tower was rebuilt but finally destroyed by Mahmud Ghaznavi in the 11th-century C.E.)

Previously, only easily removed small sculptures and objects were smuggled. The haul in Karachi last week contained heavy sculptures of life-size idols which the Karachi District East Police could move only with the aid of a crane. The removal of large sculptures obviously could not have been done by man power alone at the site from which they were taken.

There is ever reason, therefore, to believe that the smuggling of Gandhara art is a well-organised, sophisticated international racket. It is imperative the racket is exposed in entirety, from the source in Pakistan to the receivers and customers in other countries.

The black-market trade in Gandhara art needs to be seen as a crime as evil as opium smuggling. Active measures need to be taken to end it. So far, smuggling of artifact is treated as if it was nothing too serious. There is the Antiquities Act 1975 but it is a toothless law. Gandhara art is uniquely a Pakistani heritage. The art form spread into Afghanistan but it was born and developed in Peshawar. Afghanistan may claim inheritance to pieces made in this art form but Gandhara art is ours alone. Can we afford to loose this heritage?

Copyright Business Recorder, 2012

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