Meeting Pakistan’s Buddhists

Ammad Ali goes searching for a community little known and sparsely documented – heirs to a grand heritage from Antiquity

Meeting Pakistan’s Buddhists
They live on here – even though they are not too sure about when and how they settled the region. They have more than a dozen villages – dispersed and yet attached to each other, almost like like clints and grykes in a limestone pavement. They are the Buddhists of the Rohi desert. Pakistan is their home: where Buddhism once thrived and the finer points of the Buddha’s teachings were discussed and taught under the patronage of powerful rulers in the Gandhara civilisation.

Hundreds of Buddhist heritage sites are scattered across the length and breadth of Pakistan: crumbling testaments to the moral and cultural power that was once enjoyed by the tenets of the Noble Eightfold Path – the teachings attributed to the Buddha. Taxila, Sirkap, Takht-e-Bahi, Dharmarajika, Mohra Muradu are but a few of the names of sites that we are familiar with – where Stupas and carved stones speak of a flourishing Buddhist past.

A place of worship in a home, with a Moorat - which represents the Buddha

"I think making ourselves a temple could cause conflict and might encourage hatred against us. We have a 'moorat' as a symbol of Buddha in every home"

But over the centuries, things have changed. Buddhism, which was once the dominant religion of areas that are part of modern-day Pakistan, is today the creed of a minority amongst Pakistan’s religious minorities. Today Buddhists live mainly in Sindh and some parts of South Punjab.

In South Punjab, Pakistan’s Buddhists live primarily in the Rohi region.

The vestiges of Buddhism in Rohi or the Seraiki Wasaib in general include ancient sites at Patan Minara and Munde Shahid amongst many others.

Patan Minara is home to a building which according to many historians was the site of a Buddhist temple and monastery. It can still be seen depicted on the one rupee postage stamp of the former Bahawalpur state. Traditions assert that it consisted of three storeys. During the British Raj era, a brick was discovered from excavation which bore an inscription in Sanskrit, leading some to believe that the structure was erected in the time of Alexander the Great – but little is known for certain about this heritage site. As is noted by celebrated travel writer Salman Rashid, its architecture is similar to Hindu Shahya temples. Patan Minara is adorned with brick carvings that historians say is a pictorial representation of the Buddhist cella or temple.

A Baori Buddhist couple from Pakistan

The second important Buddhist site in the area is Munde Shahid, a ruined fort of great antiquity near Ahmedpur East and has what is known as a Naugaja tomb. According to colonial archaeologist Alexander Cunningham these Naugaja tombs are remains of statues of Buddha depicted lying down after his attainment of Nirvana. As Buddha was believed to have died with his face to the east, all the such statues are placed on a north-to-south axis. There were several Naugaja tombs scattered in South Punjab which may be regarded as some degree of evidence that Buddhism was the prevailing religion in the upper Sindh plain at the time of the Arab conquest in the 8th century.

In Bahawalpur, meanwhile, for centuries we find little documented history of Buddhists during the long period of Muslim dominance. The reasons for this may be political or religious in nature.

Presently on the outskirts of Mandi Yazman and Rahimyar Khan, a tiny Buddhist population has persisted. There is little, if any, correct data about their numbers. These Buddhists are commonly called Baori – or ‘Baori Buddhists’.

Lala Rajoo Raam, local community leader and political activist for the Buddhists

Lala Rajoo Raam is a local representative of the community, a councillor for Chak number 75 DB, Union Council number 88. He also twice contested elections for the Punjab assembly.

Lala Rajoo Raam is worried about his community. He is the only person with a matriculation-level education in village Chak 102 DB. “Good education facilities have always been my political slogan,” Rajoo says. “Most of the people in our community do not have CNIC cards – how could you expect any citizens’ rights? Our Population is exceedingly 16,000 persons but in papers it is far less than that figure. We had our temple before the Babri mosque attack in India. As you know, here in Bahawalpur city, many Hindu temples became targets for revenge – in that process, our temple was also demolished. After this we never built our temple again. We have good and friendly relations with the Muslims of neighbouring villages. I think making ourselves a temple could cause conflict and might encourage hatred against us. We have a ‘moorat’ as a symbol of Buddha in every home. We also celebrate Holi and Dewali each year. We gather each year at Baba Ghoosai – the place where every year we mark our religious festivals.”

Bhoorti, 15, looks after cattle when the men are out of the village

About the history and settlement of the Baori Buddhist community in Rohi, Lala Rajoo Raam has the following to share: “Before this we were gypsies – nomadic people. Depending on the weather conditions, unlike other scheduled castes, we prefer to be tenants or cultivators rather than becoming servants or employees of someone. So for instance, we do not work for brick kilns.”

During Z.A. Bhutto’s time and the process of land reforms, the community received ownership of their land – and 7 marla or 10 marla houses and 12 acres of land were allotted to them for houses. Today they have around 15 colonies in various villages of Mandi Yazman.

In the sweltering summers when the heat wave in Rohi is at its peak, most of the men of the community go to central Punjab, particularly the areas of Gujranwala and Sialkot, to participate in the cultivation of moonji and rice. They perform labour in the form of preparing rice paddies. Even the priests of the community go there to earn a living from such agrarian labour.

Baori Buddhist women in traditional attire

About local development efforts, Lala Rajoo Raam says:

“The pakki (metalled) streets of the village and basic facilities we got when M.P. Bhandara was our representative. The late Mr. Bhandara did his best for our rights. It is because of his struggle that a middle school for the village was established in 1992.”

It has proven difficult to continue operating the school, though.

“We raised funds and hired private teachers for the school, which lasted for eight years. The total strength of the school was more than 100 students, but now for more than three years, it remains a ‘ghost school’. Children of the area do not go to school. Their future is dark...”

As there was no representation of Buddhists in the national assembly, the late M.P. Bhandara stood for the rights of that community. Today Isphanyar M. Bhandara is a representative for the Buddhist community and the Kailash community from northern Pakistan – apart from his own Parsi community. His efforts in that context include financial assistance to the families.

Before the 2002 elections, members of parliament to represent religious minorities were elected via direct election through ballot. In the 1985 elections, the then President General Zia-ul-Haq allocated 10 reserved seats for religious minorities: 4 for Christians, 4 for Hindus, 1 for Ahmadis and 1 for the Parsis, Buddhists, Sikhs and other religious minorities. In 2002, the 10 seats reserved for non-Muslims were filled by proportional representation of political parties. Article 51 of the Constitution of Pakistan states: “The members to the seats reserved for non-Muslims shall be elected in accordance with law through proportional representation system of political parties’ lists of candidates on the basis of total number of general seats won by each political party in the National Assembly.”

Political workers hailing from the religious minority communities, such as Lala Rajoo Raam, are of the opinion that there ought to be direct elections on religious minorities’ seats. They believe that would be the only way to ensure that representatives would have a better understanding of local problems.

They share the view, increasingly unpopular in Pakistan today, that this is a country located in a region where historically there has been much pluralism – a place characterised by religious, sectarian and ethno-linguistic diversity on an immense scale. The full potential of this society cannot be unlocked until it provides equal opportunities for all its citizens.

As for the Baori Buddhists of Rohi, they may be equal citizens of Pakistan in law – but it would be hard to argue that such is the case in practice…