When the Buddha came to Peshawar

Areeba Shah talks to Dr. Amjad Hussain about the past of his beloved city

When the Buddha came to Peshawar
Some people forget where they come from but others hold steadfastly onto their cultural values and stick to their roots.  For Pakistani-American, Dr. Amjad Hussain, the latter is very much the case. Alongside being bestowed with the title of “Baba-e-Peshawar” or ‘Father of Peshawar’ in 1998, Dr. Hussain is well-renowned for being a cardiothoracic surgeon and the author of at least sixteen books.

Born and raised in Peshawar to a middle-class family of six children, Dr. Hussain came to the United States to pursue his education in medical school. During this time, he also went back to Peshawar and worked there for three years.

Upon returning, he made Toledo, Spain, his home and lived there ever since. Even miles away, Peshawar still holds a special place in his heart. He visits the city on a yearly basis and continues to teach at his alma mater, the Khyber Medical College.

The Kanishka casket, discovered in Peshawar - the Buddha is depicted in the centre

Legend has it that the Buddha sat under a tree in Peshawar. Here, he predicted that after his death, a king would build a magnificent stupa

“I would never be able to return what I have received.” Dr. Hussain says. “It’s my way to keep connected with the people, the culture, the languages of my native region.” The city brings back memories of Dr. Hussain’s early days, reminding him to forever be appreciative of the land that has deeply ingrained in him a sense of belonging.To this day whenever he returns to Peshawar, he visits one of his teachers, Dr. Nasar Khan.

“I owe him everything because that man has given me life and I’m so grateful to him,” Dr. Hussain remembers fondly.

Even with his busy schedule, he finds it easy to make time for things that excite him. Writing is one of those things.

“My books are all about culture, history, religion and philosophy,” Dr. Hussain says. “About four or five of my books are about Peshawar, the city of my birth.”

His latest book From the Khyber Pass to the Great Black Swamp was published after his wife passed away. The memoir has a collection of all the letters Dr. Hussain wrote to his wife. He adds the book was well received. “I don’ t believe in having a small canvas. If I had a small canvas, I would be writing about the same, narrow topics and that make one a generalist – not a journalist.”

The famous sculpture of Kanishka, once ruler of modern-day Pakistan
and Afghanistan

“I have been brought up in a certain religion, and I practice it to the best of my abilities, but I do not have the intellectual capacity to tell someone that he or she is wrong,” Dr. Hussain says.

In addition to writing, Dr. Hussain dedicates his time to traveling and lecturing at universities to raise awareness on issues of significance to Peshawar’s citizens, particularly their rich legacy. His latest talks highlight the significance of the Buddhist Stupa.

In his view, history is a continuum that doesn’t have a starting or ending point. And in this perspective, organised religion is relatively a late arrival on the scene of history.

Dr. Hussain, at least from the perspective of our region, notes that the oldest religions that we know today are Buddhism, Judaism and Hinduism. The people who practice Hinduism and Judaism weren’t always Jews, meaning there was conversion somewhere, sometime.

This is of particular interest to Peshawar’s modern-day residents: Dr. Hussain never fails to emphasise that Peshawar has been a continually inhabited city, possibly going back some 5,000 years.

Buddhism came to Peshawar from the Gandhara Empire, which encompassed present-day Pakistan, Afghanistan, a western swathe of India and a part of China, Dr. Hussain likes to point out.

The archaeological evidence suggests, with little room for doubt, that Buddhism was the religion practiced at the time in Peshawar and its environs. Buddhism stayed strong for many a century until somewhere in the eighth or ninth century AD, when Islam began to supplant it.

“That some people here want to negate or cut their link to the past is painful to me and I do not believe this makes me any less of a Muslim,” Dr. Hussain emphasises. “Of course, I’m proud of being Muslim, but I will not deny that my ancestors were Buddhist.”

He adds that this applies equally even to the Taliban – whose ancestors would have been as Buddhist as his own!

“History keeps changing these things. Philosophies and religious perspectives come and go,” Dr. Hussain says. “So, for instance, if today the Egyptians were to say that they had nothing to do with the Pharaohs, this is simply contradicting history,” Dr. Hussain argues. He believes the same applies to certain religious extremist forces who wish to rewrite our own past in a fundamentalist vein.

The reason why the Stupa holds such value for Dr. Hussain is how it loomed large, in every sense, in his childhood. Growing up, he heard stories about the magnificent King Kanishka in Gandhara during the first century. Legend has it that Buddha came to Peshawar and sat under a tree that was present in Dr. Hussain’s childhood. Here, Buddha predicted that after his death, a king would build a magnificent stupa.

The prediction of the great sage was fulfilled. 300 to 400 years after Buddha’s death, Kanishka built a Stupa at least 400 feet high. It was the tallest building of its time in all of India, China and the Peshawar region – and included a tomb. In the fourth or fifth century, Chinese pilgrims came to Peshawar and left detailed accounts of the Stupa that was later excavated by American archeologist D. B. Spooner in 1909. He found the remnants of the Stupa, the platform which it was built on and a casket containing bone fragments which some believe to be those of the Buddha himself!

“And that had to be the eighth wonder of the ancient world.” Dr. Hussain says.

He adds that the British Indian government gave the bone fragments to Burma. Today, the Stupa is kept inside a temple in Mandalay. The casket, four inches high and five inches in diameter, is still in the Peshawar Museum where Dr. Hussain gave a presentation last January.

For the next few years, he will be working on three book projects including abook of essays, a short fiction story with a Pakistani background and a book about people who he has met within the past 50 years that have left a mark on him.

“This coming year I’m going to be 80 years old,” he says…