Vesak 2024: A Glorious Celebration Of Pakistan's Gandharan Heritage

If Pakistan continues on this path, celebrating its religious diversity, it shall do wonders to burnish an image globally as a 'Rainbow' country that welcomes every way of living

Vesak 2024: A Glorious Celebration Of Pakistan's Gandharan Heritage

Normally, government ministries and departments that are not performing to the desired level make the headlines. But what generally tends to be missed by the news cycle is when a prime government institution pulls off an Ace or a Hole-in-One. This is exactly what the Ministry of Foreign Affairs did when it organised Vesak 2024, a two-day symposium and exhibition titled "Gandhara to the World," on 28 and 29 May 2024 at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Islamabad. Foreign Secretary Muhammad Syrus Sajjad Qazi, who has a tied-up routine which demands attention from him on each issue, still found the time to focus on subjects whose projection shall captivate national and global attention on Pakistan and send a subtle message of religious tolerance and of being a 'Rainbow Country' where followers of all religions happily co-exist.  

Under the Foreign Secretary's dynamism, a team led by Imran A. Siddiqi, the additional foreign secretary and a talented foreign service officer, with equally competent colleagues including director generals Iyas Nizami and Amjad Aziz Qazi, and other officers including Azmat Farooq, Adeel Khokhar, Zulfikar Malik, Aisha Gulzar, and Ali Aziz Khan stitched a captivating programme to showcase Pakistan's Gandhara Heritage in Vesak 2024. Vesak is amongst the most important Buddhist festivals. The day commemorates the birth, enlightenment, and death of Siddhartha Gautama, commonly known as Buddha. All these important events are said to have happened on the same day throughout his life. Vesak is also known as Buddha Jayanti, Buddha Purnima, and Buddha Day - celebrated as a holiday by Buddhists and some Hindus.  

The symposium, hosted by the Foreign Office, explored various themes and dimensions of Pakistan's Gandharan heritage and Buddha's life. For this purpose, it brought together a galaxy of monks and scholars, both local and foreign, including from Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Thailand, Nepal, and China. Additionally, tourism professionals shared their expertise and knowledge, ranging from pre-Islamic influences, art and architecture from the Muslim era in Pakistan, ancient urasa (Uraśā or Araśa, which still survives in the Damtauṛ or Dhamtauṛ valley, Abbottabad, Pakistan), Buddhist relics, a communication bridge between Pakistan and China, reflecting the Gandhara culture in media, and a road map to future opportunities for Gandharan pilgrimage. 

Chaudhry Salik Hussain, the Federal Minister for Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony, spoke about: "promoting tolerance and understanding to create a world where all people, regardless of their faith, can live in harmony and peace," resonated with the audience and the invitees. 

Jahanzeb Khan, a young and presentable officer, conducted the two-day seminar most admirably, receiving accolades from the audience.

For the young audience, who came from leading universities of Islamabad, it was a fascinating experience to understand Buddha and Gandhara, especially the Hellenistic cultural influence in the northern Indus Valley, including Gandhara. The youngsters agreed this "fascinating and proud heritage" should be included in their school syllabi, and the result, as aptly summed up by historian Ammad Ali, "Pakistan lacks an institutional approach, as universities have not produced significant knowledge on Gandhara." 

The audience included 25 international delegates, venerable monks, the diplomatic corps, civil society, academia, artists, archaeological professionals, officials from foreign governments and inquisitive citizens. The participation of Vidura Wickramanayake, the Minister of Buddhasasana, Religious and Cultural Affairs of Sri Lanka, in the symposium, reflected the significance attached to this conference by countries where a majority practice Buddhism. Theravada Buddhism is the largest and official religion of Sri Lanka.

The challenge for visitors including myself, whose eyes could hardly stay still, was to decide whether to enlarge our knowledge by known authorities on the Gandhara civilisation and the life of the Buddha in the hall or to go outside the hall to 'brighten' our eyes while looking at the impressive exhibition that included sculptures and various types of paintings relating to Buddhism and Gandhara. One was awestruck looking at the figure of Buddha in various poses, like the Buddha in Meditation Pose and Sitting Bodhisattva holding a lotus in both hands. The utter fascination of watching the making of Gandhara art pieces in ancient traditions by Iftikhar Ahmed, the artist, was the icing on the cake. The exhibition outside the hall was tastefully prepared by the National College of Arts Rawalpindi (NCA) and the Rawalpindi, Taxila, and Islamabad Museums, who are to be commended for the perfection they brought in keeping the visitors captivated during the two-day symposium. 

Not to be stumped by social critics, a free hand was given to highly talented female artists, who exhibited the best they had in their various artworks related to Gandhara, which overwhelmed me and other viewers. Artists used various mediums, including graphite on paper, carving on stone dry point, engraving on walnut paper, bloom oil on canvas, clay, digital art, engraving of greystone and gauche, charcoal on waste and watercolour. Travelling the world of art is a fascinating and unforgettable experience. However, the labyrinths of art are as complex and intricate as they are enjoyable. Our female artists reflected this country's impressive artistic talent and were ready to share this mesmerising and memorable experience at such an international event. 

No one can doubt that the wealth of knowledge shared by eminent speakers from home and abroad provided a quantum jump to the understanding of Buddhism and Gandhara heritage for first-timers. The congregation was addressed by the likes of Sri Lankan Minister to Ven. Thich Nhat Tu, Ven.  Anil Sankya, Om Charan Amatya, Stefano Bettera, Prof Li, Dr Ghani Rehman, Prof Shakir Ullah, Nadeem Tarar, Tariq Chaudhry, Aftab Rana, Imran Shaukat, Ijlal Hussain, Zahoor Durrani and Sanmei Wen of Tsinghua University. Prime Minister Shabaz Sharif, Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Ishaq Dar graciously received these distinguished guests.

The recommendations of the symposium, in brief, were to make Pakistan a gateway of Gandhara tourism by relaxing the visa regime, training tour guides (a push towards job opportunities), importance of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) in promoting the Gandhara Civilization, making Taxila a Mecca for Buddhists from across the world (Road Map to future Gandhara Pilgrimage), promoting replicas of Gandhara art for tourists to take home, initiating direct flights to countries that have Buddhist followers, setting up of Interfaith and Mediation Centres. A bolt from the sky for tour operators was the prayer that if the government takes the right steps in conjunction with the tourism industry, Pakistan can attract millions of Buddhist tourists over the next three years.

Pakistani diplomats worldwide understand that their country is known for its Islamic heritage, but it also holds within its borders a rich and diverse history that includes significant Buddhist influences. This is the motivation for our missions abroad to consistently share Pakistan's rich heritage and cuisine. Recently, missions have held events showcasing the cultural art of Gandhara in key capitals such as Paris, Tokyo, and Beijing. It is Pakistan's pride that this ancient Buddhist heritage, located within its borders, dates centuries before the advent of Islam in the region, and was a profound period when culture and religion flourished. From the ancient city of Taxila to the Buddhist ruins of Takht-i-Bahi, Pakistan's landscape is dotted with remnants of its rich Buddhist past. 

One of the most remarkable contributions of the Gandhara civilisation is its distinctive art and architecture, known as Gandharan art. This unique style, developed between the 1st century BC and the 7th century AD, is characterised by its syncretism, blending Greco-Roman, Persian, and Indian artistic elements. The result was an exquisite array of sculptures, reliefs, and frescoes that depicted Buddhist themes with a Hellenistic touch.

The gathering at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs occurred at a time when the country, according to historian Ammad Ali, was celebrating its civilisational past, projecting an image of tolerance and welcoming Buddhist pilgrims. In recent years, Pakistan has been making efforts to mainstream itself as a Buddhist-friendly country. Monks from East Asian countries have been visiting prominent sites where they have publicly performed religious prayers and attended conferences and symposiums on the Gandharan civilisation. It reflects the efforts made in the country to reclaim its non-Muslim heritage by restoring Buddhist religious sites and inviting monks to offer prayer at ancient Buddhist sites in Pakistan.

If Pakistan continues on this path, celebrating its religious diversity, it shall do wonders to burnish an image globally as a 'Rainbow' country that welcomes every way of living. Lest we forget: ancient Gandhara is a melting pot of sufism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Hinduism, Kalash, Christianity, and ethnic tourism. 

Buddha taught the world the way to enlightenment through morality, meditation, and wisdom. Vesak 2024 brought Gautama Buddha's message: "If you light a lamp for somebody, it will also brighten your path." I am anxiously waiting for Vesak 2025 to enrich me even more.