Sunday, 8 September 2013

Chinese whispers in Buddha land

A team of archaeologists from Hazara University in Mansehra excavating in Udegram, Swat.
The Unesco World Heritage site of Takht-i-Bahi in Mardan where a Buddhist monastery complex survives on the crest of a hill. It was founded in the first century AD. PHOTOS:DR MUHAMMAD ZAHIR OF HAZARA UNIVERSITYA team of archaeologists from Hazara University in Mansehra excavating in Udegram, Swat.
History is hard enough to piece together from shards of pottery. The storyline is further distorted in some European and Chinese museums if they unknowingly acquire smuggled artifacts from Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. The relics have often been displayed with labels that have either incomplete or misconstrued information, say museum officials. For example, they can say a piece is from Pakistan or Afghanistan. If Pakistan wants to reclaim it, then, the foreign museum rejects the request and tells it to settle the matter with Afghanistan first.
Murky sourcing is to blame. For instance, many Gandhara Civilisation pieces that find their way into museums and homes across the world are not properly documented as they have been dug up by farmers and subsequently hawked by middlemen across the globe. No one has kept track. Formal archaeological digs are expensive and the government hasn’t been able to keep up.
Archaeologists estimate that there are 22,000 art pieces from the Gandhara Civilisation in Pakistan, but the number circulating in the international market, officially and unofficially, is suspected to be much higher.
This map shows the smattering of Buddhist archaeological sties in this part of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. ILLUSTRATION BY JAMAL KHURSHID
No one knows exactly how many men make up the archaeological mafia network that has emerged from Mingora city in Swat, Sarrafa Market, Namak Mandi in Peshawar and the areas bordering Afghanistan. They acquire artifacts through local sources and then sell them at huge margins to their overseas network of dealers, usually family members who negotiate with museums, art galleries and even retailers.
This is how Ashiq Ali*, an academic failure, made millions overnight. A jeweler by profession, he started dealing in antiques when he stumbled upon a Buddha sculpture while digging on his family farm in Mardan. Two decades later, he is one of the main dealers in the area with domestic and international clientele. Today, he can afford to be picky and only buys pieces that interest him.
Dealers such as Ali, 47, may not have formal training on how to spot or date such items but even they need to keep an eye out for fakes. Nasrullah, a resident of Swabi, lost Rs50,000 when two men approached him with a statue and promises of a staggering profit. The statue turned out to be made of salt and neither the men nor the money were found again. Even worse can be a righteous ignoramus who smashes a terra-cotta goddess figurine because he thinks it is the work of the devil.
A Stupa model, Peshawar Museum.
But if someone with the right eye and contacts in the antiques market manages to find a piece, they have hit an instant jackpot. According to Dr Muhammad Zahir, an assistant professor at the Hazara University department of Archaeology, these antiques are worth more than the budget of the entire Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P) province.
A terracotta seal with Buddhist Stupa models and the ancient Sharada script at the Hund Museum, Swabi.
Qaddafi* is a dealer who has sold relics from the Ashoka reign that are found around his hometown of Mansehra. He tells the story of a friend who bought a sculpture from a farmer who had accidentally discovered it while ploughing his farm in Chitti Gatti. “He bought [it] for Rs20,000 and sold [it] in China for Rs8 million,” he says.
In addition to China, this history is valued in Korea, Japan, Thailand and the US. “Those who follow Buddhism as a religion have an emotional attachment to things found in our part of the world,” says Dr Abdul Samad who heads the archaeology department at Hazara University. “This is the place where all these things started. The artisan work done on sculptures and stupas and coins found in K-P, cannot be found anywhere else.”
The Gandhara Civilisation was centred on the area that is present-day Peshawar and included Bamiyan in Afghanistan. It is believed that Buddhism reached Gandhara in the third century BCE. Some archaeologists maintain that Siddhartha Gautama (later Buddha) himself visited Swat, Hund (Swabi), Mardan and Charsadda.
A look at the map of this area shows how many Buddhist monasteries sprung up. In fact, most of the illegal digging takes place about 16 kilometres from Mardan in the areas surrounding the (Zoroastrian and then) Buddhist site of Takht-i-Bahi which translates as Throne of Origins or the Spring Throne. This site is famous for its monastery that still stands on a crest of a hill. The complex is known as the most complete and impressive Buddhist monastery and was founded in the first century AD, according to Unesco.
First meditation of Prince Siddhartha, Peshawar Museum.
Given the importance of the region, the government of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa has established 11 museums across the province. Nidaullah Sehrai of the Directorate of Archaeology and Museums claims that they are trying their best to protect all sites. “We take action whenever we find people digging illegally,” says Sehrai. Recently in Swabi the police followed up on a complaint from his department to arrest some men disturbing land that with heritage significance. However, the directorate does not have enough money and hands on deck to completely tackle the mafia network, he adds.
The archaeologists often find that when untrained people rummage through these fragile sites, they do more damage. “Even when the antiquities are taken out safely,” says Dr Ihsan Ali, an archaeologist who has also served as the director of museums in the province, “the excavators only have an eye for stone and gold and usually destroy everything else.” It doesn’t help if the police are in their pocket.
The experts would like to also see the outdated 1976 Antiquities Act be updated to help them prosecute with more bite. People living in these areas also need to be given an education on the treasure they are sitting so they do their bit to protect the heritage. “Yes, our religion has changed,” says Dr Zahir, “but we are still custodians of our own heritage. Nothing can change that.”
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, September 8th, 2013.

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