This statue is currently on display at Lahore Museum. PHOTO COURTESY: CREATIVE COMMONS
ISLAMABAD: Thousands of intricate rock statues and artefacts, all beautiful remnants of the Gandhara civilization, have been caught in a conflict of ownership between Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P), Punjab and Sindh.
K-P has been angling for possession of these artefacts for over three years – ever since the 18th Constitutional Amendment was passed that devolved the Federal Ministry of Archaeology and Museums to the provincial governments.
And yet, it seems the claims are falling on deaf ears so far.
The fasting Buddha rests
The Punjab government is unwilling to hand over possession of the antiquities displayed at the Lahore Museum, including the statue of the famous fasting Buddha, an especially unique and valuable sculpture.
Sumaira Samad, director of the Lahore Museum, categorically expressed her department’s intentions to contest K-P’s claim to the art, and asserted that the artefacts were shifted to Lahore before 1947.
“This claim [of the K-P government] is not acceptable,” said Samad pointblank. “Whatever is on display at our museum, established in 1865, are our property. We will never return any of these antiquities.”
Similarly, in a series of official letters, the K-P administration pleaded that over 3,000 artefacts exhibited at the National Museum in Karachi and museums in Taxila be returned to museums in Peshawar and Swat. This request, too, has been unheeded.
According to a letter written by Syed Noor Ehsan Shah, one of the section officers at the Directorate of Archaeology and Museums K-P, on April 12, 2012, the artefacts have not been returned – and are not in the process of being returned – despite a commitment made by the Cabinet Division on January 31, 2011.
Lost and found
Officials from K-P’s archaeology and museums department are suspicious that precious art has been stolen from museums outside the province in the last few years.
Concerned authorities in Punjab, Sindh and Islamabad have been reluctant to share lists and records of Gandhara relics in their custody, despite repeated requests.
“So far, the federal government and the other provinces have not provided detailed information about the Gandhara pieces with them,” said Dr Shah Nazar Khan, former director of K-P’s archaeology and museums department, in an internal memo.
According to Samad, the reason that the Lahore Museum has not handed in records is because registers cannot be found. “Those registers have been misplaced,” explained Samad. “Now, we don’t have complete records with us.”
‘Our art, our culture, our rights’
The provincial government has not only corresponded with the governments of Punjab and Sindh, and the inter-provincial coordination division, Islamabad, but has also referred the issue to a UNESCO convention, according to an official letter, dated April 2, 2012, by the directorate to its own government.
“It is a universally accepted principle that the archaeological material recovered from ancient sites located in a particular region/province is the property of that area and should go back to the institution /museums at the place of its origin,” the letter stated.
According to another memo, the federal and provincial governments have been reminded, in multiple letters from K-P, that ‘geological boundaries of Gandhara were limited to present day K-P (except Taxila)’. Therefore, Punjab and Sindh have no cultural, historical or legal right to the Gandhara art, it inferred.
Districts of Peshawar, Charsadda, Mardan, Swabi, Swat and Dir, as well as Malakand and Bajaur agencies formed the bulk of the Gandhara civilization.
Khan recalled, rather sadly, how material recovered during the British era and after partition from various sites, including Takht Bhai, Sahri Bahlol, Jamal Gahri and Rani Gat, was either retained by the federal government or shifted out of the province.
No museum in K-P displays any exhibits of the Indus Valley civilization, including Mohenjodaro, Harappa and Soan Valley artefacts.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 8th, 2014.