Event ReportsPublished on Dec 25, 2018
India, China and Pakistan must come together to preserve the glorious Gandhara heritage

Dr. Shailendra Bhandare, veteran historian and numismatist from the Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford, expressed THE dire need for a trilateral engagement between India, China and Pakistan in the field of Gandhara studies. He was delivering a talk on ‘Exploring Gandhara: The shared civilisational past of the Indian subcontinent’ at the Observer Research Foundation in Mumbai on 22 December 2018. The ancient Gandhara region, which encompasses the current geographies of north-western India, northern Pakistan, south-western China and northern Afghanistan, is a melting pot of different religions and cultures. The multicultural legacy of the region is a precious chapter in the history of humanity. Hence, and especially given the resurgence of ultra-nationalistic fervour across the globe, responsible nations in the Asian continent must come together to preserve these unparalleled manifestations of human civilisation, he urged. The talk was organisend under the aegis of ORF Mumbai's Centre for the Study of India's Ancient Knowledge Traditions.

The geography of the subcontinent, though divided after the partition, has witnessed the confluence of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, ancient Greek culture and Islam. The cultural geography of northern India, Pakistan and northern Afghanistan, was a part of Mauryan dynasty and is homeland to numerous Ashokan edicts, some of which, have been carved in the Aramaik, i.e. a Semitic Afro-asiatic script. The region was known as Gandhara, and has seen a confluence of several ethnicities during the Vedic, Buddhist, Indo-Greek, Macedonian, Mauryan, Graeco-Bactrian, Scythian, Indo-Parthian, Kushana, Hindu-shahi and Islamic periods.

Dr. Bhandare explained the cultural geography of the Gandharan civilisation with the chronological succession of various dynasties that flourished in the small region of the Gandharan valley, but came to exert its influence over the socio-cultural construct of not just South Asia, West Asia and Southeast Asia, but also over parts of northeast Africa and Eastern Europe. Gandhara, Dr. Bhandare, said, encompasses a region from Punjab to the borders of Bactria and to the southern borders of Baluchistan. However, in the mainstream historical discourse of Indian subcontinent, Gandhara was rediscovered during the British period when the British generals and administrators started taking interests in the subcontinent’s ancient history. These early explorers and history scholars were well-versed in the history of Europe and they started observing the subcontinental history on the premise of the Alexander’s conquest. James Prinsep, one of the fathers of Indology, deciphered the Brahmi script on Ashokan edicts, which gave momentum to the study of the Gandhara heritage. It was reciprocated with the decipherment of the Kharoshthi in 1938 by Prinsep, Charles Messon and Alexander Cunningham. Veteran archaeologist John Marshall, during his excavations at Taxila, identified and differentiated the excavated cities as Greek, Parthian and Kushana cities. After the conquest of Alexander, the region, during the rule of Mauryas and then under the Greek Satrapas, became a major center of Greco-Buddhism. Hence, the legacy and heritage of the Gandhara culture is kaleidoscopic and possess immense syncretic traits appearing from the archaeological evidences. For example, the Ashokan edicts near Kandahar are found in bi-scriptural forms i.e. in Greek and Aramaik script. From the Bactrian Buddhist sites, we get to know that several Gandharan Buddhist missionaries were active not only in Gandhara, but travelled to the Central Asian region and to China to propagate the teachings of the Buddha. The glory of the ancient Gandhara has been depicted in detail by the famous Chinese traveller Xuanzang.

However, just like many other archaeological projects, the archeological enterprises in Gandhara valley also suffered from the troubles of smuggling and international terrorism, Dr. Bhandare said. Several Kushan era stupas and architectural sites were destroyed during Taliban regime, just like the famous Bamian Buddhas. One of the Christian archbishops of Lahore condemned the utter negligence of the governments of Pakistan and demanded to stop the destructive Taliban activities that caused the damage of Buddhist and other sites, especially in the valley of Swat (ancient Suvastu).

The division of the subcontinent in 1947, the Gandhara valley became a part of Pakistan and the northern Afghanistan. Though Gandhara is intrinsic to the cvilisational bonds across te subcontinent, sadly, today. academic discourse about Gandhara has remained largely Eurocentric. India. Pakistan, China and Afghanistan, who are the true inheritors of the Gandharan legacy, lack the academic empathy towards out shared heritage of Gandhara, Dr. Bhandare rued. He proposed a joint academic venture by the Indian, Pakistani, Chinese and Afghanistan governments to once again bring the shared civilisational values and cultural bonds in the current public and academic discourse. The utter negligence towards the rich Gandhara heritage and culture has made us forget our ancient past. The syncretic traditions of the regions were monolithised after the rise radical Islamic movements and strong religious and communal identities in the subcontinent.

In the backdrop of the opening of the Kartarpur corridor, India, as a regional superpower in the subcontinent, must take the initiative to engage with other responsible partners in the region. Joint academic programmes and cooperation policies are to rediscover the Gandharan culture and thereby rediscover our shared past, could be a non-controversial and apolitical way to reduce the current mutual trust-deficit, Dr. Gandhara pointed out.

This report has been written by Hemant Rajopadhye, Senior Fellow, ORF Mumbai
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