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Digging Gilgit Baltistan’s Buddhist Past

It can be assumed that Buddhism spread in GB after the era of Ashoka, probably during the era of king Kanishka of Kushan Empire in the early 1st century.

The rise of Buddhism during the reign of emperor Ashoka (304-232 BC) in India had seen it spread to the neighbouring lands as well. The outreach of the proselytizing king’s message can be gauged from the fact that “there are legends about Ashoka in most major Asian languages- Sanskrit and Pali, but also Chinese, Japanese, Burmese, Tibetan, Thai and Sinhala”, according to professor Sunil Khilnani. Besides the 84,000 stupas he reportedly built, messages of humanism and pluralism of his rule expressed as Dhammas or universal truths/laws, were engraved on the rock slabs and stone pillars across the length and breadth of his territory. The “federation” of satrapas that he ruled is considered as the largest central government in Indian history.

According to Sherbaz Ali Bercha, a noted historian on Gilgit Baltistan, a stone pillar most probably containing Ashoka’s edicts had remained fixed at the center of Gilgit city. The relic was shifted to Lahore Museum to make room for a commercial market in early 2000s. Assuming that the jurisdiction of Ashoka existed where there were distinctive pillars with edicts, there is no other evidence to point to Ashoka’s rule in GB besides the iconic pillar mentioned. Moreover, classic descriptions found in the writings of the colonial literature are silent about the religion of the region’s earliest inhabitants or autochthons. Yet beyond the particular religious symbolism, Gilgit Baltistan has a treasure trove of archeological insignia suggesting an era when Buddhism, among other faiths, flourished. There are rock images of Buddha in Gilgit and Skardu and a footprint of Buddha in Ghizer. Moreover, there are hundreds of epigraphs and engravings elsewhere. The inscriptions found on stone slabs across GB are records of names, journey details, the era of the time, the particular king’s reign etc according to Ahmed Hasan Dani, a late well-known archaeologist.

From the corpus of archaeological symbols, it can be assumed that Buddhism spread in GB after the era of Ashoka, probably during the era of king Kanishka of Kushan Empire in the early 1st century. Perhaps the most significant hallmark of GB’s Buddhist past is found in the Kargah area of district Gilgit. It is an image of Buddha sitting in a meditative state or Bodhisatva. This is locally known as “Yachani” or a female demon. According to Japanese scholar Dr Haruko Tsuchiya (as per a GB archaeological department account) “the figure resembles that of Chamba style, the only and other image of this type is found in Mulbe, Ladakh. There is no record of such kind of carvings in the records of Gandhara artefacts”. Kargaah is adjacent to Naupur (local name Nafoor), where a cache of ancient writings termed Gilgit Manuscripts were discovered in 1931. Written in Sanskrit, Prakarit and Pali on Bhoj or birch tree (bhoja putra), no complete deciphering has so far been made. Most of the papers are preserved at the National archives of India. The available interpretations of these documents bespeak of Buddhist dynasties in the 1st to 6th century AD (most prominent being the Patola Shahi dynasty) and their relationship with the neighbouring world. However, the religious, social, political and cultures moorings of the era and its interface with the ensuing period of various Indian kings and Muslim missionaries remains a mystery.

There is learnt and assumed ignorance about classical history in GB. Most of us cannot describe our family lineage beyond the grandfathers or great-grandfathers. Where it is known in a few cases, the descendants are unsure about the faith, customs or culture of their ancestors. Some ruling families trace the root of their family tree to Shri Badat, a cannibal semi-mythical king, implying a super natural heritage. Three Budhisatvas can be seen on a brownish rock in Manthal area of Skardu. A government information board dates the carvings to the 9th century without referencing any source for this information.
Oral historical tradition in the region often mentions a “Buddhist university” in the Darel area of Diamer district, in all probability referring to a monastery. However, no chronology exists as to when or who built it. Whereas information about other monasteries in India, most prominently about the one located in Nalanda, northeast India is well recorded. Similarly, popular legend about a cannibal king, Shri Badat, considers him a Buddhist. Though a wide range of accounts exist about the king, his persona has been described in legendary/folklore terms thereby avoiding any historicity to it. By the same token, themes like Buddhism’s inroads into GB, its proliferation, engraving of Bodhisatvas and its decline and disappearance are glaring unknowns.

The apathy towards the Buddhist past in particular and the rest of the antiquity in general necessitates an academic quest. In the absence of particular findings, some writers and scholars have attempted to fill the gap by extrapolating and borrowing historical facts from research available on the neighbouring regions of GB e.g. Kashmir, India, Afghanistan and China without subjecting it to local socio-political dynamics.

Having studied in government schools and colleges until the HSSC, we were never taught about the history of the region in the course books such as Maasharti Uloom or social studies or later on Pakistan studies. Nonetheless, there were visceral historical descriptions of how Mohammad Bin Qasim conquered Sindh in the 8th century. The past and present answer to the question “What was the socio-political state of Gilgit Baltistan in the 8th century” would be a negligent “we don’t know”. In the hindsight, to be a student in a region without being given an opportunity to know or inquire about its past was a demoralizing experience. It was as if someone had forsaken his ancestors or was forced to disown them. Thus the appetite for knowledge about the past is killed early as the young minds are taught selective versions of history at schools and colleges duly censoring the non-Muslim part of it. The truncated history focus (or “murdered history” as KK Aziz would say) underplayed the diversity and rich past of the new country let alone that of GB. Thus thousands of children like me, who studied from government educational institutes, were “forced to imbibe the truths of officialdom, many of its literate citizens have opted for the comforts of ignorance, habits of skepticism, and, most troubling of all, a contagion of belief in conspiracy theories. Instead of critical thinking marked by cautious optimism, which might be expected of a people who have weathered many storms in their country’s short but eventful history”, according to Ayesha Jalal.

Before 1947, the GB’s historiography by the colonial writers was essentially presentist in essence, focusing mostly on the strategic issues faced by the British Raj. In some cases, when the past was discussed it was done to highlight the region’s connection to Europe, the birthplace of the writers or it was linked with mythical characters such as the king Shri Badat. The reference was apparently made to normalize colonialism as a phenomenon not unbeknown to the region. For example, a prolific writer Dr GW Leitner wrote: “Herodotus (484-430/420 BC) is the first author who refers to the country of the Dards (Dardistan), placing it on the frontier of Kashmir and in the vicinity of Afghanistan”. If the colonial writers tried to portray the region’s past through the eyes of European chroniclers, the post-colonial ones left out the significant portion of it pertaining to non-Muslims e.g. the Indus Valley Civilsation or Ashoka and later kings or dynasties. Without knowledge of the past or selectively studying it we may be deluding ourselves about it.



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