Pakistan is comparatively a young country, yet it is a land of ancient civilizations, comparable in antiquity to the Egyptian and Sumerian. Despite being an Islamic republic, Pakistan respects the historic legacy of pre-Islamic civilizations. Buddhism is one of those world religions that have spawned an ancient civilization, whose footprints are spread all over Pakistan. From the hilltops of Kashmir to the valleys of Swat and Peshawar, from the plains of Taxila to the deserts of Sindh and Balochistan, the surviving masterpieces of Buddhist art, archaeology and architecture, standing on the sites, or housed in the museums, still hold their grandeur despite centuries of natural degradation and man-made destruction.

One of the most famous centers of Buddhist civilization in Pakistan is called Gandhara, which literally means “the land of fragrance”. It is located in the present day Peshawar Valley that included Swat and Taxila in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and Punjab province. Over the centuries, the kingdom of Gandhara was ruled from its four different capitals, which include, Kapisa (Bagram), Pushkalavati (Charsadda), Takshashila (Taxila), and Puruṣapura (Peshawar).

Buddhist Heritage of Pakistan: An Overview
One of the most famous centers of Buddhist civilization in Pakistan is called Gandhara, which literally means “the land of fragrance”. It is located in the present day Peshawar Valley that included Swat and Taxila in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and Punjab province. Over the centuries, the kingdom of Gandhara was ruled from its four different capitals, which include, Kapisa (Bagram), Pushkalavati (Charsadda), Takshashila (Taxila), and Purusapura (Peshawar).

The history of Gandhara is the stuff that legends are made of. From the composition and recitation of Mahabharata – the greatest Hindu epic at Gandhara in the early historic period to the preeminence of the ancient centers of Buddhist learning – the Takshashila University, the legends of Gandhara have always inspired the imagination of people from diverse lands and from time immemorial. Once strategically located at the junction of caravan routes that linked Southern, Western and Central Asia regions to the West, Gandhara was a melting point of various civilizations, which include Achaemenids, Hellenistic, Mauryans, Greco-Bactrian, Kushan, Gupta, Huns and eventually the Muslims.

Gandhara entered in the annals of recorded history as the eastern province of Achaemenid Empire of Persia in the 6-5th centuries B.C.E. Gandhara was invaded by Alexander of Macedonia in 327 B.C.E., which led to a brief period of Greek rule. Thereafter, it was ruled by Chandragupta Maurya and his successors for over 150 years. From 300-200 centuries B.C.E., Greek dynasties took over Gandhara. In the early first century B.C.E., the victorious Sakas or Scythians, were followed after yet another century by the Parthians, and the Kushans. Finally, the deathblow to its prosperity was given by the Hephthalites or White Huns, who swept over the country in about 465 C.E., carrying fire and sword wherever they went and destroying the Buddhist monasteries. Mahmud Ghaznavi conquered Gandhara and made it part of Ghaznavid Empire in 998 C.E. Under the influence of Central Asian sufis, slowly and gradually, the Buddhists of Gandhara embraced Islam. Politically and culturally, the 12th century C.E. marked the end of Buddhism in Gandhara region.

Despite the changes in the dynastic rule over the millennia, from Mauryans to Greco-Bactrian, Sakas, Parthians and Kushans, Gandhara continued to thrive as a center of Buddhist learning, receiving patronage from the Buddhist urban and royal elite for over a millennia. With the conversion to Buddhism by the epic King Ashoka, the grandson of Chandragupta in 264 B.C.E., Buddhism became the pan-Indian religion. He carved “edicts” on pillars, rocks and caves throughout his empire promoting Buddhist values and sent emissaries to spread Buddhism worldwide through the vast network of Silk Routes. The rock edicts of Ashoka at Shahbazgarhi in Mardan are a living proof of the enactment of state laws inspired from the teachings of Buddhism. King Ashoka chose Dharmarajika stupa at Taxila as one of the significant sites in the empire, to house the remains of Lord Buddha, which is a testimony to the sacred status of Gandhara in the annals of Buddhism. The Kushan ruler, Kanishka (127-150 C.E.) is also revered and referred to as the second Ashoka given his patronage of Buddhist monasteries and promotion of Gandhara sculpture, fusing Buddhist and classical Greek themes. The ancient cities of Gandhara contained tnumerous monasteries and associated stupas, the archaeological ruins of which adorn the landscape today. The cities of Gandhara in their days of former glory had some of the most impressive architecture in the Buddhist world, inviting pilgrims from all over India, Central Asia, China, and Southeast Asia.

The rest of Pakistan is not without its due share of Buddhist heritage. Sindh and Makran have been an integral part of Maurya Empire, as a Buddhiya country since the times of Ashoka in 3rd century B.C.E. For more than half a millennium, from 3rd to 8th century C.E., Buddhism remained a dominant religion in Sindh. As an evidence of thriving Buddhism, Sindhi monks had attended the second and third Buddhist councils held in 278 B.C.E. and 253 B.C.E. to settle the doctrinal and monastic issues. In the history of Buddhism, the Rai Dynasty (524-632 century C.E.) is reckoned as a major political force, which originating from Sindh, ruled much of the Northwestern regions of the Indian subcontinent at the height of its power. Known in history as the chief patron of Buddhism in Sindh, the Rai dynasty was largely responsible for the establishment of monasteries and stupas found in Sindh.
The stupas in Sindh are either hemispherical, semi-rectangular heaps and cylindrical in the shape of towers. Not only are the structures of the stupas quite different from the stone made stupas of mainland Gandhara, but also the statues of Buddha, excavated from archaeological sites in Sindh are culturally distinct from the Greco-Buddhist art of Swat, Peshawar and Taxila Valleys. At a time in the 7th century, when Buddhism in Gandhara was in decline, as the Chinese traveler to India Hiuen Tsang reported the ruins of monasteries and stupas in Gandhara; Buddhism in Sindh was growing steadily. Hiuen Tsang, who also travelled through Sindh in 642 AD, noted over 10,000 Buddhist monks living in several hundred monasteries belonging to Mahayana Buddhism.
It was during the Brahman dynasty, which followed the Buddhist rule in Sindh, that the Umayyad Caliphate sent the Arab army under General Muhammad bin Qasim to annex Sindh in 711-12 C.E. The Buddhist population of Sindh wholeheartedly supported the Muslims and some towns like Lasbela, Hyderabad, Sehwan, and Larkana were brought under the Arab control through peace treaties without shedding a drop of blood.  However, the cities that resisted the Arab invasion were captured by force, causing considerable causalities on both sides. It includes towns like Debal near Karachi, Alwar, Brahmanabad, Multan and others, where large-scale massacre of the vanquished took place. Sindh became a part of the vastly expanding trade empires of Muslims under Umayyad and Abbasid Caliphate. Brahmanabad, Aror (now known as Sukkur) and Multan and Sindh became a part of the Umayyad and Abbasid Caliphates.

The religion holds immense potential in the area of cultural diplomacy in today’s world. The religious tourism has become a major part of soft power in the world. Pakistani government is staunchly committed to promote ancient heritage of Buddhism on the basis of its historical association with Gandhara. 

The Buddhists and Hindus were given the status of protected subjects called Dhimmi. As long as they remained loyal to the Umayyad caliph and paid the poll tax, they were allowed to follow their faiths and keep their land and property. The acts of forced conversion of religion or the destruction of the stupas and monasteries were strictly forbidden under the Hanafi school of Sunni Islam, which ruled the Arab courts. It is a little known curious fact of history that Brahmin Prime Minister of Raja Dahar was installed as the Prime Minister of Arab General Qasim and several Hindu chieftains, whose principalities were guaranteed and who became the ally and councilor of the General.
However, under the two hundred years of Arab rule in Sindh, the Buddhist population gradually assimilated into the Muslim culture. Many Buddhist merchants, traders and artisans voluntarily converted to Islam. As competition arose from Muslim quarters, they saw an economic advantage in changing religions. By the time, when Al-Biruni, the famous historian of Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni, visited Sindh in the 10th century, he was unable to locate any Buddhist informant for his encyclopedia on Indian religions!
Buddhist Archaeological Sites and Museums in Pakistan 
The Buddhist heritage consisting of stupas and monasteries is concentrated in the land of Gandhara, chiefly in present day Peshawar, Swat and Taxila Valleys. However, it is also found in other provinces of Pakistan such as Sindh and Balochistan.
Gandhara was known for scenic natural landscape with rich, well-watered valleys, clear-cut hills and a pleasant climate. The significant sites in each valley are as follows: In Swat Valley, Butkara, Dadahara, Singhadar, Malam Jabba, Ranigat, Gumbatuna, Pnar, Nimogram, Baligram, and Shnashah are rich heritage sites. The Gandhara heritage is also spread widely in Peshawar Valley and Mardan, namely, Shpola Top, Shah ji ki Dheri, Charsadda, and Shaikhan Dheri, Takht-e-Bahi, Sahri Bahlol, Jamal Garhi, and Gangu Dheri. In Taxila valley, Sirikup, Dharmarajika, Bhirmond, Bhallar, Sirsukh, Pipplian, Jaulian and Mohra Moradu are some of the significant sites and monuments containing hundreds of stupas and monasteries.
The historians have called the art of Gandhara ‘the child of an Athenian sculptor and a Buddhist mother’, a child which was largely forgotten for centuries, until it was rediscovered by the British archaeologists in the nineteenth century. Gandhara art emerged under the Kushans in 100 B.C.E. as a distinctive style of sacred art which was marked by Greco-Roman elements. The art of Gandhara was closely associated with Buddhism. Its main achievements are in sculpture – for example, statues of Buddha, bodhisattvas, and other members of the Buddhist pantheon and reliefs portraying scenes from the life of the Buddha that decorated stupas and monasteries in Taxila, Swat and the Peshawar region. An idealized canonic image of the Buddha, compositional patterns of bas-reliefs, and symbolism were developed in Gandhara. The Kushan ruler Kanishka (127-150 C.E.) was revered as a major patron of Buddhist shrines and art in Gandhara, and he made the area famous for its sculpture that fused Buddhist and classical Greek themes.
The artifacts of Buddhist civilizations, excavated from the Gandharan sites in KP and Punjab province, are housed in the following museums in Pakistan, in addition to thousands of Gandharan artifacts to be found in several international museums. It includes, Lahore Museum, Peshawar Museum, Mardan Museum, Swat Museum, Dir Museum, Hund Museum (Swabi), Pushkalavati Museum (Charsadda) and Taxila Museum. The leading universities in KP province, such as Peshawar University and Hazara University are teaching Gandharan Archaeology in Pakistan. The Pakistani universities have produced generations of local archaeologists of international repute who work with their counterparts in foreign countries, such as Germany, Italy, Japan, and America, among others to excavate and conserve the Buddhist heritage of Pakistan.
The illustrious history of Buddhism in Sindh province can be traced through the archaeological remains of the monasteries and stupas, which were built around 500-700 centuries C.E. One of the most famous of Buddhist heritage of Sindh is the stupa of Mohenjo-daro which has acquired an iconic status for Buddhist heritage of Pakistan. The other surviving sites and monuments include the following: Brahmnabad at Sanghar, Siraj-ji-Takri at Khairpur, Kahu-Jo-Darro at Mirpur Khas, Sudheran Jo Thul at Hyderabad, Thul Hairo Khan, and Bhaleel Shah Thul at Dadu, Thul Mir Rukan at Nawabshah, and Kot Bambhan Thul at Tando Muhammad Khan. The artifacts excavated from the archaeological sites in Sindh are housed in the following museums: The National Museum Karachi, Mohenjo-daro Museum, Larkana, Archaeological Museum Umerkot and Sindh Museum, Hyderabad, among others.
Buddhism as a Panacea for Cultural Diplomacy for Pakistan 
Pakistan is cognizant of its role as the custodian of international Buddhist heritage and played its part in the celebration of its glorious heritage. Since its inception in 1947, Buddhism was placed at the center of Pakistan’s historical origins highlighted through its museum exhibits, archaeological publications and state addresses. The Buddhists remained Pakistan’s most culturally and numerically significant minority until 1971. At that time, the largest population of Buddhists in the Indian subcontinent comprising 37 million people, lived in East Pakistan (now in Bangladesh). With equal rights to practice their religion and participate in politics, a Buddhist representative was included in the Minority Rights Advisory Committee of the Pakistan’s first Constituent Assembly in 1951 by the Government of Pakistan. Therefore, state museums in Pakistan celebrated Buddhist heritage of Gandhara as a historical model of the ancient past on which to base Pakistan’s contemporary borders, international cultural ties and national unity.
As early as the 1960s, the Pakistani state demonstrated its commitment for the promotion of Buddhist heritage through international exhibitions of its Buddhist art, a practice which continues unabated till date. The collections of exhibits of Pakistan’s ancient artifacts in museums, especially Buddhist sculpture from the National Museum Karachi, were sent to Japan in 1961, Germany in 1963 and Australia in 1968-69. The importance of Buddhist artifacts in Pakistan’s cultural diplomacy was illustrated in 1964 by the planning for a larger exhibition titled ‘Buddhist Art in Pakistan’, destined for Japan, which incorporated 111 artifacts from museums across Pakistan.
The noted historian and politician Ishtiaq Husain Qureshi went on a lecture tour of Southeast Asia in 1961 to highlight the shared history of Buddhists and Muslims in ancient and medieval India. As a vehicle of cultural diplomacy, his lecture tours were intended to strengthen the cultural relations between Pakistan and its Buddhist majority neighbors to the east. He quoted numerous instances of voluntary surrender of Buddhist communities of Sindh to the Arab conquest and their refusal to fight on the account of non-violence preached by Buddha. Another widely quoted incident is of a Buddhist chief who provided boats to the Arab general, Muhammad bin Qasim to cross Indus River to attack Debal. Syed Muhammad Ikram, another noted historian of early Pakistan reiterated the same by quoting: ‘At Nirum, Buddhist priests welcomed the General and at Sehwan the population revolted against the Hindu ruler’.
The founding generations of Pakistani historians established a new historical relationship between Buddhists and Muslims which was based on peace and religious tolerance. The creative articulations of historians provided Pakistani state the intellectual foundations for cultural diplomacy with the Buddhist countries of the world, which needs to be reaffirmed today to burnish Pakistan’s international image.
Pakistan’s spiritual father, Allama Muhammad Iqbal, the poet, philosopher and politician, lamented the loss of Buddha’s message of love and peace in his poem “Nanak” in his first book of philosophical Urdu poetry Bang-e-Dara (the Call of the Marching Bell). The first six couplets of the poem, referring to Buddha are translated as under:
The nation could not care less about Gautama’s message –
It did not know the price of its unique pearl!
Poor wretches! They never heard the voice of truth:
A tree does not know how sweet its fruit is.
What he revealed was the secret of existence,
But India was proud of its fancies;
It was not an assembly-hall to be lit up by the lamp of truth;
The rain of mercy fell, but the land was barren.
Alas, for the shudra India is a house of sorrow,
This land is blind to the sufferings of man.
The Brahmin is still drunk with the wine of pride,
In the assembly-halls of foreigners burns Gautama’s lamp.
Iqbal’s reverence for Buddha as a saintly figure is shared widely by the Muslims of South Asia. He is sometimes counted among those 1,24,000 unnamed prophets of Allah, referred to in the holy book of Muslims, the Quran. The popular perception is based on the fact that Buddha’s teaching, especially the Four Noble Truths, as the guiding principles resonates strongly with the fundamental tenants of Islam. Moreover, in his lifetime, Buddha has forbidden the making of his image. It remained an inflexible rule for several centuries that his presence should be indicated only by means of symbols such as lotus flower, his footprints, his throne, by his special Bodhi tree, or his funeral mound (stupa). Although, funeral mound for the burial of dead had been part of the customary practices, even before the times of Gautama Buddha, but it was not until King Ashoka’s nationwide distribution of Buddhist relics that the stupa itself came to be universally adored in the Buddhist world as a sacred symbol of worship.
Vision for Religious Tourism of Gandhara
Travel is a religious obligation for the Buddhists, ordained by Gautama Buddha himself, as he ordered his followers to go on a pilgrimage to places of religious significance in the history of Buddhism. In the Mahaparinirvana Sutra, the last sermons of the Lord Buddha, it is recommended to the devotees to perform religious pilgrimage in order to refresh their spirituality. The purpose of pilgrimage is to foster a spiritual discipline and to create a relationship with the historical figures associated with the pilgrimage sites. Pilgrimage to historical sites associated with the history of Buddhism is as obligatory for a devout Buddhist as Hajj, a journey to Mecca, is a mandatory act for any pious Muslim.

A religious tourism master plan should be developed for Gandhara to suit the special needs of religious tourists from the Buddhist countries. In addition to tourism related services and facilities such as hotels, restaurants, tourist and administration centers, a monastic zone should be established where facilities are provided for pilgrims to attain knowledge and undergo spiritual purification before entering into the ritual zone, comprising various stupas and monasteries. 

Although Gautama Buddha never visited Gandhara, yet the ancient land of Gandhara played a critical role in the consolidation and spread of Buddhism throughout the world. Even in the Jataka tales, the voluminous body of Buddhist literature in Pali language, initially written around 300 B.C.E., concerning the previous births of Gautama Buddha, in both human and animal form has many stories set in the land of Gandhara. In one of the stories, the Bodhisatta was the king’s son of the Gandhara kingdom or another one in which Bodhisatta is a prince who becomes the King of Taxila through his pious deeds. In the tales, the future Buddha may appear as a king, an outcast, a god, an elephant – but, in whatever form, he exhibits some virtue that the tale thereby inculcates. The Jataka stories have also been illustrated frequently in sculpture and painting throughout the Buddhist world and also performed in dance and theatre.
The land of Gandhara lay outside the sphere of influence of Brahaminical-Hindu caste order, therefore, Buddhism spread through the entire strata of society in northern parts of Indian subcontinent, comprising present day Punjab, KP, FATA and Azad Kashmir. The fact that there are more monasteries and stupas in the geographical spread of Gandhara than anywhere else in the Buddhist world, testifies to the fact that Buddhism became the religion of the masses in Gandhara. From the mercantile elite to the subsistence farmer, Buddhist monasteries received patronage from across the classes. The monks of Gandhara were responsible for the preservation and dissemination of Buddha’s teaching in Sanskrit. They carried the message of Buddhism by sea and land routes through Central Asia into China. By the first century C.E., Buddhism begin to flourish in China and provided a point of reference for Buddhism as it developed in Korea and Japan.
The reverend monks Asanga and Vasubandhu, two half-brothers from Peshawar in 400 C.E., are credited as major Buddhist philosophers, who wrote authoritative philosophical texts in Sanskrit which were widely translated into Chinese, Tibetan and other languages of the era. The Budhi Dheri area of Swabi district is associated with a celebrated philosopher of Buddhism, the monk Marananta, who is revered among the Korean Buddhists as the first man who traveled on the land and sea routes to cross China, to introduce Buddhism on the Korean peninsula during the 400 C.E.
Not only the monks of Gandhara traveled to rest of the world as teachers of Buddhist scriptures, but also scholars from the world traveled to Gandhara to learn the fundamentals of Buddhist cannon preserved in Sanskrit language. Among them was a Buddhist monk named Hyecho, who left his native Korea for travel to India and arrived in Gandhara in the 800 C.E. to learn the ancient texts. His records of travel written in Chinese language are rare ethnographic accounts of the ancient world with a mention of leading Buddhist monasteries, stupas and sites in India, including Kashmir, Skardu, Swat and Sindh.
Swat Valley is also famous among the international Buddhist community as the birth place of the second Buddha Padmasambhava, who is hailed as the reincarnation of Gautama Buddha in the 8th century C.E. Known as Guru Rinpoche in Tibet, after ruling as a Buddhist king in Gandhara, he is said to have abdicated his throne and travelled to Tibet to introduce Buddhism there.
The kingdom of Gandhara was the land of the renowned Buddhist scholars, who are the primary sources of dharma teaching of Mahayana Buddhism, which is today the world’s largest denomination with more than half of followers in Korea, Japan, China, Vietnam, Tibet, Malaysia, Mongolia, Bangladesh and other countries. Today, 97 percent of the world’s Buddhist population lives in the Asian continent, and a number of countries such as Bhutan, Myanmar, Thailand, and Sri Lanka conceive Buddhism as intrinsic to their core national values and cultural identity. Despite being a communist state, China promotes Buddhism as a central pillar of its cultural diplomacy on the grounds that it possesses the largest Buddhist population of any country in the world.
The religion holds immense potential in the area of cultural diplomacy in today’s world. The religious tourism has become a major part of soft power in the world. Pakistani government is staunchly committed to promote ancient heritage of Buddhism on the basis of its historical association with Gandhara. It should celebrate Gandhara as Pakistan’s symbol of peace and inter-faith harmony. However, the overriding concerns for the preservation of heritage of Buddhist sites as the archaeological ruins, have limited the revivalist potential of the sacred architecture. The conservation of Buddhist monasteries and stupas should be taken a step further to include the rehabilitation of the sites as functional spaces to be used by the pilgrims.
To date, the only functional Buddhist temple in Pakistan which was used by Buddhists for their daily rituals is located at the Diplomatic Enclave in Islamabad. A gift of a leading Pakistani Buddhist, minister and diplomat in the successive Pakistani governments, Raja Tridev Roy, the leader of Chakma tribe of former East Pakistan, the Buddhist temple is being managed by the Sri Lankan High Commission. With the help of concerned citizens of Islamabad, the Buddhist temple is being revived under the able leadership of High Commissioner of Sri Lanka, Noordeen Shaheid, to make it a vibrant cultural center of Buddhist learning in Pakistan.

Hidden in the desert areas of Cholistan and borders of Bahawalpur, Rahim Yar Khan, and Naushahro Feroze, a small community of few thousand Pakistani Buddhists lives on quietly in the remote areas of Punjab and Sindh, in complete isolation to their glorious religious heritage of Gandhara. To respect and revive the Buddhist heritage of Pakistan, the communities of Pakistani Buddhists can play a crucial role if incorporated in the religious services to be rendered for the Buddhist religious tourism in Pakistan.
A religious tourism master plan should be developed for Gandhara to suit the special needs of religious tourists from the Buddhist countries. In addition to tourism related services and facilities such as hotels, restaurants, tourist and administration centers, a monastic zone should be established where facilities are provided for pilgrims to attain knowledge and undergo spiritual purification before entering into the ritual zone, comprising various stupas and monasteries.
A comprehensive system of road signage should be created to mark the sites and monuments associated with religious figures sacred to Buddhism. A series of publications including brochures, booklets, and guide maps should be initiated to document the sacred sites for religious tourism.
The government also needs to further ease up visa restrictions, especially on the extension of stay, and dedicate services for the tourists and pilgrims. Special incentives should be given to tourism industry to organize package tours for visitors from China, Japan, Singapore, South Korea and other countries for religious tourism of Gandhara.
The celebration of Buddhist festivals in Pakistan, which animates the spiritual life of the Buddhist communities, revolving around the life of Buddha can go a long way in reviving the religious tourism in Pakistan.  The most important festival is the Vesak Purnima, falling on the full moon day of Vesak, in April or May in the Georgian calendar, which marks the day Siddhartha Gautama, Buddha was born in 623 B.C.E. He attained enlightenment and also passed away on the day of Vesak in his eightieth year.
The commitment of Pakistani government for the promotion of religious tourism in Pakistan was illustrated through its efforts to patronize and support public led ceremonies on the international Vesak Day in May 2019, which is a sacred day to millions of Buddhists around the world. Two events were held by Pakistani Muslims and Buddhists under the patronage of the Pakistani government. A Vesak Day lecture to promote world peace was held on May 12, 2019 at the National Institute of Folk and Traditional Heritage and ritual celebrations of Vesak Day led by a Buddhist monk at the Dharmarajika Stupa on May 19, 2019. A special Buddhist prayer ceremony was held at Bhamala Stupa for peace in Kashmir in October 2019, which was led by a high ranking Buddhist monk, Dr. Neug-her Sinim, a visiting scholar from Korea. The Buddhist peace prayer ceremonies were held in cooperation with members of the civil society and members from diverse faiths from across the world, including the diplomatic community.
As Pakistan has embarked on a mission of cultural diplomacy through the promotion of religious tourism for the members of Sikh community by opening the Kartarpur Corridor on the borders of India and Pakistan, a similar gesture of friendship with the Buddhist community of the world should also be extended. Pakistan can achieve rapid economic growth by introducing a Buddhist tourist circuit of Gandhara through propagation and promotion of its heritage sites to attract international tourists, who turn up in millions in India and Nepal – the countries who are on the religious path of international Buddhist tourism. Pakistan is rightly placed to claim its share in global religious tourism industry, given its cultural assets of international prominence, which, if strategically deployed, can generate state revenues as well as earn Pakistan a dignified place in the assembly of peace loving nations of the world.