PASHTUN ICONOCLAST BARBARISM: BAMIYAN 2001 AND TAKHTBAI 2020

On the 17th of July yesterday, a man in a village of the Takhtbai sub-division of Mardan District, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, Pakistan — was digging the foundations for his new house, when a life sized statue of the Buddha was discovered lying in the ground.

The news quickly spread like wild fire. Mardan lies at the center of Gandhara — the heartland of a premier ancient civilization based on Peshawar Valley that traced its start to 4000 years ago, and dominated the scene for the next 3000 years thereafter.

The village priest quickly ordered the man to smash the statue — failing which he would be excommunicated from Islam, and that the validity of his marriage to his wife (“nikah”) would be forfeit. Both situations are among the most harrowing for any “true Pashtun”. So the house owner complied accordingly…

Once upon a time not that far back — perhaps 40–50 years ago, the whole of Peshawar Valley lay strewn with the remains of the successive cultures that this fertile area engendered. People did not give much importance to the shards, statues and other remnants…being devout Muslims, they often smashed the idols they frequently came across in fields or washed up by the rain. Larger statues and stones so discovered often became part of other buildings or were used as bridges and so on.

Then Western tourists and prospectors then began frequenting this area. They knew the history and the value of such objects and were prepared to pay exorbitant sums for them. The people became wiser, and soon a profitable illegal trade sprung up centered around Gandharan artefacts, with minimal government interference; government officials and high ups were often involved in such smuggling.

The statue found a few days ago was priceless and unique among such finds, and would surely have brought its owner a king’s ransom. But as already mentioned — there is another reaction the Pashtun locals have to the past history of their area, one of iconoclasm based on their puritan and severe Islamic beliefs. The past 40 years of Jihadi culture based on Afghanistan and Pakistan — which was laid in place by American interests to secure geopolitical objectives in the region — have seen an intensification of such attitudes, resulting in actions such as that perpetrated most notably by the Afghan Taliban on the Great Buddha of Bamiyan in 2001; Bamiyan was the westernmost periphery of ancient Gandhara, and a UNESCO World Heritage site.

It has to be noted here, that the greater part of the present inhabitants of the Peshawar Valley are not aboriginals. They comprise of warlike Afghan tribal hordes who invaded the area 500 years ago. Gandhara, which was once noted for being a major center of art and trade along the fabled Silk Route between China and Rome — was a Buddhist land with an Indic or Indianised population; however, it had been under Imperial Persian rule for the major 1100 years of its 3000-year history. During that time, it had been invaded by Alexander of Macedon, and was subsequently the center of Greek power and most of all Greek culture, in Asia for several centuries.

The arrival of the early Turkic White Huns in the region in about 450 AD saw the wholesale destruction of the Buddhist civilization with a return to orthodox Hinduism — since that was the religion the Huns adopted once they settled in India and mixed with Indic natives to become Rajputs, Gujjars and so on…the Huns were the last Hindu rulers of Gandhara for five centuries before Muslim Turks such as Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni, operating from Khorasan — toppled Hindu power in this region.

Gandhara after the Huns was never the same again. After the arrival of Islamic rule, it disappeared totally from the record, becoming an area of darkness. Nowadays, after 500 years of domination under the Eastern Section of the Sarabani Afghan tribes, the Peshawar Valley once known as Gandhara represents a wild, run-down and lawless desolation of what it once used to be in terms of culture and civilisation.

However it must be noted that this is not due to the arrival of one or another horde. Gandhara itself was founded by the original Indo-Aryan horde in 3700 BC; the Persians and Greeks followed, and then the eastern Iranian Parthian, Saka and Kushan hordes settled it in succession — with the last one forming the basis for its Greco-Bactrian Buddhist pinnacle. But those hordes settled down and contributed to the amalgam of civilization. The Pashtun-Afghan hordes that invaded the area from 500 to 1000 years ago continue to live upto their reputation and remain wild and uncouth.

So it is against the background of this historical knowledge that we must measure all the present attitudes, negativity and continuing troubles of the area — and there are plenty. Gandhara is now the major node of “Pashtun” identity and political influence. This affects not only its own bedeviled environs, but also regional and international politics, owing to its primary geopolitical linkages.

Scholar, Historian, Ethnologist, Philosopher, Activist.