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Posts Tagged ‘History’

To compare the recent reopening of the Afghanistan route to the  US/NATO traffic with an event preceding the First Anglo-Afghan war sounds so hackneyed.  In its simplest sense it may be a repetition of history, a déjà vu; in a serious sense it may offer a lesson from history.  It is difficult to trace any particular similarities between the two episodes but surely the first time opening of the Indus route to the West was akin to letting in the ‘Trojan Horse’ and now Pakistan’s reluctant consent to re-open reminds me of Virgil’s quote “I fear the Greeks even when they bring gifts.”

This time it was the magic word ‘sorry’ from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that finally convinced Pakistan to agree on opening the road.  In the past it took the scheming of a grand  but ‘highly objectionable’ strategy, as termed by Charles Metcalfe, who later explored Baluchistan.  However, it turned out to be one of the most fascinating spy dramas, rarely had I read the details of a story with such fascination. It began in the year 1830 when a ship arrived at Bombay, with a gift of five dray horses from the King of Great Britain to Maharaja Runjeet Singh, the Sikh ruler of Punjab.  The gift needed to be transported by River Indus by Alexander Burnes, who at that time held a political position in Kutch, the only territory of the British dominions in India that touched the Indus region.

Burnes’ mission was actually part of a larger plan that was prepared in response to the growing Russian influence in Central Asia since the beginning of nineteenth century.  In 1801 Russian hegemony began with the taking over of Georgia from Persia (Iran); by 1825 it succeeded in converting Ottoman Turkey into a submissive ally.  Britain’s ancient phobia that it might cross Hindukush-the dividing line between Central and West Asia-and occupy Afghanistan was revived.  There was yet another fear, expressed best in the words of Lord Ellenborough, that Russia might “secure Persia as a road to Indus.”

Lord Edward Law Ellenborough, the President of the Board of Control of the East India Company, shared his fears with Arthur Wellesley, the First Duke of Wellington and Prime Minister of Britain.  The Wellington government was already drifting towards unpopularity, due to its failure to defend the Greek cause against the Turks and making matters favorable for the Russians.  Ellenborough thus found no difficulty in convincing the Prime Minister and later the Court of Directors of the East India Company that Russian influence should be countered by marketing British merchandize in Central Asian markets. The shortest and the easiest route to those markets was through the Indus as it is now for the US and NATO supplies commuting  from Karachi to Kabul and Kandahar.

Indus traverses through Sindh, Bahawalpur and Punjab, of these three kingdoms Punjab was already on friendly terms with Britain,  Bahawalpur was not considered a problem, but Sindh seemed almost impenetrable. Its rulers had been following an isolationist policy, and fearing an outright denial to the British proposal, authorities in London decided to go disguised to prepare the initial report on the navigability of the Indus.  Information on the Indus region was essential to launch trade in Central Asia and much of the success of the plan depended on the skills of the escort of the horses hence the flamboyant Alexander Burnes was just the right choice. He was already familiar with the terrain of lower Sindh adjoining Kutch. He had served as an interpreter of the British officers in their dealings with the robbers of Tharparkar and had drafted a map of the Thar Desert.  With much  difficulty and delay, Burnes was finally allowed a meeting with Mir Murad Ali Talpur, the ruler of Sindh.  To his surprise he was received warmly and permission to sail through Indus was granted “His Highness addressed me by name; said I was his friend… as my brother had cured him of a dangerous disease.”  Burnes wrote in his travelogue “A Voyage on the The Indus.”

Burnes’ mission was accomplished; he delivered the horses to the Maharaja and proceeded to Kashmir.  His report on the Indus region was tempting enough, amongst the many resources of the land he had also described the display of Koh-i-Noor at the court of Lahore.  In 1832, Britain succeeded to get treaties to navigate Indus signed by the three kingdoms and the road to Afghanistan was eventually used for transporting goods, ammunition, an ill-fated ‘Army of Indus,’ an exiled Afghan King, and an ambitious Alexander Burnes riding by the side of the King.  Britain also succeeded in restoring Shah Shuja ul Daula on the throne of Kabul.  But the victory was short lived, the haughty Afghan tribes’ disapproval of a puppet king led to his murder; Alexander Burnes too was butchered in the bazaar of Kabul and The Army of Indus was annihilated  on its retreat through Afghan passes, it is now remembered as the ‘Army of Retribution.’

Today, on the same crossroads of history, when East and West are engaged in a renewed Great Game lets not overlook the little nuances that play a big role in larger human dramas. Dr. James Burnes may have found his patient an ‘Asiatic Tiberius’ but the Sindhi King had not forgotten his doctor and returned the favor.  Apology by Hillary Clinton may be a diplomatic gesture but even in the toughest code of Eastern ethics, where revenge and chivalry are regarded the highest virtues, forgiveness has a place too.  The Game is not yet over but it is certain that US/NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan will not be as brutal.  It is also hoped that its aftermath will not be as combative (Britain conquered Sindh and Punjab soon after its failure in Afghanistan) though, according to Shuja Nawaz’s article in the AfPak Channel,  United States “longer term presence in Afghanistan is suspect, since those troops are believed by some to have been designated to take out Pakistan’s nuclear weapons.”

The road is still blocked with crowds of protesters and the 9000 containers stuck there since its closure.  The formal US Pakistan Agreement, about to be signed, applies only to supplies that have not yet reached Pakistan. But the clutter needs to be cleared, perhaps this time through negotiations.

One of the  lessons learned from recent history is to have a long term policy for the AfPak region. The decade of 1980s had kept America fully involved in the region to resist against Soviet.  However, it abandoned the region as soon as the Soviet threat receded.  One of the outcomes of this abrupt departure was the Taliban coming to power in Afghanistan.  This time it may be worse, Taliban may not be able to make a comeback but the country can plunge in a never ending civil war and chaos.  The repercussions of such a scenario will further enhance the political instability in Pakistan.  Hence a serious  dialogue with the Taliban before the withdrawal of the US/NATO forces is extremely important for a long-term engagement between US, Afghanistan and Pakistan.  India too could be invited at the negotiating table, as it is fully involved in the reconstruction of Afghanistan, but that may be expecting too much.  All the partners in the Game need to define their roles in the post 2014 period.There will be  mutual mistrust in the negotiating room but a degree of respect for each other is required to clear the road further. Hillary Clinton’s gesture is symbolic, she has walked an extra mile, in all the cultures of that region, Muslim, Hindu, tribal and feudal if a woman approaches with a request it is not denied to her. Such are the subtle conventions of eastern cultures that we need to understand.

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Moen Jo Daro Stupa

“The restoration of the stupa sketched (above) is meant merely to give the reader a rough idea of the appearance it is likely to have presented in the days of the Kushans.” Sir John Marshall.

The recent news about the restoration of the defaced Buddha’s images in Swat is a strong message to those who had been on a spree of vandalizing the pre-Islamic heritage in the region.  Beginning in 2001 with the destruction of the colossal Buddha images in Bamiyan, Afghanistan the mischief had infiltrated in the North Western Pakistan, Vishakha Desai, the former Director General of the Asia Society, New York, was one of the first to report the damages in 2007. Read here.

Many archaeological remains in Pakistan have already been victims of time, weather, waterlogging, thefts and neglect of officials.  Almost nine decades ago, Sir John Marshall had described the sorry state of the remains of the ‘largest and the highest’ Buddhist stupa of Sindh.

“The dome of the monument has long since disappeared and all that is left is the lower part of the circular drum, which is still standing to a height of 8ft. 4in. above the plinth…long before Mr. Banerji’s arrival, villagers are said to have excavated beneath the hollow middle of the drum, to a depth of some 14 feet, in the hope of finding hidden treasures and to have lighted upon a relic casket.  Some fragments of this relic casket, which was of alabaster, were subsequently found by Mr. Banerji in the debris but not enough to its reconstruction.”  Sir John Marshall.

That outer wall of the lower part of the circular drum still exists and crowns the site of Moen-jo-Daro, the metropolis of the Indus Valley Civilization (2600-1900 BCE), located in the Larkana district in upper Sindh.

In 1919 when R.D. Banerji, superintendent of the Western Circle of the Archaeological Survey of India, surveyed the stupa he had no idea that a whole city, separated by three thousand years laid buried only few feet below its foundations.  However, once the city was exposed Sir John Marshall, Director General of the Archaeological Survey of India, announced its discovery with a bang. On September 24, 1924 by publishing an article in the Illustrated London News he informed the World about the greatest archaeological discovery of British India.  It was a discovery that led to the identification of the fourth ancient civilization of the World (Three other known civilizations at that time were in China, Egypt and Mesopotamia).  But let’s not forget the value of the fragments of the relic casket as it is an important clue to understand the lesser-known Buddhist period of Pakistan’s history.   The caskets containing fragments of Buddha’s charred bones and ashes had attracted British archaeologists and officials to the Buddhist monastic complexes scattered in India. With the dawn of the twentieth century they had reached the North Western fringes of their empire where Buddha, according to a legend, had forecasted the flourishing of his religion. Here they rummaged through the cinerary stupas, special stupas that preserved caskets.

Historical records confirm that Buddhism was prevalent in the Indus region at least from the times of Asoka Maurya (273-232 BCE). The King, who after fighting the horrifying battle of Kalinga, converted to Buddhism and looked forward to victories of Dharmmavijaya, the victory of the faith

Amongst his many contributions to Buddhism, Asoka had also retrieved Buddha’s remains entombed originally in eight stupas and redistributed these  in smaller portions to many other stupas.  Mauryan dynasty ended violently in 180 BCE but the strong Brahmin reaction failed to uproot Buddhism in the region. Two centuries later a second grand era of Buddhism was ushered in by the Kushan dynasty which lasted for 125 years. Kushans territories extended from the Indus region to Gandhara which is parts of Punjab, North West Pakistan and Eastern Afghanistan.

Hieun Tsang, a Chinese monk who visited India during 630-644, just about half a century before the Arab invasion listed the Buddhist monasteries.  In Sindh alone there were 460 with 26000 monks.  Most of these were in lower Sindh, concenterated in the Central Delta area, Mirpur Khas, Sehwan and Makran in the Balochistan, province.

Fa-Hien or Faxian another Chinese pilgrim who had visited earlier, some two hundred years after the Kushan rule, describes Taxila, the city known for education, religion and great trade.  Today, its ruins composed of three cities built in different time zones, is a window to diverse cultural layers.  Conquered and constructed one after another by Darius, Alexander, Chandragupta Maurya and the Greco-Bactrian King Demetrius it had been a melting pot where Persian, Greek, Hindu, Jain, Buddhist and Bactrian cultures merged.  Taxila located on three important routes was also a trading center.  The Silk Road provided opportunities to Buddhist traders and craftsmen to sell their goods and raise money to support their monastaries.  The bloom of Gandhara art in the region suggests not only an amalgamation of Indian and Greek styles but also an immense prosperity that afforded monumental artworks.  It was in such lavish times and place under the Kushans that Buddha, for the first time, came to be represented in human form.  The largest Buddha sculptures in the mountain walls of Bamiyan were constructed under their patronage and Moen jo daro stupa was built during their rule.

Kanishka, the most known Kushan King too reached for  Buddha’s remains scattered by Asoka and stuffed these in precious caskets.  When one of these was discovered in an excellent shape in a stupa in Peshawar it made big news was reported in a full page article in the New York Times in 1909.  Another casket was discovered from Kahu jo Daro in the suburbs of Mirpur Khas in my home district Tharparkar in lower Sindh.  During my childhood days I remember passing by it and even playing around in the spacious yard around the stupa and being overwhelmed by Buddha’s images in relief.

Stupas in Sindh were also discovered at Depar Ghangro, Thul Mir Rukan, Jherruck, Mitho Dero, Sudheran jo Daro and as these awaited a thorough search, strong rumors  of a relic casket buried in the stupa on top of the unexcavated mounds of Moen jo Daro reached the British officials. But while the early intruders searched in vain for treasures in the abode of a religion that renounces worldly treasures by the time Banerji reached the hollowed drum the region itself was empty of Buddhism.  Peshawer casket had been handed over officially to the Burmese monks in a ceremony that symbolizes the final expulsion of Buddhism from the land where it flourished for thousands of years.  Nonetheless the presence of Buddha’s bones- many lost but few found- in a close proximity to each other in Pakistan indicate that the land must have enjoyed an exalted sacred status in the Buddhist world.

Indus region is still dotted with some of the most spectacular Buddhist remains in Punjab, Swat and Khyber Pakhtunkwa province whereas many have perished in the saline land and air of Sindh.  The ASI reports as early as of 1919 had described Kahu jo Daro infected with ‘kalar’ salt encrustation and appealed to the Director to dispatch a chemist from Bombay to cure the problem.  In my lifetime Kahu has withered away and the mounds do not bear any semblance to the stupa that I saw half a century ago.  It is time to preserve as much heritage as possible.

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