Destruction of Buddhist heritage in Pakistan annoys Sri Lankan people; May impact bilateral relations

Pakistan has been trying to boost its relations with Sri Lanka to
undermine domination by rival India in South Asia region. And it has found
a way to expand bilateral relations by promoting tourism to Buddhist sites
in Pakistan to bond with Sri Lankan people. However, to everyone’s
dismay, the heritage sites in Pakistan has seen widespread demolition of
Buddhist carvings and stupas and statues of Buddha, especially in Swat
valley. Moreover, Chinese -funded Diamer-Bhasha dam project – cum
hydropower plant is going to cause destruction of whopping 30,000 raw
carvings and scriptures of Buddhist origin in in the Gilgit-Baltistan area of
Pakistan- administered Kashmir.

All this has revived the horrific memories of the destruction of two giant and 2000-year-old statues of Buddha carved into the hillside in Afghanistan’s Bamiyan valley. This
certainly does not forebode good signs for the Pakistan government’s
plans to expand relations with Sri Lanka using religious tourism as a peg.

A few months ago, Pakistani President Dr Arif Alvi had sought to seek
closeness with Sri Lankans when he met a delegation of Sri Lankan
Buddhist monks in Islamabad and spoke about religious tourism being an
excellent platform to strengthen ties. 2 However, the Pakistan
government has even failed to protect heritage Buddhist sites from
radical, religious fanatics in the country. In 2020, a 1,700 year-old statue
was demolished by a few Pakistani people in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the
northwestern province of Pakistan. The statue was crucial since it was
known around the world for being the main cradle of the Buddhist

The desecration of the statue filmed the whole incident on a mobile phone.
The video of the demolition went viral on social media. While civil activists
and human rights activists expressed concerns, many Pakistani nationals
supported the unfortunate act. Rawalpindi resident Umer Usmani hailed
the desecration act by linking it with the teachings of Islam. “As a Muslim,
it is very necessary to smash and ruin all the idols in order to keep the
Muslim separate identity from other nations. Pakistan was made on the
basis of Islam, so Islam requires to eradicate the idolatry as our
grandfather Ibrahim and the holy Prophet (pbuh) did,” Usmani said on

Human rights activist Ihtesham Afghan cited Talibani acts of demolition of
Bamiyan valley to describe the demotion of the statue in Pakistan. “The
1800 old Bhudda remains founded in Takht-i- Bahi & smashed by religious
extremists. The real aim of putting extremism in people’s mind is to
washout the identity of those who are living in this region as they done
before in Afghanistan,” Afghan said.5 The destruction site was just a few
km from Takht-i-Bahi, which is one of the most popular destination in
Pakistan and visited by a large number of people from Sri Lanka, Korea
and Japan. In such scenario, it would be difficult for Pakistan to develop
confidence among Sri Lankans and thus to develop friendly cooperation.
Ancient Buddhist rock carvings, paintings and sculptures are often
damaged in Pakistan. Sometimes paintings are blackened and repainted
with Pakistan’s national flag. Pakistan is home to the world’s earliest
civilisation. But the heritage asset has fall victim to discretion, vandalism,
illegal excavation and smuggling. While there are global calls to preserve
Buddhist history and heritage, the Pakistan government has failed to do
“The armed Taliban has been routed from Swat and the threat is over
now. But these sites face new threats from land mafia; artifact smugglers;
negligence of the government; and lack of awareness among people
about its history,” says Osman Ulasyar, an artist and activist from Pakistan.
Image source
The number of tourists has seen sharp decline due to the country being
labelled as a hub of terror activities. Now, the demolition of religious
structure not just lowered the tourist flow and revenue but also created
challenges for Islamabad to maintain cordial relations with neighbour
countries, especially Buddhist- majority Sri Lanka. Moreover, Pakistan
Prime Minister Imran Khan’s intervention in the Sri Lankan government’s
decision to cremate all Covid-19 infected dead bodies including those of
Muslims had annoyed the local Buddhist population. While the leadership
of both countries may get along well over common agenda to counter
India, the desecration of Buddhist heritage in Pakistan is certainly not
going to be taken by Sri Lankan population lightly.

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