Pakistan’s oldest Buddhist temple was found in the country’s northwestern part by Italian archaeologists. The remains of the temple date back to 300 B.C.
The discovery in the town of Swat comes from an archaeological site where the remains of a Hindu temple were found last year, said Abdul Samad Khan, regional chief archaeologist.
“It is a significant discovery in many ways especially in connection with religious harmony, tolerance and multiculturalism in the Gandhara period,” he added.
The Gandhara kingdom emerged in what is northwestern Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan today in around 1000 B.C. and lasted for 1,000 years.
The city of Swat kept changing hands between Hindu, Buddhist and Indo-Greek rulers, who first arrived in the region from Greece with Alexander III of Macedon, commonly known as Alexander the Great.
Khan said the discovery of Hindu and Buddhist temples was a signal that either the followers of these faiths lived together in the region or built layered structures one after the other.
Some coins and stamps from the period of an Indo-Greek king were also among the latest discoveries, hinting at Swat being a multicultural city even thousands of years ago.
Swat, which was called Bazira at that time, is the home town of Nobel Peace Laureate Malala Yousafzai, who was shot and wounded by Taliban militants because of her campaign for girls’ education.
Italian and Pakistani archaeologists would continue their excavation at the site to discover more about the life and history of that period, Khan said.
The discovery was made in an area known in the Ancient and Classical world as Bazira, which lies under modern-day Barikot in the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The archaeologists unearthed a well-preserved, four-meter-high monument, which the archaeologists called “the apsidal temple.” They also found a boulevard or main street that seemed to be part of the ancient city of Bazira that led to a gate, presumably the entrance to the city.
The site was uncovered by archaeologists from Ca’ Foscari University and the Italian Archaeological Mission to Pakistan (MAIP), in collaboration with the provincial department of archaeology and museums. MAIP was founded by the famed Buddhologist Giuseppe Tucci and has been excavating ruins of the ancient town of Bazira since 1984. (Agenzia Giornalistica Italia) MAIP had launched an “excavation season” in November 2021, which will continue until the last week of December 2021.
Prof. Luca M. Olivieri director of MAIP, told the Dawn website that the dating of the site’s earliest foundations matches the Mauryan period of 322 BCE–185 BCE. “This is an astonishingly important discovery as it attests a new architectural shape of Buddhist structure in Gandhara. We only have one other example of apsidal temple in a city at Sirkap, Taxila. However, the apsidal temple of Bazira is so far the earliest example of this architecture in Pakistan,” he said.
The region, once part of Gandhara, is famous for playing a critical role in the spread of Buddhism across Central Asia as well as the germination of Buddhist art and iconography. Not only do the ruins demonstrate that Bazira hosted the Indo-Greeks since at least Menander I Soter (165/155 BCE–130 BCE), who was most famous for his support of Buddhism, but also that Buddhists had been influential here since the 3rd century BCE. This seems to have been the period in which Bazira entered a true Buddhist golden age.
Another archaeologist, Dr Michele Minardi, said: “We have found coins, among which a silver specimen issued by King Menander, an onyx-made seal decorated with a Hellenistic intaglio depicting the image of a youth in Greek attire with a Kharosthi inscription, a monumental Kharosthi epigraph, many other Kharosthi inscriptions on pots, and potsherds belonging to the Indo-Greek cultural horizon such as fish plates and polished black pottery that imitates Attic models.”
“This is an astonishingly important discovery as it attests a [sic] new architectural shape of Buddhist structure in Gandhara. We only have one other example of apsidal temple in a city at Sirkap, Taxila. However, the apsidal temple of Bazira is so far the earliest example of this architecture in Pakistan,” said Prof. Luca. (Dawn) According to the archaeologists, the Bazira area flourished as a Buddhist hub until the 3rd and 4th centuries of the Common Era, until it was abandoned after an earthquake during the reign of the Kushans, another Central Asian dynasty whose most famous emperors, Kanishka (78 CE–144 CE) and Huvishka (r. 150 CE–180), supported Buddhism and might have practiced Buddhism themselves.
Italy’s Ambassador to Pakistan, Andreas Ferrarese, also told Dawn that he was excited the new discovery was also made by a joint team of Italian and Pakistani archaeologists. “It is so impressive to find something common between the archaeology of Pakistan and that of Italy. It is something that shows that even in antiquity we have a kind of globalisation where people had exchange of certain techniques and ideas of culture and religions which is astonishing. The more we search for the past, the more we find that we have future together,” he said. (Dawn)
Unfortunately, illegal excavators had plundered the site between 2008 and 2010. Despite the looted items, archaeologists like Dr. Abdul Samad Khan, leader of the Pakistani team of archaeologists, believe that only five per cent of the sites have been explored. (Dawn) Much of the Gandharan complex remains to be explored, and it is likely that the buried city will hold yet more important revelations about the Indo-Greek period in Pakistan.