The irony is as thick as the dust clouds sweeping over the ramshackle Pakistani market town of Takht-i-Bahi. At the hilltop ruins of a first-century Buddhist monastery, Ikram Ali, a local university student, is in the middle of explaining what it is that attracts him to the UNESCO-designated World Heritage Site’s grassy knolls and quiet quadrangles when automatic gunfire rips through the serene vales and gullies. “It’s peaceful up here,” he’d been saying just a few seconds earlier, scanning the horizon in the direction of the Swat Valley. “You can escape all of the noise and stress that goes on down there.” The volley of bullets erupts just as he points down toward the town. A group of villagers can be seen scrambling for cover under a grove of trees. The exchange is brief, lasting five minutes or so, after which the villagers resume their routines. Ali watches the scene with mild amusement. “That kind of thing happens every day around here,” he says with a Buddha-like calm.
Across a wide, fertile plain to the north, the black mountains of Malakand Division, including Swat, stretch across the horizon. There, ruins of another sort are a dominant feature—the products of weeks of war that have gripped the Swat Valley and its environs. But up in the hilltop monastery in Takht-i-Bahi, none of that seems particularly relevant. Here, young couples, otherwise forbidden from even speaking to one another, huddle conspiratorially in the shadows of meditation halls, or walk casually through what were once monks’ residences. None of them can tell you much about the prolific history of Buddhism in Pakistan and the role Buddhism once played in bringing peace to a region perennially beset by violence. They can tell you little about Ashoka, the third-century BCE emperor of the Mauryan dynasty of India, who, after witnessing first hand the killing fields of his army’s expansionist campaigns, converted to Buddhism, banned war, and spent the rest of his life actively promoting a Buddhist-inspired program of peace and brotherhood. His story reads like a life lesson in pacifism. The prosperity his empire enjoyed after his conversion is legendary. Some of that legacy remains in Takht-i-Bahi, in the quiet, contemplative moods of people like Ali who come there to clear their minds.
For a time, when the Taliban were in control of Malakand a few short weeks go, that serenity appeared to be under threat. Their hatred of Buddhism is an established fact: the March 2001 destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan, officially ordered by the then-ruling Taliban regime of Mullah Mohammed Omar, and the more recent November 2007 mutilation of a seven-metre tall Buddha statue in the Jehanabad region of Swat, are examples of what could have been in store for Pakistan’s Buddhist heritage. “Militants are definitely a threat to Swat’s historical sites,” says an official at the Sir Sahibzada Abdul Qayyum Museum in Peshawar, requesting anonymity. “They tried to attack some sites and even attacked the Swat Museum [just outside Mingora, the area’s main town]. But the government had good security there so the attackers were repelled.” Since that incident, officials have moved the most precious of Swat’s Buddhist relics to an undisclosed location.
The sites, however, remain exposed. Pakistani officials don’t know how badly, if at all, ruins similar to Takht-i-Bahi have been damaged during the Swat offensive—the region is still too dangerous for any assessment. Any loss would be a grave blow, not only to the world’s Buddhist heritage, but, according to some Pakistanis, to the identity of Pakistan itself. “This is something from the past, and the Quran tells us the past is important to Muslims,” says Rafaqat Baig, a guide at the Dharmarajika complex in Taxila, 30 km north of the capital Islamabad, where some of the Buddha’s ashes were placed by Emperor Ashoka. “There are many prophets who came before the Prophet Muhammad. Some people here believe Buddha was one of those. He speaks of equality between men, so does Islam. He speaks about love, so does Islam.”
For Muslims like Baig, paying tribute to Buddha in no way contradicts their Islamic faith. But even he admits he would not speak openly to other Muslims about his beliefs: “You never know who might be listening.” His caution is understandable. Even though the Taliban are on the run in Swat, it’s not inconceivable that one day Dharmarajika and Takht-i-Bahi’s meditative slopes could be occupied by gun-toting Islamic radicals. Against such brutal cruelty, Buddhism is unlikely to stand a chance.