Buddhist iconography is an important element in India’s national flag and national emblem, and Buddhist sites in India, such as the Ajanta Caves and Bodh Gaya are well known. In contrast, Pakistan’s engagement with its own Buddhist heritage has received far less attention. Andrew Amstutz (University of Arkansas at Little Rock, USA) explains his ongoing research that examines the place of Buddhism in museums and public history in Pakistan. 

My recent article, “A Pakistani Homeland for Buddhism”, explores three different moments in the exhibition and publicization of Pakistan’s ancient Buddhist past from 1950 to 1969. (1) First, in the immediate aftermath of the creation of Pakistan in 1947, the country’s nascent network of museums used Buddhist artefacts to argue both that Pakistan’s recent separation from India was grounded in ancient history and for cultural ties westward to Europe. (2) Shifting focus by the early 1960s, some historians insisted that instead of connecting Pakistan westward, the country’s Buddhist heritage presented opportunities in a different direction, this time to Southeast Asian Buddhist nations. Exemplifying this transformation, the influential historian and politician Ishtiaq Husain Qureshi undertook a lecture tour to Thailand in 1961 to promote Pakistan’s Buddhist heritage in Southeast Asia. In his lecture series, Qureshi imagined a new historical relationship between Buddhism and Islam in the ancient territories of Pakistan in which Muslims had allegedly served as protectors of Buddhists from ancient Hindu rulers.

In many Pakistani history textbooks, the eight-century Arab conquest of the province of Sindh (now in Pakistan) at the hands of the general Muhammad bin Qasim (695-715 CE) was celebrated as the arrival of Islam in South Asia. In his lecture series in Thailand, Qureshi reworked this received popular history of the origins of Islam in Pakistan to highlight the alleged Muslim liberation of oppressed Buddhists. Qureshi argued that, “The ruler [of eighth-century Sindh] was a Brahman. He had usurped power and it seems that he was showing considerable intolerance towards the Buddhist religion and the Buddhist people …There was open cooperation between the Arabs and the Buddhists…” (Qureshi 1963, 30-31). A not so subtle implication of Qureshi’s lecture series was that the territories that became Pakistan had resisted Hindu influences for millennia. In Qureshi’s version of events, therefore, the ancient Buddhist past added another element to Pakistan’s separation from India.

(3) Finally, as the 1960s progressed- and tensions rose between Pakistan’s eastern and western wings- museum officials shifted their presentation yet again, this time to emphasise Buddhist art as distinctly local to Pakistan and, therefore, a vital connective tissue across the country’s divided geography. Thus, whether by connecting Pakistan to classical Greece and Rome, or orienting Pakistan towards Southeast Asia, Pakistani museums mobilised ancient Buddhist remains both to make sense of Pakistan’s rapidly drawn national borders and to reach for new global ties.