Pakistan has unveiled the remains of a 1,700-year-old sleeping Buddha as part of an initiative to encourage tourism and project religious harmony in a region roiled by Islamist militancy.
A reflection of the diverse history and culture of the south Asian country, the ancient Buddhist site in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province was first discovered in 1929. Eighty-eight years on, excavations resumed and the 14-metre-high (48-ft-high) Kanjur stone Buddha image was unearthed. The country’s opposition leader, Imran Khan, presided over Wednesday’s presentation.
“This is from the 3rd century AD, making it the world’s oldest sleeping Buddha remains,” Abdul Samad, director of Bhamla’s archaeology and museums department, told Reuters.
“We have discovered over 500 Buddha objects and this 48ft-long sleeping Buddha remains,” he added.
Khan said: “It’s a question of preserving these heritage sites which are an asset for our country.”
The region was once the centre of Buddhist civilisation that took root under the Mauryan king Ashoka 2,300 years ago.
The presentation of the Buddha image coincided with a lockdown of main roads around the nation’s capital to contain a rightist protest against a perceived slight to Islam by members of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N).
Minority communities in Pakistan are often targeted by rightwing groups, and successive governments have in the past been reluctant to embrace the country’s non-Muslim heritage.
But recent attempts to improve Pakistan’s image have included overtures to minority communities by the PML-N. In January the then prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, inaugurated the restoration of Hindu temples at Katas Raj, in Punjab province.
Considered a conservative figure, Khan has stressed dialogue with Islamist hardliners including the Taliban, but on Wednesday he said the preservation of sites such as Bhamala could promote religious tourism.
“It’s a world heritage site [and] because of it people can come for religious tourism and see these places,” he said.
Khan dismissed the protest in Islamabad, seeking to project a more tolerant image of Pakistan. “It’s a very small part of what is happening in Pakistan. The majority of the population wants to see such [Buddhist] sites restored.”
Khan’s opposition Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party hopes to make big gains in elections next year as the PML-N has been increasingly embroiled in corruption investigations.
Sharif resigned as prime minister in July after the supreme court disqualified him for not declaring a source of income, and he faces trial before an anti-corruption court.