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. 

In the hills that surround Islamabad, a popular destination for tourists and school groups is Lok Virsa, Pakistan’s Folk Heritage Museum. Built in the 1970s to document Pakistan’s regional cultures and traditional crafts, the Folk Heritage Museum is one of the premier museums in Pakistan’s capital city. Although much of Lok Virsa is devoted to contemporary crafts and regional iterations of Islam, these themes are not what greet visitors when they first enter the museum. Instead, the initial exhibits present a visual display of the varied cultural influences on the ancient territories of Pakistan, especially Buddhist art from ancient Gandhara. Gandhara was a region in present-day northwest Pakistan and Afghanistan that produced a rich variety of Buddhist sculpture from the third century BCE to the sixth century CE.

Photo: Exhibit near the entrance of the Lok Virsa (Folk Heritage) Museum in Islamabad, Pakistan. Credit: Author

As shown in the image below, a replica of a famous sculpture of the Buddha from Gandhara is situated at the centre of an exhibit on the ancient origins of Pakistan near the entrance of Lok Virsa. In turn, the next exhibit (the picture above) celebrates Pakistan as a “Living Gandhara,” with present-day Pakistan framed as an embodiment of the ancient Buddhist region. While India’s embrace of Buddhist iconography (in its national flag and national emblem) and promotion of famous Buddhist sites (the Ajanta caves and Bodh Gaya) for tourism are well known, Pakistan’s engagement with its Buddhist heritage has received less attention. Why did museum curators, not only in Lok Virsa but in museums across Pakistan, extensively use Buddhist artefacts in displaying (and imagining) the ancient origins of Pakistan?

Buddhist Art in Pakistani Museums

Pakistan was created as a claimed homeland for colonial India’s Muslim minority at the end of British rule of the Indian subcontinent in 1947. Carved out of Muslim-majority regions in the northwest and northeast corners of the subcontinent during the violent partition of India in 1947, Pakistan initially comprised two geographically separate wings, West Pakistan (contemporary Pakistan) and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), with hundreds of miles of Indian territory in between the two parts of the country. In its first two decades of existence, many public intellectuals struggled to forge a unifying historical narrative for the new nation’s diverse regions through Islam. Moreover, Pakistan’s rapidly drawn boundaries in the summer of 1947 presented early Pakistani officials with the challenge of making sense of the new nation-state’s divided geography, which Pakistan’s founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, famously complained was ‘moth-eaten’.

In response to these challenges, early Pakistani museum curators and archaeologists turned to the region’s pre-Islamic past to exhibit an ancient history for the new Muslim nation. Specifically, during the 1950s and 1960s, ancient Buddhist sculpture and other artefacts became important, if surprising, instruments of nation-building in Pakistan. Museum officials from the new National Museum in Karachi to the colonial-era museum in Peshawar utilised Buddhist art to mark the ancient territories of Pakistan as a “sacred region” and “a veritable holy land of Buddhism” (Gandhara Sculpture in the National Museum of Pakistan 1956, 3; Naqvi 1970, 19).

Photo: Exhibit near the entrance of the Lok Virsa (Folk Heritage) Museum in Islamabad, Pakistan. Credit: Author

There are a range of pre-Islamic artefacts available in Pakistan, including Indus Valley Civilization sites, that also received attention. Yet many museum officials in Pakistan highlighted Buddhism in the 1950s and 1960s. In both its western and eastern wings, Pakistan possessed important Buddhist archaeological sites, such as Taxila in West Pakistan and Mainamati in East Pakistan. In particular, Gandharan Buddhist sculpture from excavations in northwestern Pakistan gained particular prominence in Pakistan’s early museums. (The famous Buddhas of Bamyan in Afghanistan also were part of ancient Gandhara.) Although contemporary Pakistan does not have a Buddhist population, there was a Buddhist minority in the Chittagong Hill Tracts in East Pakistan.

In the hands of some museum and archaeological officials in Pakistan’s early years, the Buddhist past served as a historical model to make sense of Pakistan’s existence as a religious homeland in the present. Specifically, these museum curators and archaeologists celebrated (and contested) the potential of Buddhist artefacts to culturally connect Pakistan’s disparate regions, salve debates over national history, and forge new global ties, while also circumventing India. This turn to the ancient Buddhist past gained traction as cultural and political tensions rose between Pakistan’s eastern and western wings before the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War (and Indo-Pakistan War) that led to the independence of East Pakistan as Bangladesh. In turn, some Pakistani historians creatively imagined Buddhist remains as evidence of Pakistan’s opposition to ancient ‘Brahmin’ [i.e. Hindu] influence long before the arrival of Islam. Although these debates over ancient Buddhism might appear disconnected from the economic and political challenges in early Pakistan, they reflected broader disagreements over the cultural orientation of the new Muslim homeland.

Global Connections

The story of Pakistan’s Buddhist sculpture is both a local history of the crafting of Pakistani national history and a global history of the staging of Pakistan as a religious homeland in museums around the world. A distinctive element of Gandharan Buddhist art was that in the assessment of many European and local archaeologists in the 1930s and 1940s, it reflected the impact of classical Greek and Roman sculpture on local artistic cultures in South Asia. [These conclusions have been debated in later archaeological research.] Building on the alleged Greco-Roman influences on Gandhara, early Pakistani museum officials argued that ancient Pakistan constituted a global conjunction of cultures, or, in the words of a 1956 exhibit at the National Museum in Karachi to commemorate the 2500th anniversary of the Buddha’s birth, Gandhara exhibited “the fusion of Buddhist forms with Mediterranean humanistic style resulted in a unique art much prized today, and forming a part of Pakistan’s own cultural heritage” (Gandhara Sulpture in the National Museum of Pakistan 1956, 4). In turn, Pakistan’s Department of Archaeology and Museums sent Buddhist artefacts to Japan, Thailand, Germany, Italy, Australia and the United States from the 1950s to the 1970s in cultural diplomacy efforts to burnish Pakistan’s international image.

A recently published article, “A Pakistani Homeland for Buddhism: Displaying a National History for Pakistan beyond Islam, 1950-1969” in South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies, is the first part of an ongoing research project. This larger project is tentatively titled “Unearthing Pakistan: Buddhist Art, Muslim Nationalism, and Global Public History,” and it investigates the collaborations between Pakistani archaeologists and archaeologists and museum officials in Italy and Southeast Asia from the 1950s to the 1970s. Specifically, the Italian Archaeological Mission in Pakistan, or the Missione Archeologica Italiana in Pakistan, has excavated Buddhist sites in Pakistan since 1955 and is one of the oldest archaeological projects in Pakistan. Generations of Italian scholars, such as Giuseppe Tucci, worked in collaboration with Pakistani archaeologists. With the support of a senior fellowship from the American Institute of Pakistan Studies (AIPS) for research in museum and archaeological archives in Italy in 2020, I will investigate how Pakistani-Italian archaeological collaborations were critical to the local excavation and global display of Buddhist artefacts from Pakistan. For example, museums across Italy exhibit Buddhist sculpture from Pakistan, including the Museo d’arte Orientale in Turin, as shown below.

       Photo: Pakistan’s Buddhist sculpture is exhibited in Turin, Italy. Credit: Author

Although the involvement of Italian archaeologists in Pakistan initially might appear surprising, it reveals much about postcolonial Pakistan. I propose that in the 1950s and 1960s, Italian archaeologists, many of whom were trained in classical Roman sites, offered a unique opportunity for Pakistani archaeological and museum officials to frame their young country as an illustrious ancient civilization on par with countries around the world. For example, in 1954, the curator of the Peshawar Museum, Mohammad Abdul Shakur, used Gandhara to disconnect Pakistan from India not only since independence in 1947 but for two millennia. In Shakur’s own words, the geographic isolation of Gandhara “made for the development of a style quite apart from the mainstream of Indian tradition, and in certain aspects entirely Western in form” (Shakur 1954, 6). Moreover, Shakur claimed that “the arts of India and Gandhara advanced along separate paths, in different directions” owing to Gandhara’s enduring ties to “the Roman West” (Shakur 1954, 6-15). However, these claims did not go uncontested and instead spawned debates over the extent of the ‘Western’ ties of ancient Pakistan.

Photo: Pakistan’s Buddhist sculpture is exhibited in Turin, Italy. Credit: Author

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.

The possibilities and limits of the Buddhist past in Pakistan

My ongoing research on the history of Buddhism in Pakistani museums and archaeological projects suggests that the unifying capacity of the Buddhist past in Pakistan was ultimately fragile and contested. As suggested by the selections from Qureshi’s lectures above, the engagement of some public intellectuals in Pakistan with the Buddhist past often was quixotic, and some museum exhibits were beset with internal incongruities. However, the importance of extra-Islamic materials in the construction (and exhibition) of national history in Pakistan is distinctive in rethinking the contours of religious nationalism in modern South Asia. Specifically, early Pakistani museums publicised a vision of national history that underlined the importance of religion, but not exclusively Islam, in Pakistan. More broadly, the display of Pakistan’s Buddhist art offers an opportunity to explore both the meaning and the limits of public history in modern South Asia.

This post is based on A Pakistani Homeland for Buddhism: Displaying a National History for Pakistan beyond Islam, 1950–1969, published in South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies.

This article gives the views of the author and not the position of South Asia @ LSE blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please read our comments policy before posting. 

Andrew Amstutz is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. Previously, he was a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He received his PhD from Cornell University. He has written articles for South Asia and Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East (forthcoming).


Gandhara Sculpture in the National Museum of Pakistan. Karachi: Department of Archaeology, 1956.
Naqvi, S. A. A Glimpse into the Treasures of the National Museum of Pakistan. Karachi: Department of Archaeology, 1970.
Qureshi, Ishtiaq Husain. Aspects of the History, Culture and Religions of Pakistan: A Series of Lectures by Dr. Ishtiaq Husain Qureshi. Bangkok: Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, 1963.
Shakur, Mohammad Abdul. A Guide to the Peshawar Museum, Part 1. Peshawar: Government Printing & Stationary, North-West Frontier Province, 1954.
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