Islamabad (AsiaNews/Agencies) - Pakistan is losing its cultural and archaeological past, especially its Buddhist heritage, wiped out by Islamist attacks and looters, this according to scientists and researchers who blame the problem on the lack of funds and personnel. Trafficking in Buddhist artefacts is worth millions of dollars, especially in the north-western part of the country, home to the Gandhara culture, from which looters can supply the black market.
This kind of traffic is commonplace among poor and underdeveloped nations like Pakistan, which has one of the richest cultural and archaeological heritages in the world, but lacks the means to protect it.
Illegal digs are depriving the country of potential tourism dollars and preventing archaeological and other experts from documenting the past and developing the various sites.
"We are facing a serious problem because Pakistan is a vast country, and we have very meagre resources," said Fazal Dad Kakar, head of the government's Department of Archaeology and Museums. "We have no manpower to watch the hundreds of Buddhist sites and monasteries in the country, most of which are located in isolated valleys."
Many of the sites are in the Swat Valley, a verdant, mountainous area in the northwest that was once part of Gandhara, an important Buddhist kingdom that stretched across modern-day Pakistan and Afghanistan more than 1,000 years ago.
Back in July, police seized a large container filled with nearly 400 artefacts in the southern port city of Karachi that were being trucked north to be smuggled out of the country. About 40 per cent were found to be genuine, including nearly 100 Buddhist sculptures up to 1,800-years-old worth millions of dollars.
Two men who were arrested in October last year for excavating a statue of Buddha from a site in Swat but they were only fined about US$ 50 each without any prison time.
On average, looters receive less than 1 per cent of the final sale price of an item, whilst middlemen and dealers get the other 99 per cent.
The Swat Valley, in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, is one of Pakistan's most important heritage region because it contains significant sites dating back to the times of Gandhara kingdom, a culture that flourished along the current Afghan-Pakistani border between the 5th c. BC and the 2nd c. AD.
Following the conquest of the region by Alexander the Great, Gandhara blends Indian and Hellenistic cultural traditions as exemplified by its religious figures, including anthropomorphic representations of the Buddha and Greek divinities like Apollo.