Gandhara Symposium 2023: Cultural Diplomacy: Reviving Gandhara Civilization and Buddhist Heritage in Pakistan, Islamabad

Reviving Gandhara Civilization and Buddhist Heritage in Pakistan,
Reviving Gandhara Civilization and Buddhist Heritage in Pakistan,

The 3-day Gandhara Symposium 2023, titled “Cultural Diplomacy: Reviving Gandhara Civilization and Buddhist Heritage in Pakistan”, commenced in Islamabad today.

The Symposium has been organized by PM Task Force on Gandhara Tourism; the Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad (ISS); and Directorate of Archaeology and Museums, Government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

The Inaugural Session was addressed by the Honourable President of Pakistan, His Excellency Dr. Arif Alvi, as Chief Guest. Dr. Ramesh Kumar Vankwani, Minister of State/Chairman of PM Task Force on Gandhara Tourism, was Guest of Honor.

Director General ISSI Amb. Sohail Mahmood, in his welcome address, stated that Pakistan has millennia-old, multi-layered cultural heritage, of which Gandhara is a very important dimension. He stated that the Symposium’s objective is to put further spotlight on Gandhara civilization and raise global awareness about the Buddhist heritage in Pakistan. The government and people of Pakistan are proud of the fact that this rich legacy has been well preserved. He expressed the hope that Panel Discussions, Round Table, and site visits during the Symposium would help delineate a pathway to advance the desired goals, including promotion of faith tourism.

In his address, Honourable President Dr. Alvi lauded the initiative and reminded the audience that the Gandhara Civilization held immense importance for the Pakistani nation, representing a powerful dimension of our rich cultural heritage. The President emphasised that in today’s world, where hatred is on the rise and increasing polarization is fuelling conflicts, it is time to rediscover the role of cultural diplomacy to promote dialogue among civilizations. He stressed that cultural diplomacy holds enormous potential to strengthen global ties. The journey to revive the glorious Gandhara civilization and Buddhist heritage in Pakistan is thus vital in this regard. The President added that Gandhara was a great centre of learning that attracted intellectual discourse, and its cosmopolitan nature and cultural fusion fostered an environment of tolerance and harmony. He underscored that leading humankind towards peace and harmony is the biggest challenge today. To address this, the President stressed that the message of peace from religions is the most important one that the world needs today. The movement to end violence in the world is perhaps the most important and urgent need, he added.

Chairman PM Task Force Dr. Ramesh Vankwani stressed that the promotion of Pakistan’s Gandhara heritage is a ‘dream’ for him that necessities the assistance of all relevant Departments and institutions. This Symposium symbolises a commitment to the protection and promotion of Pakistan’s rich Buddhist heritage. He stated that the soft power of cultures needs to be capitalised on. In this regard, collaboration within the country among all stakeholders as well as cooperation from other countries is vital. Gandhara tourism, he added, has the potential to draw five lack people to Pakistan that can bring about 1.5 billion USD in revenue in its first year. He also shared his ideas about promotion of faith tourism in Pakistan as part of efforts towards building a more prosperous Pakistan.

Session I of the Gandhara Symposium was on the theme ‘Pathways to Peace: Exploring Pakistan’s Rich Buddhist Legacy.’ The speakers included religious scholars and faith leaders from Malaysia, Thailand, South Korea, Nepal, Sri Lanka and China. The speakers highlighted that Gandhara has been a major centre for Buddhist learning and education and recommended preserving the Buddhist Gandhara heritage in Pakistan as well as continued efforts for its projection as part of world heritage.

Session II discussed ‘Gandhara Civilization: Celebrating Pakistan’s Buddhist Heritage.’ The presenters comprised experts, faith leaders and religious scholars who emphasized that Buddhist Gandhara heritage is paramount to Pakistan. Pakistan is blessed with rich culture and is a hub of civilisations. The Punjab and Sindh provinces have landmark historical sites with excellent archaeological research and spiritual tourism opportunities. Pakistan’s Buddhist legacy offers a pathway to peace, harmony and tranquillity. The best way to preserve cultural heritage is to share it with the world and allow them to be part of this world. The panellists suggested that the Buddhist Heritage has economic potential and educational attraction. They recommended promoting Gandhara heritage to the world and creating economic opportunities for Pakistan. The speakers stressed that we must try to dispel the misconceptions about Pakistan in the context of security situation and build trust among Buddhist people so that they can come to Pakistan from around the world.

Session III delved into ways of ‘Promoting Tourism: Creating an Enabling Environment.’ Experts from Pakistan’s tourism industry and think-tanks were invited as speakers. The panelists agreed that efforts need to be put in place to develop the tourist industry of Pakistan on sounder basis that also helps presents a positive image of the country. They suggested that special attention should be given to various tourism-related matters such as visa regimes, film and media, hospitality, culinary, museums, tours and tourist centers to promote the potential of Gandhara tourism in Pakistan.

Lastly, a panel of religious experts, academics, curators, faith leaders and other stakeholders gathered for a Round Table on ‘Gandhara Civilization: Opportunities and Challenges.’ The points stressed during the Round Table included: Pakistan is a safe place for tourism, and this Symposium conveys the requisite message aptly. Pakistan is going to start Gandhara Tourism, and it is ready to collaborate with other countries to enhance B2B and P2P exchanges. The Round Table concluded that the lack of security structure, deficits in awareness and marketing, needed funds for preservation and restoration, unsupervised hotels, underdeveloped roads, tourist safety, and lack of modern tourism infrastructure are a few of the challenges.  It was felt that the holding of the Gandhara Symposium 2023 had made the beginning toward raising global awareness about Gandhara, addressing the mentioned challenges, and seizing the immense opportunities before us.

By Nadeem Faisal Baiga