Buddhism in Pakistan has a long history, dating back to the third century BCE when it was introduced under the Mauryan king Ashoka. A 2012 National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) report indicated that only 1,492 young holders of national identity cards (CNICs) belong to the Buddhist faith. It is estimated that the total number of Buddhists in Pakistan is likely to be a few thousand. According to a 2017 report, there are 1,884 Buddhist voters in Pakistan, mainly concentrated in both Sindh and Punjab provinces.
Pakistan has a remarkable array of ancient sites and historic structures, providing a link to the past that gives the country an identity distinct from today’s globalization. Yet this long-standing heritage is almost unknown outside of Pakistan, with archaeological sites that can be traced back centuries ago. From monuments and mausoleums to mosques and shrines, Pakistan’s ancient history is a treasure that should be celebrated.
Buddhist Heritage Sites
Pakistan has a long-standing history with Buddhism, serving as a significant hub of Buddhist art and culture for over a thousand years. This faith has had an immense impact on the cultural and social development of the country, leaving an impressive legacy in both art and culture. It is regarded as one of world history’s most significant spiritual experiences.
The rise of Buddhism has been closely linked to the region of Pakistan throughout history. Dating back to ancient times, this land served as the center of Buddhist religious activities and helped cultivate the faith, which eventually spread worldwide. Through well-organized missions, Buddhism gained traction and became a major world religion.
Sindh is home to a large number of Buddhist sites, although many of them are in varying stages of disrepair. Among the most notable sites in Brahmanabad (Mansura Sanghar district) is a Buddhist stupa at Mohenjo-Daro, Sirah-Ji-taken near Rohri, Kahu-Jo-Daro at Mirpur Khas, Sukkur; Sudheran-Jo-Thul near Hyderabad; Nawabshah; Thul Hairo Khan Stupa; Thul Mir Rukan stupa; and Bhaleel-Shah-Thul square stupas (dated from the 5th to 7th century A.D.) at Dadu. There is also a Buddhist tower in Kot-Bambhan-Thul near Tando Muhammad Khan. In addition, many terracotta tiles from Kaho-Jo-Daro and Buddha statues can be exhibited at the Chatrapati Shivaji Museum in Mumbai.
The ancient region of Punjab is a historically significant site for Buddhism, with many Buddhist monasteries, stupas, and other sites contributing to the Taxila World Heritage Site in the area. In addition, several notable figures from the religion were born in Punjab, including Khema, one of the chief female disciples of Buddha; Bhadda Kapilani; Anoja and Kumaralata, who founded the Sautrantika school of Buddhism. Taxila, an archaeological site of immense historical significance, was a significant center of learning and is believed to have existed from 600 BC to 500 AD. With over 50 archaeological sites in a 30 km radius around the Taxila Museum, it is renowned for its Gandharan art of sculpture, architecture, and education, as well as for its contribution to Buddhist culture and glory.
Taxila, one of the most critical sites in Pakistan, houses some of the oldest archaeological sites in the world. The Dhamarajika Stupa and Monastery, Bhir Mound, Sirkap, Jandial Temple (c.250 BC), and Julian Monastery (200-600 AD) are among the most well-known historical relics in Taxila. Additionally, a museum showcasing archaeological finds from Taxila has been established in this ancient city. The artifacts are arranged chronologically and labeled adequately to give visitors a clear understanding of Taxila’s storied past.
Multiple heritage sites in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan are significant for Buddhist heritage. Among these are some ruins from ancient Buddhist culture;
The Great Gandhara
Gandhara was a region in what is now known as Pakistan, with its center of influence located around the Peshawar Valley and Swat river valley. However, the culture of Greater Gandhara extended across the Indus River to Potohar Plateau and the Taxila region, and even as far west as Kabul Valley in Afghanistan, and even up to the Karakoram range in the north. As a result, this ancient region has had a lasting cultural impact on the surrounding area that continues to this day.
Gandhara, located in northwest Pakistan, was a powerful center of art, culture, and trade between the 1st and 5th centuries C.E. under the Kushan Empire. Its unique artistic style was heavily influenced by classical Greek and Hellenistic styles. Situated at the crossroads of India, Central Asia, and the Middle East, Gandhara served as a critical connection for trade routes, allowing for the exchange of cultural influences from diverse civilizations. As a result, Buddhism flourished until Islam replaced it in the 8th or 9th centuries. Additionally, Vedic Hinduism and later forms of religion were practiced in the region.
Takht-i-Bahi is a Buddhist monastic complex located around 80 kilometers from Peshawar in the Mardan district of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. The site was discovered in the early 20th century and later included in the UNESCO World Heritage sites in 1980 as one of the oldest and largest Buddhist remains in Gandhara. Located only a kilometer south of Takht-i-Bahi, the Sahr-i-Bahlol archaeological site dates back to the same period.
Oddiyana was a small region in the present-day Swat District. It is ascribed importance in the development and dissemination of Vajrayāna Buddhism. It was also called “the paradise of the Ḍākinīs.” Padmasambhava, the eighth-century Buddhist master who introduced Buddhism to Tibet, was believed to have been born in Oddiyana. Garab Dorje, the founder of the Dzogchen tradition of Buddhism, was born in a location yet to be determined. His contributions to Buddhist thought and practice have been influential throughout history, making him a significant figure in the religious tradition.
Other important Buddhist sites in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa include Begram, Kanishka’s Palace, and Shahi Tombs at Taxila. The Bamiyan Valley region is also home to many ancient ruins, including the monasteries of Gandhara and Takht-e-Bahi.
Chinese Buddhist traveler Hiuen Tsang visited Makran and Balochistan during the 7th century and reported many Buddhist temples existing in the coastal regions of the two areas. Travelers today can still witness the vestiges of a large Buddhist cave city, Godrani Caves, in Pakistan.
In his book, Alberuni’s India, renowned Islamic scholar Abu Rayn Muhammad ibn Ahmad Al-Biruni famously postulated that the eastern coastline of India extended from Tiz, the capital of the historic Makran region. Al-Biruni’s work is highly regarded by historians and has been extensively studied to gain insight into the cultural and political life of pre-modern India.
Historian Andre Wink released a statement claiming that;
“New evidence from the Chachnama reveals that a large portion of Sindh and Makran had a predominantly Buddhist population at that time. One example is the town of Armabil, where a Buddhist Samani prince ruled descended from Rai Sahiras’s loyal retainers. This prince pledged allegiance to Chach while traveling to Kirman in 631. These historical documents suggest that Buddhism had an essential presence in the region during this period. The ancient chiefdom of Armadillo, referred to as O-tien-p-o-chi-lo by Hiuen Tsang, was located on the high road running through Makran. Despite its thin population, it boasted eighty Buddhist convents and five thousand monks. Evidence recently uncovered near the ruins of an ancient town called Gandakahar – eighteen kilometers northwest of Las Bela – suggests that the nearby caves of Gondrani were used for Buddhist practice. Analysis of their construction confirms this theory.”
During his travels through the Kij valley, under Persian governance at the time, 7th-century Chinese Buddhist monk Hiuen Tsang encountered over 100 Buddhist monasteries and 6,000 priests. He also observed hundreds of Deva temples in Makran, located in western Persia. Notably, in the town of Su-nu li-chi-shi-fa-lo (considered modern-day Qasrqand), he found a beautiful temple dedicated to Maheshvara Deva, with intricate sculptures decorating the walls. His observations suggest that Indian cultural influences were widespread throughout Makran, even under Persian rule.
A prominent Hindu pilgrimage site, Hinglaj was once located 256 km west of present-day Karachi in Las Bela during ancient times. According to the noted writings of Hiuen Tsang, an eminent Chinese scholar, the language and script used in easternmost Makran (the eastern parts of Pakistani Balochistan and Sindh) were recorded by the German scholar Dr. Wink. Chinese Buddhist monk and scholar Hiuen Tsang journeyed through Makran during the 7th century and noted that the written language used there was similar to India’s. However, the spoken language had some variation.
Archaeologists have discovered several Buddhist archaeological sites in the region, including the Manthal Buddha Rock – a rock relief of the Buddha located at the edge of a village near Skardu – and the Sacred Rock of Hunza. There are also numerous former sites of Buddhist shelters in the area. These discoveries provide new insights into Buddhism’s history and culture in this part of the world.
The region of Baltistan, formerly a Buddhist majority, experienced a significant conversion to Islam in the 15th century. As a result of this transfer in the religious demographic, Buddhism’s presence has been relegated to archeological sites, with the remaining Buddhists relocating eastward to Ladakh, where Buddhism is still the primary faith.
Buddhism in present-day Pakistan
Pakistan is home to a small population of Buddhists, with reports of their presence only in the Azad Kashmir region. The Nurbakhshi sect, believed to hold some elements of Buddhism, may also contribute to this minority. Data on Pakistan’s Buddhist population is limited due to the need for more recent research and surveys. However, some Pakistani citizens have reported themselves as Buddhists.
According to the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA), the number of holders of national identity cards (CNICs) with a declared Buddhist religion rose from 1,492 in 2012 to 1,884 in 2017. The majority of cardholders were concentrated in Sindh and Punjab regions. However, a report suggests that the actual Buddhist population in Pakistan may be much higher than this figure – as many Baori Buddhists still lack CNIC cards. Researchers believe that the total population could exceed 16,000.
The Buddhist population of Punjab is primarily concentrated in the outskirts of the Mandi Yazman and Rahimyar Khan regions of Rohi. Currently, there are 15 Buddhist colonies located in a variety of villages within the Mandi Yazman area.
Pakistan Buddhist Heritage tourism
Given the country’s rich Buddhist heritage, tourism has become a burgeoning industry in Pakistan. Numerous Buddhist sites have been designated as UNESCO World Heritage Sites, including the Ruins of Mohenjo-Daro and the Buddhist Monasteries of Taxila. These sites draw tourists worldwide, giving Buddhists a chance to showcase their religion and culture in a mainstream setting.
In March 2013, a group of approximately 20 Buddhist monks from South Korea made the long journey to Takht-i-Bahi, a historical monastery located 170 kilometers (106 miles) from Islamabad, despite its government’s warnings against the visit due to safety concerns. Pakistani security forces were assigned to protection for the monks during their visit to Takht-i-Bahi, an ancient monastery constructed with ochre-colored stone situated on a picturesque mountainside.
The ancient Gandhara kingdom spanned an area of 1,000 years BCE to the 7th century C.E. in northern Pakistan and parts of modern Afghanistan. It was home to a unique mixture of Greek and Buddhist cultures, which eventually evolved into the Mahayana strand of Buddhism. During the 4th century, its influence extended beyond its borders; Marananta, a monk from modern-day northwest Pakistan, took Buddhism to the Korean peninsula. In light of this rich historical legacy, Pakistan is planning package tours for visitors from China, Japan, Singapore, and South Korea. These trips will include stops at iconic Buddhist sites such as Takht-e-Bahi, Swat, Peshawar, and Taxila near Islamabad.
The Buddhist heritage of Pakistan is evident in various locations throughout the country, with many monuments and sites dating back centuries. These sites are an essential part of Pakistani culture and should be preserved for future generations. With its diverse cultural heritage and fascinating history, Pakistan is an excellent destination for anyone interested in Buddhism.