Remembering Pakistan’s Buddhist past

In contrast to India’s conquest of Buddhism’s multimillion-dollar tourism market and brand as the land of Lord Buddha, Pakistan’s participation in its Buddhist tradition has received significantly less attention despite having more Buddhist sacred sites than the land of Lord Buddha. Indeed, Buddha was born in India, but Buddhism flourished from the region of Pakistan.

Buddhist symbolism is prominent on India’s national flag and emblem and on well-known Buddhist sites in India. Thanks to its well-positioned tourist policies and programmes, the Ajanta Caves and Bodh Gaya are the focal points of India’s thriving religious tourism. Although the region that is in Pakistan is the birthplace of Buddhism, Pakistan has failed to promote a better knowledge of its relative religious tourism strategy and tap its market potential. Dedicated attention to Buddhist alone sites can place Pakistan on the international tourist map and energise the Buddhist heritage route throughout the Gandhara region.

Pakistan possesses a vast untapped potential for worldwide religious tourism due to its rich heritage and history if adequate security is provided for foreign religious tourists. Six places in Pakistan have been declared the World Heritage Sites, while twenty-six sites are on the tentative list. The holiest Buddhist religious sites are Taxila and the Buddhist Ruins of Takht-i-Bahi, and the Remains at Sahr-i-Ahlool. These landmarks can market the country as the world’s most popular Buddhist destination, put Pakistan on the international tourism map and revitalise the Buddhist cultural path throughout the entire Gandhara region. To realise the full potential of religious tourism in Pakistan, a small step in the right direction can translate into a quantum leap tomorrow.

From the perspective of religious tourism, Pakistan can become the next major destination for Buddhist religious tourism. However, this potential has long been hampered by bureaucratic red tape, law and order issues, religious extremism, and denigration of religious minority ceremonies and sites. Successive governments disregarded the preservation of Pakistan’s archaeological heritage. This ignorance causes damage to Pakistan’s culture and traditions.

According to the Travel and Tourist Competitiveness Index compiled by the World Economic Forum, Pakistan performs poorly on all sub-indicators vital to any nation’s tourism industry. Out of 140 countries on the list, Pakistan is ranked 130th for having an enabling environment, 138th for safety and security, 102nd for health and hygiene, 138th for human resources and labour market, 123rd for travel and tourism policy and enabling conditions, 120th for government prioritisation of travel and tourism, and 107th for tourism infrastructure. Pakistan is ranked 141st out of 142 nations for environmental sustainability.

Pakistan is one of those nations where people suffer from various deficiencies, lack of tolerance and understanding being a very significant one. For Pakistan, religious tourism is one of the driving forces that attract visitors from around the globe to witness the nation’s attempts to preserve its tangible and intangible cultural legacy.

Pakistan’s Buddhist and Hinduism history are the stuff of myths and legends. From the authoring and recitation of the Mahabharata, the greatest Hindu epic, in the Gandhara region during the early historical period to the preeminence of the ancient heartland of Buddhist learning, the region has a long history of cultural significance.

Since time immemorial, the legend of Gandhara as the cradle of Buddhism history and heritage has always inspired the imagination of people from diverse lands. Once strategically placed at the intersection of caravan routes that connected Southern, Western, and Central Asian areas to the West, the Gandhara region was a melting pot of civilisations, including the Achaemenid, Hellenistic, Mauryan, Greco-Bactrian, Kushan, Gupta, Hun, and lastly, Muslim. Chinese monks, including Fa Hsien and Hsuan Tsang, arrived at Gandhara to study the earliest Pali Buddhist literature.

Megasthenes, a Greek diplomat who spent fifteen years in the Mauryan court, gave extensive descriptions of Gandhara’s main centre Taxila. The neo-Pythagorean sage Apollonius of Tyana visited Gandhara in the first century AD. His biographer Philostratus described the Gandhara region, its walled cities with a symmetrical layout, and compared their scale to Nineveh, an ancient city of the Assyrian empire. Christian traditions show that the apostle Thomas, who was sent by Jesus Christ on a divine mission to promote Christianity in India, visited Buddhist Gandhara during the Parthian period.

Pakistan is the origin of Mahayana Buddhism, the greatest Buddhist sect today. More than half of its adherents are in Korea, Japan, China, Vietnam, Tibet, Malaysia, Mongolia, Bangladesh, and some other countries. As they recovered in the decades following the Second World War, several East Asian nations, such as Japan and South Korea, began to embrace their Buddhist past, as did some countries of the former Soviet Union in the 1990s. Currently, 97 percent of the world’s Buddhist population resides on the Asian continent. Several nations, including Bhutan, Myanmar, Thailand, and Sri Lanka, view Buddhism as fundamental to their national identity and values. Despite being a communist nation, China promotes Buddhism as a fundamental pillar of its cultural diplomacy, and that is because it has the greatest Buddhist population of any country in the world.

Pakistan is also revered by millions of Buddhists of all factions worldwide. Guru Rinpoche and Monk Marananta, two renowned Buddhist mystics, were born here. Guru Rinpoche, also known as Padmasambhava, was reincarnated in the Swat valley. Buddhists in Tibet, Nepal, and Bhutan consider Padmasambhava the “second Buddha.” Monk Marananta is said to have originated in the present-day Swabi region of Chhota (little) Lahore. He travelled from Chhota Lahore to Korea through China, where he preached Buddhism.

The province of Gandhara in Pakistan fostered Mahayana Buddhism and the famed Gandhara culture, art, and learning. Gandhara contains the ancient and highly revered Buddhist stupas of Taxila and Swat. The Gilgit Manuscripts discovered in Pakistan’s Gilgit-Baltistan region are among the oldest surviving Buddhist scriptures. As a Buddhist holy site, Pakistan is home to the Buddhist heritage monuments, artwork, and iconography of unprecedented importance to Buddhist worshippers, scholars, and tourists.

In recent years, the fast growth of religious and cultural tourism has provided governments of many countries with new revenue generating opportunities. With the assistance of the corporate sector, governments have initiated a range of tourism projects. Nevertheless, despite the abundance of religious tourism potential in Pakistan, the country has yet to fully grasp the notion. This new tourism trend is not difficult to understand; unlike simple religious tourism and sightseeing tours, religious and cultural tourism has a deeper meaning and may serve the diverse needs of tourists in Pakistan.

Religious and cultural tourism provides pilgrimage travel services for the believers and offers service activities for the public to comprehend, experience and recognise religious culture. The emergence of specialised kinds of religious tourism has resulted from the necessity to accommodate pilgrims and the location of ancient sites and shrines. Religion and tourism are intricately intertwined, as revealed by a closer examination of tourism’s historical backdrop, particularly if religion is considered one of the first causes of human movement and a fundamental need to travel.

Religious tourism emphasises visits to significant religious places. The primary purpose of this type of tourist travel is to fulfil the spiritual and religious needs of the travellers. Since our culture has been misunderstood for decades, tourism would be advantageous for Pakistan since it would allow tourists to explore our culture. Pakistan can be the next big thing in the religious tourism’s pilgrimage sector.

To popularise Buddhism religious tourism, Pakistan needs to develop policies that encourage approaches to develop, manage, and promote tourism in religious sites. Pakistan’s road infrastructure is far better than that of India. It is for government to develop religious tourist routes, cross-country pilgrimages, and networks of religious tourism locations as an efficient tool to promote regional growth and integration.

A modest move in the right direction is required for Buddhist religious tourism in Pakistan to realise its great potential.


Some of Buddhist Religious Icons in Pakistan

Buddha’s Relics, Taxila: The sacred relics of Buddha—two holy bone relics, a golden casket containing the relics, and a stone reliquary in stupa shape—are part of the collection in the Taxila Museum of Pakistan.

Fasting Buddha, Lahore: The “Fasting Buddha” is a Gandharan masterpiece, one of the most prominent statues in the world and a valued possession of the Lahore Museum since 1894. It stands 33 inches tall and is crafted of grey Gandharan Schist stone.

Sleeping Buddha, Haripur: A 48-feet long sleeping Buddha was unearthed in 2017, near the Bhamala Stupa in Haripur district. This “Sleeping Buddha” is the world’s oldest sleeping Buddha and dates to the third century.

Jehanabad Buddha, Swat: Jehanabad Buddha is one of the greatest rock sculptures in the region and the most well-known one as it is the second largest Buddha statue, officially known as Budh Ghat, in central Asia. It was a sacred Buddhist site distinguished by a gigantic Buddha-shaped rock. On a high asana, the rock unveils a huge statue of Buddharupa in deep meditation. Jehanabad Buddha is entirely clad in drapery, the beautiful folds that may be seen on his throne.

Shatial Rock Carving, Chilas.

(Photograph By Asad Khan

Seat of Saints, Jaulian: The Buddhist monastery Jaulian, whose name translates to “Seat of Saints” is situated in the Haripur district of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, close to the provincial boundary of Punjab and the city of Taxila. Together with the nearby monastery of Mohra Muradu, Jaulian is part of the Ruins of Taxila, a collection of 1980 UNESCO World Heritage Site designated excavations.

(Photograph by Mohammad Omer,

Healing Buddha, Jaulian: The statue of Buddha at Jaulian, with a hole in the navel, is one of the holiest Buddhist icons. Buddhist pilgrims from around the world visit this place with the belief that by putting their finger in the hole and praying for the ailing would help to cure the illness.

(Photograph by Nawab Afridi

Throne of the Water Spring, Takht-i-Bahi, Mardan: An Indo-Parthian archaeological site near Mardan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, contains an old Buddhist monastery. The location is regarded as one of the most significant Buddhist relics in what was formerly Gandhara and is remarkably well preserved. The monastery was founded in the first century CE and was in use until the seventh century. The complex is regarded by archaeologists as being particularly representative of the architecture of the Buddhist monastic centres from that era. Takht-i-Bahi was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1980.

(Photograph by Asif Nawaz

Shatial Rock Carvings, Chilas: Shatial is a small village located on the Karakorum Highway along the ancient Silk Road. It is noted for Buddhist and Zoroastrian iconography but most of it is Buddhist in origin.

Dharmarajika Stupa, Taxila: The stupa is thought to have been constructed by the Kushans in the second century CE to house Buddha’s relics, which may have been sourced from earlier monuments and buried at the site around 78 CE. According to the Buddhist sacred texts, frankincense was utilised during religious ceremonies at Dharmarajika, which is paved with colourful glass tiles. It has been asserted that the Dharmarajika Stupa was constructed over the ruins of an even older stupa, constructed by the Mauryan King Ashoka in the third century BCE; however, some archaeologists are unconvinced of the authenticity of that claim. The second century BCE dating of the Indo-Greek coins discovered at the site suggests the earliest likely erection of a religious monument at the location.

(Photograph by Ibnazhar

Mohenjo-daro Buddhist Stupa: A grand Buddhist Stupa, at the ancient site of Mohenjo-daro, rises about a foot above the surrounding area, measuring from the first pavement to the base of the drum; the height of the plinth is twenty feet, which is unusually tall for a stupa of that dimension.

Distance (in kilometres) of the Buddhism Heritage Sites Distance from Islamabad:


Khyber Pakhtunkhwa

• Sphola Stupa, Jamrud 201

• Peshawar Museum, Peshawar 180

• Badalpur Stupa, Haripur 40

• Jehanabad Buddha, Swat 281

• Nemogram Stupa, Swat 180

• Swat Museum, Swat 235

• Bazira, Barikot, Swat 217

• Rock Edicts, Mansehra 134

• Bhamala Stupa, Haripur 55

• Jaulian Monastery/Stupa, Haripur 41

• Shingardar Stupa Swat 215

• Ghalegay Rock Carving, Swat 240

• Butkara I, Mingora 229

• Amluk Dara Stupa, Swat 220

• Shahbaz Garhi Rock Edicts, Mardan 136

• Takht Bahi Stupa, Mardan 158

• Seri Bahlol, Mardan 157

• Ranigat, Buner 121

• Jamal Garhi, Mardan 155



• Shatial Rock Carvings, Chilas 396

• Thalpan Rock Carvings, Chilas 396

• Kargah Buddha, Gilgit 516

• Manthal Rock, Skardu 649



• Lahore Museum, Lahore 371

• Taxila Museum, Taxila 43

• Dharmarajika Stupa, Taxila 63

• Bhir Mound, Taxila 43

• Sirkap City, Taxila 38

• Sirsukh City, Taxila 62

• Mohra Muradu, Taxila 65

• Pipplan Stupa, Taxila 67

• Jinnan Wali Dheri, Taxila 68

• Katas Raj Stupa, Chakwal 157

• Mankiala Stupa, Rawalpindi 37



• Buddhist Stupa, Mohenjodaro 1051

• National Museum, Karachi 1411

• Mir Rukan Stupa, Benazirabad 1151

• Sudheran Jo Daro, T M Khan 1279


The writer is a Lahore based author, educationist, brand strategist, and journalist. He can be reached at


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