“The struggle between modernization and preserving cultural heritage is palpable. Rapid urban development in Islamabad has often led to bulldozing of heritage sites or unauthentic renovations, severing ties with their historical roots”
A less-known civilization, the Gandhara, once thrived in the very heart of South Asia, an area now recognized as Pakistan. From the sacred Shah Allah Ditta caves of Islamabad to the delicate rock carvings of Gilgit-Baltistan, the remnants are a testament to Pakistan’s rich cultural heritage. But is the rapid development of the region doing justice to this historical legacy? Are these significant sites sufficiently highlighted for tourism?
The Shah Allah Ditta Caves: Beacons Neglected Amidst Modernity
Nestled within the quaint southern margins of the Margalla hills lies an ancient secret – the Shah Allah Ditta caves named after a dervish of the Mughal era dating back 650 years ago.
According to Dr. Abdul Azeem, Director General Department of Archaeology and Museums, Government of Pakistan, Islamabad, they date back to the middle Stone Age (40,000 years BC) and span the eras of Buddhism, Hinduism, and the Mughals, These caves once served as a place of daily worship for the Hindu Sadhus of the Shah Allah Ditta village until the creation of Pakistan in 1947. Remarkably, they remained continuously inhabited until that time, bearing witness to an unbroken human settlement guarding the ancient trade route that connected Taxila to the southern parts of the subcontinent.
The historical value of these caves is well recognized by the Department of Archaeology and Museums, sparking preservation and development initiatives. The aim is to safeguard these sites from vandalism and make them accessible to the public, allowing people to appreciate this significant piece of their heritage.
However, the ownership of the caves under Pakistan’s Auqaf Department presents challenges. The Department of Archaeology and Museums, despite their willingness to take steps for the protection and development of the Shah Allah Ditta site, currently lacks authority over the land. This situation hinders the launching of a development project for conserving the ancient remains of the Shah Allah Ditta Caves and providing necessary public facilities at the site.“The land is the property of the Evacuee Property Trust Board, and once it is handed over to the Department of Archaeology and Museums, the project can be fully implemented”, said Dr. Abdul Azeem.
The reality of the caves’ preservation comes into question upon closer inspection.
GANDHARA CIVILIZATION: A Neglected Goldmine
The area set against the mountainous backdrop has transformed into a vibrant hub with tea shops, zip-lining facilities, cafes, and a paintball area known as Sadhu’s Retreat. On most winter days, the resonant melody of a Qawwal pervades the valley, while families and friends enjoy their time, savoring chai and pakoras, and exploring the caves alongside the adjacent amusement park. Unfortunately, the aftermath of their visits often takes the form of discarded tetra packs, plastic, and other garbage, showcasing a clear example of human negligence.
In June 2023, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif inaugurated Margalla Avenue, a 5.5 km six-lane highway carpeting GT Road to the E-12 toll plaza. In April, the Capital Development Authority (CDA) also announced the construction of a multi-purpose Sports Enclave right under the Stupa, opposite the caves.
This paradox lies in the fact that these visitors and shopkeepers who revel in their surroundings, are unmindful of the ancient ruins that encircle them. There exists a significant gap in public knowledge and respect for the rich historical tapestry of the country. “Such development is good for business and jobs for the local people”, says Muhammad Islam, a resident of the nearby locality and worker at the Sadhu Retreat. He believes that prosperity comes only with such development.
Hina, a resident of F-10 was at the location with some friends, her motivation was the ancient caves Instagram-worthy appeal. Ahmed, a banker based in Islamabad has been a frequent visitor, “I know these as the Buddha caves, but I haven’t explored their historical significance remains limited”.
Muhammad Yaqoob Abbasi, the designated tourist guide, proudly narrated his family’s deep-rooted connection to the valley spanning almost 300 years. He mentioned that his grandfather held the registry for what was then known as Dera Garyala, now recognized as the caves. Despite being in his 50s and relying on a walking stick, he possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of the region’s history, from the era of Alexander to the reign of the Mughals, and even to the time when ‘Ogga Baba,’ a Hindu owner, resided here before the partition. He also delved into the story of Chaudhary Abdul Rasheed, who introduced stone crushers and initiated excavation activities on the mountains overlooking the caves.
For Abbasi, these caves encapsulate his family’s legacy. He and his family proudly assume the role of caretakers, bearing the responsibility for the site’s maintenance. The only two tea stalls flanking on either side of the caves belong to his family, owned by either cousins or brothers. “We’ve been serving tea here for approximately three years. Before the construction of the road, we even had a proper stall right at the cave’s entrance for more than 20 years,” he shares.
Dedicating around five to six hours daily, they diligently clean the area to keep it immaculate. Moreover, they endeavor to educate tourists about responsible behavior, urging them not to litter as the location holds religious significance, with the nearby stream serving as a vital water source for locals. Abbasi lamented, “We receive no support whatsoever from the government. We pay them a lease every few years (last paid in 2008).” The absence of garbage collection services reaching the caves forces them to personally carry down the accumulated waste. Given the lack of trash bins to accommodate the substantial litter, the area inevitably succumbs to untidiness during peak tourist seasons.
But disregard for heritage isn’t new in Pakistan.
Fauzia Minallah, a prominent Pakistani artist and writer of the book “Glimpses into Islamabad’s Soul,” vividly recalls the burning down of the ‘Buddha Tree’ in the green area of E7, Islamabad in 2006 by religious extremists, along with the vandalism of the tiny Buddhist temple beneath it, “The historical environment of Islamabad might lack grand forts or palaces, but it spans a million years of human history, reflected in ancient rock shelters from the Stone Age, Buddhist monasteries, Hindu temples, old mosques, Mughal caravanserais, and shrines of Sufi saints, among many other historical sites,” she says.
Fauzia passionately raises concerns over the erasure of Islamabad’s rich historical narrative amid rapid urbanization. For her, the fall of the ‘Buddha Tree’ and the deteriorating condition of the Buddhist caves in Islamabad are stark reminders of this erasure, “Until 2006, not a single heritage site in Islamabad was protected by the Archaeology department. Several significant sites, such as the Mughal caravanserai in Saraaey Kharbooza and the Hindu temple at Saidpur, have suffered from neglect and have lost their historical significance,” shares Fauzia, “The fragile Buddhist caves are slowly crumbling, and inadequate measures have contributed to the deterioration of these precious remnants of the past”.
Fauzia states that the preservation of Pakistan’s cultural heritage requires urgent attention and comprehensive efforts to protect these invaluable historical treasures from being lost forever and she is not alone. Fauzia underscores the necessity to preserve the unique green character of Islamabad, advocating for the protection of ancient trees like the banyan or pipal – the lifeblood of heritage sites.
Revitalizing Spirituality in Historical Sites
Cultural enthusiast Nadeem Omer Tarar highlights the Gandhara civilization’s global importance, which is evident from its artifacts exhibited in major museums worldwide. However, according to Tarar, the city’s master plan ironically hinders the exploration of such treasures within Islamabad.
“THE STRUGGLE BETWEEN MODERNIZATION AND PRESERVING CULTURAL HERITAGE IS PALPABLE. RAPID URBAN DEVELOPMENT IN ISLAMABAD HAS OFTEN LED TO BULLDOZING OF HERITAGE SITES OR UNAUTHENTIC RENOVATIONS, SEVERING TIES WITH THEIR HISTORICAL ROOTS,” HE SAID
During the Gandhara Symposium 2023 – “Cultural Diplomacy: Reviving Gandhara Civilization & Buddhist Heritage in Pakistan” held in Islamabad in July 2023, Anil Sakya, Honorary Rector, World Buddhist, University Thailand, proposes that Gandharan artifacts should not only be seen as religious symbols but also as representations of harmony, beauty, and aesthetics. He encouraged instilling a sense of ownership among the local people towards these historical sites, transforming them from mere religious monuments to inspirational hubs, “Pakistan needs to remodel its global image concerning safety, suggesting that promoting mutual understanding and respect could attract more tourists,” he pressed.
Dr. Kallanchiye Rathanasiri, Department of Buddhist & Pali Studies, Bhiksu University of Sri Lanka also advocated breathing spiritual life into historical sites by transforming them into active places of worship, “Local Pakistani Buddhists should be encouraged to become monks and promoting cultural heritage, fostering a deeper bond with Buddhists worldwide,” he said.
Recognizing Cultural Diversity in Heritage
Cultural expert and Director of the China-Pakistan Study Centre at ISSI, Dr. Talat Shabbir highlighted the significance of acknowledging and celebrating the cultural diversity reflected in historical sites. He emphasizes that occasional incidents of extremism should not tarnish the image of the general populace, who deeply respect these sites.
Moreover, Dr. Shabbir underlines the immense potential for economic growth in the tourism sector through the promotion of Buddhist sites. Not only do these sites carry immense cultural importance, but they also can generate substantial revenue, thereby bolstering Pakistan’s economy. He states, “The Gandhara sites symbolize Pakistan’s rich cultural heritage and provide a platform for promoting interfaith understanding, economic growth, and national pride.”
Dr. Abdul Azeem, echoing the sentiment, emphasizes Pakistan’s unparalleled cultural wealth, much of which remains undiscovered. As sites remain unprotected and undiscovered amidst the race for development, he is working tirelessly to navigate through processes and preserve whatever can be salvaged. He further mentions the efforts of the latest task forces, working towards formulating policies to preserve these sites not only for their heritage value but also for their potential in promoting tourism and enhancing Pakistan’s global image as a culturally and historically rich destination. Nevertheless, the urgency to intensify efforts to protect these sites is paramount, ensuring they are appreciated and respected by all segments of Pakistani society.
The ongoing ‘development’ has also concerned the visitors. Although the current road isn’t very long and doesn’t connect to as many historic locations as it could, Ahmed expresses his worry, “You know, (Lake) Saif-ul-Muluk has turned into a commercial area. If any further construction takes place here, this place might lose its natural beauty and transform into a congested and unattractive marketplace.”
This story is the result of a collaboration between IRADA and Voicepk.