Tracing history of Buddhism in Sindh

Archeological site of Buddhist city Siraj Ji Takri discovered at Rohri hills (Photo : Website)

I had always found myself very close to Buddhism. May be it was because we Sindhis (natives of Sindh, the land of great Indus civilization, now a province of Pakistan) are by nature Sufis (Mysticism) believing in inter-faith harmony, brotherhood, non-violence and wishing best for progress and prosperity of the universe, as prayed by our great Sufi saint poet Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai (1689-1752) in his poetry: Oh Lord! Bless Sindh and whole of the universe with peace, progress and prosperity.

The closeness of Sindhi nation to Buddhism could also be because by the time Arab Muslim invader Muhammad Bin Qasim conquered this region in 711 A.D, the Hinduism and Buddhism were practiced in Sindh and its neighboring countries, which left unending effects on the culture and minds of inhabitants of this land.

I had studied some books on Buddhism, and had been witnessing the Buddhist remains at the hilltops while traveling in Pakhtoon areas (Khyber Pakhtoonkhaw province, formerly known as North West Frontier Province of Pakistan borderingAfghanistan). The statues of Buddha were main focus during my visits to the museums inPeshawar, the capital of Khyber Pakhtoonkhaw, and at Taxila, archeological site of Buddhist city located 32km northwest ofIslamabad, capital ofPakistan, or elsewhere in the country includingKarachi, the capital of Sindh. During my visit toKabul(Afghanistan) in December 2011 I specially went to see statues of Buddha damaged by Taliban militants. The present government got those statues repaired and put them on display at the national museum. I also saw the statue of smiling Buddha at themuseumofBahawalpurcity ofSouthern PunjabprovinceofPakistanin April 2013.Bahawalpurwas once part of Sindh in olden days. That statue was found from Sui Vihar area ofBahawalpur. There were lots of other statues kept at this museum. I was so impressed by the ideology of Buddha that I named my first son as Rahul after the son of Great Buddha when I read about it in a book authored by an eminent Indian writer Ms. Quratul Ain Haider. My son Rahul Aijaz is now a budding photojournalist and filmmaker, and is one of the contributors of AsiaN.

Statue of Buddha kept at National Museum of Pakistan at Karachi (Photo : Rahul Aijaz)

During my visits to Nepal, the birthplace of Great Buddha, I took keen interest in Buddhist temples, but the two visits to South Korea – one in 2007 and the other in 2008 on the invitation of Asia Journalists Association (AJA), added a lot to my experience, as it offered me an opportunity to see the Buddhist temples, meet the monks, taste Buddhist foods and even stay a night at a temple. In 2007, the hosts took the delegation of Asian journalists to Baekdam temple where we met chief monk Samjo and had Buddhist lunch. We also visited another ancient complex of temples Ohbangsan Naksan-salocated at East coast. The chief monk we met there was Jeongnym who had passed some time in Indian state of Rajasthan, neighboring Sindh, my home province. He presented each of delegation members a replica of Buddhist bell, which I have preserved at my home. At this temple I also witnessed the Buddhist prayers. I had a unique experience of my life the next year when the hosts arranged a night stay at Baekdam temple. The entire delegation consisting of men and women stayed there sharing small wooden rooms and enjoyed Buddhist dinner. The serenity, I experienced there, is unforgettable.

Another statue of Buddha at National Museum of Pakistan at Karachi (Photo : Rahul Aijaz)

The beauty of mountains located near the Manhae village was fascinating but what attracted me more was its history, as I was told that Buddhist monks waged war of freedom against Japanese occupation from these mountains.  I got some literature from the museum at Manhae village on the freedom struggle of Buddhist monk Han Yong Un alias Manhae. By this I learnt another aspect of Buddhism and its followers that fighting for freedom from foreign occupiers is something different from being a non-violent.

On my return fromKoreain 2008, I started writing travelogue in my mother tongue Sindhi language, especially mentioning the Buddhist temples, their history, meetings with monks and having Buddhist foods etc. One day when I was watching a TV program, I listened to an imminent writer and intellectual Amar Jaleel, considered to be a living legend in Sindh, saying that he was a Buddhist (by nature). This inspired me to write on the history of Buddhism in Sindh.

History

As stated above, the region today known asPakistanonce had a large Buddhist population and many religious structures in antiquity. The majority of people in Gandhara, present day Southern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, were Buddhist. Gandhara was largely Mahayana Buddhist, but also a stronghold of Vajrayana Buddhism. TheSwatValley, known in antiquity as Uddiyana, was a kingdom tributary to Gandhara. There are many archaeological sites from the Buddhist era in Swat. Gandhara remained a largely Hindu-Buddhist land until around 10th century, when Sultan Mahmud invaded the region and introduced the Islamic religion.

The Buddhist sage Padmasambhava is said to have been born in a village near the present day town ofChakdarain Lower Dir District, which was then a part of Oddiyana. Padmasambhava is known as Guru Rinpoche in Tibetan and it is he who introduced Vajrayana Buddhism inTibet.

Buddhism was practiced in the Punjabregion, with many Buddhist monastery and stupas at Taxila, which is world heritage site. Most Buddhists in Punjabreverted to Hinduism from 600th century onwards.

Buddhism was the faith practiced by the majority of the population of Sindh up to the Arab conquest by the Umayyad Caliphate in 711. During Caliph Walid`s rule (705-715) when Hajjaj Bin Yousuf was the governor of the Eastern part of the Umayyad Empire, an army was sent to conquer Sindh. The conquest became easy because Makran was already under the Arabs which made the land route safe. Moreover, it no more remained a safe haven for rebels.

Both Makran (part of Balochistan province of Pakistan) and Sindh were part of the Mauryan Empire during ancient times and due the efforts of King Ashoka, these regions had been converted to Buddhism. However, Hinduism revived during the Gupta period and dominated society but in Sindh, But Sindh`s culture and society was quite different from those of North Indian, as the caste system was not rigid here.

Statue of Buddha placed at Bahawalpur Museum (Photo : Nasir Aijaz)

The major reason behind the Arab invasion of Sindh was the quest for a seaport inIndian Ocean. In 636AD too, Arabs tried to captureThanaand Bharoch but it was an unsuccessful attempt. The Arab traders had their settlement in South India and Gujarat and they had also got footing in theislandofCeylon. When pirates started to loot their ships, Arab traders wanted to have a safe passage and under these circumstances, Muhammad Bin Qasim invaded Sindh in 711 and conquered Debal, Sahwan, Brahmanabad, Aror (now known as Sukkur) andMultanand Sindh became a part of the Umayyas and Abbasid Khilafat. Governors were appointed to administer it.

Sindh, at this time, had a mixed population of Hindus, Buddhists, and Jains.  A Chinese traveler Xuanzang reported more than four hundred Buddhist monasteries there with twenty-six thousand monks. The Buddhists constituted the majority of the urban mercantile and artisan class, while the Hindus were mostly rural farmers. The area was ruled by Chach, a Hindu Brahmin with a rural basis. He supported agriculture and was not interested in protecting trade.

The Hindus had a warrior caste which, along with their political and religious leaders, fought the huge Umayyad force. The Buddhists, on the other hand, lacking any martial tradition or caste, and discontent with Chach’s policies, were willing to avoid destruction and submit peacefully. General bin-Qasim’s troops won the victory, and reportedly massacred large numbers of the local population, inflicting heavy damage on the city as punishment for their stiff resistance.

Statues collected from different places displaced at Bahawalpur Museum (Photo : Nasir Aijaz)

The Umayyad forces then set out against Nirun near present-day Sindh cityHyderabad. The Buddhist governor of the city surrendered voluntarily. However, to set a further example, the triumphant Muslims constructed here as well a mosque on the site of the main Buddhist monastery. They spared the rest of the town.

Both Buddhists and Hindus cooperated with the Arabs, although more Buddhists did than Hindus. Thus, two-thirds of the Sindhi towns submitted peacefully to the invaders and made treaties. Those who resisted were attacked and punished; those who submitted or cooperated gained security and freedom of religion.

With the consent of Governor Hajjaj, General bin-Qasim now pursued a policy of tolerance. The Buddhists and Hindus were given the status of protected subjects. So long as they remained loyal to the Umayyad caliph and paid the poll tax, they were allowed to follow their faiths and keep their land and property. Many Buddhist merchants and artisans, however, voluntarily converted to Islam. As competition arose from Muslim quarters, they saw economic advantage in changing religions and paying less tax. In addition to the poll tax, the protected subjects called Dhimmi merchants had to pay double duty on all goods.

On the other hand, although the General had a certain interest in propagating Islam, this was not his main concern. Of course, he welcomed conversion, but his primary preoccupation was maintaining political power. He needed to raise as much wealth as possible to pay back Hajjaj for the huge expense of his campaign and all the previous military failures.

The Arab general accomplished his aim not only by means of the poll, land, and trade taxes, but also through a pilgrim tax that the Buddhists and Hindus had to pay to visit their own holy shrines. Perhaps this indicates that the Buddhist monks of Sindh, like their counterparts in Gandhara to the north, also had the degenerate custom at this time of charging pilgrims admission to their temples and that the Umayyads merely took over the income. Thus, for the most part, the Muslims did not destroy any further Buddhist or Hindu temples in Sindh, or the images or relics enshrined within them, since they attracted pilgrims and generated revenue.

Two statues placed at Bahawalpur Museum (Photo : Nasir Aijaz)

After spending only three years in Sindh, General bin-Qasim returned to Hajjaj’s court, leaving to his underlings the task of implementing his pragmatic policy of exploiting the Buddhists’ and Hindus’ religious sentiment to generate revenue. Within a very short time of his departure, however, the local Hindu rulers regained control of most of their territories, leaving the Arabs in only a few of the major Sindhi cities.

Since the Umayyads had lost effective political control of Sindh at the time, he was mostly ignored and did not force the issue. The Muslim converts lived in harmony with the Sindhi Buddhists and Hindus, a pattern that continued even after the decline of Umayyad rule. Pala Dynasty (750 – late twelfth century) inscriptions from northern India during the subsequent centuries continue to refer to Buddhist monks from Sindh.

Some historians consider Raja Dahir ruler of a predominantly Buddhist state. However, the Buddhism of Sindh may have been Buddhistic Hinduism (as it was in Bengal under the Pala Empire and Andhra under the Satavahanas). It is also held by some scholars that only southern Sindh had a Buddhist majority.

Chinese Buddhist ambassador to Sindh in 641 Hiuen Tsiang reported seeing many temples to the Hindu deity Shiva, especially along the banks of the Indus.

Buddhist monasteries dotted the Silk Route from China to the Sindh ports. They provided rest facilities and capital loans for merchants. Further, they housed lay Buddhist artisans who cut the semiprecious gems brought from China. The Buddhist merchants and artisans provided the main financial support for the monasteries. Thus, commerce was essential for the welfare of the Buddhist community.

Before the Arab conquest of Iran, the Sassanids ruling Iran exacted a high tariff on any goods transported overland through their territory. Consequently, Byzantium favored trade via the less costly sea route through Sindh to Ethiopia and then on by land. In 551, however, silk worm cultivation was introduced to Byzantium and the demand for Chinese silk went down. The Arab military campaigns in the seventh century further inhibited trade until the overland commercial route through Iran could be secured. At the turn of the eighth century, the Han Chinese pilgrim Yijing reported that the trade from China to Sindh was severely curtailed in Central Asia due to incessant warfare among the Umayyads, Tang Chinese, Tibetans, Eastern Turks, Turki Shahis, and Turgish. Consequently, Chinese goods and pilgrims traveled primarily by sea via the Strait of Malacca and Sri Lanka. Thus, on the eve of the Umayyad invasion, the Buddhist communities in Sindh were experiencing difficult times.

Statue of smiling Buddha at Bahawalpur Museum (Photo : Nasir Aijaz)

Buddhist archeological sites in Sindh

The biggest archeological site in Sindh is Moen Jo Daro (Mound of Dead), which is a world heritage being the ancient abode of Indus civilization. Some historians call it Moohan Jo Daro (Mound of Moohan, the Hindu name of a person). The Stupa at Meon Jo Daro is said to be of Buddhist era.

A Sindhi scholar and historian Dr. Prof. Ghulam Ali Allana and some other researchers have written about many remains of Buddhist period. One of the Buddhist archeological sites is Sudheran jo Thul located near Hyderabad city of Sindh.  Dr. Allana mentions an annual fair at the Thul where Buddhist pilgrims got their heads shaven and performed rituals and where Buddha’s bones were preserved.  This indicates the existence of a cinerary stupa at Sudheran.

Another archeological site of Buddhist city is Siraj-ji-Takri located along the western limestone terraces of the Rohri Hills in the Khairpur district of Upper Sindh. Its ruins are still visible on the top of three different mesas, in the form of stone and mud-brick walls and small mounds, whilst other architectural remains were observed along the slopes of the hills in the 1980s. This city is not mentioned from any text dealing with the history of the Buddhist period of Sindh. It was a perfectly planned small township with the clear distinction of living quarters and other amenities.

Stupa at Moen Jo Daro, the world heritage (Photo : Website)

Researchers also described some buildings and traces of construction on three corners of the rock, which resemble to security posts and that of a smaller complex of rooms with thick walls of burned bricks along the western end of the terrace, while the central area of the hill accommodates a flat construction identical to a speakers stage or salute platform.  Eastern periphery of Rohri, along the northern fringes of the hills, was destroyed in January-February 2001 without conducting any rescue excavation. A few artifacts were collected by Prof. G.M. Veesar of Shah Abdul Latif University, Khairpur and are now in the stores of the Archaeology Museum of the University.

The third Buddhist archeological site is Kahu Jo Daro (Mound of Kahu) located in Mirpur Khas, the southern district of Sindh while a Buddhist Stupa also exists at village Mir Rukan of Nawabshah, the central district of Sindh. There could be several other archeological sites with Buddhist background in this part of Pakistan but it needs to be researched.

2 Responses to Tracing history of Buddhism in Sindh

  1. Vijay Maknikar 16 August , 2018 at 1:27 pm

    Excellent narration of Buddhist history with archeological evidences.

    Thanks dear sir
    I also convey thanks to mr Rahul for his excellent photography

    Reply
  2. idiot849 26 August , 2018 at 1:39 pm

    There was never a caste system in sindh and no hindjews either

    Reply

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