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Plunder in the valley of the Buddhas

Peshawar -- It starts with a rumour: someone has uncovered a small statue. It is enough to mobilise small armies of villagers equipped with shovels and assault rifles for some nocturnal antiquity raiding.

In Peshawar, Pakistan’s notorious frontier capital, the trade in smuggled artefacts is now a booming industry, growing with increases in poverty in the tribal lands.

The trade in antiquities is swathed in subterfuge. In small shops among the labyrinth of Peshawar’s back alleys, deals worth thousands of dollars are concluded daily over glasses of green tea.

At first the trader pretends not to hear my request for a genuine Buddha statue. Instead he busies himself arranging leather goods. Once his shop empties though, he asks me where I’m from. Comfortable with my provenance, he explains that he has to be very careful in case there are plain-clothes police lurking.

He pushes aside a pile of rugs, which reveal a small doorway with steps leading down to a cellar. There, in a trunk covered with rice sacks, lie two Buddha statues, both about 18in high. The man wants US$10,000 (£7,000) for each and is not willing to bargain.

Not far from this shop, Ihsan Ali, head of Peshawar University’s archaeology faculty, sits at his desk examining slides of raided Buddhist sites in Peshawar Valley. The region witnessed one of the most significant renaissances of Buddhism in south-east Asia, from the middle of the third century BC to the sixth century AD.

Gandhara, the ancient region where the Peshawar Valley lies, is also the name give to the sculptures which are now coveted by art dealers world wide. But the future of the area’s most precious heritage now looks grave.

Ali has surveyed many of the Peshawar Valley’s pillaged sites, and believes time is running out to save them. "I have personally surveyed over 1,200 sites in the vale of Peshawar and almost 80% have been looted. If we don’t do something very soon that figure will rise to 100%. We need to act now or all this vital cultural heritage will be lost."

But with widespread corruption and very little support from Pakistan’s central government, in terms of policing heritage sites, the chances of halting the smuggling are remote.

Many of the excavations are carried out by groups from the tribal lands. Indeed whole villages sometimes take part in the digs in the hope of finding a Buddha statue or Indo-Greek figurine, which in some cases can fetch up to $US150,000 dollars locally, before being sold on to international buyers.

What started as an ad hoc trade in antiquities, instigated principally by the Afghan Mujahedin in the early 1980s, who used the money to fund their Jihad against the Soviets, is now a well-organised international business.

Sophisticated networks of middlemen now use well-run smuggling routes sending many antiquities overseas to the US, Germany and Japan.

Money from smuggled artefacts is in some cases proving to be the main source of income for some rural communities who previously relied on remittances from men working in the Arabian Gulf.

Ibrahim Mohammed, whose father owns an estate in tribal lands 50km north-east of Peshawar, recalls that about 15 years ago some of his father’s workers uncovered a number of Buddha statues. "My father sold a small piece of land to a group of workers who wanted to build a house. They were digging the foundations and uncovered some statues. It’s incredible, they are now very wealthy."

With the market fuelled by buyers from the Far East, Europe and the US, it was not long before the more lucrative sites, like the ancient Buddha worship complexes such as Takht-e-Bahi in the Mardan district of the North West Frontier Province, began to fall under the corrupt clutches of bureaucrats.

In May 1999 Peshawar customs intercepted a haul of antiquities destined for foreign markets. Among them were various Buddha and Greek statues from the tribal area. A senior customs officer was later reportedly arrested for trying to help smuggle out artefacts.

Many of the clandestine excavations not only strip sites of their artefacts but completely destroy most of the archaeological sequence and context, said Dr Taj Ali, an expert on Islamic archaeology at Peshawar University.

Takht-e-Bahi, which stands 500ft above a plain, is one of the best preserved Gandhara monasteries and was built over successive stages from the first century BC to the sixth century. Yet its unique history and archaeological record are constantly being eroded by clandestine excavations.

Some local observers believe that more than six statues are smuggled out of the Takht-e-Bahi alone each month. If the current rate of illegal excavations continues the unique archaeological heritage of the Gandhara civilisation, could be lost.

With determined, cautious interest, it is possible to fix a meeting with a trader at the Andar Shehr Bazaar, the stomping ground for the adventure tourist trying to pick up curios among the fakes.

This time a 15-minute drive through Peshawar’s crumbling suburbs ends outside a house with a risible mock-Tudor façade.

Potential buyers are ushered into a majlis. A few minutes later two men, one Afghan and one Pakistani, arrive in a battered Honda. They struggle to get out of the car holding a large hessian sack. They keep looking round to make sure they are not being watched and then make a dash for the house. One Buddha statue, about 20in high and a beautifully carved head, are placed on the floor of the majlis.

Asked if the head was dug up separately, one of the men laughs and says, "the statue was too big it was almost 11 feet high so we cut off the body. It’s much easier to ship like that."

The men are confident that they can ship anywhere in the world. "Don’t worry about getting the statues out, we can take care of that, we’ve sent things to Germany and the US before." Their business card reads: ‘Specialists in Stone Fire Places.’


Updated: 23-7-2001

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