Pakistan’s heritage in spotlight as US returns rare smuggled Buddha statue

US-Pakistan cooperation saves precious relic
By Imad Ali Shah - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Pakistan may be struggling to cope with immense demands of socio-economic development for its burgeoning population but its land remains heir to rich tapestry of ancient cultures.

This week, the United States returned a precious sculpture of Buddha’s footprints carved in stone that was smuggled out Pakistan – an event that highlighted Pakistan’s diverse heritage and the untapped tourism potential.

Buddhist culture flourished in Pakistan more than two thousand years ago, and one of the greatest figures in the religion was born in Lower Dir. The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province remains home to some of the most ancient Buddhist relics. In recent years, the famous monastery of Takht-e-Bahi, situated around 106 miles from capital Islamabad has been a major attraction for Buddhist tourists.

“This sculpture and others like it are so much more than commercial property—they represent ancient pieces of history and culture that should be celebrated and vigorously protected,” Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance said.

On behalf of the Pakistani government, the Deputy Chief of Mission at Pakistan Embassy in Washington, Rizwan Saeed Sheikh, received the 440-pound piece, called a Buddhapada.

The Manhattan District Attorney’s office recovered the statue in a sting operation after an intensive investigation.

Sheikh thanked Vance and his team, saying that the artifact was “an important element of the rich cultural history of Pakistan” and he was relieved to have it returned.

The Pakistani diplomat said the sculpture, valued at more than $1 million, would remain here under protective custody until arrangement were made to transport it back to Pakistan. He also indicated that it may be exhibited at a local museum.The artifact was taken from an archeological sit in Pakistan’s Swat region in the 1980s.

A Japanese antiquities dealer pleaded guilty last month to criminal possession of stolen property in a scheme to smuggle it into the U.S. Tatsuzo Kaku made the plea in exchange for a $5,000 fine and a sentence of time served and left the country voluntarily. He said he shipped the 2nd-century Buddhapada from Tokyo to New York to sell it at a gallery, where it was expected to fetch $1.1 million.

He said he knew it had been excavated and removed from the Swat River valley in 1982. He said in court that, while he stood to benefit financially, he also was motivated by a lifelong desire to preserve such works.

The repatriated piece is a large stone slab with columns and two large footprints. Within the footprints are symbols that denotes auspiciousness.

US officials said  that the Buddhapada is “so much more than a piece of property.”

“It’s an ancient piece that speaks to the history and culture of Pakistan that should be celebrated and protected,” Vance said.

The return of the invaluable statue is, undoubtedly a reason for celebration, and represents an example of international cooperation in protecting shared heritage of humanity. I

At the same it offers an opportunity to Pakistan to strengthen its ability to stop illegal excavations of ancient cultural sites and stem smuggling of relics out of the country.

Arts & LiteratureCultureDiversityOpinionPakistanU.S.

Iftikhar Ali is a veteran Pakistani journalist, former president of UN Correspondents Association, and a recipient of the Pride of Performance civil award
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