Ali Anwar

Pakistan is a country widely known for its multiculturalism and forms a multi-religious society. This country comprises religious architecture of Buddhist and Sikh origin. There are numerous historical sites in Pakistan, which hold spiritual significance for Buddhists, Sikhs and Muslims. The government of Pakistan has been making efforts for a long time to promote religious tourism in Pakistan. In this context, the three-day Gandhara Symposium 2023, titled “Cultural Diplomacy: Reviving Gandhara Civilization and Buddhist Heritage in Pakistan”, was held in Islamabad from July 11 to July 13, 2023. In this mega-event, the religious leaders of the Buddhist faith from Sri Lanka, Nepal, Thailand, China, South Korea and Malaysia were present and shared their thoughts and viewpoints about this great historical legacy and the glorious past of Pakistan when Buddhism was at its peak in the region.
During this brief visit, this delegation of Buddhist scholars and leaders visited Mardan, Peshawar and Taxila, which are considered the centre points of the origin of Buddhism in Pakistan. The Inaugural Session was addressed by the Honourable President of Pakistan, His Excellency Dr Arif Alvi, as Chief Guest. Dr Ramesh Kumar Vankwani, Minister of State, Chairman of the PM Task Force on Gandhara Tourism, was the Guest of Honour. The Concluding Session was addressed by Senator Talha Mahmood, Federal Minister for Religious Affairs & Inter-Faith Harmony. Dr Talat Shabbir, Director of the China-Pakistan Study Center, played an important role in organizing Gandhara Symposium, whose efforts should be commended. Dr. Talat Shabbir made great efforts to organize this event and to promote Buddhist tourism in Pakistan and it will not be out of place if he is called the inspiration for organizing the Gandhara Symposium.
Honourable Dr Arif Alvi, the President of Pakistan, addressed the opening session of this symposium and the Chief Guest Was Dr Ramesh Kumar Vankwani, Minister of State/Chairman of PM Task Force on Gandhara Tourism. The key objective behind organizing this symposium on behalf of the Government of Pakistan was to shed more light on the Gandhara civilization and create global awareness about the Buddhist heritage of Pakistan. There is no doubt that the Gandhara civilization holds immense significance for Pakistan. It is not only the Gandhara civilization but also many sacred sites of Sikhism, Jainism and Hinduism that represent the rich cultural heritage of Pakistan. President Arif Alvi in his remarks said that in a world, where hatred is on the rise and increasing polarization is fuelling conflicts, “it is time to rediscover the role of cultural diplomacy to promote dialogue among civilizations.” He stressed that cultural diplomacy holds enormous potential to strengthen global ties. He urged to revive the glorious Gandhara civilization and Buddhist heritage in Pakistan.
The modern-day city of Taxila in Pakistan was once a renowned centre of learning in the ancient region of Gandhara, located in northwest Pakistan. “Pakistan offers the world a valuable window to Gandhara civilization with its unique blend of ancient history and the Buddha’s message of peace and compassion, Dr Alvi said. Dr Ramesh Kumar Vankwani, Minister of State and Chairman of the PM Task Force on Gandhara Tourism said that Pakistan has the potential to attract thousands of tourists and earn billions of dollars by promoting Gandhara tourism. Sharing the details of the plans to promote tourism, he said that Buddhist tourists from different countries are expected to arrive in July and August via two charter flights. He also said that a web portal has been developed to facilitate religious tourism and assured that tourists will get visas within seven days through this portal.
Chairman PM Task Force Dr Ramesh Vankwani emphasized that the promotion of the Gandhara heritage of Pakistan is a ‘dream’ for him which requires the support of all concerned departments and institutions. He said that there is a need to take advantage of the soft power of cultures. Allah Almighty has blessed Pakistan with a rich culture and it is the center of civilizations. The provinces of Punjab and Sindh have historical sites with excellent opportunities for archaeological research and spiritual tourism. Pakistan’s Buddhist heritage offers a path of peace, harmony and tranquillity. The best way to preserve cultural heritage is to share it with the world and let them be a part of this world and promote religious tourism in the country.
Promoting multi-religious culture in Pakistan can greatly contribute to improving the image of Pakistan globally. Furthermore, this will also help remove the misconceptions about Pakistan regarding religious extremism. Such events and initiatives can play a role in building an image of Pakistan which is multi-cultural, open and inclusive, and safe for tourists. By inviting and engaging with thought leaders, religious leaders and scholars from different countries a lot can be done to revive the sector of tourism in Pakistan, particularly religious tourism. Additionally, this will also improve Pakistan’s cultural diplomacy. The aim of this symposium is the same as stated above Pakistan is going to promote Gandhara tourism which will boost tourism in Pakistan and also bring financial benefits to Pakistan.
When tourists from different countries will visit Pakistan, the tourism sector will be revitalized and more revenue will be generated. That day is not far when the world will finally acknowledge that Pakistan is a country safe for tourists and it owns and celebrates its rich multicultural and multi-religious history.

The writer is an old Aitchisonian who believes in freedom of expression, a freelance columnist, entrepreneur and social activist