Acting on a tip from intelligence agencies, early on Friday Karachi police intercepted a truck carrying a 20-foot container full of ancient Buddhist artifacts hidden under brooms, slippers, furniture and bales of straw. There were 300 artifacts in the back of that truck, include massive statues that required specialized heavy machinery to unload.
Most of the artifacts date to around the third century and come from the kingdom of Gandhara, an ancient Vedic and later Buddhist civilization in the Peshawar valley that stretched from northern Pakistan to the Kabul River in eastern Afghanistan. The statues mostly depict enlightened beings, like an ornamented, mustachioed Bodhisattva that weighs 2,200 pounds and a Jataka (a birth story of the Buddha) tablet that shows Queen Maya giving birth to Prince Siddhartha while spirits celebrate around her. Another important statue depicts the goddess Hariti with two of her children, who in Gandharan tradition was once a baby-devouring demon but who was taught a stern lesson when the Buddha kidnapped one of her hundreds of children. She converted to Buddhism and become a loving mother goddess.
Truck driver Zafar Ali and another man traveling with him were arrested. Ali claimed they were headed to Rawalpindi, but a delivery order found after a search of his belongings said the cargo was to be transported to Sialkot City. He fingered his boss, Asif Butt, who told the authorities that the truck was loaded in the middle of the night with innocuous broom sticks and shoes from three legitimate businesses, but then a fourth person asked them to load five big and eight small boxes and bring them to Sialkot. Butt of course denies knowing what was in those boxes, one of which, let’s not forget, weighed more than 2,000 pounds, but he’s more than willing to snitch out the man who gave them the boxes.
Police suspected most of the artifacts were stolen from museums, primarily the Swat Museum which is known for its large collection of Buddhist artifacts from the Gandhara era, but after examining the antiquities Qasim Ali Qasim, the director of the Sindh province archaeology and museums department, told the police they were more likely to have been looted from archaeological sites in Swat, which is currently mired in military anti-Islamist operations. Looters have been taking full advantage of the distracted authorities to help themselves to the rich history of Buddhist and Hindu art in the area. Qasim thinks the objects were looted individually and moved to Karachi in small shipments. Once they had a large group, they planned to truck them out of Karachi and out of Pakistan with deep-pocketed European antiquities markets as the final destination.
The information retrieved from the suspects in yesterday’s bust has produced immediate results. A raid on a Karachi warehouse on Saturday uncovered two more boxes of Gandhara kingdom artifacts, including statues of the Buddha, bronze artifacts, pottery and decorative plaques. They’re investigating whether this is part of a larger smuggling ring (it is).