The Gandharan Question

Though it isn’t widely known today, Afghanistan was once at the center of an influential Buddhist society. A melting pot of Indian, Central Asian, and Greek influence, the Gandharan civilization was a critical point in the development of Buddhism, introducing new philosophical ideas and giving rise to what is believed to be the first Buddhist artistic tradition in the world. The destruction of the great Buddhas of Bamiyan by the Taliban was the first that many people in the world had heard of Afghanistan’s Buddhist heritage.

Now, with the Taliban ostensibly out of the picture, there’s a movement afoot in Afghanistan to try to reclaim some of that heritage. Two articles from The Buddhist Channel highlight the current controversy over the future of a large collection of priceless manuscripts taken from Afghanistan during the reign of the Taliban. With the major fighting in Afghanistan hopefully finished, the Afghan government is seeking the return of these manuscripts from the British Library and private collectors in Europe.

The questions about the history and fate of these Gandharan manuscripts is just a single small part of the ongoing debate on museums and the aftermath of imperialism. As more and more former colonial possessions and impoverished nations are coming into their own in the world, they are increasingly seeking the return of historical and cultural objects removed from their place of origin by looters or collectors. In many cases, the former colonial powers see themselves as having preserved priceless treasures that were often at risk of being lost or destroyed in their home countries. Countries in Asia and Africa that had their artifacts taken see these European museums and collectors as condescending at best, and unrepentant thieves at worst.

While fifty years ago it’s unlikely that a request like that of the new Afghan government would be met with anything other than a polite rebuff, in the modern political climate it’s entirely possible that some, if not all, of these priceless works will be restored to the Kabul Museum.

The possible return of these manuscripts raises its own questions. While many Afghan artifacts were preserved by dedicated staff members at the Kabul museum during the era of the Taliban, there is no denying that the iconoclastic and destructive tendencies of the former ruling power took a toll on the archaeological wealth of Afghanistan. The blasted ruins of the Bamiyan Buddhas will pay testament to that fact for generations to come. Furthermore, moving these scrolls to Afghanistan puts them out of reach of the majority of scholars and students, given the ongoing instability in the region. The question of the safety and accessibility of these priceless relics cannot be dismissed out of hand in the name of making amends for imperialism and opportunism.

That being said, there is no question that, by our current standards of law, the Afghan people are the rightful owners of these relics. If unscrupulous or desperate looters were willing to part with their patrimony in exchange for money, that does not indicate that the Afghan people as a whole have forfeited their rights to their history. Still, it would behoove the Afghan Cultural Ministry to consider not only the history of these scrolls, but their significance to the world as a whole; what they could tell us about early Buddhism and the history of a great society at the crossroads of multiple civilizations is invaluable.

A possible solution that balances the rights of the Afghan people with the needs and rights of the scholastic community and larger Buddhist world would be to establish a trust to oversee control of the Ghandaran scrolls. Representatives from the academic community, the Afghan government, and the world Buddhist community could share control of the documents under a system of rotating and permanent collections that guaranteed both the access of all involved parties and the preservation of the documents. Electronic images of all the documents could be freely published to the academic world, supported by fees and admissions from traveling collections of documents and art that could circulate in Europe and Asia. A special ‘reserve collection’ would remain with the Kabul Museum, ensuring that interested Afghans would continue to have access to their cultural heritage. Periodic shuffling of the reserve and traveling collections would mean that, over a five or ten year period, everyone would have access to the primary source documents. The electronic images would allow for ongoing translation work and provide an important back-up in the event of a loss of any part of the collection.

The economics (and the feasibility) of the solution are certainly up for debate. There are a lot of different parties involved (I’ve not mentioned at all the interests of individual collectors, or some of the specific Western museums involved), ensuring that this will remain a complex situation. Hopefully though, the handling Gandharan scrolls will someday be seen as a case of museums, cultural ministries, collectors, and academics getting one right as a new consensus on the fate of looted artifacts emerged.

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