Across a wide, fertile plain to the north, the black mountains of Malakand Division, including Swat, stretch across the horizon. There, ruins of another sort are a dominant feature—the products of weeks of war that have gripped the Swat Valley and its environs. But up in the hilltop monastery in Takht-i-Bahi, none of that seems particularly relevant. Here, young couples, otherwise forbidden from even speaking to one another, huddle conspiratorially in the shadows of meditation halls, or walk casually through what were once monks’ residences. None of them can tell you much about the prolific history of Buddhism in Pakistan and the role Buddhism once played in bringing peace to a region now perennially beset by violence. They can tell you little about Asoka , the 3rd century BCE emperor of the Mauryan dynasty, who, after witnessing first hand the killing fields of his army’s expansionist campaigns, converted to Buddhism, gave up war, and spent the rest of his life actively promoting a Buddhist-inspired program of peace and brotherhood. His story reads like a life lesson in pacifism. The prosperity his empire enjoyed after his conversion is legendary. Some of that legacy remains in Takht-i-Bahi, in the quiet, contemplative moods of people like Ali who come there to clear their minds.
The sites, however, remain exposed. Pakistani officials don’t know how badly, if at all, ruins similar to Takht-i-Bahi have been damaged during the Swat offensive—the region is still too dangerous for any assessment. Any loss would be a grave blow, not only to the world’s Buddhist heritage, but, according to some Pakistanis, to the identity of Pakistan itself. “This is something from the past, and the Quran tells us the past is important to Muslims,” says Rafaqat Baig, a guide at the Dharmarajika complex in Taxila, 30 km north of the capital Islamabad, where some of the Buddha’s ashes were placed by Emperor Ashoka. “There are many prophets who came before the Prophet Muhammad. Some people here believe Buddha was one of those. He speaks of equality between men, so does Islam. He speaks about love, so does Islam.”
For Muslims like Baig, paying tribute to Buddha in no way contradicts their faith. But even he admits he would not speak openly to others about his beliefs: “You never know who might be listening.” His caution is understandable. Even though the Taliban are on the run in Swat, it’s not inconceivable that one day Dharmarajika and Takht-i-Bahi’s meditative slopes could be occupied by gun-toting Islamic radicals.