Ancient Buddha artifacts dating back 1,800 years have been discovered in northwestern Pakistan. The rare artifacts were found in the Swabi district, located some 83 kilometers (52 miles) from Peshawar, the capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, Abdul Samad, the provincial director of Archaeology Department, told Anadolu Agency (AA).
"We have found around 400 new antiquities belonging to the Gandhara Civilization during an ongoing excavation at the Baho Dheri village of Swabi over the past six months," he said.
The discoveries include a 73-meter (240-feet) stupa, the largest of its kind so far found in the region, and a rare life-size statue of Gautam Buddha, the founder of Buddhism.
"This statue is not in intact form. We need to work to restore in its original shape," Samad said.
Other antiquities include seated Buddha statues, the original floor of the largest stupa dating back 1,800 years, and a statue in meditation pose, he added.
"These antiquities are not mere art pieces but they were used for worship purposes," he further said adding that the Buddhist disciples used to walk counter-clockwise around the stupa.
Mostly, he said, round, Indian and Ashokan-style stupas have been found in the region, some of which date back 2,200 years, in addition to square stupas, which were introduced by the ancient Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
The latest discoveries are the outcome of an ongoing excavation in the region over the past six months.
"We have so far completed 40% of the planned excavation. Sixty percent (of the excavation) is still left," said Fawad Khan, head of a 20-member team of archaeologists involved in the excavation.
Speaking to AA, he said that more "interesting" discoveries are expected.
Khan said that the fresh discoveries have added a "new chapter" to the history of the Gandhara Civilization.
Emerged in 500 B.C., the ancient Gandhara Civilization sprawled across the region, encompassing Peshawar, Mardan, Swabi, Swat, Buner and Bajaur situated in the northwest, and Texila in the northeast of today's Pakistan, in addition to Kabul and northern Afghanistan.
Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province – once a hub for terrorism and suicide bombings – is home to 70% of the sites in the country sacred to Buddhists.
Once known as the heart of the Gandhara civilization, Takhtbai or Takht-i-Bhai (throne of origins) – a small scenic town located some 112 kilometers from Peshawar – is the most visited site by Buddhists, who flock to see the ancient monastery built in the first century, according to Samad.
In the entire Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, which borders neighboring Afghanistan, there are some 20,000 archeological sites. Around 2,000 of them are Buddhist sites.
"The region comprising Swabi and Mardan is so important for Buddhists in general and for the Korean peninsula in particular, as Buddhism was introduced to that region (Korea) by a monk from Swabi some 1,600 years ago," Khan said.
Thousands of tourists from Japan, China, Sri Lanka, South Korea, Hong Kong and Myanmar visit the Buddhist sites in Pakistan every year, following improved law and order in the country in recent years.
Pakistan's army has launched a series of onslaughts on militants, particularly in the northwestern tribal region along the Afghan border, since 2014, claiming to clear 95% of the area of terrorists. According to the interior ministry figures, there has been an 80% decline in the number of terrorist attacks in the country since 2014.
Archeologists and tourism authorities believe the fresh discoveries will give a further boost to religious tourism in Pakistan.
Pakistan is just 70 years old, but it is situated in a region that has been home to three of the world’s major religions – Hinduism, Buddhism, and Sikhism – for centuries.
The Muslim nuclear state hosts scores of revered pilgrimage sites – dating back 5,000 years – for not only the followers of these three religions but also from some prehistoric religions such as Aryan, Vedic, Barhaman and ancient Iranian and Greek religions.
Badly hit by the events related to the 9/11 terrorist attack on Washington and New York City, Pakistan’s religious tourism is now picking up mainly because of improved law and order and the government’s realization of the economic and political importance of this sector.
"These latest discoveries, which include rare stupas and other artifacts, will certainly boost religious tourism in Pakistan, which is already picking up," Samad observed.
Echoing his views, Khan, the chief archeologist, said the discoveries would attract the Buddhist community from across the world.
Located some 27 kilometers from Islamabad, Taxila – known as Tukshla in ancient times – is another holy site that includes a Mesolithic cave and the archaeological remains of several Buddhist monasteries.
Apart from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, northeastern Punjab, the country's largest province, is home to the five most important pilgrimage sites for Sikhs.
They include the birthplace of Baba Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh religion who was born in 1469 in Nankana Saheb district, and Gurdwara (monastery) Punja Sahib in Hasan Abdal town, where the handprint of Guru Nanak is believed to be imprinted on a boulder at the monastery.
The two sites are visited by thousands of Sikhs from neighboring India, Europe and America every year.
Katas Raj temple in northeastern Chakwal district and Sadhu Bela temple in southern Sukkur district are the two most visited religious sites by Hindus from across the world.
Hindus – Pakistan’s largest minority – equally revere the water of a lake in the Katas Raj temple as they believe the lake was filled with the tears of Shiva, one of the principal deities of Hinduism.
Hindus make up 4% of Pakistan’s population of 210 million.