By Faiza Tehseen
ISLAMABAD: Time seems to have stopped dead in its tracks hurtling back to the centuries as one feasts its eyes on the sacred Bodhi Tree located in the backyard of the historic Taxila Museum, according to the Department of Archaeology, Pakistan.
It’s a descendant of Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi or Tree of Awakening under whose cool, dark, and refreshing shade the Lord Buddha would mediate for enlightenment sitting cross-legged on a diamond throne.
A visit to this sacred offshoot of the Tree of Awakening tickled the writer to have a little chit-chat with some maverick archaeologist about its history. This interest took her to Muhammad Iqbal Khan Manj, a Senior Official of the Department.
Recalling the Bodhi Tree’s early history till its plantation in Pakistan, Manj shared interesting historical episodes with the writer.
“In the 3rd century B.C., Sri Lankan King Devanampiya Tissa requested Emperor Ashoka to introduce Buddhism in his country. So, after deep thinking, Emperor Ashoka sent his daughter Sangamitra and son Mahinda there to preach Buddhism. Sangamitra took a sapling from the sacred Bodhi tree as a gift to present it to King Tissa.
“The plantlet was taken from the Ficus Religiosa tree (a variation of the fig tree considered sacred in both Buddhism and Hinduism). The Lord Buddha used to sit under it for meditation. It was also called the ‘Tree of Awakening’ or ‘Maha Bodhi Tree’, located in Bodh Gaya of Bihar – an Indian state. The original tree exists no more but its descendant is still there in Bodh Gaya.”
Walking down the history, he said Sangamitra’s gift was planted in Mahamewna Gardens of Anuradha Pura in Sri Lanka and it was named ‘Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi’.
“It still exists at the ‘Bodhi Tree Temple’ and is considered one of the oldest known planted trees in the world history. Buddhists across the world visit this tree.”
“In 1964, during President Ayub’s official visit to Sri Lanka, a sapling of ‘Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi’ was gifted to Pakistan. The then foreign minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto planted it in the backyard of the Taxila Museum. It is a mature tree now named as ‘Maha Bodhi’. Buddhists and diplomats come and pray under this tree,” Manj continued.
“When Buddhist tourists visit the Taxila Museum, they pray and visit the Buddhist relics. It was a rough muddy place attached to a children’s recreation area. Being Deputy Director of Taxila Museum, I took the initiative to make the ‘Bodhi tree’ surroundings presentable. So, I mentioned it in the PC-1, submitted to the archaeology department, that this site should be turned into a praying place with suitable adorations. Now, this is a peaceful place and the recreation setup has been shifted to another place.”
Manj said he visited Sri Lanka in September this year for a presentation on the importance of religious tourism around the world. Pakistan and Sri Lanka’s particular role at both joint and individual levels in showing their soft image was also discussed. Scholars, researchers, and Buddhist monks across the globe participated in the event.
Besides the other topics of debate, Muhammad Iqbal highlighted the importance of constructing a small temple with stairs near the tree canopy attached to the Bodhi Tree.
He suggested the idea of blending the Gandhara and Sri Lankan architecture to design it with expert coordination from both sides.
“There’s no problem with funds for this project and Pakistani experts can do it nicely. However, the purpose of involving the Sri Lankan government is to build an international image concerning religious tourism. The idea was highly appreciated among the chief monks and Sri Lankan religious tourism authorities. It is highly expected that both governments will start working on it very soon.
“Not only Sri Lanka but there are also 32 Buddhist countries which are enthusiastic to see the Buddhist relics. By promoting the uniqueness of the Bodhi Tree, not only religious tourism economy, but the soft image of Pakistan will also improve.”
Manj said inviting tourists to visit Pakistan will convey to the outer world a message of respect, harmony, and tolerance especially when it is related to any faith.
Concluding, he said, “Building Pakistan’s soft image through cultural exchanges and tourism is actually an art and the need of the time. To make Pakistan a tourism-based economy, a different spectacle is needed.” –INP