By Aamir Latif
Pakistan is just 70 years old, but it is situated in a region that has been home to the world’s three major religions -- Hinduism, Buddhism, and Sikhism -- for centuries.
The South Asian Muslim state hosts scores of revered pilgrimage sites -- dated back to 5,000 years -- for not only the followers of the three religions but also from some pre-historic religions such as Aryan religion, Barhaman religion, and ancient Iranian and Greek religions.
Badly hit by the events related to 9/11 terrorist attack on Washington and New York, Pakistan’s religious tourism is now picking up mainly because of the improved law and order, and the government’s realization about economic and political importance of this sector.
“Pakistan’s religious tourism has shown an uphill trend in the last three years because of the improvement in law and order and change in the government’s attitude,” said Abdul Samad, director archeology of northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhawa province, which borders neighboring Afghanistan and hosts most of the religious sites belonging to Sikhism, and Buddhism.
Pakistan army has launched a series of onslaughts on militants, particularly in northwestern tribal region along Afghan border since 2014, claiming to clear 90 percent area of terrorists. According to the interior ministry figures, there has been a 70 percent decline in number of terrorist attacks in the country since 2014.
Khyber Pakhtunkhawa province -- once a child poster for terrorism and suicide bombings -- is home to 70 percent of the sites in the country sacred to Sikhs and Buddhists. Whereas, Punjab, the country’s most populous province, and southern Sindh province also host several sites linked to the three religions.
Once known as the heart of the Gandhara civilization, Takhtbai or Takht-i-Bhai ( throne of origins) -- a small scenic town located some 160 kilometers (99 miles) from capital Islamabad -- is the most visited site by the Buddhists, who flock to see the ancient monastery dated back to the 1st century, according to Abdul Samad.
The region in northern Afghanistan and Pakistan had been the hub of Gandhara civilization for centuries.
Large to medium-sized stupas of Gautam Buddha, the founder of Buddhism, and other heritage sites in northern Bamyan province of Afghanistan to Pakistan’s northwestern tribal belt, and from northern Gilgit-Baltistan region to tourist valley of Swat are reminiscent of the defunct civilization in this region.
Located some 27 kilometers (17 miles) from Islamabad, Taxila -- also known as Tukshla in olden times -- is another holy site, which includes a Mesolithic cave and the archaeological remains of several Buddhist monasteries.
Birthplace of Baba Guru Nanak
“We have seen a significant increase in number of tourists from Japan, China, Sri Lanka, Hong Kong and even from Myanmar in recent years,” Irshad Khan, director of Taxila archeology museum, told Anadolu Agency.
“There is no decline in visitors from Buddhist-dominated countries despite the ongoing violence in Myanmar,” Khan said referring to an ongoing crackdown launched against Muslim minority in August, which has seen more than 620,000 Rohingya cross from Rakhine state into Bangladesh, according to the UN.
“Buddhist heritage sites are fully protected, and we consider them our own,” Khan maintained.
Pakistan is home to some 1,500 Buddhists, according to the government-run Bureau of Statistics.
Punjab is home to five most important pilgrimage sites for Sikhs. They include the birthplace of Baba Guru Nanak, the founder of 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 second largest minority after Christians -- 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 2 percent of Pakistan’s over 200 million population.
Pakistan’s apex court last week ordered the government to stop establishment of industrial units near Katas Raj temple as they are damaging the heritage site.
Number of visitors
“Pakistan is a sacred place for us because of the sites revered to Hindus. Thousands of Hindus from India and elsewhere love to visit these sites,” Yahdshutar Lal, head of a 107-member delegation from India that visited Sadhu Bela temple last week, told Anadolu Agency.
“If more visas are granted, the number of visitors could increase many folds”, he added.
More than 1.8 million foreign tourists and delegates have visited Pakistan this year, which is more than thrice the number since 2013, Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation (TDCP) statistics revealed, without specifying how many visitors came purely for religious purpose.
From India alone, the statistics showed, over 8,000 Sikhs and Hindus visited their religious sites in the current year, the statistics said.
The government, according to local media, plans to upgrade the existing facilities in order to attract 30,000 tourists from Sikh diaspora alone per year.
Also, the TDCP is considering a plan to bottle the water from Punja Sahib, which is treated as reverent by Sikhs, Mukhtar Ali, a PTDC spokesman told Anadolu Agency.
The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government, earlier this year, organized a three-month Gandhara art exhibition in Seoul in an attempt to attract Buddhist tourists from South Korea, Abdul Samad said.
“Pakistan has a great potential for religious tourism. What we only need is, [improved] law and order, and proper marketing of the stuff we have to offer,” Ali said.
The PTDC plans to hold road shows and seminars through Pakistanis embassies across the world to attract religious tourism, which itself has become a huge industry, he added.
“If the law and order is further improved, and we manage to carry out our promotion plans, Pakistan can double the existing (religious tourism) figures within a couple of years”, he maintained.
* Ubaidullah Shaikh in Sukkur contributed to this article.