The Swabi monk who introduced Buddhism to South Korea

An edited version of this article was first published in The Express Tribune on Apr 15, 2013.

Islamabad – Even 13 years after it was revealed that the monk who introduced Buddhism to Korea centuries ago belonged to a town in Khyber Pakthunkwa, the ancient Buddhist remains in the monk’s hometown are unmarked and ignored by local authorities.

Monk Maranantha, credited for spreading Buddhist teachings across the Korean peninsula in the late 4th century AD, was originally from Chota Lahore in district Swabi, according to Esther Park, the founding member of the Gandhara Art and Culture Association.

Park was addressing a small gathering, which included a visiting delegation of South Korean officials, at Islamabad’s National Art Gallery on Sunday for the screening of a documentary on the hallowed monk.

She said Maranantha’s hometown is a holy site for Buddhists everywhere, but the site has not been looked after since its discovery in 2000.

“This site is like Mecca for the Buddhists,” Park said. “But not even a single sign board has been put up to mark it.”

Perhaps as a reminder of the Pakistani authorities’ lack of interest in developing the historical site, the secretaries of the Ministry of Inter-Provincial Coordination and the Ministry of National Heritage and Integration, who were supposed to attend the event, failed to show up.

Before 2000, not much was known about monk Maranantha’s history beyond that he was of Indian origin and had practiced Buddhism in China before arriving in Korea in 384 AD.

But then, eminent professor Min Hae Sik and Park found conclusive evidence through ancient texts and excavated artifacts that Maranantha was originally from Chota Lahore.

Excavations in the Swabi town also revealed the remains of a Buddhist temple dating back to Maranantha’s time, giving further credence to the researchers’ claims.

The documentary was a re-enactment of Maranantha’s historical journey through sea from China to the present-day South Korean county of Yeonggwang.

The documentary showed that King Chimnyu of Korea’s Baekje Kingdom invited Maranantha to inform him about Buddhism. Maranantha ended up being as influential and effective a Buddhist missionary for Korea as Paul the Apostle was for the spread of Christianity across the Roman Empire.

The five-member South Korean delegation, which consists of local government officials from Yeonggwang County including City Mayor Jeong Gi Ho, is going to visit Chota Lahore tomorrow..

Ho said his heart was beating fast just at the thought that he was going to visit the hometown of monk Maranantha.

“It took me a 22-hour flight to get to Pakistan from South Korea,” Ho said. “Imagine what it would have been like for monk Maranantha to travel the same distance 1,700 years ago.”

In 2006, Yeonggwang County inaugurated a holy site to mark the place where Maranantha is believed to have first landed on Korean soil. A towering statue of Maranantha now greets Buddhism devotees and other tourists to the place now.

Park showed a photo slideshow of how South Koreans had preserved and developed the historical Buddhist sites in their country, suggesting there were lessons Pakistan could learn from Korea.

“The world heritage site of Sirkap in Taxila looks like a jungle now,” Park said, pointing out how the site had been ignored by the government. “We need to convince the government and the people to collaborate and develop these precious sites.”

Muhammad Khan, a native of Chota Lahore who also helped Sik and Park during their research there, said Pakistanis should help preserve the Buddhist sites above all.

“The local authorities have not done anything significant to protect or preserve the Buddhist remains at Chota Lahore,” Khan said. “We need to realize that an investment in this regard will benefit Pakistan in building a softer image and improving its tourism.”

He said the authorities could perhaps provide some incentive to the local landowners who have property rights to the historical sites, so they help in the preservation process rather than feeling threatened that their land will be usurped by the government.

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