PESHAWAR: Police in northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province on Saturday arrested four men accused of destroying an ancient statue of Buddha that was unearthed hours earlier near a UNESCO World Heritage Site, officials said.
The human-size statue was discovered when a contractor and three laborers were digging the foundations of a house in Takht Bahi, Mardan district, on Saturday morning. Takht Bahi is an archaeological site of a Buddhist monastery from the first century CE. The men were arrested after a video showing one of them breaking the sculpture with a sledgehammer went viral on social media.
"Police have detained the contractor and three laborers," Bakht Muhammad from the provincial archeology department told Arab News, "Soon after discovering the statue during the digging, the house owner and other people decided on the spot to smash the statue into pieces to earn God's blessing."
He said members of the archeology department went to the site when they noticed the video and immediately filed a police report.
"Protection and preservation of Buddhist sites is of topmost priority of the provincial government because thousands of Buddhist pilgrims from China, Thailand and South Korea visit their sacred sites every year," he added.
According to the local administration's estimates, the province has more than 1,000 ancient heritage sites of historical and religious importance.
Takht Bahi resident Muhammad Zaman said hundreds of people visit the Buddhist site every week.
"This act of breaking the Buddhist statue indicates how a section of our society is insensitive towards the importance of cultural heritage. It also depicts religious intolerance. The statue that was smashed is believed to be between 1,700 and 1,800 years old."
Dr. Abdul Azeem, archeology director at the Department of Archeology and Museums in Islamabad, referred to the incident as an act of vandalism stemming from ignorance.
"This act of vandalism is barbaric. But at the same time, we need to educate our people and create awareness among them about the importance of artifacts," he said.
In January last year, the government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa announced it had devised a multi-pronged strategy to revive and refurbish the tourism sector in the province and preserve the region's Buddhist sites of the ancient Gandhara civilization.