Pakistani artisans seek to preserve ancient art of stonecraft

Special Pakistani artisans seek to preserve ancient art of stonecraft
Pakistani women look at statues of Buddha on display in a museum at Taxila in Punjab province on April 3, 2012. (AFP)
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Updated 11 August 2022

Pakistani artisans seek to preserve ancient art of stonecraft

Pakistani artisans seek to preserve ancient art of stonecraft
  • History of stone carving goes back thousands of years in area that makes up modern-day Pakistan
  • Craftsmen struggle without government patronage after decades of militant attacks scare off tourists

KARACHI: The practice of stonecraft in the area that makes up modern-day Pakistan is as old as Buddhism itself, but without government support and after decades of militant attacks that scared off foreign buyers and halted exports, the ancient art is all but lost.

Now, a handful of artists and entrepreneurs are trying to preserve and restore the dying craft.

Ancient cities in Pakistan, including Taxila in the country’s eastern Punjab province and Thatta in the country’s south, were home to artisans skilled in the art of stonecraft, a technique in which stone is used as the primary material to build statues, buildings and structures, as well as day-to-day items, such as pots and utensils.

In Pakistan’s northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, Gandhara art focused on creating statues of Gautama Buddha, while Sindh’s Thatta city became famous for large stone structures that combined impressively carved decorative and floral motifs and arabesque patterns.

“From Karachi to Badin, you will see stone-carved graves of multiple tribes, their symbols engraved to differentiate them from one another,” anthropologist Zulfiqar Ali Kalhoro, told Arab News. “Particularly, Ghazi Tehsil in Haripur (city) has had remarkable stone carving until the 1970s. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa still has the tradition.”

However, the craft has declined over time due to lack of patronage, Kalhoro said.

“No one was willing to buy pieces from the artists which were made otherwise for clients living outside Taxila. With conversion, motifs also changed and this declined the craft. People bought those which depicted non-figural elements. Taxila was home to the stonecraft tradition. Many artists migrated to other regions and continued to produce as per demand by clients.”

Ilyas Muhammad Khan, a sculptor from Taxila, said that the 3,000-year-old center had long been referred to as the “City of Artisans” due to craftspeople who produced rich Gandhara art.

“Over the years, Taxila attracted tourists and foreigners, being an ancient city, and local sculptors began selling replicas of Gandhara’s famous artwork abroad as ‘antiques’ to make money,” Khan, a sculptor for over three decades, said.

“Back then, there were hardly three or four artists, but they taught the skill to their fellows and the number increased over time.”

A decline in the tourist industry, devastated by militant violence in Pakistan after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and Pakistan joining the war on terror, also threatened the ancient art.

Pakistan was last a prominent tourist destination in the 1970s when the “hippie trail” brought Western travelers through the apricot and walnut orchards of the Swat Valley and Kashmir on their way to India and Nepal.

But after 2011, deteriorating security chipped away at the number of foreign visitors. There were fewer buyers for stone artisans, who lost their livelihoods and left the trade.

Many are now making efforts to revive the lost art, including Shakoor Ali, a craftsman from the Shigar Valley in the mountainous Gilgit-Baltistan region, who is turning serpentine stone into handicrafts and decorative pieces.

Ali inherited the craft from his forefathers.

“They used to do all the work with (their) hands and I started the same, but now I have set up a machine and a small workforce which helps me create these pieces,” he told Arab News.

The award-winning stonemason recently displayed his work at the Gemstone and Mineral Exhibition 2022 in Islamabad.

Islamabad-based design label Noon and Co., spearheaded by Taimur Noon, is also working on the preservation and revival of stonecraft in Pakistan.

Before opening his Islamabad store last month, Noon traveled across the country, identified and acknowledged the skill of stonemasons in various areas, and felt he could elevate the design sensibility.

“The craftsmanship of our artisans is unparalleled,” he told Arab News. “I wanted to give them a design direction, designs that are in demand today.”

Noon said that stonemasons in Pakistan produce stonecraft by hand, while the workforce in developed countries employs machines. Innovation and diversification in stonecraft are key, he said, adding that the process of selecting and fashioning the stones was “quite challenging.”

But Noon hopes his work can keep the conversation around stonecraft alive “so that the revival and preservation of the ancient craft stays in motion.”

“I want to show people in Pakistan and beyond what we are capable of, make this skill commercially viable and turn it into a career for artisans,” he said.


Italy’s Muslim communities confident new government will protect religious freedom

Italy’s Muslim communities confident new government will protect religious freedom
Updated 18 sec ago

Italy’s Muslim communities confident new government will protect religious freedom

Italy’s Muslim communities confident new government will protect religious freedom
  • ‘Every Italian government will respect the Constitution,’ religious leader tells Arab News
  • ‘Italy’s attitude toward the Middle East isn’t going to change,’ politician tells Arab News

ROME: Islamic communities in Italy say they do not expect a negative attitude toward the 3 million-plus Muslims living in the country by the new right-wing government that will be formed after Sunday’s general election, and “look forward” to working with the new Cabinet with regard to the religious freedom guaranteed by the Constitution.

A concrete change in the country’s leadership is now expected. The far right led by Giorgia Meloni, leader of the Brothers of Italy (Fratelli d’Italia) party, traditionally bound to the country’s right, gained a solid majority in both branches of Parliament.

Almost certainly in mid-October, Meloni will be asked by President Sergio Mattarella to form a new government.

She will then be the first woman prime minister in Italy, leading what will be the first far-right government since the Second World War.

The new leadership is expected to be tougher than previous governments on illegal migrants, but nothing is expected to change in the traditionally good attitude of Italy toward the Middle East and the Arab world.

Italian political analysts also point out that the new Cabinet is unlikely to show a tough face toward the Muslim population in the country, especially since the League (Lega), the xenophobic and anti-migrant party led by Matteo Salvini, performed poorly in the election. The League will still be part of the majority, but will hold a much less powerful voice.

“We’re absolutely confident that every Italian government will respect the Constitution, which includes in its founding principles freedom of worship. We expect the new government will be attentive to the rights of Islamic communities,” Yassine Lafram, president of the Union of Islamic Communities of Italy, told Arab News.

Lafram said for Muslims in Italy, “there are still many problems, from Islamic cemeteries to the need for a law regulating the construction of places of worship for all religions.”

He also expressed his wish for a formal agreement between the Italian state and its Islamic communities to be underwritten soon.

“It’s in the interest of the new government that there be a full legal recognition of Islamic communities. It will boost integration,” he said.

“We expect a lot from a government that promises to represent all Italians. Italian Islamic communities can’t be accused of being close to Islamic fundamentalism. We’re all citizens of the Italian Republic who feel they’re an integral part of Italian society,” Lafram added.

Andrea Delmastro from the Brothers of Italy told Arab News right after the election results were declared: “Good citizens have nothing to fear, no matter their religion, as long as they respect the law. And Italy’s attitude toward the Middle East isn’t going to change.”

In her victory speech, Meloni struck a moderate tone, saying: “If we are called to govern this nation, we will do it for everyone, we will do it for all Italians, and we will do it with the aim of uniting the people (of this country).”

During the electoral campaign, the left warned that Meloni could push Italy into Europe’s illiberal bloc alongside Hungary and Poland, fighting against diversity and agitating against Brussels.

They quoted her past remarks, such as a speech from 2017 in which Meloni said mass-scale illegal immigration to Italy was “planned and deliberate,” carried out by unnamed powerful forces to import low-wage labor and drive out Italians.

“It’s called ethnic substitution,” Meloni said at the time, echoing the far-right “great replacement” conspiracy theory.

She also said Italy “cannot think of Islamic cemeteries in a country where there are not civilized cemeteries even for Italians in several parts of the country.”

In more recent times, she often spoke of “good integration” and “mutual respect” in a country where “the law has no religion and must be respected whatever the citizen’s creed is.”

In defense of her rhetoric, those close to Meloni say she has a strict stance on migrant traffickers and encourages integration, so long as those who come to Italy share and respect its national values and laws.

The main points of Meloni’s political manifesto concerning immigration, Delmastro said, involve the “fight against all forms of antisemitism, Islamic fundamentalism and irregular immigration; the orderly management of legal immigration flows along with the promotion of social and labor inclusion of legal immigrants; and the blocking of vessels to prevent human trafficking, in agreement with North African authorities.”

Imam Izzedin Elzir, former president of the Union of Islamic Communities in Italy, stressed that Muslims in Italy “are a non-partisan community, and we want to be an added value for the country.

“We expect attention from the government, which is expected to implement the Constitution, particularly on religious freedom. I believe we can do a good job together. Governing is different from campaigning for votes.”


Finland sees record surge in Russians crossing border

Finland sees record surge in Russians crossing border
Updated 41 min 6 sec ago

Finland sees record surge in Russians crossing border

Finland sees record surge in Russians crossing border
  • Nearly 8,600 Russians entered Finland via the land border

HELSINKI: Finland said on Monday it had recorded the year’s busiest weekend in terms of Russians entering the country, after Moscow’s military call-up announcement caused a rush for the border.
“Last weekend was the busiest weekend of the year for traffic on the eastern border,” Mert Sasioglu of the Finnish border guard told AFP.
The border agency said nearly 8,600 Russians entered Finland via the land border on Saturday and nearly 4,200 crossed the other way.
On Sunday, more than 8,300 Russians arrived and nearly 5,100 left.
“The arrival rate is about double what it was a week ago,” Sasioglu said.
“The main reason is the mobilization but it is also partly explained by the fact that both Finland and Russia eased Covid-19 restrictions during the summer.”
The Nordic country announced on September 23 it planned to “significantly restrict the entry of Russian citizens” and would finalize the decision in the “coming days.”
While the restriction is not yet in force, the border guard service said it was ready to apply the new rules “within a day.”
Sasioglu said it was preparing for “difficult developments” as the situation evolved.
“It is possible that when travel is restricted, attempts at illegal border crossings will increase,” he explained.
On Saturday, border guards caught four individuals suspected of crossing the border illegally in the Kuusamo region of eastern Finland. They immediately applied for asylum when detained.


13 dead, 21 wounded in school shooting in Russia

13 dead, 21 wounded in school shooting in Russia
Updated 26 September 2022

13 dead, 21 wounded in school shooting in Russia

13 dead, 21 wounded in school shooting in Russia
  • Russia’s interior ministry also said there were about 20 people injured in the attack

MOSCOW: A gunman killed 13 people, including seven children, and wounded 21 other people in a school in central Russia on Monday, authorities said.

Russia's Investigative Committee said the shooting took place in a school in Izhevsk, a city about 960 kilometres (600 miles) east of Moscow in the Udmurtia region. Those wounded were 14 children and 7 adults, the Committee said.
It added that the attacker “committed suicide.”
According to investigators, “he was wearing a black top with Nazi symbols and a balaclava” and was not carrying any ID.
“His identity is currently being established,” investigators said.
Russia’s interior ministry also said there were about 20 people injured in the attack.
The region’s governor Alexander Brechalov confirmed there were “casualties and wounded among children,” speaking in a video statement outside school No88 in Izhevsk.
Rescue and medical workers could be seen working at the scene in the background, some running inside the school with stretchers.
A city of around 630,000 people, Izhevsk is the regional capital of Russia’s Udmurt Republic, located around 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) east of Moscow.


Pakistani military helicopter crashes killing six soldiers -military

Pakistani military helicopter crashes killing six soldiers -military
Updated 26 September 2022

Pakistani military helicopter crashes killing six soldiers -military

Pakistani military helicopter crashes killing six soldiers -military

QUETTA, Pakistan: A Pakistani military helicopter crashed in the southwest area of the country late on Sunday killing all six soldiers on board, including two officers, the military said on Monday.
The helicopter crashed during a “flying mission” near Harnai in the province of Balochistan, the military’s public relations wing said in a statement. No reason for the crash was given.


Super Typhoon Noru leaves 5 rescuers dead in north Philippines

Super Typhoon Noru leaves 5 rescuers dead in north Philippines
Updated 26 September 2022

Super Typhoon Noru leaves 5 rescuers dead in north Philippines

Super Typhoon Noru leaves 5 rescuers dead in north Philippines
  • The victims drowned in rampaging waters after a collapsed wall hit the boat they were using to help residents trapped in floods
  • President Marcos orders supplies be airlifted and clean-up equipment be provided to most-affected communities

MANILA: Typhoon Noru blew out of the northern Philippines on Monday, leaving five rescuers dead, causing floods and power outages and forcing officials to suspend classes and government work in the capital and outlying provinces.

The most powerful typhoon to hit the country this year slammed into the coast in Burdeos town in Quezon province before nightfall on Sunday then weakened as it barreled overnight across the main Luzon region, where thousands of people were moved to emergency shelters, some forcibly, officials said.
Gov. Daniel Fernando of Bulacan province, north of Manila, said five rescuers, who were using a boat to help residents trapped in floodwaters, were hit by a collapsed wall then apparently drowned in the rampaging waters.
“They were living heroes who were helping save the lives of our countrymen amid this calamity,” Fernando told DZMM radio network. “This is really very sad.”
On Polillo island in northeastern Quezon province, a man was injured after falling off the roof of his house, officials said.

More than 17,000 people were moved to emergency shelters from high-risk communities prone to tidal surges, flooding and landslides in Quezon alone, officials said.
More than 3,000 people were evacuated to safety in Metropolitan Manila, which was lashed by fierce wind and rain overnight. Classes and government work were suspended Monday in the capital and outlying provinces as a precaution although the morning skies were sunny.
The entire northern provinces of Aurora and Nueva Ecija, which were hit by the typhoon, remained without power Monday and repair crews were at work to bring back electricity, Energy Secretary Raphael Lotilla told President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. in a televised meeting he called to assess damages and coordinate disaster-response.

Marcos Jr. praised officials for evacuating thousands of people to safety as a precaution before the typhoon hit which prevented large number of casualties despite the Noru’s potentially disastrous force. He ordered supplies be airlifted and clean-up equipment be provided to most-affected communities.
“The point at which we can stand down is when the majority of evacuees are already back home,” Marcos said at a news conference with disaster management officials on Monday, referring to the 74,000 people who were forced into evacuation centers by the storm.
Luzon, which accounts for more than two-thirds of the economy and roughly half of the country’s 110 million population, started clean-up operations as floods in the capital region had started subsiding, officials said.
Noru underwent an “explosive intensification” over the open Pacific Ocean before it hit the Philippines, Vicente Malano, who heads the country’s weather agency PAGASA, told The Associated Press on Sunday.
From sustained winds of 85 kilometers per hour (53 mph) on Saturday, Noru was a super typhoon just 24 hours later with sustained winds of 195 kilometers (121 miles per hour) and gusts of up to 240 kph (149 mph) at its peak late Sunday.
By Monday morning, Noru had sustained winds of 140 kph (87 mph) and gusts of 170 kph (105 mph) and was moving westward in the South China Sea at 30 kph (19 mph), according to the weather agency.
About 20 storms and typhoons batter the Philippines each year. The archipelago also lies in the “Pacific Ring of Fire,” a region along most of the Pacific Ocean rim where many volcanic eruptions and earthquakes occur, making the Southeast Asian nation one of the world’s most disaster-prone.
In 2013, Typhoon Haiyan, one of the strongest recorded tropical cyclones in the world, left more than 7,300 people dead or missing, flattened entire villages, swept ships inland and displaced more than 5 million in the central Philippines — well to the south of Noru’s path.

(With Reuters)