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KARACHI: The practice of stone craftsmanship in the region that makes up modern Pakistan is as old as Buddhism itself, but without government support and after decades of militant attacks that have scared off foreign buyers and stopped exports, the old art is practically lost.

Today, a handful of artists and entrepreneurs are trying to preserve and restore dying craftsmanship.

Pakistan’s ancient cities, including Taxila in the eastern province of Punjab and Thatta in the south of the country, were home to craftsmen skilled in the art of stonework, a technique in which stone is used as the primary material for constructing statues, buildings and structures, as well as everyday items, such as pots and utensils.

In Pakistan’s northwest Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, Gandhara art focused on creating statues of Gautama Buddha, while the Sindh city of Thatta became famous for its grand structures in stone which combined impressive decorative and floral designs and arabesque designs.

“From Karachi to Badin, you will see stone-carved tombs of several tribes, their symbols engraved to differentiate them from each other,” anthropologist Zulfiqar Ali Kalhoro told Arab News. “Especially, Ghazi Tehsil in Haripur (city) had outstanding stone carving till 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 artists pieces that were otherwise made for customers living outside Taxila. With the conversion the designs also changed and that declined the craftsmanship. depicted non-figurative elements.Taxila was home to the tradition of stone craftsmanship.Many artists migrated to other regions and continued to produce according to customer demand.

Ilyas Muhammad Khan, a sculptor from Taxila, said the 3,000-year-old center had long been called the “City of Craftsmen” because of the craftsmen who produced rich Gandhara art.

“Over the years, Taxila has attracted tourists and foreigners, being an ancient city, and local carvers have started selling replicas of famous Gandhara artworks abroad as ‘antiques’ to earn money. money,” said Khan, a sculptor for more than three decades.

“At the time, there were barely three or four artists, but they taught the craft to their comrades and the number increased over time.”

A decline in the tourism industry, devastated by militant violence in Pakistan after the September 11, 2001 attacks and Pakistan’s joining the war on terror, has also threatened ancient art.

Pakistan was the last major tourist destination in the 1970s, when the “hippie trail” took Western travelers through the apricot and walnut orchards of the Swat Valley and Kashmir en route to India. India and Nepal.

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

Many are now striving to revive the lost art, including Shakoor Ali, an artisan from the Shigar Valley in the mountainous region of Gilgit-Baltistan, who transforms serpentine stone into handicrafts and decorative items.

Ali inherited the profession from his ancestors.

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

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

Islamabad-based design brand Noon and Co., led by Taimur Noon, is also working to preserve and revive stone craftsmanship in Pakistan.

Before opening his shop in Islamabad last month, Noon traveled across the country, identified and recognized the skills of stonemasons in various fields, and believed he could elevate design sensibilities.

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

Noon said stonemasons in Pakistan make stone objects by hand, while labor in developed countries uses machines. Innovation and diversification in stone craftsmanship is key, he said, adding that the process of selecting and shaping the stones was “quite difficult”.

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

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