THE MAGIC OF TAXILA

 
 

1969 was Nixon’s first year in the Oval Office. In August he came on a fast track visit to the Far East and also swung through India and Pakistan. His ‘one night stop’ in India was a formality and with Indira Gandhi facing a revolt in the Congress and a possible loss of her premiership, the White House even considered postponing the visit. Neither Nixon nor Indira Gandhi liked each other.  In 1971 after Indira Gandhi’s state visit to the United States, in a private conversation with Henry Kissinger, Nixon used what Kissinger called as ‘unprintable’ vocabulary and called Indira Gandhi ‘a bitch and a witch’. 

Kissinger states in his memoirs that the two ‘were not intended by fate to be personally congenial. Mrs. Gandhi’s assumption of almost hereditary moral superiority and her moody silences brought out all of Nixon’s latent insecurities. Her bearing toward Nixon combined a disdain for a symbol of capitalism, quite fashionable in developing countries, with a hint that the obnoxious things she had heard about the President from her intellectual friends could not all be untrue.’

 The chemistry between Nixon and Pakistan’s President Yahya Khan was entirely different. Recorded after President Nixon met Yahya Khan in October 1970, on the 25th Anniversary of the UN, a Top Secret ‘Memorandum of Conversation’ states: “Yahya is tough, direct and with a good sense of humor. He talks in a very clipped way, is a splendid product of Sandhurst (Incorrect. Yahya was commissioned from the Indian Military Academy Dehra Dun), and affects a sort of social naïveté but is probably much more complicated than this.”

In 1969 on his departure from Delhi after breakfast President Nixon flew into Lahore and was warmly welcomed just as the people of Lahore had received Queen Elizabeth, the Shah of Iran and King Hussain of Jordan.  Yahya Khan wanted to present Nixon with something memorable and my father Maj Gen Syed Shahid Hamid suggested that an Gandhara Sculpture dating back 2000 years would be a befitting present for the President of the United States. The idea appealed to President Yahya and my father purchased a beautiful sculpture from a ‘dealer’ in Taxila, had it nicely mounted and handed it over to the President’s staff. The meeting between the two Presidents went extremely well and it was probably on this occasion that the Nixon for the first time asked for Pakistan’s assistance in opening communication with China; but that is another story.

Yahya Khan later told my father that Nixon was overwhelmed with the gift and Yahya asked how my father had got this splendid idea. Few know that during Nixon’s ‘Wilderness Years” when he held no official post, he had paid a private visit to Pakistan in 1967. Nixon was a Senior Partner in one of the top ten Law Firms in New York and  along with the royalties from his best seller ‘Six Crisis’, he was making over $200,000 a year. His law firm represented one of the US soft drink giants: Pepsi Cola, and the visit to Pakistan may have had something to do with this linkage. However, Nixon was a keen traveler and connected with this trip he also visited India and took note that on both occasions (he had also visited India in 1964) the Indians had received him with ‘minimum of appropriate protocol’. Mrs Gandhi could scarcely conceal her boredom during her meeting with Nixon in 1967. Twenty minutes through the meeting, she asked Nixon’s escort from the Foreign Ministry in Hindi how much longer the session was going to last. Dennis Kux in his book, ‘Estranged Democracies’, says: “This treatment presumably did nothing to lessen Nixon’s preference for Pakistan, the erstwhile ally of the United States, and his dislike for India and its policy of nonalignment”.

In Pakistan Nixon received the protocol of a State Guest but since this was not an ‘Official Visit’, President Ayub Khan requested my father who had long retired from the Army, to escort the guest. Nixon stayed at the State Guest House which in those days was the old residence of ‘Mohn Singh’ at Rawalpindi. It was a beautiful house with huge manicured lawns, which its fabulously rich Sikh owner who also owned most of Rawalpindi had vacated at Partition in 1947 and sadly never returned. My father had a strong sense of history and after Nixon’s courtesy call on President Ayub he was escorted to the magical archeological site of Taxila, a half hour drive from the Capital City of Islamabad. Situated in a picturesque and fertile valley surrounded by small hills, Taxila dates back to the Buddhist Gandhara period with the excavations spanning nearly a thousand years from 600 BCE to 500 CE. It comprises of three ancient cities and more than two dozen Buddhist stupas, monasteries and Greek temples.  It was excavated in the beginning of the 20th Century by the famous British Archeologist Sir John Marshall who was the Director General of Archaeological Survey of India.

Nixon’s first stop was the museum, an aesthetically pleasing building covered in ivy with a pleasant garden dating back to 1928. The Curator showed him some of the 4000 artifacts on display, including stone, stucco, terracotta sculptures and ornaments of silver, gold and semiprecious stones. Nixon showed a genuine  interest but what he thoroughly enjoyed was the tour of the Greco-Bactrian city of Sirkap. Winter days around Islamabad are comfortably cold and a stroll through the broad streets of Sirkap is always an enjoyable walk back into time. 

During my teens, I visited Taxila countless times as a tour guide for father’s guests and I was a familiar figure to most of the guards at the sites as well as the ‘dealers’ hanging around trying to sell fake and not so fake coins and sculptors to unsuspecting visitors. I knew backwards the locations and points of interest of all the sites and monasteries like Julian, Bhir Mound and Mohra Muradu as well as the City of Sirkap. That is probably why in this picture I am more interested in the camera than accompanying the entourage as it walked up to the Apsidal Temple.  

My parents were very hospitable and Nixon’s stay culminated in a dinner they hosted at their residence. Amongst those in the picture, the only two alive when this article was written is my mother and Mian Gul Aurangzeb, the son-in-law of President Ayub Khan. Over dinner Nixon repeatedly told the guests how fascinating he found Taxila. It was because of this visit that my father new that President Nixon


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©Jules Stewart 2010