Artefacts and sculptures of Gandhara art are in danger because of smuggling by an international mafia. Although carrying artefacts and relics is prohibited in Pakistan, smugglers seem to find ways and means to circumvent the law.

"There is an international mafia operating in the region. Not only do they illegally excavate but also steal artefacts, relics and sculptures," said Mehmoudul Hassan, assistant director of Department of Archaeology and Museums.

As artefacts of Gandhara art, especially the sculptures, are famous around the world, "some international smugglers hire local agents to smuggle out these things", he said. A big consignment of hundreds of sculptures of Buddha and other artefacts was seized by Pakistan customs officials in Karachi last month. The consignment was found on a ship berthed in Karachi.

Hassan, who spoke to Gulf News while supervising excavation work at the latest site called Jinan Wali Dheri (Mound of Ginis) in Taxila said: "This site, for instance, was emptied by illegal excavation. We have found a tunnel running from under the site and have hardly found any sculptures and artefacts which were supposed to be there."

He said residents in these areas are experts in excavation and many of them are also involved in illegal trade. (The excavation team found the first complete painting of Buddha from this site.)

Hassan, however, said that most of the artefacts and sculptures are protected by the government and the smugglers often ship out replicas of these items.

"Artists here are so good [at replicating] that it is difficult to judge whether the artefacts are real or not," he said. According to the Antiquities Act 1975 of Pakistan, the export or smuggling of replicas is also banned. About 95 per cent of the artefacts smuggled out are fake.

Often, people in the trade, source real artefacts from Gandhara residents who stumble upon them while digging to build houses. These artefacts, he said, are commonly smuggled to Japan, China, Thailand, Maldives and Sri Lanka. "Some people from these countries offer millions of dollars to get these artefacts."

He said there is a need to strengthen the law and create awareness because even the police do not understand the issue and the accused are not easily apprehended.

Sajjid Mahmoud, an artisan who sells fake artefacts and ancient coins to tourists in the vicinity of archaeological sites, said: "I can meet any demand tourists make. I have been involved in this business for the last 15 years and can make a replica of any sculpture or artefact with the same material."

He said the business got worse after the 9/11 attacks because the number of tourists has reduced drastically. "I used to make $3,000 to $4,000 every month but now earn only $200 to $300 by selling coins and small artefacts."

Mahmoud roams around Buddhist sites in Taxila and tries to sell tourists replicas claiming they are real. "They are easily trapped because they love to buy some souvenirs," he said.

On the other hand, Hassan said Gandhara art would not die as it passes through generations. There are a number of workshops, where hundreds of artisans work, making sculptures from stone, schist and other materials. "Thousands of people are still associated with this art and they make good money because they always find good buyers including foreigners," he said.