Buddhist artefacts worth millions — possibly dating back to the first century A.D. Gandhara School of Art — were recovered by the police in Karachi on Friday while they were being ferried to Sialkot in Punjab.

The entire shipment — wrapped up in coloured foam and packed into wooden boxes — was found in a container otherwise loaded with water coolers, slippers and broom sticks. The seizure was made on the basis of a tip-off but preliminary investigations have ruled out the possibility of the artefacts being part of any museum collection. Their destination, Sialkot, is also curious as the land-locked district is not a preferred route for smugglers.

The largest artefact in the collection is a 1,000-kg Bodhisattva. Mostly in the grey stone typical of Gandhara work, the collection also includes tablets and depictions from the Jatakas. Some of the pieces have been damaged because of the rough handling of the consignment by the policemen.

Dug up in Swat

Since the collection is not part of any museum, Pakistani archaeologists are working under the premise that these artefacts were dug up from Swat — where the Gandhara form of sculpture flourished — when the Taliban overran the picturesque valley before they were pushed out in 2009. According to the government of Khyber-Pukhtoonkhwa, there are still about 400 Buddhist sites in the Swat Valley alone. Given the ideology of the Taliban, many of these sites came under attack during their regime.