September Issue 2008

By | News & Politics | Published 16 years ago

Swat — a land of pristine beauty, a prime tourist destination, a celebrated seat of learning, music and melody through the ages and the centre of the glorious Gandhara civilisation — is lost to war.

Known as ‘Udyana’ (garden) in the Hindu scriptures, the valley has turned into a hotbed of violence since Maulana Fazlullah, a firebrand cleric-turned-Taliban commander, started propagating extremist religious messages through an illegal FM radio station in July 2006, and the Taliban took over.

Audio shops, girls’ schools and public places were attacked, killing and injuring hundreds of innocent people. Fazlullah’s militants did not even spare Buddhist statues, monasteries and rock carvings, as they viewed these sites as being the remnants of an infidel civilisation whose obliteration would give them a high place in paradise.

On October 8, 2007, Fazlullah’s militants defaced a 23-foot high, 7th century seated Buddha, carved in a rock in the lap of a mountain in Jehandabad village, Swat.

Shamshir Ali Khan, a local resident, said that a group of 40-50 militants attacked ‘the meditating Buddha’ during the night with explosives. “They brought a power generator with them, drilled holes in its head, filled them with explosives and then set them off, badly damaging the upper portion of the carving.”

Locals have confirmed that Mullah Abid Ghafoor of Shakhorai, a local cleric and supporter of Maulana Fazlullah, spearheaded this operation.

“It was the rarest piece of Buddhist art in the region after the Buddhist statues in Bamiyan, Afghanistan that were destroyed by the Taliban in March 2001,” says Muhammad Aqleem, director of Swat Museum in Saidu Sharif. Aqleem adds that Jehandabad has turned into a hub of the Pakistani Taliban.

“If concrete steps are not taken, I fear that we may also lose the existing 22 Buddhist sites that beautify the rural skyline of Swat,” he laments.

swat-buddhist-2-sep08Historically, the region has played host to Alexander of Macedonia, the Mauryans, the Indo-Greeks, the Indo-Syphians, the Kushans, the Turk-Shahis and the Hindu-Shahis in different periods of time. According to Dr Farooq Swati, chairman of the department of archaeology, University of Peshawar, during the reign of the Mauryan king, Ashoka, Buddhism thrived in the Swat valley and spread to Central Asia and China. “The glorious period of Buddhism extended from the 1st century BC to 4th century AD. During this period, the Buddhist values of peace, love and sacrifice brought about remarkable changes in people’s socio-cultural and religious lives. Buddhism left its mark in the form of stupas, monasteries, art, coins, pottery and other artefacts, and shaped the times to come,” he says.

In 403 AD, a Chinese pilgrim, Fa-Hien, counted 6,000 monasteries in the valley; two centuries later, Hsuan Tsang, another travelling monk, estimated their number to be around 1,400. Even now, a large number of Buddhist stupas, monasteries, settlements, caves, rock carvings and inscriptions can be seen both in the plains and the hilly areas of Swat.

The first organised attack against Buddhist sites occurred in 1992, when a group of ignorant locals defaced a Buddhist statue in the Ghaligai village of Swat, in reaction to the destruction of the Babri Mosque in India. The graceful 4-metre statue was carved into a marble stone cliff and seated in meditation on a high throne. Its lower part is still in good condition and can be preserved for posterity.

However, the Taliban are not the only ones guilty of wrecking such archaeological treasures; the local people have also destroyed archaeological sites to extract stones and bricks for use in the construction of their houses. In some areas, treasure-hunters pillage these sites in the hope of finding valuables and striking a fortune.

swat-buddhist-3-sep08Usman Ulasyar, chairman of the Swat Arts and Cultural Society, laments that the concerned government departments have failed to create awareness among the people about the historical significance of these sites. “Five years back, the federal government, in partnership with a foreign mission, allocated Rs.100 million to develop parks and erect protective walls around the various archaeological sites from Taxila to Swat. Though this money was utilised in Taxila, nothing was done in Swat,” he says.

Ulasyar says that the local Taliban attacked heritage sites in Swat on two grounds. “They (the Taliban) think that by destroying Buddhist sites they are performing a religious duty; secondly, they consider these sites as state property and, therefore, avenge the government by attacking them. God forbid, you will soon see religious seminaries in place of these sites.”

Adil Zareef, secretary of Sarhad Conservation Network, sees this problem in a broader historical perspective and says that our educational system is based on the distortion of faiths and religious values other than Islam.

“Basically, our state policy negates our cultural heritage. If you think that your history starts in 1947, then you are mistaken. We have thousands of years of history, but our curriculum does not educate our children about it,” he maintains, adding that the Afghan jihad introduced Wahabism in the Pashtun society; this breeds hatred, bigotry and violence against everything that does not fit in with the narrow approach of the Wahabis.

“Likewise, the current wave of militancy refuses to give any space to the culture, values and heritage of other nations and faiths. They [the militants] slit the throats of innocent people, destroy girls’ schools and oppose modern education. Unfortunately, we are losing both our past and the future, while the present is just horrible,” Zareef adds.

swat-buddhist-4-sep08In the past, criminal elements have stolen antiquities from the NWFP and smuggled them abroad. The customs officials and airport security staff are often hand-in-glove with these smugglers. The Afghan jihad brought this illegal trade to the NWFP and encouraged some local groups to pillage their own cultural heritage for monetary gains.

Feryal Ali Gauhar, a PhD student undertaking research in Conservation Management in a joint project of the National College of Arts and Heidelberg University, says that there are those who are espousing jihad, and there are those who have criminal pasts. “It is quite possible that these elements, with or without the collusion of the purely jihadi elements, may want to destroy Buddhist and other cultural heritage in order to gain publicity or to coerce the state and the international community into accepting their demands. It is a scenario which can be imagined, but not necessarily predicted,” she argues, adding that these heritage sites provide a timeline of historical and cultural evolution, as well as give us a sense of identity and a perspective on the development of human societies, enriching our understanding of the paths taken in the past and the paths we can construct for our future.

“These are invaluable sites, and not renewable resources. Once they are destroyed, we cannot recover them,” she says.

It is high time the concerned government departments, the international community, UN agencies and the local population realise the severity of the situation and devise a comprehensive strategy to protect hundreds of rare archaeological treasures in Swat, which are at grave risk from different militant groups and may be obliterated if the rising tide of militancy is not stemmed.