Gandhara art: An eroding heritage

Published: September 14, 2013
A rock carving of Buddha at Jahanabad. PHOTO: FAZAL KHALIQ / EXPRESS

A rock carving of Buddha at Jahanabad. PHOTO: FAZAL KHALIQ / EXPRESS

A rock carving of Buddha at Jahanabad. PHOTO: FAZAL KHALIQ / EXPRESS A view of the carvings at Panr. PHOTO: FAZAL KHALIQ / EXPRESS

The scenic Swat is a perfect home for the intricately carved rock statues, the beautiful remnants of the Gandhara civilisation.

“The Buddhists selected specific locations for their rock carvings – places where one could find perfect solace, serenity, and isolation from the humdrum of life,” says Shah Wazir Khan, a philanthropist and social activist. “Around these carvings, only the melodious chirping of the birds can be heard.”

And yet, despite their uniqueness, and history, the statues are fading due to constant negligence, vandalism, and the lack of a preservation strategy.

No ordinary art

Dr Luca Maria Olivieri, an Italian archaeologist and head of the Italian Archaeological Mission in Pakistan, believes that the rock-carved statues found in Swat hold immense historical importance.

“These sculptures are typical of the late Vajrayana Buddhist schools active in Swat between 7th and 9th century CE. In total, 221 sculptures have been documented by the Italian Mission,” he explains. “A comprehensive illustrated report on that subject will be published this year by Professor Anna Filigenzi with the Austrian Academy of Sciences.”

According to archaeologists, the entire Jambil Valley, including Panr, Dangram, and Kokaria, is full with similar rock-carvings, as is the Saidu valley and the valleys of Manglawar and Banjot. Their distribution covers the area from Manglawar to Barikot, as well as in Puran, Buner and Dir.

Mysteries buried in foliage

Interestingly, there are several myths among the locals, connected with the rock carvings. One is that the Buddhists carved the sculptures to mark hidden treasure nearby.

“There is deep logic to the carvings,” says Imtiaz Hussain, a local in Kokarai. “They [the Buddhists] engraved these statues to point out secret treasure.”

In a different vein, others believe that carvings of Buddha at high altitude areas meant that he could observe the activities of the locals every moment.

“Just as we believe in Allah and His presence everywhere, the Buddhists believed that Buddha could see them, which prevented them from doing bad deeds,” explains local Minahajuddin.

Of beauty and decay

Gradually, this great heritage of the land is eroding, losing shape by the day. A lot of the residents are being misguided by the so-called mullahs to deface the statues.

“Swat has long since been a cradle to various civilisations and has nurtured them like a mother,” says Mohammad Amjad, a lecturer of English who recently visited Arbab Khan Cheena to view the historical heritage sites. “A random trip can bring you face to face with scores of ancient sites bent on narrating their saga.”

And yet, with his deep fascination comes deep concern.

“Without a grain of exaggeration, I can say that within a decade there will be no sign of them, he laments”

Please preserve!

The statues can shepherd in students of history and archaeology and tourists from the world over, if in good shape.

“If protected and used in a meaningful way, these carvings can attract thousands of tourists,” notes businessman and social activist Humayun Masaud. “Even angels weep at how they have not even been documented properly.”

However, Dr Shah Nazar Khan, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa’s director of archaeology, says locals are primarily to blame for the decay. Sadly, apart from the defacing, some locals even throw garbage on the art.

“It is high time to educate people about the historical and cultural importance, so that locals can also take part in the preservation efforts,” says Dr Khan. “The statues should be removed and shifted to a museum, if possible, and all these sites fully documented.”

Faizur Rehman, curator in the Swat museum, believes that more effort than just maintenance. “The government should purchase all the lands of the rock carvings and hire 24-hour guards.” Rehman states firmly. “This is the only way to protect and preserve the heritage.”

Published in The Express Tribune, September 14th, 2013. 

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Reader Comments (2)

  • Aamir
    Sep 14, 2013 - 8:50AM

    The illetracy, apathy towards our heritage, false ideas such as hidden treasures, fraud, land mafia, uneducated people in the archeology department, no respect or tolerance to other faith and their deity, temples, structures is going to render all this beauty non-existence.

    We can only watch and cry.


  • Rashid
    Sep 14, 2013 - 9:02PM

    Are not these heritage represent worship of idols and images? As Muslims how can we justfying preservation of such cultural heritage while complying with divine teachings? My question is only academic only.


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