The Gandhara civilisation existed in the north-eastern part of Pakistan and south-western part of Afghanistan: it was known as land of fragrance. In the region, many signs of Gandhara art are located in the shape of buildings, sculptures, jewellery, pottery etc. For practical purposes, Gandhara art means Buddhist art.
Buddhist art first emerged in the reign of Mauryan king Ashoka when he adopted Buddhism in the 4th century BC. Later it peaked in the time Kushan king Kanishka in the the 2nd century AD.
In our country Pakistan, Taxila, Peshawar, Charsadda, Mardan, and Swat were centres of Buddhism. There many wonders of Buddhism are located. Among the cities of Gandhara, Swat is very rich in such sites. Due to natural beauty, Swat is also commonly known as the Switzerland of Pakistan.
Three years ago, when I was enrolled in the MPhil program for Asian Civilizations at Quaid–i-Azam University, Islamabad, I got an opportunity to visit this stunning location with the intent to examine historical sites in Swat, and this was made possible by the support of my academic institute, the Taxila Institute of Asian Civilizations. I stayed a couple of days and during my local visits, I was surprised to find vast treasures of the past. Huge stupas and monasteries were erected in various part of the area, reflecting Buddhist beliefs. I gained knowledge about the monks and religious practices in their daily life – people that lived in this region around the 2nd century AD. Lush greenery, tall mountains and rivers add a unique aura to the surroundings.
In particular, as mentioned above, the Kushan dynasty left their mark on the Swat valley. Famous stupas and monasteries are the Amluk Dara stupa, Shingardar Stupa, Buthkra I /II, and Nemogram monasteries. On rocks, art representing the Buddha’s meditations are also present.
The structures of the Gandhara period were created their own unique cultural styles that reflect an ancient dynasty. It was refreshing to see that these sites been given the attention of local authorities. The possibility exists to reach sites that have been made accessible through pathways made of stone stairs that take us to particular structures.
When I made the journey, I was pursuing a specialisation in Asian civilisations – and was more inclined towards visiting the Amluk Dara stupa, which represents the Kushan dynasty period, now located in the Amluk Dara village. The cylindrical drum-like shape and huge stature are the distinguishing marks of the stupa and there is a brick stairway that leads to this majestic site, which lies in the lap of a lush green mountain.
Moving forward, on the way to Mingora, I encountered the Shingardar stupa, which is located 3 km from Barikot town. The stupa was discovered by Colonel Deane and S.A Stein, and is considered to be the largest stupa in the Indian subcontinent.
On reaching the town of Mingora, I visited the Swat Museum. This museum was built in 1959 AD with the cooperation of an Italian mission. A large collection of Gandhara art which includes sculptures, coins, pottery and jewelry are displayed in the series of chronological order. It was a great opportunity to witness galleries of art presented according to the associated time periods. I simply had to acknowledge the effort put in by the museum administration and staff for a professionalism in tune with the best global standards.
My visit to Swat gave me a chance to examine some amazing sites and learn more about the historical relevance of this very important region. Just like the initiative of our institute, more educational centres can play a big role in helping students to gain more exposure to the rich past of the northern region of Pakistan. There are lessons for all of us today in the Buddhist-era accomplishments of the region, in particular.