Development, population growth and a certain mindset are some of the factors that are destroying the rock art of Swat

By Rafiullah Khan
The past is not only a scarce resource but it is also the most threatened one. The threat is largely posed by the process of ‘development’. Pakistan is not an exception to this situation. This is an alarming situation because in this way the material sources of human history are being destroyed.

All the rock art sites of the Swat Valley are vulnerable to destruction. And there are certain reasons behind it. It ranges from the obscurantist mindset of the people (obviously due to the education system, role of the media and some puritanical missions) to the trends of development and modernisation, the issue of the population growth and, in turn, the contraction of space.

Sir Aurel Stein vehemently laments the damages borne by the antiquities of Swat due the factor referred to here as the “obscurantist mindset”. I still feel reluctant to concede to this viewpoint despite the fact that the process of the annihilation of the cultural heritage of Swat Valley is a historical fact.

He relates this process with the arrival of the Yusufzai Pukhtuns into the area and, no doubt, ignore a series of political and cultural developments which took place during the first half of the second millennium of the Common Era. The succeeding three factors, mentioned above, may be termed as related in the context of Swat to the last four decades.

It is well said that the trend of development and the process of destruction are but the two interconnected facts. Such a phenomenon seems to dominate the current Swati society. The process of development and modernization in terms of art and architecture has struck at the roots of the indigenous wisdom. Similarly, the high growth in population has created so many problems; and one among them is the problem of space.

The people are in dire need of accommodation, hence a hasty construction activity. This kind of development, of course, poses a serious threat to the pre-Islamic cultural heritage of Swat. A great number of antiquities of the area are now conspicuous by absence and a still greater figure is under this threat in the very near future.

Presently the rock carving site of Fizagat, Mingawara – on the main Mingawara-Kalam road – is being threatened by the construction activity over the mountain by the road side. The theme of the carving is Buddhistic as scholars believe that one carving depicts Buddha and the other a seated Bodhisattva. This is the only rock carving in the nearby area and is in need of protection. It must be protected, of course.

The responsibility in this respect fells on the KP government, and fortunately enough the partners in alliance, ANP and PPP, claim to be parties of secular credentials. That the government will fulfill its responsibility is a credible expectation at a right moment. The role of the provential minister, Wajid Ali Khan, is of crucial importance in this context as the site in question lies in the heart of his constituency. The Provincial Department of Archaeology and Museums, KP, and the intelligentsia of Swat also have to play their roles in the reclamation of this important heritage.

In Pakistan, and even throughout the world, the Swat Valley is one of the richest areas in terms of archaeological and cultural heritage. It is being properly studied by Pakistani and Italian scholars. Among all its historical epochs the Buddhist period is perhaps the longest.

The Buddhist cultural heritage is found abundantly throughout the Swat Valley as a residue in the form of art and architecture. Rock art, rock painting, sculpture, narrative reliefs and stupas, monasteries and settlements areas of the Buddhist Swat reflect the civilisational achievements of the period.

One of the important mediums for visual manifestation of the Buddhist philosophy is the phenomenon of rock art. Swat is rich in this resource and it is extensively depicted throughout the Valley.

Interestingly, the study of Buddhist rock carving may be traced back to 1898 when Sir Aurel Stein documented a number of such sites in Buner. Later on, he further augmented the field with his seminal survey of Swat Valley in 1926.

The significance of the rock carving and painting of Swat Valley is to be appreciated vis-à-vis the reconstruction of religious, cultural and economic history of the olden days. They often happen along the historical routes used both for spiritual and mundane considerations.

Prof. Tucci observes in the report of his archaeological survey of Swat, ‘Roads and tracks linked up, as we shall see, the various places of pilgrimage and were marked as it were by stelae and rock carvings filling the hearts and minds of visitors with expectation and hope’. The presence of Buddhistic deities along the ancient routes obviously aimed at providing a sense of protection and safety in addition to the fulfillment of spiritual loftiness and compassion.

It is against the backdrop of the historical and cultural importance of this rock art that the protection and preservation of this heritage is much needed.

This piece of writing is a reminder to those in the corridor of power and authority to make proper (and immediate) arrangement for the protection of the Fizagat rock art site in particular and for all other heritage sites in general.

The writer is lecturer at Taxila Institute of Asian Civilizations

Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad