He was about to conclude his presentation when I entered the room. The last few slides of his presentation were enough to transport me back into the ancient world of Swat, a great centre of Buddhist culture, from where Buddhism spread to Baltistan, Tibet and Far East.
The presentation followed by a question-and-answer session brought to light the archaeological wealth of the picturesque Swat valley known in history as Uddiyana or ‘garden’ in Sanskrit.
The presenter, Dr Luca Maria Olivieri, head of the Italian Archaeological Mission in Swat, has dedicated 27 years of his life to archaeological research in Swat since 1984. Dr Olivieri belongs to the fourth generation of Italian scholars conducting research in Swat that began nearly 60 years ago with the signing of agreements between the Pakistan government and Italian Institute in 1955.
Credit goes to the visionary Walis (rulers of Swat) and the well-known Italian scholar Professor Giuseppe Tucci who, after signing the agreement, established a permanent Italian research mission in Swat in 1956, which works to this day.
It is the strategic location of Swat -- between the great Hindu Kush and Karakorum and the plains of Gandhara -- that made the valley prosperous and attractive for traders, conquerors and pilgrims. The region, at one point, was a key a centre for trade and Buddhist culture and holy places visited by numerous Chinese pilgrims. Following Alexander the Great in 327 BC, the region was conquered by the Indo-Greeks, Sakas, Parthians, Kushans, Sasanians and Hephthalites. Even after the conquests when economic activity declined, Swat maintained its status of "a place of transit not only for goods but also ideas".
It was the birthplace of Padmasambhava, also known as the "Precious Master", who introduced Buddhism to Tibet in the 8th century AD.
It was the accounts of this holy land of Buddhism in the Tibetan texts that brought Professor Tucci to Swat in 1955. By that time, Tucci had already made several trips to the Tibetan world, including Baltistan in modern day Pakistan.
Following a brief survey of Buddhist rock reliefs, a collection of Gandhara art and a few selected places, including Udegram in 1955, Tucci returned to Swat in 1956 to conduct a decisive survey which, according to Dr Olivieri, provided the basis for the entire subsequent archaeological research in Swat.
Almost six decades of hard work, dedication and close collaboration between generations of scholars from Italy and Pakistan has resulted in the discovery and excavation of numerous Buddhist monuments, proto-historic graveyards, historic settlements and mosques.
In addition to excavation sites, the Italian Mission’s support to the establishment of Swat Museum in 1963, its reconstruction in 2013 and the work on the Swat Archaeological Map are everlasting contributions to heritage research and preservation in Pakistan.
In Swat, the Italian archaeologists feel at home. The people of Swat have accepted them warmly and often call Dr Luca Olivieri "an Italian Pathan" to express their love and gratitude to him.
Thanks to information campaigns run by the Tourism Corporation of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (TCKP) and Sustainable Tourism Foundation of Pakistan which motivated me and a group of friends and family members to get on our archaeological tour of Swat, the two-day trip, though a bit hectic, made us praise the marvels of Pakistan’s cultural heritage.
From Islamabad, we took the motorway to Peshawar and, after travelling for about one and half hour, exited through the Mardan Interchange to drive on the G.T. Road, leading to Malakand and Swat. Travelling by Shahbaz Garhi, famous for the Ashoka Pillars and the world heritage site of Takht-i-Bahi ruins, we reached the Malakand Pass in about three and a half hours.
Known for being Alexander’s route to attack the Indus plains, the Malakand Pass was also the pilgrimage route for Buddhists and Hindus to visit their holy sites. At one point, British India had its northern-most church built near the highest military post on the Malakand Pass. It took us one hour to cross the two famous passes Malakand and Chakdara, and reach our first stop at the historic site of Shingardar.
The large stupa, still intact and in a relatively good shape, is visible from the main road. Known as the Shingardar stupa, it has fascinating stories about its construction. One story tells that the elephant bearing Swat’s share of the relics of Buddha halted at Shingardar, died on the spot and miraculously turned into stone. Uttarasena, the king of Swat, ordered construction of a stupa at the site where the elephant had died. Scholars agree that the Buddhists of Swat received their share of the relics of Buddha but argue the stupa that enshrined the relics may be different from the present stupa at Shingardar.
Our next stopover was Udegram, the place Hungarian-British archaeologist Aurel Stein and Tucci identified as the ancient city of Ora. Tucci visited the village during his maiden trip in 1955 followed by his detailed study in 1956. Later, another Italian archaeologist Scerrato led the excavation of the site during the mid-1980s. By the year 1999, careful excavations resulted in the discovery of the famous Ghaznavid Mosque on Mount Raja Gira, together with the remains of a Buddhist sanctuary and a graveyard. The mosque, the oldest in the northern region of Pakistan, dates back to the 11th century.
It took us hardly 10 minutes to walk to the site from where the road ends. The mosque, built on an artificial terrace, is now open for prayers, courtesy the restoration work by the Italian and Pakistani archaeologists.
After driving for about five and a half hours and spending an hour at the Udegram site, we arrived at the hotel in Mingora in the afternoon. There are plenty of reasonably priced hotels and guesthouses in Mingora and Saidu Sharif. One can go as a walk-in customer but it is a good idea to seek guidance and information from the information centres of Tourism Corportion Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (TCKP) to get discounted rates. TCKP has information centres in Islamabad, Peshawar and other cities.
After resting for about an hour, we set out to visit the Swat Museum, re-instated by the Italian Archaeological Mission and the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Department of Archaeology after the 2008 blast near the old museum. The Museum Curator, Faiz-ur-Rahman, and tourism consultant, Saeed Akbar, greeted us at the elegantly designed entrance of the museum. They guided us through all the nine galleries and two courtyards of the museum housing thousands of objects collected by the Walis of Swat, and Italian and Pakistani researchers.
These galleries display the early human presence in the Swat valley in the third millennium BC, and the chronology of the Swat civilisation till the coming of Islam in the 11th century AD. The last gallery contains masterpieces of the breathtaking wood architecture of Swat. Exquisitely carved designs on wooden structures represent elements of Gandhara art, South Asian Islam, Central Asian and Dardic patterns.
The site of Butkara stupa complex was our last stop for the day. The site is hardly five minute drive from the Swat Museum. The structure, believed to have been built in the 2nd century BC, went through a number of expansions in the following centuries. The Italian and Pakistani teams, led by Faccenna, unearthed the stupas and recovered artifacts that are displayed in the Swat Museum.
The ancient city of Bazira and the magnificent stupa at Amluk Dara were on our day-two itinerary as well. Bazira, a key site located in Bir-kot-ghuwandai or the present Barikot, was mentioned by the historians of Alexander the Great and later identified by both Aurel Stein and Tucci. It took us about 50 minutes to reach there from Mingora. We were electrified to see a team of local excavators led by Dr Luca Olivieri, carefully scratching the surface of a site next to the fortified city. The city itself was unearthed as a result of excavations between 1984 and 2006.
Our group was delighted to see the site restored and well-protected through combined efforts of the Italian and Pakistani archaeologists.
Driving for about 20 minutes from Barikot, we reached the valley of Amluk Dara, famous for its beauty and Amluk Dara stupa. The stupa built on a triple base is located on one of the mountains sheltered by the sacred Mount Ilam. Aurel Stein discovered the site in 1926. The main stupa was built between the 3rd and 4th century AD, and remained a pilgrimage site for the devotees till 11th century.
Over a period of time, numerous votive stupas were also constructed near the main stupa, which stands at 31 metres above the ground. We walked for about 25 minutes to touch the stupa as the road to the site is not in good shape. The serenity, grandeur and energy emanating from the site was worth the walk.
Travelling back, I had no other thoughts but praise for the Italian and Pakistani scholars, who are making it possible to restore and protect Pakistan’s precious heritage. I was still thinking of the great Italian archaeologists G. Tucci, F. Bonardi, D. Faccenna, G. Gullini, G. Stacul, M. Taddei, C. Antonini, U. Scerrato, and L. Olivieri; and their Pakistani colleagues F.A. Khan, Rafique Mughal, Inayat-ur-Rahman, M.N. Khan, M. Ashraf Khan, Abdur Rahman, Shah Nazar Khan, Muhammad Naeem Qazi, and Faiz-ur-Rahman when the trip coordinator announced our arrival in Islamabad.