A look at the magnificent Swat Museum and its tremendous endeavour to protect history
The Swat region has gained a lot of popularity for its beautiful landscapes, green mountains, babbling waterfalls, the sparkling River Swat, the scenic views of Marghazar, Kalam, Ushu, and more recently for the winter sports in the skiing resort of Malam Jabba. Local tourists generally opt for a three to four day tour of this region. The main focus of these tours is mostly on the above mentioned places. The Swat region is termed by many as the Switzerland of Pakistan.
I first visited Swat back in 1992 as a 10 year old with my family. Since then I have come back to the region six to seven times. For a number of years, I tried to visit the Swat Museum which is located in Mingora on the Saidu Sharif Road and can be easily reached from any of the hotels located nearby. However, every time I visited the place I found the museum closed for restoration or upgrade. Thankfully, this changed on my recent visit to the region.
The museum was founded in 1959 by the then Wali, Mian Gul Jahanzeb. He’d use the museum to keep his private possessions that were later excavated by the Italian Archaeological Mission. The building was designed by the Italians, to honour which, a vehicle from the 1950s, with an Italian number plate, is parked in the first hall. The Museum was, later, sold to the Department of Archaeology in 1961. It was formally inaugurated in November 1963 by the then president, Ayub Khan.
The museum contains monuments from three eras. First, there are Mingora-based excavations of the local Buddhist stupas and monasteries. In the last few years, there has been a significant development for tourists to visit the excavation sites of these stupas. Many artifacts and models of what the stupas would have looked like are among the museum’s exhibits. Another focus is on the findings from the Udegram and Gogdara sites, followed by the Iron Age and Bronze Age excavations of the regions. Findings from other nearby cities, Gandhara Art, grave cultures, foreign influences, sculptures, rock carvings, coins from different eras, different types of embroidery and jewelry, furniture, pottery, toilet trays, evolution of weapons, instruments, utensils over the centuries within the region are all part of Swat Museum. You may also come across sculptures, specimens, rock carvings, findings and stone friezes that depict the life stories of Buddha all placed in one of the halls.
The museum is divided into nine halls or galleries. The halls are lined chronologically, starting from 3000 BC – which pertains mainly to the Ghalegai findings – right down to the last century. All the halls are neatly kept and very well maintained. You come across different civilisations, conquerors and religions that entered or stayed in Swat region over the centuries including Persians, Aryans, Hinduism, Buddhism, Chinese and Islam. How they lived, how they worked, how they buried their dead is visible in original sculptures, remnants and relics complemented by photographs from actual excavation sites to the all relevant information of those relics on the boards adjacent to the specimens. The subtle and obvious changes, pertaining to different denominations that influenced the Gandhara Art and regional norms over the centuries, are significantly visible as you move from one hall to another.
For coin lovers and collectors, historical coins from the Greeks, Scythians, Parthians, Kushans, Sasanids and Indo-Greek are all present here. Zeus, Apollo and Artemis feature on the Greek coins; the famous Indian Dancing Girl is also present on one of the coins. The traditional instruments for folk music, jewellery, local dresses and cultural norms are on display in the final gallery.
A guide is always available to help people with little or no knowledge about the history of this region. At the end of the visit, you may be lured into buying books related to Swat Museum, the pictorial atlas of the regional finds of significance and a few other books. The museum’s management charges the tourists a nominal fee if they wish to take photographs. My visit took around two hours but other visitors can easily stretch theirs to three to four hours. From the stone board games to mesmerising statues, the museum has a lot to offer. If you ever make plans to visit the Swat valley – called Uddiyana in Sanskrit – do allocate a couple of hours for Swat Museum and be prepared to be surprises it holds.
The writer is a physician, healthcare leader, traveller and a YouTuber host for the DocTree Team promoting Organic Gardening in Pakistan. He tweets @Ali_Shahid82