From where I sit - Swat heritage hanging by a thread

March 26, 2009

Monuments did not make the headlines when the Pakistan Government recognised the Taliban takeover of the Swat Valley in February. This was understandable, as the closure of girls' schools, the fate of unescorted women and the imposition of Islamic justice have been far more worrying issues.

There was a sense of deja vu, though, on 5 March, when suspected Taliban militants blew up a 17th-century Sufi shrine, that of Rehman Baba, in Peshawar. It was in March, eight years ago, that the giant Buddhas of Bamiyan were blown up by the Taliban in Afghanistan. As with the Bamiyan Buddhas, the Sufi shrine was planted with explosives because its culture was presumably "unIslamic".

If a Muslim place of worship in the valley of Peshawar can be destroyed because shrine culture and the practice of women visiting such shrines is opposed by the Taliban, will a similar erasure be extended to the much older heritage of the hill-girdled Swat, to the north of Peshawar?

In the University of Delhi, where I teach, Swat's heritage is part of the syllabus taught to graduate students specialising in "Ancient India". Swat formed part of a crossroads of culture and commerce as the communications axis for North East Afghanistan and Central Asia, the Kashmir Valley, Punjab and the Indo-Gangetic plains.

The region's integration with an eastern subcontinental orbit is most strongly expressed by the ruins of monasteries and stupas that mark Swat as a major centre of Buddhism, a religion that originated in the Gangetic plains of India.

How this heritage can be safeguarded must concern many in Pakistan, especially at the University of Peshawar, where the department of archaeology has been documenting it under the Gandhara Archaeological Project since the 1980s.

Among the richest sites to be documented by the Peshawar archaeologists in Swat were those marked by Buddhist stupas, sculptures and relic caskets. One of these, Snaisha Gumbat, was shown by the archaeologist Abdur Rehman to have accommodated the Hindu god Shiva in a cell-like shrine.

The circumstances that led to the documentation project are in themselves interesting and reveal that the heritage of Swat and its environs has been rapidly shrinking for reasons wholly unconnected with the Taliban.

The crucial watershed, as the University of Peshawar notes, appears to be 1969, when Swat's sovereignty was lost and the state was absorbed into Pakistan. This led to an alarming acceleration in the erosion of "the cultural heritage of the valley", since it "was no longer protected by the strict discipline imposed by the Wali of Swat".

Evidently, sites were looted in a much more organised way, as a consequence of an unchecked expansion of illicit antiquity trafficking. The buyers of such objects were usually foreigners, aided by Pakistani collaborators.

Ironically, democracy in the Swat has been more damaging to its cultural and architectural heritage than a benevolent autocracy. It was this vulnerability that made Peshawar's archaeologists assume the responsibility of documenting and studying what had survived.

Archaeologists usually do not enjoy any political clout, so one can only wonder how Swat's heritage will weather Taliban rule. At a time when a "good" Taliban in Swat is one that does not strike terror in Pakistan, anxiety about how it handles heritage or ensures that more injury is not inflicted on it is no one's priority.

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