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Italy gives Pakistani heritage a facelift

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ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (eTN) – In ancient literature, there is a frequent reference to the River “Suvastu.” The valley of the Suvastu River is today’s Swat River valley on the banks of the River Swat

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ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (eTN) – In ancient literature, there is a frequent reference to the River “Suvastu.” The valley of the Suvastu River is today’s Swat River valley on the banks of the River Swat. The River Swat flows through the towns of Malla and Saidu, among others, and ultimately merges with the waters of the River Sindhu. The Swat valley has many famous ancient spots, which include ancient caves, indicative of hallmarks of Aryan settlements, Buddhist monasteries, and stupas. Hieun-Tsang, the famous Chinese traveler, has mentioned that more than 1400 Lama series existed in this region during ancient times.

During the British regime, they carried out an exploratory survey of the region, which threw light on all the ancient remains, which surfaced there. At present, the remains of the ancient Buddhist stupa explored at Butkara are carefully preserved at the Swat Museum at Saidu Sharif. During the winters, the Swat valley is totally covered by snow, and when snow starts melting, this Swat region, right up to Chitral where there are kalash tribals, who are descendents of the Greeks are settled, gets dolled up with the unique natural beauty, which is simply superb.

The Swat valley has witnessed innumerable events that took place in ancient India. This region saw the rise and fall of many monarchs. On account of many invaluable and precious remains surfacing from time to time, the Swat region has always been the central point for scholars and researchers. Many Mathas, Stupas, and ancient structures have been brought to light during the excavational exercises carried over here.

The ancient name of Swat was Uddiyan. Uddiyan means garden. The Akhmeniyan Emperors ruled this province. Subsequent to this, Alexander the Great arrived here in the year 327 BC. During this period, Swat became a cultural link between India and Iran, Chandra Gupta Murya conquered this territory from the Greek Emperor Asoka, and the grandson of Chandragupta Murya left Hinduism and adopted Buddhism.

The Kushans ruled Swat for more than 100 years. Hieun Tsang, the famous Chinese traveler, arrived here around the year 600 AD. He has given in his report that at Butkara there were about 6,000 golden idols. He has further stated in his report the king Uttersen, the ruler of Swat, belonged to the shakya community, and he (Uttersen) erected a stupa in memory of Buddha. There are Buddhist folk tales that confirm that Lord Gautam Buddha had personally visited this place and had given a discourse and preached sermons to his disciples.

The Buddha statue, which has been detailed by Hieun Tsang in his elaborating descriptions of his travels, is situated at Shekhudai – a place at a distance of 16 kilometers from the city of Saidu Sharif.

This town of Shekhudai is today known as Jahanabad. At Jahanabad, a huge Buddha idol has been carved out of 7 meters of stone in the size in the mountain. Here the Buddha has been displayed in a meditative posture called Padmasana (Lotus-shaped seating position). This sculpture was carved in the 1st century during the regime of Kushana rulers. This Buddha statue at Jahanabad, like the one at Bamiyan, has also become a center of attraction for the students of the Gandhar culture. The Buddha statue at Jahanabad is next to that of Bamiyan in size and is considered to be one of the best artifacts of Gandhar tradition. Therefore, followers of the Taliban could not leave this Buddha untouched after destroying Bamiyan Buddha.

On the night of September 29, 2007, Taliban militants climbed ropes to insert explosives in holes drilled into the face and shoulders of the Jahanabad Buddha. The explosives in the shoulders failed to detonate, but the others blew off most of the face above the lips and cracked other parts of the carving and surrounding rock.

This story jolted lovers of archeology, culture, and heritage all over the world, except people of Pakistan, because they were bombed by Taliban, and destruction of a piece of rock was nothing for them, when they were burying their innocent sons and daughters every day that were killed by the Taliban, while they were going to school or coming home from work.. It was also not very shocking for Pakistanis because love for their cultural heritage is not as strong as it should have been among Pakistanis.

But one man was not only jolted by this destruction, but shaken, because he has a special love for this Budhha – Luca Olivieri, who considered Swat his second home, had been traveling and working in this area since his youth.

The 49-year-old head of the Italian Archaeological Mission in Pakistan returned in 2010 in a quest to help his old time friend – the Rock Buddha.

Luca Olivieri and his team began work on fixing the cracks and what’s left of the face. A full reconstruction was impossible because detailed documentation and fragments of the face were lacking.

Luca first arrived as a university student in 1987. He was fascinated by Swat, once an important center of Buddhist culture and trade. The monk credited with introducing Buddhism to Tibet, Padmasambhava, was born in Swat.

In more recent decades, the area was known as “the Switzerland of Pakistan,” popular with religious tourists from China, Japan, and South Korea, and the hope is that restoration of the Jahanabad Buddha will spark a revival of tourism here.

Olivieri’s mission is funded by the Italian government, which works with local Pakistani antiquities authorities. It has uncovered over 120 Buddhist sites among Swat so far. Of roughly 200 Buddhist rock carvings in Swat, the Jahanabad Buddha was among the few to survive with its face intact for so long.

In 2001, militants damaged the excavated ruins of a 7th century Hindu temple in Swat overlooking a stronghold conquered by Alexander in the 4th century BC. Unable to protect the temple, the Italian mission had to rebury it.

In an interview with eTurboNews (eTN) in the United States, Luca informed that the conservation of the exposed rock parts had been done, while further steps will include scanning and restoration in case more data becomes available.

When asked if the Pakistan government or local people or Italians have tailored some security arrangements so that this Buddha will not again be damaged by local radicals and purist Islamists in future, Luca responded that he just hopes that the situation has now really changed. That indicates that the statue of Buddha is still in danger, and people never know when the radical Taliban may come back and bomb it again.

Responding to a question, Luca informed eTN that only 2 events occurred in 2001 and 2007, before the establishment of the Taliban power in Swat, for destroying archeologically important remains.

Some important questions and answers follow:

eTN: What was the reaction of people living in villages near this giant Buddha when they heard about its damage by the Taliban and about its facelifting by you?

LUCA: Curiosity for our work; I haven’t recorded any comment on the past events.

eTN: Tell us something about your travels to Swat when you were a student and how you see Swat different today than you experienced in the 80s.

LUCA: I have been in Swat for work, archaeological excavations, and study for the last 26 years (with the exception of 2009). I consider Swat as a second home country. A lot of changes, of course, but it is always the best place in the world (for me).

eTN: How can the international media help to promote good instead of bad from Pakistan?

LUCA: That’s self-explanatory. [The] Taliban or purist radical forces of Islam do not like figurines and statues, because these are idols, and these must be destroyed. Taliban forces did not damage [a] 1,000-year-old Udegram Ghaznavid mosque that is the third oldest in Pakistan.

The Italian mission has posted guards at the most important sites and is also training them to become guides by teaching them English, first aid, and basic conservation techniques. The mission opened in 1955 in an office provided by the Wali of Swat. Swat has [a] high literacy rate in Pakistan, before [the] Taliban targeted this moderate society, where girls and boys equally went to school since the days of Wali, who developed a chain of high schools spread all over the valley. Swatis are not pushtuns, therefore, teaching their girls in school was a norm as compared to Pushtuns who usually do not send their girls for education in schools.

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