The Swat project 2022
by Carlo Alberto Pinelli
The Swat project 2021
Despite the intensification of the pandemic attributed to the Delta/Indian mutation of Coronavirus, a group of eleven Italian mountain lovers, accompanied by some excellent Pakistani mountaineers, travelled to the upper Swat valleys to complete a further step of the “Swat Project” that Mountain Wilderness International and ISMEO (International Association for Mediterranean and Oriental Studies) have been jointly running since 2017. Group leader was Professor Carlo Alberto Pinelli, a veteran mountaineer, who some years ago had been awarded the prestigious “Sitara i Imtiaz” by the president of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.
Project Swat’s first objective was, and remains, to accurately survey and document all the possible trekking and mountaineering itineraries of these fascinating mountains. Its final goal is the publication of a practical guidebook on the outdoor activities this beautiful part of Pakistan offers. Mountain Wilderness International’s intention is to use this guidebook (printed in English and Urdu) as a springboard for the institution and implementation of a Swat Kohistan national park that would include some small portions of Dir, Kandia and Chitral. A breathtaking sequence of landscapes, with dense forests of fir, Himalayan cedar and birch, small crystalline lakes and glaciers, surrounded by peaks that – despite not being particularly high, at least by Asian standards – are quite impressive nonetheless. Due to the relative proximity of the major urban centers of the plain, this unique natural jewel risks being spoiled forever if a growing influx of tourists is not wisely monitored, channeled and disciplined. A national park seems the only feasible solution.
Divided into small groups, the Mountain Wilderness trekkers explored three separate and quite demanding itineraries in the first half of September, often confronting unknown routes, glaciers and mountain passes nearly 5000 meters in altitude. “We are proud of this indubitable success”, declared Prof. Pinelli to the press. Nevertheless, the exploration is still far from complete. Next year, with the support of the KP government and the Agency of the Italian Cooperation, Mountain Wilderness International and ISMEO plan to send a larger group of mountaineers to Swat, not only to conclude the survey of all potential treks, but also to summit the main Swat peaks along new challenging itineraries. The 2021 undertaking availed itself of the sponsorship of the Italian Academic Alpine Club. The guidebook is scheduled for publication by the end of 2022.
The Swat project 2022
While the 2021 mission served mainly to revive Project Swat after the pandemic hiatus, it is our hope that once the Covid emergency has subsided it will be possible to organise a series of activities for the coming year. These will be particularly important due both to their range of diversity and to the number of volunteers involved.
Obviously, as previously mentioned, the principal goal is to resolve all remaining exploration problems – excursionist, trekking, mountaineering, naturalist, geographic – with the voluntary help and collaboration of Mountain Wilderness associates, various members of European Alpine Clubs, environmentalist followers, mountaineering guides and instructors, along with a large number of our former Pakistani trainees engaged as professionals.
We are also planning to explore some entirely unknown short glacial routes that promise to be quite fascinating; here it will be impossible to take advantage of the help of normal porters and traditional trekking agencies. We hope to have with us at least four light mountaineering expeditions interested in confronting new and demanding climbs up the main Swat peaks, or attempt to summit many other still unexplored mountains.
We have decided to dedicate a portion of the programme to the identification and restoration of some hiking itineraries that were used once upon a time by the Buddhist faithful to travel from one monastic complex to another, crossing over the hills that separated them. Our purpose is to include some brief but nevertheless evocative naturalistic/cultural treks in the aforementioned guidebook.
In connection with this aspect of the programme, we are working on the organization of a course for naturalistic, trekking and archaeological guides reserved for the young women of the Central Swat, to be conducted by voluntary female instructors from the Central Mountaineering School of the Italian Alpine Club. We hope to be able to supplement this important experience with a “ stage” at a new archaeological excavation located at a recently discovered hill site (linkable to the planned Buddhist trekking network) for which we are seeking the necessary funding (see attachment).Finally, we wish to point out the preliminary exploration of a gigantic granite rock wall, more or less 800 metres high, already visited during the past month of September, that could prove to be an attraction for rock climbers from around the world. We intend to launch a second and more extensive exploration next year.
On the threshold of a new discovery
The indomitable spread of Buddhism within the borders of the Kushana Empire (today’s Pakistan and Afghanistan) between the 1st and 4th centuries CE led to the construction of dozens of monasteries and places of worship, which were always crowned with one or more votive stupas. It was inside the boundaries of these holy sites, which long-ago drew countless pilgrims, that what is known today as the “Greco-Buddhist Art of Gandhara” developed. An art, for the most part statuary, stimulated by the revolutionary decision to endow the Buddha with human features, in keeping with what for many centuries had been the manner in which divinities were depicted in the Mediterranean regions.
The fertile Swat high plain, identified by Prof. Giuseppe Tucci as the legendary Uddiyana of Buddhist texts, have yielded archaeologists a vast wealth of religious monuments pertaining that historic period: massive stupas, monasteries, shrines and cliff carvings, today crumbling and only partly retrieved from the encroaching forest to be studied and restored. Still missing however is the link between this abundant architectural and sculptural confirmation of the Buddhist presence in the Upper Swat and the majestic and contemporary monuments of the Punjab plains (Takht i Bahi, Lorian Tangai, Taxila, etc).
It is almost as if the steep hilly ridges of Malakand had somehow conspired to discourage religious colonisation while still allowing commercial and devotional traffic to flow in and out. Yet that information gap may soon be filled thanks to the chance discovery among the Malakand hills of an archaeological site of potentially primary interest, and which until now has eluded both scientific study as well as the greedy grasp of local illegal diggers. The discovery is owed to the intuition of deputy director of the ISMEO Archaeological Mission in Swat, Doctor Elisabetta Iori.
The site is adjacent to the remote mountain village of Dabbar Tangai, only recently linked to the main road system of the valley floor by a steep trail passable by off-road vehicle. Dabbar Tangai is located approximately 3.5 km south of the village of Thana in the northernmost reaches of the Malakand district (Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, NW Pakistan). The site is situated at the top of the mountain chain that separates Thana from Serai, near what is usually referred to as Cherat Pass. The ruins, partly cleared away to make space for farmland, overlook and can easily be seen from the human settlements in the valley below.
Despite its potential scientific interest, the site’s isolated position and difficult access (before the opening of the trail), had long ensured that no scholar ever even suspected its existence. Neither had it attracted the attention of pilferers in search of relics to sell to antiquities traffickers. This makes the site nearly unique across the vast area the descends from the Swat to the great plain below. It follows then that the structures have remained in good repair above ground, and probably below as well, and could offer a rich archaeological yield.
Moving up the valley to the village of Dabbar Tangai, the eye is struck by an imposing artificial terrace that probably hosted a truly monumental Buddhist complex.
The terrace has an elevation of approximately 4-5 metres and a length of about 250 metres. At the top are the abundant traces of multilevel residential religious structures. One of these holds the remains of various small stupas – some still displaying patches of coloured paint – that must have been arranged around a main stupa still to be unearthed. It is practically certain that this sacred area was associated with a Buddhist monastery, probably located in the vicinity or further up the hill, where the huts of a modern-day village now stand.
Farming practices have heavily damaged this area, with small terraced plots underpinned by walls clearly built with schist stone blocks appropriated from the ancient structures and other valuable fragments uncovered by ploughs: decorated column bases, enormous grey stone alms bowls used in Buddhist rites, various architectural fragments and panels depicting the life of Buddha.
Based on these decorative elements and on the ceramics found above ground, the site can be placed between the first and last quarter of the 3rd century AD, the period in which Mahayana Buddhism had its maximum diffusion.
An accurate estimate of the site’s extension and purpose (monastic settlement, sacred area of a residential settlement, monastic hermitage) would call for further exploration of the upper segment of the terraced structure, which has still not been explored.
The urgency of the need for archaeological intervention here cannot be underestimated: the existence of a passable route to reach the site, along with the spread of information regarding the first survey, could spark the interest of illegal excavators. The result would be the irretrievable loss of a veritable treasure trove of new data on the evolution of the art of Gandhara as it spread toward the Swat high plain in concomitance with the period of maximum splendour of the Kushana empire.
The financial resources that would be needed to perform an initial series of surveys and begin salvage operations amount, according to ISMEO, to a mere €30,000 for the first year, including a second preliminary exploration and travel expenses.4