The Swat Valley of Pakistan is not known to many people outside the region. Located in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province (earlier, the North West Frontier Province), this picturesque district was part of the ancient country of Gandhara, a stronghold of Buddhism till the arrival of Islam in the 11th century CE. Drained by the Swat River (known as the Suvastu in Vedic literature), the Valley was conquered or ruled over by the Achaemenids, Macedonians, Mauryans, Kushans, Ghaznavids, Mughals and Yusufzais. The Swat River happens to be a tributary of the Kabul River which flows down from the mountains of Afghanistan before joining the Indus. The area was known as Gandhara in the pre-Islamic era. Buddhism arrived in the region around the time of Ashoka’s reign (c. 268-232 BCE). His edicts at Shahbazgarhi and Mansehra, and the Dharmarajika Stupa of Taxila are reminders of the presence of both Mauryans and Buddhism in the region. The religion propagated by Ashoka’s Buddhist missions continued to flourish under the Kushans whose domain spanned much of Central Asia and North India. However, the arrival of Islam meant the loss of royal patronage and protection. Buddhism slowly declined and finally disappeared, leaving behind only monumental ruins and fantastic sculptures.

Gandharan Buddhism played a key role in the history of the faith. It was from this region that several monks and scholars spread the message of Gautama Buddha to Central and East Asia. Apart from nurturing multiple schools of Buddhism, Gandhara fostered a rich tradition of Buddhist art and architecture. One which combined elements from Persia, Central Asia and South Asia. The iconic Buddha of Swat, considered next only to the Bamiyan Buddhas of Afghanistan, is a reminder of this ancient heritage. Unfortunately, extremists in the region, fighting under the banner of Taliban, blew up up the statue (of Buddha in a sitting position) located in Jahanabad in 2007. It triggered an outcry among historians, archaeologists and Buddhists. Archbishop Lawrence John Saldanha of the Archdiocese of Lahore condemned the actions of the Taliban in a letter to the then Pakistan President, Asif Ali Zardari. Almost a decade later, the magnificent statue has been restored by a team under the guidance of Luca Maria Olivieri, an Italian archaeologist. Given below is an excerpt from a 2016 ‘Dawn’ (Pakistan’s leading English daily) report, describing the restoration of Swat’s ancient heritage:

The iconic seventh-century defaced Buddha at Jahan Abad, Swat, at last, got its face back after a nine-year-long wait following a scientific restoration process conducted by Italian archaeologists. The 7th century Buddha seated in a meditative posture which is considered one of the largest rock sculptures in South Asia was attacked in September 2007 by the Taliban, who blew up half the statue’s face by drilling holes into the face and shoulders and inserting explosives. The explosives in the face, when detonated, destroyed half its face, but the explosives in the statue’s shoulders failed to detonate.

The defacement of the Buddha sparked worldwide anger and concern among the Buddhist community, historians and archaeologists. The Italian Archaeological Mission in Pakistan were able to restore the statue to its original form after six scientific missions. “It was our professional and moral obligation toward the people and heritage of Swat and Pakistan which forced us to restore the Buddha. It took about five missions of about a month each from 2012-2016 in its complete conservation program,” said head of the Italian Archaeological Mission, Dr Luca Maria Olivieri, adding that international experts worked on the restoration process.

“Two restorers/trainers, two 3D scan experts/trainers, one chief restorer, five local restorers, 20 field workers, two carpenters, and three watch-keepers were involved in the restoration process, while the 3D equipment was provided all-inclusive by the University of Padua, Italy,” he said. “It was restored under the Archaeology Community Tourism (ACT) Field School project funded by Italian government, a joint project of the Directorate of Archaeology and Museums of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the Italian Archaeological Mission,” Olivieri added.

Fabio Colombo, a restorer and member of the Italian Archaeological Mission who has vast experience in the field of conservation and who worked on-site in Bamyan, Afghanistan, said that he enjoyed the work at Jahan Abad as it was a very important historical site where the locals also gave him love and respect.
“It is one of the biggest rock sculptures in the region and different traces showed that it was once a central Buddhist location in the past. The surrounding of Buddha statue is peaceful, picturesque and serene. Owing to its historical, religious and archaeological importance,” he told Dawn. 

Syed Niaz Ali Shah, an official and representative of the Archaeology department with Italian Archaeological Mission in the ACT project, said that Tibetan pilgrims who visited Swat in the past mentioned about the Jahan Abad Buddha along with a Buddhist temple here. “Some of the highly technical and experienced Italian experts worked in the conservation and restoration process using 3-D technology for which we are thankful to them.” He said that the site would, once again, become a tourist spot as it was in the past. “I hope Buddhist visitors and other tourists will once again visit this place, not only to enjoy the area serenity but the rich cultural heritage of the region here,” Niaz Ali Shah hoped.

Image Attribution: The image above, sourced from Wikimedia Commons, shows the Jahanabad Buddha of Swat Valley. It was targeted by the Taliban in 2007 and required extensive efforts from a team of Italian archaeologists for its ultimate restoration.