Swat Valley Blues

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Asia, Religion

I haven’t been following events in Pakistan all that closely, but I take it that the Taliban has been allowed to take over the Swat Valley as part of an agreement with the government of Pakistan. No one seems even to be pretending this is going to settle anything.

By all accounts the Swat Valley is a lovely place, popular with tourists. Centuries ago it was the site of a thriving Buddhist civilization. It was said that at its peak of Buddhist influence, the Swat Valley was filled with fourteen hundred stupas and monasteries. Until very recently, museums of Buddhist art and the ruins of temples were drawing many tourists from places further east, such as Japan. There’s no news I can find about what’s happening to the relics of Buddhism remaining in the Swat Valley, and I assume they are being destroyed.

I wrote an article on the history of Buddhism in Pakistan and Afghanistan for the other website that some of you might find interesting. In a nutshell, Buddhism reached Pakistan-Afghanistan — an area once called “Gandhara” — during the reign of the Emperor Ashoka (ca. 304–232 BCE) and thrived there for well over a thousand years, until some time after the 12th century CE.

Among several things I learned while I was researching the article is that the artists of Gandhara were the first to depict the Buddha in human form. Most of the conventions common in depictions of the historical Buddha to this day were invented in Gandhara and then spread to east Asia. Early Gandharan art was in the style of Greek and Roman art and is especially beautiful.

The other thing I learned is that Buddhism and Islam peacefully co-existed in the Middle East for several centuries. Islam reached Afghanistan and Pakistan in the 7th century, and some Buddhist monasteries were still operating as late as the 12th century, although for how much longer after that no one knows. For the most part the Muslim rulers of the area left the Buddhists and their art and monasteries respectfully alone. Buddhism was not forcibly driven out of the Middle East, but seems to have just withered away.

Beside the lost Bamiyan Buddhas of Afghanistan, there were no end of smaller stone Buddhas, cave paintings and other artifacts in the Middle East that survived mostly intact all these centuries — until the Taliban. The real concern is for the living people subjected to Taliban atrocities, of course, but I thought someone should say something about the art.

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9 Comments

9 Comments

  1. buckyblue  •  May 1, 2009 @10:37 am

    That’s interesting about the Gandahara valley inventing many of the images of the Buddha in Greco/Roman style. That actually explains some things for me. As for the demise of Buddhism in the area, does it also coincide with the demise of Buddhism in India in general with a reemergence of Hinduism at some point, possibly during the Gupta dynasty?

  2. maha  •  May 1, 2009 @10:56 am

    buckyblue — Yeah, sorta kinda, although the decline came a few centuries after the Guptas. And the Mongols were involved, somehow. It’s all very convoluted and I haven’t sorted it all out yet myself. In India what little was left of Buddhism by the 13th century really was wiped out violently by Muslim invaders, and maybe something like that happened to what was left of Buddhism in Pakistan and Afghanistan also. But with Buddhism in Afghanistan and Pakistan the historical record has big gaps. I don’t think anyone really knows.

  3. Henry  •  May 1, 2009 @10:56 am

    So very sad , such disrespect for the ages before ! Makes me cry at the great store of art and knowledge that the “Crusades” must have also destroyed .
    w3ski

  4. joanr16  •  May 1, 2009 @12:57 pm

    Makes me cry at the great store of art and knowledge that the “Crusades” must have also destroyed.

    Yes. The Arabs had algebra; the Europeans had bear-baiting. Blood lust over culture.

  5. pluky  •  May 1, 2009 @1:53 pm

    “The real concern is for the living people subjected to Taliban atrocities, of course, but I thought someone should say something about the art.”

    Think of the budding young sociopath; what is done now to the neighbor’s cat, will later be done to the neighbor. What the Taliban does to art, they are quite ready, willing, and able to do to the populace.

  6. erinyes  •  May 1, 2009 @4:20 pm

    Maha,
    First of all, THANKS for the kind words you had for me several weeks ago when a commentor called me a troll. Sometimes I get a bit busy and forget my manners; I’ve been very busy lately working a 10 hr shift and driving from Kissimmee to Swami town 4 days a week.(4 hr commute)

    I have two items; The “Taliban” in Pakistan .I wonder if this term is in regards to the Afghani Taliban moving over the border, if it really means the “hard core ” members of the Pashtun tribesmen, or what. Is this a catch all term like “terrorist” , “militant”, or “insurgent”?

    Secondly, who is arming these jerkwads? It seems like cutting off supply lines of ammunition and guns, not to mention RPG’s would be a priority. One would think that a factory producing any of the above in Swat Valley (ore anywhere else) would stick out like a sore thumb.
    I have been thinking about getting a 20 ga. shotgun for home protection, but I have a hard time getting the money together. I have a hard time understanding how mountain tribesmen in some of the poorest nations in the world seem to have an endless supply of RPG’s, AK-47’s, and ammunition when I can’t afford these items. Then again, my work boots are $120.00 Wolverines………..
    It is simply amazing that these “Taliban Militants” have enough ammo to be a threat to the Pakistani Military, and they do this without helicopters or fixed wing aircraft to replenish their orders!

  7. melbradley  •  May 1, 2009 @9:48 pm

    Erinyes, I read something recently about Taliban making most of their funds from the sale of opium. The brain is tired so, I can’t find the sites with specific info about how much money they’ve made.

  8. maha  •  May 1, 2009 @10:47 pm

    My understanding is that “Taliban” is the name of a particular movement of fundamentalist Sunnis, not just any Islamic militants, and the guys in Swat are definitely Taliban. How much organizational connection they have with the guys in Afghanistan I do not know.

  9. erinyes  •  May 2, 2009 @12:33 pm


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