Swat valley: transition from Buddha to Radio Mullah

February 22nd, 2009 - 2:05 pm ICT by IANS  

TalibanNew Delhi, Feb 22 (IANS) Celebrated in the Hindu scriptures as ‘udyan’ (garden), it’s a stunningly picturesque place where the Buddha once walked, cultures intersected, poets sang and mystics came in search of peace. But, sadly, Swat valley in northwest Pakistan has now become synonymous with unrest, bloodshed and Talibanisation.

Not many know that the Swat valley, which is in the news now for the local government’s much-criticised peace deal that allows the Taliban to impose Sharia, or Islamic law, in return for surrendering arms, has an unbroken history of over 2,000 years that has seen many religions and civilisations come and go.

“The Swat river is mentioned in the Rig Veda as Suvashtu which literally means the river on which settlements can be made,” Kumkum Roy, professor of ancient Indian history at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and the author of “Historical Dictionary of Ancient India”, told IANS.

“Kushan rulers also had connections with the Swat valley,” she said.

Centuries later, the scenic river, which flows from the majestic Hindukush mountains into the Kabul river in the Peshawar valley, is a magnet for Pakistani tourists who love to flaunt the Swat valley as the Switzerland of Pakistan.

Some historical accounts also mention that in 327 BC Alexander the Great crossed the Swat river with part of his army and before going south to conquer the locals at what are now Barikoot and Odegram.

The region has also played host to a succession of dynasties like the Mauryans, the Indo-Greeks, the Indo-Syphians, the Kushans, the Turk-Shahis and the Hindu-Shahis down the ages before the invasion by Mahmud of Ghazni who brought Islam to the valley in the 11th century.

Buddhism thrived in the region that was once the centre of the Gandhara civilisation. The Swat museum has the footprints of the Buddha, who, as legend has it, came to Swat during his last reincarnation as the Gautama Buddha.

Statues of the Buddha, stupas, monasteries, rock carvings, art, coins, pottery and other artefacts can be found everywhere in the valley. Emperor Ashoka is also said to have ordered the erection of a stupa in the region.

In 403 AD, the famous Chinese pilgrim, Fa-Hien, counted 6,000 monasteries in the valley. Two centuries later, Hsuan Tsang, another itinerant monk, saw around 1,400 monasteries.

This splendid multi-layered heritage now stands imperilled with a resurgent Taliban determined to impose its austere version of the ideal Islamic society based on Sharia that has no place for music or other niceties of life and scorns sending girls to school.

Although the restive Swat valley has been known for anarchy and lawlessness for some time, the process of Talibanisation started acquiring a sinister ring in July 2006 when Maulana Fazlullah, a firebrand cleric-turned Taliban ideologue and commander, started broadcasting his Wahhabi interpretation of the Quran and preaching extremist messages to people in the valley.

“Radio Mullah”, as he came to be known, soon became a local legend and acquired an army of volunteers who pillaged and burnt girls’ schools, CD shops, the famous ski resort and Buddha statues to turn his dream of installing an Islamic emirate into reality.

Not surprisingly, much after their ideological fellow travellers across the border in Afghanistan who brutally destroyed the famous Buddha statues in Bamiyan, they have also turned their ire on what they consider remnants of an infidel culture.

Nearly one and a half years ago, Fazlullah’s informal army defaced a 23-foot-high, 7th century Meditating Buddha, carved in a rock in the lap of a mountain in Jehandabad village, in Swat, triggering protests among conservationists and Buddhists all over the world.

Things can only get worse with the Islamabad-backed provincial government striking a deal with the local Taliban represented by Sufi Muhammad, the father-in-law of ‘FM Mullah.’

(Manish Chand can be contacted at manish.c@ians.in)

– Indo-Asian News Service

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