The Valley of Swat in the far north of Pakistan is a treasure trove of Buddhist art and architecture. Once upon a time, this entire region of South Asia was dominated by Buddhist culture and faith. Part of the ancient country of Gandhara, the Valley was a stronghold of Gandharan Buddhism that spread the message of the Shakyamuni to Central and East Asia. Buddhism arrived around the time of Ashoka’s reign (c. 268-232 BCE) and continued to flourish until it was eclipsed by Islam in the 11th century CE.

A reminder of that glorious past is the Amluk Dara Stupa of Swat. Located in the Valley of Amluk Dara, with the spectacular Elum Ghar (2,800 m above sea level) towering above it, the Stupa lies near the village of Nawagai, two kilometres from the road between Buner and Barikot. It rests on a square plinth. Above the plinth is a three-tiered cylindrical structure on top of which rests a hemispherical dome. It is a massive structure and one of the most well-preserved ones in Pakistan. Given below is a report describing the excavation of the structure in The Express Tribune of Pakistan (‘Amluk-Dara stupa: Excavators discover Unique Complex’ dated August 2, 2012, by Fazal Khalik):

Local and foreign excavators revealed on Wednesday that a unique part of a previously-discovered site of the Gandhara civilization at Amluk-Dara, Swat, has been uncovered jointly by Italian Archaeological Mission in Pakistan and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa’s (K-P) Directorate of Archaeology and Museums.
Excavators working on the site that dates back to the third century recently discovered an entire complex surrounding the four-metre long stupa — which was first discovered by the Hungarian-British archaeologist Sir Aurel Stein in 1926. It was later studied by Domenico Faccena in the 60s and 70s.

“Actually, Amluk-Dara is not a new discovery but a re-discovery. Sir Aurel Stein in 1926 reported the ruins and wrote that the main stupa was possibly one of the best preserved pieces of Buddhist architecture he had ever seen in Gandhara. The main stupa with its sacred area was founded around the third century and lasted until 10th or 11th century,” said Dr Luca Maria Olivieri, director of the Italian Archaeological Mission in Pakistan.

Remarkably, the archaeological site lasted until a time when 90% of the Buddhist sites in the Swat Valley had already been abandoned. “Certainly, the site was visited by Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang in the 7th century but unfortunately the text of Xuangzang could not be translated very well which creates some doubts, so now we are looking forward to reading the new translation by professor Max Degg, which is under progress,” revealed Dr Olivieri.

The ancient relic was vandalised and looted by archaeological smugglers where until recently illegal excavation was going on. “Though the site was already selected for excavation by the Archaeology Community Tourism (ACT), we were requested by K-P’s Archaeology Department to start the activity a bit earlier than planned after the police arrested some smugglers on the spot.” Sculptures or fragments of the sculptural decoration of the stupas, interesting architecture – including a small pyramid-roofed shrine built just in the middle of the main stupa’s staircase – stucco decorations, potsherds and painted Shahi pottery dating back to the 7th-11th century were discovered during the excavation.

The site is partly acquired by K-P’s Archaeology Department and partly leased by the ACT. Along with Udegram, Barikot, Balo Kale and Abba-Saheb China, the site will be handed over to K-P’s Archaeology and Museum Department along with trained watch-keepers in April 2014 soon after the completion of the project. “That will be a very important step in order to provide continuity and sustainability to the ACT’s results,” Dr Olivieri added.

“It is, without a doubt, a very important excavation. As smugglers were actively busy in illegal digging, we requested the Italian Archaeological Mission to start their activity earlier. Now the site is completely protected,” said Faizur Rehman, curator at the Swat Museum. He added that further excavation was required to expose the entire site which could potentially become a rich tourist point.

The Amluk Dara Stupa is doubly blessed on account of its location. The mighty Elum Ghar massif not only lent it a magnificent background but also an unexpected lease of life. Sacred to the Hindus and Buddhists, the mountain ensured that the stupa was not completely forgotten, to the great relief of Western experts. This is made clear by the testimony of the Italian archaeologist Dr. Luca Maria Olivieri appearing in the Dawn newspaper’s report (‘Amluk Darra where Tourists enjoy Scenery and History’ dated July 18, 2015 by Fazal Khalik):

The stupa was first discovered by Sir Aurel Stein, a Hungarian-British archaeologist, in one of his visits to Swat in 1926 who had mentioned that the stupa was possibly one of the best preserved pieces of Buddhist architecture in Gandhara. He described it as any ancient stupa he had ever seen constructed with remarkably careful masonry. The stupa was first documented by Italian Giuseppe Tucci in 1956 and later Italian archaeologist, Domenico Faccena carried out research studies on the site in 60s and 70s.

However, in 2012 the Italian Archaeological Mission under the Archaeology Community Tourism (ACT) project discovered the complex attached to the stupa, adding further charm and importance to the site and opened new channels for history and archaeology students, researchers and tourists. The excavations revealed the Main Stupa, a shrine, and a pent-roofed shrine at the bottom of the Main Stupa’s stairway. “Its main stupa and the sacred area was founded around the third century and lasted until 11th century. The best thing is that the site remained intact when 90 per cent of other Buddhist sties had already been abandoned in Swat,” said Dr Luca Maria Olivieri, head of the Italian Archaeological Mission in Pakistan.

“It deserves to be noted that the valley of Amluk Dara lies on the route followed by the Hindus of lower Swat on their annual visit to the sacred height of Mount Ilam/Elum which forms so striking a background to the ruined Stupa. The top of the mountain was an object of pious pilgrimage already in Buddhist times,” Olivieri elaborated. As the site is easily accessible to tourists, it remains the centre of attraction for local, national and even international tourists. “It appears immediately once you reach closer to the site which casts a spell of enchantment on the visitors. It is so beautiful that you want to visit it again,” Ibra Ali, a tourist and historian said during her visit to the site, adding that the site and its location had some wow factor in it.

A stream of crystal clear water, originating from the lap of Mount Elum, trickles down the back of the site where tourists enjoy their picnic meal with amazing scenery around. “We found dual excitement, today, as we witnessed one of the important archaeological sites of Gandhara which impressed us with its architectural beauty. We also enjoyed the serenity and charm of the scenic valley,” said Zahoor Ahmad, a local tourist. He said that on reaching Swat the tourists must visit Amluk Dara where they would find both scenic beauty and a leaf from the history of Gandhara.

Image Attribution: The image above, sourced from Wikimedia Commons, is a photograph of the Amluk Dara Stupa of Swat. It was uploaded by Tan Afridi.