Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Paradise regained?

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When they first saw this beautiful land they called it Shubhavastu — the Good (or Fertile) Land. Stand atop the hill of Brikot just after you have descended into the Swat Valley from Malakand Pass and gaze northward. There, spreading below you is a broad flood plain with the Swat River braided across it in two or three streams with islands between them and on either bank neatly parcelled squares of cultivation, and you know that the Sanskrit speakers were on the ball. Fertilised by the perennial river, this is the Good Land.

In the vernacular, Shubhavastu became Suvastu with the initial ‘su’ meaning ‘good’. When Alexander and his legions came hither in the latter part of the 4th century BCE, they altered the name according to their own usage. The Shubhavastu of the learned man and the Suvastu of the farmer who worked its fertile breast became Soastos on Western tongues. Thence it was a short journey for the valley and its river to be called Swat.

Watered by the Swat and its several tributaries, Swat is a rich and fruitful land. Through classical times into the Middle Ages, we hear of its fertility. Our most reliable sources are the three Chinese pilgrims Shih Fa-Hian (400 CE), Sung Yun (510 CE), and, best of all, the master Xuanzang who passed through Swat first in 630 and then over a decade later on his way back to his native land. They call it U-chang or U-changna, their rendering of Udyana or garden as it was then known.

The pilgrims all speak of a very fertile and peaceful land inhabited largely by followers of the great Buddha. Here they found monasteries and stupas sprinkled on hillsides and in secluded dells where acolyte and prelate alike poured over tomes already 1000 years old that bore the true word of Buddha. With that, the monastery walls hummed. At the time of Fa-Hian’s visit, the benevolent and great Kushan king Kanishka, had been dead for 200 years. A residue of the wealth he had bestowed upon them may still have been in the coffers and the bhikshus of Swat monasteries may not have required to make daily alms-seeking trips to nearby towns. But peace ruled the vale of Swat.

One night Fazlullah sneaked into the chamber and quietly sprayed one of the sleeping boys with bottled perfume. The next morning, amid much rejoicing, the unsuspecting youngster was felicitated for having been chosen by divine will to carry out an inhuman mission.

Within a hundred years the landscape changed. The savage horse-riding Huns wielding the sword and the composite wood and antler re-curved bow swept down from Central Asiatic steppes into Afghanistan and what is now Pakistan. Their leader, the vicious and blood-thirsty Tor Aman, knew no humanity; nor too did his hordes. Swat suffered. The valley burnt and its population died violently in large numbers. When Tor Aman passed away from this life, his son Mehr Gul, only ever more inhuman pursued the same line. This man was finally defeated by the Rajputs and banished to Kashmir in 528.

By the time the pious Xuanzang reached Swat in 630, the land had been ravaged by the Huns. Monasteries lay in ruins and Buddhism was in the decline. But there again followed 500 years of peace in which Swat flourished.

Fast forward to the 20th century and we had a country that was playground to adventurers, mountaineers, history buffs and just plain tourists who fled the summer heat of the plains to its cool climes.

The Wali of Swat crafted a wonderful land that could have been the envy of the rest of Pakistan. If only there were men of vision. With more than 2000 schools and a swift and foolproof justice system, the Wali ruled over a land that was as close to the ideal as it could get in Pakistan. When Swat State was abolished, the newly-installed commissioner of Malakand division, obviously a myopic babu, wrote that Swat, developed as it was, did not need any further development!

Instead of taking the rest of the country to the level of Swat, we pulled the erstwhile state into the pit that Pakistan was fast turning into. The post-1977 martial law Pakistan was a country where the writ of the state was in tatters. This led to the events of the 1990s when a semi-literate mullah first began to run rough shod over Swat. The state watched and it was only natural for Swat to eventually descend into the maelstrom of the first decade of the current century. 

The story of the fall of Gut-Peochar to the terrorists still rings fresh in the minds of all who followed the events in Swat. Lying northwest of Matta, the valley was overrun by local and foreign militants in 2007. For full two years, the poor folks of this valley suffered under terror.

Mussarat Ahmed Zeb, who lives in Saidu Sharif and who was witness to the loss of the paradise called Swat and then its regaining by Pakistan Army, had stories to tell of Peochar and its tunnels. Thence she led Haroun Rashid and me. It was a journey in first week of May this year that made us relive the terror Gut-Peochar had known.

Shaped like a funnel, with village Gut lying below and Peochar a few kilometres farther up, the valley is hemmed in on three sides by high, partially pine-clad ridges. The only way in or out is by Gut in the tube of the funnel. One day when the army finally decided to retake this paradisiacal valley, it found the terrorists holding all vantage points preventing any ingress from the only way in. With the infantry held up below Gut by a steady hail of enemy fire, SSG commandos made a night heli-borne landing on the ridges to the west and north. If I am not mistaken, fully two battalions, some 1000 men drifted in silently on silken parachutes.

When the last shots were fired many terrorists lay dead. But the ringleaders had all disappeared. Like Darius facing Alexander, these so-called leaders fled at the first sign of threat leaving the foot soldiers to face the crack SSG men.

Mussarat sat with the two officers by the beautiful mosque of Peochar (since restored by the army) for she had been up the hill before. Haroun and I, both rather out of form, followed a young untiring lieutenant up a sharp incline. In about 10 minutes of huffing and puffing, we made it to the mouth of the tunnel. In the cool darkness of the not so cramped conduit we were shown the various spaces and how they were used by the miscreants.

The question was how the tunnels came to be built. When the terrorists took over the valley, criminally inclined locals, surprisingly all so-called Syeds, joined up with them — one Said Jamil being among the ringleaders. Local men were conscripted and forced into labour digging the tunnels. Any refusal was met with brutal death. While there was one regular opening to the tunnel with an escape hatch in the back, there was a secret entrance as well from the house of Said Jamil.

The terrorists slept inside a largish rectangular space in the tunnel where the most dastardly act occurred from time to time. Fazlullah, the once-sand-and-gravel-digging-labourer-turned-religious leader (sans qualification), would announce once every so often that one of the young recruits bore the fragrance of paradise, meaning he had been divinely chosen by Allah to be the suicide bomber of the day. Indeed, the boy in question would have scented clothing.

Now, there were two brothers among that bunch of misled youngsters seeking paradise for killing innocent fellow humans. By their own account as preserved by the army, every night after dinner the boys were given a small black pill which, unknown to them, was clearly opium. Since they had begun to suspect foul play, the brothers resolved that they were never having the pill again and that every night they would do half shifts to surreptitiously watch the proceedings. They did not have to wait long. One night Fazlullah sneaked into the chamber and quietly sprayed one of the sleeping boys with bottled perfume. The next morning, amid much rejoicing, the unsuspecting youngster was felicitated for having been chosen by divine will to carry out an inhuman mission. That night the brothers bolted. With death stalking them, they walked a long way in the riverbed until they reached the safety of an army unit.

And then Peochar was reclaimed by the army. Its schools and mosques were rehabilitated and life returned to normal. However, even five years after the terrorists were done in, locals live in dread: they fear the terrorists will return if the army leaves.

One wonders how long this situation will prevail. Have we actually regained the paradise that Swat once was?

Odysseus Lahori one year ago: Town with Seven Lives - Book of Days 2014, Discoveries of Empire

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Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

The Apricot Road to Yarkand

Jhelum: City of the Vitasta

Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

Salt Range and Potohar Plateau

Prisoner on a Bus: Travel Through Pakistan

Between Two Burrs on the Map: Travels in Northern Pakistan

Gujranwala: The Glory That Was

Riders on the Wind

Books at Sang-e-Meel

Books of Days