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Buddhist Heritage in the Swat Valley: Unveiling Sacred Sites

September 11, 2023


Saidu rif Buddhist stupas can be found in the Swat District of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan, close to the city of Saidu Sharif, at the base of the mountains that divide the Saidu River Valley from the Jambil River Valley. The sacred space comprises two terraces constructed on the hill’s slope through a rock cut on the north side. Lesser monuments flank one shrine, and there is also a monastery atop the artificial terracing.

The Udhayana Kingdom, located north of Punjab, was the region of Wu Chang that he referenced. The Swat River, known as the Subhavastu River, is renowned for its profusion of fruits and flowers. Faxian entered. The north of Jambudvipa, between 900 and 1000 B.E., observed the development of Buddhist teachings and Vinaya. There were several (approximately 500) monasteries.) and the monks’ dormitories. This is consistent with more proof from Tang Sanzang, a Monk from China who visited the Swat Valley in 12th century of Buddhism. He noted the 1,400 temples and monasteries, many of which were abandoned.

Faxian and Tang Sanzang’s Accounts

Faxian brought up a legend that states that on the Buddha’s journey to North India, he stopped in a city in the Swat Valley and left his footprint there. Depending on how they decided to see it, those who saw it described it as either a long or a short print.

The footprint, noted during the ninth and tenth centuries of the Buddhist era, is still visible. Additionally, there is a rock that is supposed to be where the Buddha hung up his robe and taught the bully Naga Apalla, who dominated the Subhavastu River (also known as the Swat River), how to practice the Dhamma.

The rock has a 20-cubit breadth and a height of 40 cubits. The stone had a smooth side. According to Faxian records, Buddhism was prospering in 942–957 B.E. The presence of Gandharan Buddhist civilizations across the Swat Valley is unsurprising. Swat, which is today in Pakistan’s northwest, northeast, and west of the Himalayas, Karakoram, Hindu Kush, and Parmir, was formerly known as Udhayana, which means “garden.” In the past, it was one of the sacred cities for Mahayana Buddhists. 

Butkara: A Significant Religious Complex

Buddhist pilgrims from China and Tibet used to travel here before the rise of international terrorism. There were many Buddhist temples, monasteries, stupas, viharas, and statues of the sculpted Buddha. Tang Sanzang recorded more than 1,400 monasteries in 1183 B.E. You can observe their ruins at the World Buddhist Heritage Site in the Swat Valley. Another significant archaeological site is:

Butkara is a significant religious complex that includes:

1) A sound water drainage system and efficient town planning are evident in the residential sector on the west side.

2) The holy spot on the eastern edge of the neighborhood. Stone called black schist covered the ground. Smaller stupas, viharas, and pillars surround the central stupa.

Several layers erected on top of the older ones were discovered during the 1956–1958 excavations carried out by an Italian archaeologist. More than 7,000 pieces of schist stone have sculptures and engravings that depict the life of the Buddha; most of these are presently on display in the Swat Museum.

After returning from the field trip and paying respects to the Butkara Stupa on the evening of July 24, 2022, I am writing a document in the Swat Museum. We were given special permission to stay in this location, home to numerous priceless Buddhist antiques. I conducted a nighttime chanting session adjacent to the Buddha’s Footprint carved onto a stunning prehistoric rock.

The chakra in the center of the sole resembles the Buddha’s imprint and is hence highly deserving of adoration. Being in touch with the fortunate dhamma from the prehistoric footprint in the Swat Museum made for a blessed night. 

Blessing with metta. 

Saidu Sharif as a Holy Ground

Buddhists consider Saidu Sharif to be a holy ground. It is situated at the base of the mountains that divide the Saidu and River Jambil river valleys. Saidu Sharif, in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s Swat District, is just 3 kilometers from Mingora City.

This site was first excavated by the Italian Archaeological Mission in 1963–1968 and then again in 1977–1982. The lower terrace with the main stupa was the subject of the first excavation campaign. The upper terrace with the monastery came to light during the second campaign. Just 3m separate the upper terrace from the lower terrace.

The enormous main stupa is located on the bottom terrace, known as the “Terrace of the Stupas,” and is flanked by smaller stupas, viharas, and columns. The only remaining portion of the central stupa is its primary construction. It has a staircase on one side and a square plan up to the first cylindrical body. The umbrellas and the harmika’s northern side. Remains are fine. Situated next to the stupa. 

A single cylindrical body out of the two that the frieze with greenschist figures decorated the monument. A lion image was perched on top of four columns on a pedestal.

The main stupa has a square staircase on the northern side, measuring 420m2 (21x20m). In the open space in front of the monastery, several votive stupas and viharas have been arranged in rows. The stupa had columns on either side of it. A set of stairs connects the monastery on the upper terrace to the lower terrace. With two rows of ten cells each and a total area of 1152m2 (36x32m), it is rectangular and paved with stone slabs.

According to archaeologists, three distinct eras comprise the Saidu Sharif sanctuary’s existence. The monuments were first arranged symmetrically between 25 BCE and 100 CE. This gradually filled the stupa terrace in the second period, and in the third period, the terrace itself was extended. These times correspond to the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th to 5th centuries CE. On the upper terrace, these three construction eras are also noticeable. 


In the third period, the monastery became larger before contracting to its previous size, which is evidence of the downfall of the entire sacred area.The Swat Museum has a sizable collection of stone sculptures uncovered during the Saidu Sharif scientific digs. Schist statues of the Buddha, Bodhisattvas, and Vajrapani (Holder of Thunderbolt) are among them. Numerous narrative panels on display show Jataka tales, pre-birth and birth legends of Buddha, as well as coinage, ceramics, and tools.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q1: What is the significance of the Swat Valley’s Buddhist heritage?

Ans: The Swat Valley holds significant historical and spiritual importance as a center of Buddhist civilization with numerous ancient sites.

Q2: Who were Faxian and Tang Sanzang, and what did they observe during their visits to the Swat Valley?

Ans: Faxian and Tang Sanzang were Chinese monks who visited the Swat Valley. They recorded accounts of numerous monasteries, stupas, and legends, including the Buddha’s footprint.

Q3: What is the significance of the Buddha’s footprint in the Swat Valley?

Ans: The Buddha’s footprint is believed to be a sacred site associated with the Buddha’s visit to the region. It continues to be visible and revered.

Q4: What was the purpose of the author’s visit to the Swat Museum, and what did they experience there?

Ans: The author received special permission to stay in the Swat Museum, conducted a nighttime chanting session, and revered the Buddha’s Footprint carved on a prehistoric rock.

Q5: How do Buddhists regard Saidu Sharif, and what was the focus of the Italian Archaeological Missions’ excavations?

Ans: Saidu Sharif is considered a holy ground by Buddhists. The Italian Archaeological Missions focused on excavating the main stupa and its surroundings.

Q6: What were the three distinct eras in the existence of the Saidu Sharif sanctuary, and what can they tell us about its history?

Ans: The three eras represent different phases of the sanctuary’s construction and expansion, reflecting the site’s evolving history and significance.

Q7: What artifacts and sculptures were discovered during scientific digs in the Swat Valley, and where are they displayed?

Ans: Stone sculptures of the Buddha, Bodhisattvas, and Vajrapani, as well as narrative panels and other artifacts, were found and are displayed in the Swat Museum.

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