When the historical symbol of love and peace witnessed the wrath of obscurantist forces
To Muslim puritans, Jahanabad (as discussed in the previous article) may evoke memory of pagan and polytheistic reprobates. Its Buddhist sacredness receded into a historical oblivion with the advent of Islam. Though being a socio-religious ‘other’ for a couple of centuries, it escaped violent attacks till the turn of the 21st century. It was, probably, due to Swat being isolated from the core and, thus, out of the orbit of puritanical considerations of scriptural Islam. However, since the early decades of the 20th century Swati society started experiencing changes first due to encounter with colonial India, then the formation of the Swat state and lastly the area becoming as a constituent part of Pakistan.
Mullas’ leading role in resistance against the British empowered not only individuals like the Akhund of Swat and Sartor Faqir but clergy as a whole. The Walis also played a central role in the formalisation of religion by establishing two Dar-ul-Ulums one each at Saidu Sharif and Charbagh. And all this intensified by leaps and bounds since 1969 in the context of Pakistan’s obsession with pan-Islamic utopia, Afghan jihad and Taliban policy. This context may be seen, in the long run, as being an enabling factor vis-à-vis heritage destruction at the hands of Taliban in Swat.
Jahanabad became as the site of enacting this destructive power. Here the colossal Buddha came under attack two times. It was in 2007, in the month of September, that the symbol of love and peace witnessed the wrath of obscurantist forces. What difficulty the destroyers would have borne while climbing up the top of the gigantic boulder. It seems that they, initially, had wrong estimate about it, during the first attack, as it turned difficult to erase the site. Both shoulders of the Buddha were drilled but the explosive did not detonate. So, negligible damage.
However, the failure did not disappoint Taliban and shortly they returned with same heinous designs. This time the face of Buddha was erased from forehead up to the lower lip. The vandals might have felt jubilation this time on their success, though still partial. As God would have liked it, the Jahanabad Buddha escaped to see what had happened to the Bamiyan Buddha a few years back. However, after less than two years, Bodhisattva Padmapani was blown to pieces successfully. This image was much prone to destruction as it was carved on a boulder of minor size. It happened in early 2009.
Shall these acts of heritage destruction be seen as part of the Taliban political programme? It would be difficult to have an answer supported by empirical evidence. Still, the broader context of the process and patterns of Talibanisation in Swat would help us ponder upon the issue.
Before contextual analysis, it would be better to give some specific information about both these events of destruction. According to local people both the times when the Jahanabad Buddha was attacked, bulks of Taliban were all around the site. If the information is reliable, they were all strangers. Unlike this, the Padmapani figure’s destruction was an act of an individual. He was a local resident of young age by the name of Sardar Ali. He took a drill on his shoulder, reached the boulder and blasted it. He died shortly after the military operation against the Swat Taliban was carried out in May 2009.
The ideological motivation for attacking the Buddhist sanctuary of Jahanabad would not be other than gaining merit through iconoclasm. In Pakistan, Mahmud Ghaznavi, due to his popular association with destruction of Somnath, is idealised in this respect. In textbooks, some history books and poetic works he is represented as an ideal Muslim and heroic iconoclast. Similar references to other instances of destruction are also found in the narrativised version of Islamic monotheism. And all this sets the motivational context of the devastation seen by the Buddhist deities at Jahanabad.
Furthermore, the whole developments may be seen in light of the fact that Malam Jabba valley was one of the strong and central bases of Taliban. Here they were able to make their power more visible by exercising it at different levels, more local and valley-wide (and for that matter nationally and internationally). And the availability of pre-Islamic cultural icons provided them the opportunity to do so.
Detonating the Jahanabad Buddha seems the result of a well-thought-out plan and strategy. The difficult mission was marked by presence of an enormous force. Through this act Taliban could send a message, probably similar to the one intended by Afghan Taliban by destroying Bamiyan Buddha. Such a power-exercising brought them in limelight internationally. It showed that they were the actual masters of Swat.
In contrast, blasting the Padmapani image is but exercise of power at local level. This site did not enjoy wide popularity and was just known to the surrounding people and few scholars of Swat archaeology. Given that, it could hardly bring any strategic gains to Taliban. Hence, no manifestation of their strategic wrath at the site, though it could be erased in a single blow. But as one of the patterns of Taliban’s visibility was its immediate power, bands and individuals had freedom to take certain decisions on their own and act at their whims as well as in dispersed manner. Padmapani’s destruction at the hands of Sardar Ali may be seen in this framework.
Still it may not be assumed that exercising power locally had nothing to do with the central motive and process of Talibanisation. The strong puritanical tenor of the movement, no doubt, influenced and made it possible. Taliban were not totally oblivious towards the pre-Islamic heritage. The Jahanabad Buddha is witness to this. Moreover, an attendant of a famous archaeological site told me that threatening announcements were made on radio against them during the last months of Taliban control. And they faced much hardship those days. Usman Ulusyar, a social activist and poet, who lives nearby the Saidu Stupa, also was targeted and intimidated. He had just tried to stop people playing within the premises of the site. And all this makes Taliban’s approach vis-à-vis pre-Islamic archaeology obvious and understandable.
Read also: Excavating Jahanabad Buddhist complex
Desecrating religious sites and symbols have always been detrimental to human society. Such acts produce nothing but bitter memories which can potentially be abused in any context. We must take notice of the recent Rohingya crisis where violence was also justified by referring to the Bamiyan Buddha’s demolition. We are also not unaware of the destruction of the Babri Mosque and the wave of violence which it caused in Pakistan against minorities and their temples. And such a situation could be expected once more if the Hindutva ideology succeeds in subjecting Taj Mahal to the fate of Babri Mosque.
In such a context, it is heartening that, recently, experts and professionals have made great service to the cultural heritage of Swat by repairing the Jahanabad Buddha. The blasted pieces of Bodhisattva Padmapani have also been removed to the Swat Museum for repair and exhibition. Let’s use heritage for love and understanding rather than for materialising malicious designs.