Vedic Origins of Lost Neighborhoods – Ancient History of Swat District

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Raja Gira was the site of a fortress from which the Hindu Shahis ruled Swat

Swat District is a neighborhood in the Malakand Division of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. It is centered on the Valley of Swat, usually referred to simply as Swat, which is a natural geographic region surrounding the Swat River. Sadly, it has been on and off a Taliban stronghold in recent times. Just a few years ago, TV was banned, public hangings were not uncommon, and girls were barred from school.

However, the Ancient History of Swat was nothing less than ‘dreamy.’ Sanatan Dharma made this place the miracle valley of education & tourism thousands of years before the advent of extremism.

Let’s explore.

The earliest recorded history of the region, preserved through the oral tradition, was the settlement of Hindus. Hindus were the first recorded culture that prevailed in the region. The name for the Swat River that was recorded in the Rig Veda, Suvāstu, which may mean “fair dwellings.”

The Gandhara grave culture that emerged c. 1400 BCE lasted until 800 BCE, and named for their distinctive funerary practices, was discovered along the Middle Swat River trail. Later movements of the local Hindu tribes saw the emergence of ethnic Nuristani and Dardic populations. The Nuristani and Dardic populations followed an ancient type of Hinduism in the pre-Islamic era.

They contributed beautiful temples, Shiva Linga, and stepwells, traces of which are still hidden deep within the Swat’s crust.

In 327 BCE, Alexander the Great fought to Odigram and Barikot and stormed their battlements; in Greek accounts, these villages are identified as Ora and Bazira. After the Alexandrian invasion of Swat and adjacent regions of Buner, he handed control of the wider Gandhara region to Seleucus I Nicator.

In 305 BCE, the Hindu Mauryan Emperor conquered the broader region from the Greeks and likely established control of Swat until their control of the region ceased around 187 BCE. During the rule of the Mauryan emperor Ashoka, Buddhism was introduced into Swat, and some of the earliest stupas were constructed in the region.

After the Mauryan Empire collapsed, numerous Hindu-Buddhist Kings governed Swat before Persian Parthian Empire took over the region.

The Kushans ousted the Parthians from Swat, based in the Peshawar valley. Kushan’s rule began what many consider to be the golden age of Gandhara. Under the most prominent Kushan king, Kanishka, Swat became an important region for the production of Buddhist art, and numerous Buddhist shrines were constructed in the area. As a patron of Mahayana Buddhism, new Buddhists stupas were constructed, and old ones were enlarged. The Chinese pilgrim Fa-Hsien, who visited the valley around 403 CE, mentions 500 prominent monasteries.

Following the collapse of traditional Buddhism in Swat following the Hephthalite invasion, Swat was ruled by the Hindu Shahi dynasty starting in the 8th century, who made their capital at Udigram in lower Swat. This created another Golden Age with Hindu kings governing the region with absolute equality. The Shahis constructed an extensive array of temples and other architectural buildings, of which ruins remain today.

Under their rule, Hinduism ascended, and Sanskrit is believed to have been the lingua franca of the locals during this time. By the time of the Muslim invasions (c. 1000 CE), the population in the region was primarily Hindu,  though Buddhism persisted in the valley until the 10th century, after which the area became predominantly Muslim. Hindu Shahi rulers built fortresses to guard and tax commerce through this area, and ruins dating back to their rule can be seen on the hills at the southern entrance of Swat, at the Malakand Pass.

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