Swat Valley is home to snow-capped mountain ranges that are offshoots of the mighty Hindu Kush, and was once known as Uddiyana, or garden.
The mountainous valley of Swat is located about 170 km northeast of Peshawar in Swat District of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK). The valley is spread over an area of 10,360 square km, and is geographically divided into two parts: Swat Kohistan, which refers to the area north of the Ain River, and Swat proper, which spreads out below the Ain River. Starting at 610 meters in the south, the valley rises rapidly. Mountains in the north can reach an elevation of 4,600 to 6,100 meters above sea level. These mountains are offshoots of the mighty Hindu Kush Mountains and are known as the Swat Range and the Kohistan Range. The Swat River is the major river that flows through this valley and other lakes and rivers drain into it.
Tourism is generally the major source of income for locals, most of who are ethnic Pathans. But since 2007, fighting between the army and militants has resulted in loss of lives, the displacement of thousands of people, the destruction of infrastructure, and a drastic loss in the earnings that came from tourism. In 2009 a truce was declared, and although the people of the valley are slowly coming back home, the tourists are not so quick to return.
Recent excavations at the painted cave sites in Swat show that people inhabited Swat Valley as far back as 3000 BC. These people made pottery, hunted wild animals and made tools with animal bones. They even drew on the walls of caves with a bright red color depicting humans, animals and geometrical shapes. As time passed, the population grew. They developed better tools and established trade with far off places.
Around 2000 BC, the Aryans began to enter the subcontinent. They settled in the beautiful valleys of Uddyiana, by the River Suvastu. Uddiyana, meaning garden in Sanskrit, was the name they gave to the valleys of Swat, Dir, Buner, Bajaur and Panjkora, while Suvastu was the Swat River. In 326 BC, Alexander led his armies through these valleys and conquered these people. In fact, the first recorded mention of these people is made by Greek historians who recorded Alexander’s journey through the subcontinent. Though Alexander’s successor claimed these territories, he seceded them to Chandragupta Maurya. Under the Mauryans, Buddhism spread into the Swat Valley and it remained dominant for hundreds of years.
The Indo-Greek King Menander made this valley a part of his kingdom but the Sakas overthrew his successors. The Kushans took over in 64 AD but its possible that Swat retained some independence and paid tribute to the Kushans. Around this time Swat Valley became home to the Gandharan Art form. In 630 AD, the Chinese pilgrim Huen Tsang passed through Swat. He wrote that the people of Swat were gentle Buddhist folks who had a love for learning. All day long they would chant prayers!
The Hindu Shahi kings maintained a hold on Swat in the 9th and 10th centuries before the last king Jayapala was defeated by Mahmud Ghazni. Mahmud Ghazni added Swat to his long list of conquered territories, and through his conquest Islam was introduced into Swat. In the 15th century, the Yusufzai Pathans began to slowly take over Swat Valley and by 16th century they were in possession of lower Swat, Buner and Panjkora Valleys.
Babur, the first Mughal king, entered into an agreement with the Yusufzais by marrying the daughter of their chief and was thus able to bring Swat under his control. The Mughals after him had little control over the valley and by the time of Aurengzeb, the Pathans refused to even pay tribute. The British recognized Swat as a princely state in 1926. In 1947 the Wali (ruler) of Swat, Miangul Abdul Haq Jahanzeb, seceded his state to Pakistan but retained some autonomy. However in 1969 the Pakistani Government abolished the princely state.
Towering mountains enclose hidden valleys full of orchards and lakes, while rivers and streams cut across the land and scattered throughout are ancient remnants of civilizations long gone, all making Swat an ideal destination for tourists. For almost two decades (from 1988-2004) tourism was the backbone of Swat’s economy. Today, although the fighting has stopped locals claim that the government appears to have little interest in maintaining historical artifacts. Furthermore, the floods of 2010 washed away hotels and destroyed infrastructure and put a stop to tourism until recently.
Saidu Sharif is the capital city of Swat Valley and it contains some of the finest pieces of Gandara art in its Swat Museum. Near the museum is the Butkara Stupa, which was most likely built by Ashoka in the 2nd century BC. In 1955, an Italian excavation team unearthed its various layers. The largest city of Swat District, Mingora contains numerous Buddhist remains, including a monastery from the 1st century AD. Malam Jabba, the only ski resort in Pakistan, is situated 2,636 meters on top of a mountain in the Hindu Kush Range. It also contains several Buddhist ruins.
Near Birkot, a city where Alexander is thought to have fought one of his battles, are the Gogdara rock carvings composed of more than a hundred carvings. These depict humans driving chariots and show various animals. Most likely the Aryans drew them about 3,000 years ago. One of the best preserved stupas of Swat, known as Gumbat Stupa, is also found near Birkot. Udegram, yet another city Alexander battled in, was once the capital city of the Hindu Shahi kings from the 8th to 10th century and contains the ruins of the fort of Raja Gira, the last Hindu ruler of the valley.