The Amlook Dara stupa is vulnerable to natural decay and looters. PHOTO: EXPRESS
It is often said that Pakistan, particularly the north, is a tourist paradise waiting to happen. As soon as the terrorists, the corrupt and the unimaginative are swept away, a tourist boom is inevitable.
Perhaps – but not if ancient relics and sites are left to vandals, looters and natural rot.
Two beautiful archaeological sites, the Amlook Dara stupa and Balokaley Gumbat, serve as examples. Fortunately, they have once again started to attract historians, local authorities and tourists, who enjoy the peaceful surroundings and the glimpse into the wonder of the Ghandhara civilisation.
The Amlook Dara stupa is two kilometers from the main road which travels from Barikot to Buner. Even the most urban of souls can’t help but be moved by its setting in a lush green valley.
Sheltered by the great Mount Elum, the stupa stands with ancient majesty and can be seen from the surrounding mountains. “The location is so calm and serene that one forgets every misery of the world,” says Habib Nawaz, a tourist from Gujranwala. The visitor is evidently transfixed: “The sound of the gushing stream just in front of the stupa and the sweet chirping of birds from the surrounding mountains enthrall visitors.”
Another tourist, from Mardan, wants outside help for the site. “It could become a very attractive tourist spot if the government tries to bring it to the eyes of the world,” he says.
The stupa was first discovered by the Hungarian-British archaeologist Sir Aurel Stein in 1926. It was later studied by Domenico Faccena in the 60s and 70s. Archaeologists are now returning to the area.
“It is possibly the largest stupa in the Swat valley, built upon a 34m-wide podium,” Dr Luca Maria Olivieri, the Director of the Italian Archaeological Mission in Pakistan, tells The Express Tribune.
Its chronological history is not clear, though further excavation will bring us closer to an exact date of construction, but those who have studied the stupa agree it is probably from the Ghandharan era in the third or fourth century. “It seems that the stupa and its environs were inhabited until the ninth century, as evidenced by a Hindu Shahi watchtower constructed a few metres from the stupa,” Dr Olivieri says.
The site needs constant vigilance. In February, a Bodhisattva statue worth millions of rupees was recovered by police, after they received a tip-off regarding illegal excavation of the stupa.
Another archaeological site, a masterpiece of ancient architecture, is located in the small village of Balokaley in the Kandak valley, Barikot. With its high location, the sight is visible from far away. According to archaeological scholars the site was also discovered by Stein and was then hastily excavated in 1938. Though the site is protected, it has been looted for almost a century by vandals and smugglers.
“The site is now protected and has been restored by the Archaeology, Community and Tourism project,” Dr Olivieri says. “The excavations revealed an artificial terrace marked by three major aligned monuments. The central one is still preserved till the top of its dome. The other two were possibly a stupa and a shrine. The central one is a famous monument in Gandharan architecture for its double-dome. The stupa terrace was constructed in the second century CE and lasted for approximately three centuries.”
Amjad Ali, a local activist, appeals for stronger help from outside sources. “I hope the international community, like the Italian Archaeological Mission, would step forward to protect all the archeological sites of the great Ghandhara civilisation, which are fading fast due to vandalism and looting. This could rub out our rich cultural heritage from the Swat valley. It would really be a big loss for the country.”