Almost by accident in 1968 I found myself in the peaceful paradise of Swat State in Pakistan. I had no idea that this was the fabled “Urgyen” of Tibetan legend, but I did realise that this was where I wanted to live. By 1973, I’d built a house there and made it my home. The following is my account of how I came to embark upon the journey of self-discovery that would include meeting His Holiness the Dalai Lama and culminate in life-changing events.
After studying accountancy, in 1965, inspired by my lifelong friend Kevin Rigby, I decided to take what might now be called an open-ended ‘gap year’ heading overland to India. We hitchhiked overland, eventually reaching Varanasi on the Ganges River by mid-1967 and exploring northern India.
We were not on a shoestring budget as we wore rubber flip-flops, neither could we be described as back-packers since we carried our meagre possessions in a shoulder bag. Nor could we be labelled ‘hippies’ because this term hadn’t even been invented yet! We were refugees and escapees from materialist society, inspired by the Beats, would-be Beatniks; intrepid travellers ‘on the road’ with no real end in view, and no plan to return.
After many a curious diversion on the way, back and forth, sometimes travelling alone, sometimes split up by fate as in Austria, meeting up again by pure chance in Teheran’s main bazaar six months later, only late in 1967 did we ever stop. We spent the winter in meditation huts on the banks of the holy River Ganges near Bijnor, Uttar Pradesh, where we studied a large pile of books on the religions of India. Eventually, after following the Ganges down to stay in Varanasi we went our separate ways again. With the hot season of 1968 approaching I felt drawn by the cooler air of the Himalayas in the north. Influenced by the changing attitudes of Indians who had become less accommodating and sometimes openly hostile towards the burgeoning flood of more extreme western hippies now on their trail to Kathmandu, I then took the decision to quit India in the opposite direction and ‘escape to Pakistan’ in solitude. Having heard talk of beautiful valleys in Pakistan’s northern areas I crossed the border to Lahore and set off to walk across its hills and valleys, vaguely aiming for the high mountains and the cool air of Chitral in the far northwest to ‘chill out’.
After several weeks of walking over the mountain ranges towards Chitral, I was tramping through the beautiful pine forests of Ayubia in the Murree Hills when I was kindly invited for dinner and to stay the night by some Pashtoons working at a small government silkworm project. They told me that a huge dam was to be built on the Indus River at Tarbela, a few valleys to the west. On learning of my accountancy training and concerned about my lack of means, they insisted I applied for a job there and kindly wrote a letter of introduction to their village chairman, a Mr Rafiq Khan. He was not only the Chief Camp Commandant of the entire dam site but also married to a cousin of the then President of Pakistan, Mohammad Ayub Khan and a very helpful person. I did not expect to find a job but as Khan’s village, Dragri, was on my route, when I reached the area I dropped in to meet him.
The diminutive Rafiq Khan was, indeed, very kind and helpful. He was seated under a vast banyan tree holding an evening jirga or council with bearded tribal elders seated all around the village square. When my letter was passed to him by an attendant he interrupted proceedings to welcome me. Wearing spectacles, a moustache and a flowing turban, he read the note, sat me next to him and called for food. He commented that my timing was good because a European consortium had just signed the contract to build Tarbela dam, one of the biggest in the world and the first expats were flying in. They were under him, he said, and he would tell them to give me a job. No problem. Then my rice and curry was served, he excused himself and continued with the discussions of the jirga.
Next day he took me to Tarbela in his jeep, where the mighty Indus valley opened up between the foothills and the river debouched onto the Attock plain. He installed me in a large marquee on the riverbank, used by gauge-readers who checked the river levels. Then he took me to the European consortium’s office which was in a wooden shed and introduced me to the Managing Director, who was an Italian. To my great surprise I was given a job on the spot, with the salary I demanded, but they had no accommodation or office space for me yet so I was told to come back in three weeks time to start.
Khan took me back to the marquee and we sat by the riverside enjoying the fresh breeze off the icy waters from the melting snow and ice of countless mountains. He asked the head gauge-reader, Mr Gul-e-Khandan, to take care of me. I thanked him and asked if he thought I still had time to go to Chitral, to escape the heat of the plains in the meantime.
“No” he said, “Chitral’s too far, but you can see Swat. Look,” he said, pointing across the river, “just beyond those hills, Swat’s a beautiful valley and much cooler. It isn’t part of Pakistan and there’s no corruption, it has its own ruler called the Wali who is very popular. He settles all disputes himself. It is crime-free. Everything is good in Swat, you must see it. You can leave tomorrow. I’ll show you the way.”
The next day I crossed the river and followed the foothills by local roads west towards Malakand Pass. Then heading north from Dargai, the Swat bus climbed a tortuous road up the steep and arid hillside to the pass, halting at the summit. A clean-shaven fellow passenger in white clothes invited me for tea at an open-air, roadside chai shop. It was Rahim Shah, professor of history at a college in Swat, who asked where I came from and where I was going before treating me to an impromptu history lecture.
“Ah, British” he said as chai was served with biscuits. “Then, sir, you must know we are sitting beneath the famous Malakand Fort” he said, pointing up through the trees above the pass where old stone battlements and parapets were visible, merging with large protruding rocks. “It was built by the British to consolidate their control after the siege of their garrison in Chitral in 1895. One relief column marched all the way from here to Chitral, another was sent from Gilgit. But in 1897, the British laid claim to all territories up to the crest of the range of mountains encircling the inner Afghan plateau, by unilaterally demarcating the Durand line. The Afghans, however, always claimed all territory up to the Indus River, where Pashtoons live, which they call Pashtoonistan. So a Lashkar, a Pashtoon tribal army of 10,000, armed with swords and muskets, came from the Tribal Area to besiege this very fort, led by a Faqir called Saidullah. The garrison resisted bravely and reinforcements from Dargai came, accompanied by Winston Churchill as a war correspondent, aged 22. It was his first military action and his first report. Malakand siege was a very hard battle.”
The professor then arranged for me to sit with him at the front so he could point out items of interest. The road wound gently down into a verdant valley with handsome villages amidst massive rocky outcrops, green fields and bubbling streams.
We came to the border post, surrounded by perfumed, flowering trees. My passport was smilingly checked by grey-uniformed Swati Militiamen and my details laboriously handwritten in a register, as if I was leaving Pakistan. Now, in Swat, the road was twice as wide, smooth as a billiard table and lined with wild roses and ornamental trees. The valley widened out and we passed through wide, flat fields alongside the river. A broad and shallow stream of several intertwining channels flowed pleasantly between shoals of sparkling pebbles. Then, looking up into the far distance up the valley I caught my breath as I saw a ring of high mountain peaks extending all around the northern horizon, cloaked in everlasting snow.
Rahim pointed out ancient ruins from lost empires that stood on the crest to the east, and then a square stone tower on the ridge over the river to the west, overlooking the area. “Churchill Picket” he said, “Your Winston Churchill was stationed there. It looks over Chakdarra Fort, where the road to Dir and Chitral splits off across the river to the northwest. Look, the old bridge remains, as built by the British Army. The column that relieved the siege of Chitral crossed the river there and marched through Dir State. But our bus continues along this bank to Mingora.”
The feeling was very different to the atmosphere in the hot and crowded, dusty and polluted plains. Men, women and children dressed in brightly coloured clothes were resting or playing under trees by the river or working in fields full of lush crops with hedges full of pink cottage roses. Women in particular wore gaily coloured dresses with only light chiffon scarves to cover their heads. Flowers bloomed and flocks of birds flew everywhere, streams of water bubbled along and we passed orchards of peach, apricot and plum trees whose branches were weighed down with fruit. Plump horses, cows, buffaloes, donkeys and goats grazed in the fields and near the friendly-looking mud or stone-walled homes and farmhouses dotted around on higher ground.
As we passed through a long, straight avenue lined with magnificent trees I spotted a massive, cylindrical stone monument with a grassy, rounded top, the like of which I’d never seen, standing in a field and looking about a hundred feet high.
“This is Shingerdara stupa” said my guide, “it was built 2,000 years ago by the Buddhist emperor, Ashoka. It is surrounded by ruins of many monastic buildings but the stupa itself remains intact. Now, get ready to look at the stone cliff face as we pass the bend at the end of this stretch. There is the figure of a Buddha carved in the rock, also 2,000 years old.”
The driver paused and sure enough a ten-foot high Buddha was carved into the rock face, gazing serenely across the valley. “Although Swati people are now Muslims” explained Rahim, “and Islam does not allow portrayal of figures, we keep these old and beautiful relics of our ancestors and respect them. Swat is full of Buddhist monuments and remains. In ancient times it was a very important centre of Buddhism.”
Walking through Mingora’s bazaar after getting off the bus and thanking my guide I bumped into a Dutch tourist called Jan, the first foreigner I’d met for a while, who invited me to the Palace Hotel to meet his friend, the manager, Mohammad Ishaaq. He was shopping, using the hotel’s windowless 1957 Chevrolet. Ishaaq had longish, swept-back greying hair, a permanent conspiratory smiley grin and wore a Harris Tweed jacket over his local-style shalwar-kamees. The hotel, a former palace of the Wali, was a grand old square, flat-roofed brick and marble structure near the riverside on the edge of the town, built around a garden of scented, flowering bushes with ornate fountains in the middle. I was invited to stay the night as a guest. After tea in the garden we went for a dip in the river. Then we watched the sunset up on the hotel’s flat roof and admired the magnificent spread of the lower valley with the ring of 20,000 foot high snowy peaks encircling the northern horizon. I had never seen such a spectacular view in my entire life.
The hotel appeared to be empty but Ishaaq did not seem to care. He showed me to a pleasant, cool, high-ceilinged, spacious and well-furnished room with en suite bathroom and invited for a slap-up dinner after a shower and a change. It was a royal welcome to Swat for a poor stranger and a wanderer like me. Next morning after a great Swati breakfast of paratha and fried eggs washed down with excellent mixed chai, the grinning Ishaaq beckoned me to follow him to the front reception office, where an old-style telephone was fixed to the wall, with a handle to wind up when making a call. He wanted to show me what he had in his large safe. He opened it up and drew out a very large dinner plate that was piled high with small, translucent bright green stones.
“Swati emeralds!” he said with glee. “Very good quality, next best to Colombian emeralds. After leaving Mingora the emerald mine is on the right. Belongs to the Wali of Swat. Wali makes business of emeralds and spends money on schools and hospitals for all the people.” I goggled at the shimmering mass of precious stones and realised why he wasn’t bothered the hotel was so quiet.
Ishaaq winked and pressed a twenty-rupee note into my hand as I left and told me to come and stay there again after my tour of Swat.
From there I walked along the river all the way up the valley to Gabral and Utrot and all the way back, staying in villages where the sweet and gentle people invited me and welcomed me with delicious home-grown food, lassi and creamy chai all the way. The attractive Swati village houses built with half-dressed stone had flat earthen roofs supported by huge old wooden columns with scrolled capitals. Often I’d be invited to sit up on the roof to watch the sun set amidst magnificent scenery and enjoy tea and snacks. Inside, the guest rooms were cosy and snugly furnished with soft cushions and quilts on low, carved wooden chairs and string beds and hardwood tables whose delicately chiselled charming floral patterns were covered with a dark, shiny patina from long years of use and care. Many quaintly shaped food vessels and large spoons and ladles were also carved from solid walnut with decorative patterns. At ancient Buddhist sites, similarly exquisitely carved decorative floral patterns sparkled everywhere on solid stone lintels and supports for statues, bas reliefs and friezes representing the life of Buddha.
In particular, in the centre of Upper Swat where the two rivers from the far northeast and northwest reaches converge into the Swat River, the mosque at the main Kohistani village of Kalam had a magnificent facade of enormous columns with carved, Ionic scrolled capitals each two meters wide and made out of massive tree trunks supporting the colossal roof beams. Further up the valley was beautiful primal forest with gigantic and fantastic pine trees clinging to dramatic rock faces above mountain torrents splashing over giant boulders, true classical Arcadian scenery.
At every roadside village stood smart-looking institutions of standardised architecture built by the Wali, each with its function painted above a nicely pillared veranda. There were Lower Schools, Middle Schools, High Schools, for Boys and for Girls, and Colleges, plus Medical Dispensaries and Clinics with Hospitals in major centres. The schools appeared well-run with smart-looking teachers and classes of well-behaved children in clean uniforms equipped with books, slates, chalk and satchels. Swati society was prosperous, happy, harmonious and well-ordered and villagers maintained a barter system with village service-providers like cobblers and tailors being paid in grain by the farmers.
It seemed after all my travels I’d arrived at last in an idyll, a little paradise. The beautiful scenery reminded me of the English Lake District where I’d holidayed regularly as a child and the homely people reminded me of Tolkien’s Hobbits of ‘the Shire’. Before getting halfway up the valley I decided that I would make it my home and with the prospect of having a job at Tarbela I resolved to come back eventually and live there.
Approaching the village of Madyan, which marks the northern extent of the Pashtoon population in the geographical centre of Swat valley where the broad, open plain of the lower valley closes up into the narrower, mountainous upper part, I took footpaths leading from the main road down across the fields to the Swat River and made my way along the bank a little below the village. It was afternoon and I stopped to rest. I washed my clothes in the river and stretched them out on the boulders to dry in the sun. I felt totally at peace and at home. A fisherman slowly waded his way up the shallows of the opposite bank casting his weighted, circular net skilfully into the rushing waters time and again and from out of sight somewhere high up in the trees on the cliffs the ethereal strains of a goatherd’s flute floated fluently down. Birds and bees sang and buzzed amongst the trees and flowers as the pure mountain torrent, fifty or sixty feet across, surged and roared amongst the boulders. It was in spate from the summer snowmelt running off the high mountains to the north and the deep bumping and grinding sounds of stones and rocks being rolled along the riverbed added a background dimension to this natural celestial music. It was there and then that I decided to make Swat my home. I was enthralled, and this state of charmed enchantment persisted throughout my two weeks walking tour.
From Tarbela, I would often visit Swat and the Palace Hotel at weekends with new friends. These included Lus Jailloux, a French Engineer, revolutionary and author and Rafiullah Khan, an Italian architect, troubadour and Sufi, who both became lifelong friends. My old travelling companion Kevin, based in India, also visited, and in 1971 I took a break from work to join him in Varanasi and from there to complete our overland travel to Kathmandu and Pokhara in Nepal, where I met my first Tibetan refugees.
After four years work, however, I left that dam job and soon returned to live in Swat. Kevin, Rafiullah and I had ridden a string of fine horses there from Afghanistan, illegally crossing a pass on the Durand Line into the Tirah to export the horses, getting captured by Afridi tribal bandits and held to ransom on the way. No harm was done, we talked our way out of it, paid a nominal ransom and then rode north to Swat via the comparatively safe Khyber Pass.
After a stay at the Palace Hotel we were eventually offered, by an amazing coincidence, a field to rent alongside the Swat River at that very self-same spot on the riverbank near Madyan where I’d rested five years earlier and resolved to make my home and live in Swat. It was called Qamarlanday, “Under the Rock”, and here I built my house and a stable for the horses and lived there for the next five years, using the horses to go horseback trekking far and wide around the region, from the mountains of Chitral and Gilgit in the far north in the summers, and from Khyber to Waziristan in the south in the winters.
Two years after settling in Swat I visited Dharamsala in India at the insistence of Kevin, who had by then become a Buddhist monk and was applying his extraordinary artistic talent to thangkha painting, with the State Artist of Tibet, Jampa la as his teacher. I met His Holiness the Dalai Lama for the first time. It was Losar 1975, Tibetan New Year celebrations and at Glenn Mullin’s suggestion I joined a long queue of ordinary Tibetans who were allowed into the Palace to offer a khata to His Holiness one by one.
When my turn came His Holiness saw I was not a Tibetan and asked me where’d I’d come from. “From Urgyen, Your Holiness” I answered. “What?” he exclaimed in astonishment, gripping my hands and the khata tightly while peering at me quizzically in the eye. “You know, Your Holiness” I answered, “Uddhiyana … er … I live in Swat, in Pakistan. But I’m English, of course.” His Holiness relaxed his grip, chuckled and said “Oh, I see!” He wound the khata three times around my neck and dismissed me with a friendly pat on the cheek as his bodyguards pushed me along. I must have been the first person from ‘Urgyen’ he’d met, in this incarnation!
Eventually by 1979 circumstances caused me to return to England and found REHO Travel in New Oxford Street, London, with my other lifelong friend Peter Duce as a business partner. Later on, in 1986, I would assist with the establishment of Tibet Foundation in REHO’s original office and was appointed as chauffeur to His Holiness the Dalai Lama on his UK tours and visits over a period of ten years. However, I kept my house in Swat through all this and returned for holidays every year until 2007, by which time America’s ‘war on terror’ had disturbed the peace of the entire region so severely that it became unsafe for western visitors.
Finally, in Pakistan’s great floods of 2010, the riverside field at Qamarlandi was obliterated along with my entire house and stables and all the land it was built on, all washed away as the floods changed the course of the river, deeply eroding the high escarpment that was behind the house. Now, not a trace remains. The site is just a rocky, boulder-strewn shoal, on the opposite side, where the river used to flow. Sadly, Kevin had passed away in Swat in 1979 and his grave, down at the end of the Qamarlanday garden was also washed away in the floods. I imagine he would be happy to know his bones would be ground into powder amongst the traction of the rolling rocks and boulders of the riverbed in flood and dissipated, all the way down the Indus River to the Arabian Sea and into the Indian Ocean.
These days Swat is but a shadow of its former self, having been ravaged through the takeover by Taliban extremists followed by war, with floods, corruption, anarchy and crime leading to significant economic and social collapse. I’m sure the beautiful landscape remains the same, however, except perhaps for the fine roads which are now just collections of potholes and some stone figures of the Buddha which were defaced by fanatical Islamic militants. Nevertheless one still hopes that the basic good-heartedness of the sweet-natured and laid-back Swati people and the integrity of their village and social structures remain sufficiently intact to enable Swat as a traditional society to recover soon and let normal life resume. Now, in 2013 I am indeed receiving signs from old Swati friends that things are settling down and seem to be somewhat on the mend. Thanks also to the blessings of the Buddhas in this very special valley and its deep connection with the Dharma, Guru Rinpoche and all the other Mahasiddhas who were born and lived there long ago.
* APPENDIX BY THE AUTHOR
It was in the 1930s that Professor Giuseppe Tucci, the famous [fascist] Italian Tibetologist, first identified Swat Valley in Pakistan as the fabled ancient Indian country of Uddhiyana, known as ‘Urgyen’ to the Tibetans. This was a land ruled in the 8th century by the great King Indrabhuti in whose time it was the birthplace of Padmasambhava, ‘The Lotus-Born’, the celebrated Indian Buddhist master whom Tibetans call ‘Guru Rinpoche’.
At that time the King Trisong Detsen of Tibet had invited the Abbot of Nalanda Monastery in India, Shantarakshita, to come and teach Buddhism in Tibet. However, there were too many ‘interferences’ from local spirits and demons propitiated by the existing shamanistic practitioners of Bon who were steeped in sorcery and spirit worship and resisted introduction of this powerful new religion. Shantarakshita therefore advised the king to invite Padmasambhava to Tibet to use his miraculous spiritual powers and mystic charms to overcome these obstacles and entities. This he did, and Guru Rinpoche became a legend in Tibet. He subdued most of these evil spirits and ‘bound them to the Dharma’ by making them take oaths to become protectors of Buddhism instead.
Other great Buddhist masters and sages also emanated from Swat in the millennium after Buddha Shakyamuni. These included Gharab Dorje, the originator of Dzogchen, Vimalamitra, Anangavajra, Luipa and Vairotsana, all born there and the great Bengali Mahasiddha Tilopa came to live in Swat for many years. Thus over many centuries Swat was steeped in a very powerful Buddhist tradition. This is evidenced by the remains of around 1,600 sites of Buddhist monasteries, stupas, shrines and other Buddhist sites that have been excavated or identified by modern archaeologists and historians.
Swat being a very fertile and beautiful valley with its forests of walnut trees, emerald mines and marble deposits has attracted many invaders resulting in a multiplicity of influences on its socio-political and religious culture. From the end of the 6th century BC it was part of the Persian Achemenid Empire, called Gandhara. Conquered by Alexander the Great and ceded by his successor Nikator to Chandragupta, founder of the Maurya Empire and grandfather to Ashoka the Great, it was then ruled in rapid succession by the Bactrian Greeks, the Sakas and the Parthians. These were followed by the Kushan dynasty from Central Asia which added Swat to its Gandhara Buddhist Empire and ruled it for 400 years. Taxila, a ruined city just to the southwest of Tarbela, was the Kushan Capital of Gandhara and the site of a great Buddhist university centuries before Nalanda.
Buddhism had already been introduced to Swat during the reign of Chandragupta’s grandson, the much loved third Mauryan Emperor Ashoka in the 3rd century BC. Ashoka’s famous edicts can still be seen inscribed on a rock-face at the village of Shahbazgahri at the crossroads of the ancient routes from Swat to Sind and from Kabul to Delhi. Without a doubt, Ashoka was one of the most exemplary leaders the world has ever known. These edicts consist of detailed instructions in Ashoka’s own words as to how his vast empire should be justly administrated by his officials. In summary, he declares “What I desire for my own children, and I desire their welfare and happiness both in this world and the next, that I desire for all men.” My late elder brother Patrick, who sadly passed away in Swat in 1976 happens to lie buried at these same crossroads, just at the foot of the Ambela Pass into Lower Swat. His roadside tomb stands within a few hundred yards of the huge, sloping rock face carved with these ancient Edicts of Ashoka.
The golden age of Buddhism in Swat lasted over 600 years. The Chinese pilgrim and historian Fa-Hsien who visited Swat and recorded what he saw in 403AD reports the existence of 500 monasteries. After him, other Chinese Buddhist pilgrims came, Sun Yun (519 AD), Hsuan-Tsang (630AD) who reported 1,400 monasteries in Swat and Wu-kung (752AD), all of whom praised the richness of the region, its favourable climate, the abundance of forest, flowers and fruit-trees and the devotion with which Buddhism was practiced. In the 5th century however the Kushan rulers were overrun by White Huns and the glory of the Gandhara era began to decline.
For the next thousand years there was an ebb and flow of other Buddhist and then Hindu and Muslim rulers and invaders. These included the Arabs, Sultan Mahmood of Ghazni who captured it from the Hindu ruler Raja Girra, followed by Genghis Khan and Timurlane’s Golden Hordes from Mongolia, and the Mughals, whose Empire, founded by Babur the Great, a Timurid prince from Ferghana in the heart of Central Asia, covered the entire north Indian subcontinent before the British conquered and colonised it in their turn.
As late as the 12th and 13th century Buddhism was still practiced by many Swati people and this is evidenced by Professor Tucci’s discovery, in Tibet, of a 13th century Tibetan text ‘Travels of Tibetan Pilgrims in the Swat Valley’ which he translated and published in 1940. It describes the valley being populated by devout Buddhist practitioners even in the 13th century. It is also said in this and many such accounts that Swat, or Urgyen, was inhabited by Dakas and Dakinis. Swat is held to be of vital importance in the Vajrayana schools of Buddhism because most of the later tantras are identified as originating there. In my own experience it was certainly a magical and beautiful place to live.
Eventually, 400 years ago the Akozai, a subtribe of the powerful Pashtoon tribe of the Yusufzai migrated from Afghanistan, occupied lower Swat and ruled it under their tribal law until 1969. They occupied the entire lower fertile valley, pushing the previous occupants, now called Swat Kohistanis, up into the more mountainous areas to the north, beyond the village of Madyan. When I first came there in 1968 Swat was composed of a very harmonious and peaceful society, as I have described above. However, just one year later, just before Pakistan’s leader Ayub Khan was deposed, he abolished Swat’s autonomous statehood, removing from power the much-loved ruler or ‘Wali’ and it was turned into a District of the North West Frontier Province. Sadly, since I first came there, conditions and facilities have gradually deteriorated and degenerated in many ways ever since the corrupt Punjabi administration took control, especially in recent years. It has really gone to pot, culminating in the Taliban takeover and the subsequent violent struggle to remove them by the Pakistan Army.
This article is slightly adapted from an article originally written for the Tibet Foundation Newsletter, London, 2012. It was published as the story of ‘an itinerant adventurer from England’ who arrived in a remote area of the Indian subcontinent to discover not only the place of one of the great pioneers of Buddhist teaching, Guru Rinpoche, but also of the Buddha Dharma. The author is currently a member of the Board of Advisors of Tibet Foundation.
Editors Note: most of the links to people & places mentioned in the Appendix have been added (by the editor) from Wikipedia. If better links exist (or they are wrong) please let us know by Commenting.
Uddiyana VS Swat – ‘Was it the Swat Valley, or a much larger region along the upper Indus river?’