High in the rugged mountains of northwest Pakistan lies the Valley of Swat. The river of the same name runs through it. In ancient texts, the Swat River is called Suvastu, meaning “good dwelling place,” perhaps indicating that the land by the river was a pleasant place to live. The region drained by the Swat is referred to in later Sanskrit texts as Uddiyana, or “garden,” reaffirming the fertile and agreeable nature of the land.
In the fertile soil of Swat, more than flowers and crops has grown: On land nestled between peaks that thrust higher than 5500 meters (18,000′), a rich artisanal tradition has flourished that reflects the cultural intermingling that has taken place there. Among the varied artistic traditions of the Islamic world, the art of the Vale of Swat is unique.
Two stone carvings, separated in time by more than 1500 years, epitomize this intermingling. One is from Panr, an excavated site in Lower Swat that was inhabited between the first and fifth centuries of our era (Fig. 1). The other appears on a headstone found a few dozen kilometers away in the town of Mingora (Fig. 2).
The shape of the Panr relief suggests that it is an architectural fragment, namely part of a stupa, a Buddhist monument. Buddhism reached Swat from India in roughly the third century BC, and endured until the 13th century—that is, even after the coming of Muslim rule.
The Panr relief is adorned with a spray of acanthus leaves, not unlike the leaves found on Hellenistic columns; to these leaves three pomegranates are attached. While pomegranates grow in Lower Swat, acanthus does not. Its use here as a decorative motif demonstrates the Vale’s contact with the Hellenistic world, including its settlements in Central Asia. (SeeAramco World, May-June 1994.)
In fact, Alexander the Great entered Lower Swat in 327 BC, crossed the Indus River and took the city of Taxila the following year. Though he never consolidated his power in Swat, the region experienced waves of Hellenistic influence. In effect, the Panr relief is a splendid visual reminder that, in antiquity, Lower Swat, while acknowledging Buddhism, had contact with the Greek and Roman world.
The Mingora tombstone, probably carved early this century, reminds us, on the other hand, that Swat has been part of the Islamic world since the Middle Ages. Yet the stone’s decorative elements strongly recall the Panr relief: A similar design fills a nearly identical space. The leafy spray, now reduced nearly to abstraction, nevertheless features the same symmetrical alignment and composition. And beneath the leafy spray there is, as in the Panr relief, a rectangular base filled with floral patterns that repeat horizontally.
This comparison hints at the wealth of continuities in the unique aesthetic traditions of Swat. Today, it is in woodcarvings and textiles—done by men and women respectively—that one can see most clearly the transcendence of time by the strength of artistic tradition.
“The Carpenter Prince,” a folk tale from Swat related by 60-year-old Fazial Jamil in the village of Pagurai and recorded by Inayat-Ur-Rahman, highlights the traditional social role of the wood-carver. The story tells of a king of Swat whose first three sons wish, respectively, for the throne, precious gems, and land. The fourth son wishes only to learn a useful trade, and chooses carpentry. His wish so displeases the king that he exiles the young prince. In time, however, the king and his family are forced to flee the kingdom. In their penniless wanderings, they come upon a grand, fabulously carved house of wood whose owner proves to be the exiled youngest son. The king, amazed, admits that it is never a waste of time to learn a useful trade.
It is still possible, although increasingly rare, to see the sort of wooden house that could amaze a king. I have been visiting Swat since 1983 to research the art of the region, and my travels have taken me to many a remote village. In Lower Durush Khela, in Lower Swat, stands the intricately carved house of Ghulam Mohammad Bar Plao. It was built between 80 and 100 years ago as a hujrah, the traditional place where Swati men meet and socialize, and was later converted into a family residence. The carving around the entrance is exceptional (Fig. 3). The door is framed by crisp flowers inserted into diamond patterns. Lacy tracery in the panel above the door celebrates the repetition of geometrically inspired forms. The inner door frames revert to natural forms; rosettes are scattered amid grape leaves seen both in profile (Fig. 4) and in full view (Fig. 5). The entrance leads to the interior courtyard whose porch still contains some of the hujrah’s massive old pillars, featuring decorated scroll capitals and bases decked with acanthus leaves.
Throughout Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province, or NWFP, an elaborately carved wooden house was a very prestigious possession, but today such houses have become rare. An echo of that pride can be seen in a Nuristani village called Shakhnan Deh, in Chitral District. Here a house of cedar was built in 1989 to replicate the old designs and the skilled workmanship of yesteryear (Fig. 6). The second story of the exterior exhibits an assortment of patterns from the carver’s traditional stock: interlooping coils, rayed circles, chevrons, squares and zigzags. Their placement around windows and doors and between floors is neat and orderly, beautifying as it emphasizes the architectural and functional divisions of the house.
In Swat, carving is traditionally applied to furnishings as well. In a society that assigns seating positions by rank, it is easy to see that a low, plain stool may be occupied by a person of lower status, while a chair such as the one now on display in the Peshawar Museum (Fig. 11) might belong to an important person: An intricately and profusely carved backrest fairly trumpets status. The chair also concisely exemplifies the aesthetics that govern the selection and juxtaposition of Swati motifs: Curvilinear natural forms combine with rigidly repeated geometric forms, each respecting the other’s boundaries.
Swati wooden mosques—of which only a handful remain—exhibit the same patterns and aesthetics as wooden homes, but on a grander scale. Across the street from the house of Ghulam Mohammad Bar Plao there still stands a wooden mosque that residents say was built about 150 years ago. Like most of the region’s mosques (called jumat in Pashtu), the prayer hall is entered through a richly carved portal. An inner courtyard contains, on one side, the place for obligatory ablutions and, on the other, a fully enclosed prayer hall used during the winter. Access to this winter prayer hall is through a door adorned with floral and leafy patterns contained within five concentric frames (Fig. 9).
Inside stands a minbar, or pulpit, which exemplifies the finest in Swati craftsmanship (Fig. 10). The sides display an orderly progression of oak, palmette, creeper and vine-leaf patterns descending the steps, and these are bordered by running geometric shapes below and vegetal creepers on the sides. The whole is a harmonious blend of fantasy and reality.
Off the winter prayer hall is an open verandah where, during the warmer months, congregants may socialize or read the Qur’an. This verandah boasts rows of richly carved pillars, made more impressive by the breadth and design of the spreading, scrolled capitals. Unique to this part of the world, these wide capitals recreate the mood of a tranquil forest. Each pillar becomes a tree, the carvings on it become vines, creepers and leaves that grow around and from the trunk (Fig. 8) and the rolling capital becomes the protective branches that give symbolic shade.
The exuberant artisanship of the Vale’s master carvers can perhaps be best appreciated in the Grand Mosque of Kalam in Upper Swat, about 160 kilometers (100 miles) north of Mingora in Lower Swat. Here, every available wooden space on the facade received the carver’s attention. He played with patterns by placing florals here, geometric forms there, and by interspersing all with abstract repetitions.
Traditionally, the wood carvers of Swat have used patterns handed down from father to son. A carver to the east of Swat in the Darel Valley displays his “pattern book”—his repertoire of designs—for all to see on the second story of his own house (Fig. 7). What better way to attract clients and adorn one’s own castle?
Similarly, Swati embroidery patterns are handed down from mother to daughter. In the village of Shalgram, a young woman, Bakht Jehan, told me how her mother stitched samples to give her a record of the family’s treasury of patterns. She carefully unfolded several pieces of cloth and, with great pride, showed me her inheritance (Fig. 12). Traditionally, each Swati woman fills her home with her signature—her stitchery.
In Shalpin in Lower Swat, I was ushered into the protective enclosure of the women’s quarters of a large house. Pantomime and much giggling were our means of communication, and we shared boiled eggs, spiced lamb patties, roti flatbread, onions and tomatoes. Then the embroideries appeared: All about the room the ladies spread chaddars,or wedding shawls; traditional kameez, or shirts; shahvars, loose trousers; dupattas, light scarves; tablecloths; bread covers; bedcovers; pillow cases; and fire fans (Fig. 13). All blazed with crimsons, scarlets, fuchsias, mustards and ochres that burst from the traditional Swati black backgrounds.
In Swat, the embroidery is called bagh, or “flower garden”. Elsewhere in Pakistan it is called phulkari, an Urdu word derived from phul, meaning “flower”—and Swati decorated textiles do indeed resemble exquisite, stylized flower gardens. Although phulkari, like woodcarving, reveals some foreign influences in the patterns, the style ultimately expresses a local aesthetic. Either the cloth is packed with ornamentation, or the space is stabilized by a center medallion and decorated with borders. In textiles as in wood, designs are predominantly geometric and floral, repeated in an orderly fashion.
Indeed, the folk arts of Swat delight in orderly, grid-like alignment. In that sense, Swati woodcarvings and textiles show predictable composition, for the desire to avoid imbalance and haphazardly composed designs puts a premium on symmetrical placement of patterns and rows of patterns. Swati patterns are dense, tightly constructed, breaking up the surface plane as no other Pakistani folk tradition does. Placement, spacing and motifs are what make the Swati artistic tradition unique.
For example, a chaddar now in the collection of Lok Virsa, the National Institute of Folk and Traditional Heritage in Islamabad, has stitchery so dense that it completely covers the red cotton ground cloth. The pattern is composed of diamonds set in larger diamonds, stitched in white, rust, and gold silk thread. The broad anchals, or borders, feature cross-hatching and diamond designs that subtly reverse the color scheme.
The fire fan traditionally used in cooking contains the stylized phul characteristic of Swati embroidery (Fig. 13), with a large central “flower” surrounded by smaller ones. The juxtaposition of intense colors and bold simplified floral forms make this functional object exceptionally attractive.
It was in the Hazara village of Haripur, in the NWFP on the eastern side of the Indus River, where many of the people fled Swat during the Pathan invasion in the 15th century, that I had the good fortune to interview a group of women at the local Phulkari Center. Here, the language is no longer the Pashtu of Swat but Hindko, related to Punjabi. The women meet at the center regularly to do needlework that earns extra income for their families; their gatherings also allow them to learn both from a teacher and from each other.
Shamim Ahtar pointed out that the embroidery is usually accomplished from the reverse. Using silk thread, she starts by outlining the designs with one running stitch, then fills in the outline with another. The characteristic phulkari stitch of closely placed, parallel threads that results resembles a satin stitch. Since all the threads must be counted to make the outline of the design, the work, says Ahtar, is best accomplished in daylight.
Mulberry trees grow in both Swat and Hazara, and silk thread is washed and dyed in the cities of the NWFP. Nowadays cheaper synthetic thread and chemical dyes are used too. Formerly, the back-cloth might be naturally dyed to a bright mustard color with pomegranate peel.
Shamim Ahtar says that the designs she uses are all old, catalogued and handed down for generations in the Hazara region. Small patterns, floral or geometric, are reserved for borders. Special items such as chaddars, bedcovers and tablecloths can feature one large design in the center. But there is no strict morphology; a design featured in the center of one item can be reduced and relocated to the border of another. The eye and the brain are involved, says Shamim Ahtar, and that involvement compensates for the small amount of extra income she receives for the work.
Some of the aesthetics of contemporary Swati woodcarvings and textiles appear, albeit in rudimentary forms, in Swati pottery shards that date from as early as the second millennium BC through the early centuries of our era. The similarities are general ones, pertaining to aesthetic choices in placement, spacing and motifs, but they express the tenacity of tradition in the region. Here are found similar drives to fashion orderly, framed designs of naturalistic and geometric motifs, using all available space within the frame and rendering densely packed patterns in balanced, symmetrical or aligned arrangements.
The motif of the triple pipal leaf is an example. The pipal tree (Ficus religiosa) is indigenous to the sub-Himalayan regions, and in ancient times probably grew abundantly in the NWFP, including Swat, although today it is uncommon. Nonetheless, the leaf appears on a contemporary Swati kameez (Fig. 14) in a form quite like the design on a pottery shard from Bir Kot Ghundai in Swat that dates to roughly 1700 BC (Fig. 15), as well as on a relief, now in the Peshawar Museum, that likely decorated a stupa sometime between the first and third centuries after Christ (Fig. 16).
In woodcarving, the pull of tradition is no less strong. Contemporary patterns and their arrangements have much in common with those found in stone carvings produced during the centuries around the beginning of our era. Moreover, stone-carved reliefs from Swat and the NWFP—the region which was called Gandhara in antiquity—often depict furnishings, gateways and architectural elements whose originals were probably carved in wood, and thus provide a durable set of references for an otherwise impermanent art.
The wooden mosque of Timaragarh, in the Dir District just west of Swat, displays this well. The town is reached by a busy, two-lane road that winds out of the chaotic sprawl of Peshawar and past fields of wildflowers, sugar cane and corn amid rolling hills. Bikes, trucks, camels, horses, donkeys and vintage taxis all clog the pavement.
The present mosque is not more than a century old, but it is not the first wooden mosque on this site, and older plaques and decorated panels were reused in its construction. The plan of this mosque follows the general outline of Swati mosques. A winter prayer hall with its main verandah lies on the east side and an extended side verandah on the north. There is another verandah for ablutions, and a central courtyard.
At the main entrance, graceful pillars with cusped arches define the main verandah (Fig. 17), and echoes of the past abound. The tulip designs on the bases and capitals of other verandah pillars recall the motif on a Gandharan sculpture (Fig. 19) that was probably meant to represent a wooden dais. The layered petals curl around the central nodule in both the old Gandharan tulip pattern and the 19th-century one, although more than 1500 years separate them. On the Gandharan sculpture, a row of acanthus leaves appears carved above the tulips, not unlike those above the pillar capitals at the mosque’s entrance, and both the ancient and the modern acanthus leaves fan to either side, and their tops fold over.
There is continuity not only of design but also of structural application: The pattern at the top and bottom of the fluted, left-hand entrance pillar is derived from the lotus plant. Some 1800 years before these pillars were carved, another pillar was carved on a Swat relief; it shows a similar floral series. The relief showing the earlier pillar is now in Rome’s Oriental Museum (Fig. 18).
In the Timaragarh mosque’s ablution verandah, entire pillar shafts are covered with an undulating pattern representing arhizome. Within each loop is a multi-petalled flower, and outside the loops sprout budding forms. The same pattern is found on the upper and lower borders of a Swati storage chest, and is also prefigured in other Gandharan stonework probably made in imitation of woodwork.
This mosque binds the present to the past. It incorporates artistic influences not only from antiquity and the environment, but also from Mughal art: The cusped arcades of the main verandah show a style widely used during the late Mughal period. The geometric designs, worked like lace into panels around the entrance to family tombs (Fig. 20), also reflect the inventiveness of the Mughal architectural tradition.
These days, it is only a handful of practitioners who keep the unique arts of Swat alive in the towns and villages. Wood carvers, faced both with the preference for concrete buildings and with shortages of wood in the heavily logged mountains, find few patrons; women embroider primarily for bridal trousseaus, and for the market only if the family faces financial hardship.
Lok Virsa, the National Institute of Folk and Traditional Heritage, was created by the government of Pakistan in 1974 to promote preservation of the national folk heritage. It holds the annual Lok Virsa Mela, a fair which draws craftspeople from throughout the region. There, once again, the legendary Swati woodcarver practices his art and the brilliant hues of the Swati embroiderer take form, living reminders that a tenacious art tradition continues to survive in this remote valley.
This article appeared on pages 8-15 of the January/February 1997 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.
Editor’s Note: As of 2010, the Province of NWFP in Pakistan has been renamed to Khyber–Pakhtunkhwa.