Swat's Buddhist Past: Restoring The Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara Of Jahanabad

Swat's Buddhist Past: Restoring The Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara Of Jahanabad
Avalokiteshvara is the Bodhisattva of compassion, who is also known by his Sanskrit name Padmapani: the lotus bearer. He is recognised by every sect of Buddhism as an important figure whose task is to protect this world after Gautama Buddha’s departure (mahaparinirvana) and until the arrival of Bodhisattva Maitreya, who is the future Buddha of this world, presently residing in the Tushita heaven. Avalokiteshvara is depicted in both male and female forms. This is a story of the image of Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara that was discovered in the Jahanabad village in Swat. I saw this image of Avalokiteshvara for the first time in Swat Museum in 2018 during my first archaeological visit to Swat; and, later on, I visited the place where it was originally located.

Gandharan depiction of Avalokitesvara

Located in the Charbagh tehsil of District Swat, Jahanabad (present-day Shakhurai) is a little archaeological paradise that shows many remains of the ancient past. The Jahanabad archaeological complex includes carvings, inscriptions and structural remains the antiquity of which dates back to the first millennium AD. The majority of these sites belong to the Buddhist tradition, including a stupa, three inscriptions and reliefs – and for this reason, it was called “Jahanabad Buddhist Complex” by Professor Luca Maria Olivieri (Director of the Italian Archaeological Mission, who has been working on the archaeology of Swat since the 1980s). He identified this complex as “the temple of Indrabhuti” mentioned in the travelogue of a Tibetan monk Orgyanpa, who visited Uddiyana in the 13th century AD.

Restoration of the carving of Avalokiteshvara
(Image Credit: Luca Maria Olivieri, Italian Archaeological Mission in Swat)

Jahanabad is known for huge reliefs and is home to the world’s second-biggest image of Buddha, which has become the symbol of the identity of Swat and Pakistan. Apart from the colossal figure of Buddha, popularly called the Jahanabad Buddha, two rock boulders carved with images of Buddha and Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara were also discovered from Jahanabad, that are nowadays displayed in the lawn of the Swat Museum, making an open-air exhibition of the museum. On one boulder, the image of Gautama Buddha seated on a lion throne with Bodhisattvas Avalokiteshvara and Vajrapani is carved, whereas, on the other boulder, Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara is shown. The Jahanabad reliefs are one of the finest specimens of Buddhist art so far found in Pakistan.

The Jahanabad relief of Avalokiteshvara depicts a pensive Padmapani seated on a lotiform throne with one leg pendant and a full-blown lotus over the right shoulder and wearing elaborate jewelry, knotted belt and a figurative crown. The lotus (padma) and a miniature Amitabha Buddha are the identifiers of Padmapani, and I believe that the crown of Jahanabad Avalokiteshvara shows the figure of Amitabha. Professor Luca described it as a part of the “Jahanabad Buddhist Complex” and dates it to the 7th century AD.

Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara of Jahanabad (Image Credit: Luca Maria Olivieri, Italian Archaeological Mission in Swat)

The rock boulder bearing the carving of Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara or Padmapani was broken apart with explosives by a local resident in early 2009, when the Taliban were in power in Swat, almost two years after the destruction of the famous Jahanabad Buddha by militants. On 04 April 2010, Dr. Rafiullah Khan visited the place and found fragments of the relief scattered near Jahanabad Buddha. Later on, he reported it in a weekly paper, urging for its immediate restoration and preservation. According to a press release, Italian archaeologists recovered its fragments in 2015. Later on, in 2018, the broken parts of the relief were assembled and restored and then put on permanent exhibition at the Swat Museum.

This work was completed with the help of the Uddiyana Cultural Travel Association and Faizur Rehman, the Curator of Swat Museum, by Fabio Colombo, Giuseppe Salemi and the restorers with the Italian Archaeological Mission (Swat), i.e. the late Akhtar Munir, Ali Khan, Shafiq Ahmad and Naik Muhammad. The restoration and preservation of the image of Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara-Padmapani by the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa archaeology department and the Italian Archaeological Mission has been widely acknowledged at the local and international levels.

The Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara of Jahanabad is an important chapter of the history of Swat and Pakistan. Conserving this rich heritage should be a top priority of the authorities.