Grand Mosque of Seo Valley

Grand Mosque of Seo Valley
The Indus-Kohistan region in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province is distinguished for its distinctive culture, society, history and heritage. In every valley, there are located some historic structures. Amongst these, the wooden mosques are quite prominent – and they are found in every valley in Indus-Kohistan. All of these mosques are noted for intricate woodwork. The engravings in these mosques reflect the skill and mastery of Kohistanis over the art of wood carvings.

Pakistani, German and Italian scholars surveyed the Indus-Kohistan region and documented the historic mosques. Some of the prominent mosques are located in the valleys of Jalkot, Pattan, Koli, Dubair, Kandia, Pattan, Sazin, Seo etc. The majority of the mosques in these valleys have either rebuilt or renovated now. Leading Pakistani archaeologist Professor Ahmad Hassan Dani visited and surveyed some of the valleys in Indus-Kohistan. Based on his survey he wrote the book  Islamic Architecture: The Wooden Style of Northern Pakistan which was a seminal work in the field of Islamic Architecture. In this book, he discusses the wooden mosques of the valleys namely Dubair, Pattan, Kandia, Jalkot and Seo, not to mention various other valleys in Swat, Dir, Chitral, Diamer, Gilgit, Hunza, Skardu, Shikgar and Khaplu.

Decorative pillars in the main prayer chamber of Seo mosque

Professor Ahmad Hasan Dani could not visit the Sazin and Harban valleys in Indus-Kohistan, which were probably inaccessible at the time of his survey in the area – or there might have been other reasons, as he was also busy documenting rock art sites in the Diamer district in Gilgit-Baltistan. Due to his hectic schedule for the survey, he could not have visited the Sazin valley.

However, the Sazin valley was duly visited and surveyed by German scholars under the supervision of eminent anthropologist Karl Jettmar. Under his supervision, German scholars also studied and documented the historic mosque of Sazin. Both Karl Jettmar and Ahmad Hassan Dani visited many heritage sites in the valleys of the Indus-Kohistan and Diamer districts. They laid the foundation of archaeological and ethnological studies in Northern Pakistan. Under this Pakistani-German archaeological collaboration, they discovered many rock art sites and other heritage sites, thus paving the way for later scholars to carry forward their work.

Depiction of a neklace on a pillar in Seo mosque

Following the footprints of Professor Ahmad Hasan Dani, I visited several valleys of Indus-Kohistan and neighbouring valleys of Darel and Tangir in the Diamer district.

It was in 2001 when I first made brief visits to Sazin and Harban valleys. Later I revisited the valleys in 2009 and 2019 to conduct interviews for my book on the cultural heritage along the Silk Route in Pakistan. Both valleys are famous for their distinctive culture and history, which I will discuss in separate articles.

Decorative pillars with stylized voluted bracket capitals

I first visited Seo valley in 2002 and later in 2019.

Seo village is located about 8 km north of Kamila town in Indus-Kohistan. Like other valleys of Indus-Kohistan, Seo is well known for its magnificent Jami mosque (Jumat). Amongst all the historic mosques in Indus-Kohistan, the Jumat of Seo valley is the most prominent and imposing religious structure. According to Ahmad Hassan Dani, the Seo mosque exemplifies a typical Indus-Kohistan style – one which also spread to neighbouring valleys of Darel and Tangir and even in Thor valley in Diamer district.

Seo mosque is perched atop the hill from where one can have an impressive view of Seo village and the River Indus. The village is located on the left bank of the River Indus. Rock-cut stones, beams and pillars are used to construct the mosque.

Stylized voluted bracket capitals in Seo mosque

One enters through the southern entrance into a spacious verandah of the mosque. The flat roof of the L-shaped verandah of the mosque rests on highly carved pillars. There are three pillars at the main entrance of the mosque. On the right is found an octagonal pillar with S-shaped motif. It is not entirely engraved with S motif. Only the shaft of the pillar is engraved with an S-shaped sign. This pillar is also located close to the ablution place and oriented to east and west, where there is also located a hujra (guest house) that was used to host people in the past. The pillar has three voluted bracket capitals. The square central pillar has rectangular slits with double stylized voluted brackets. This pillar is oriented south to north. The pillar on the left is square and oriented to east and west. This pillar has double highly stylized voluted brackets. Between the central and the left pillar is found the main entrance door which opens to the covered verandah. The flat roof of the covered verandah rests on 23 pillars. The decorated parapet of the mosque continues from the south to a westward orientation. Out of 23 pillars, about ten square pillars have rectangular slits. All these pillars with rectangular slits also carry stylized voluted brackets.

Stylized sun motif on a pillar in Seo mosque

Nowhere else in Indus-Kohistan – now divided into districts-Lower Kohistan and Upper Kohistan – are seen such ornately carved pillars. Floral and geometric patterns are fabulously carved on the pillars of the mosque.

Even figural designs which are not commonly associated with the faith of the followers are a peculiarity of this mosque. These were made when the people were converted to Islam by the mystics from Swat and Shangla. According to Syed Nawaz Shah of Seo, three persons from Swat, Mian Baqi Baba (Khwazakhela), Akhun Salak Baba (Kabalgram) and Mian Baba converted people of Seo to Islam around 1750 AD. Soon after the conversion to Islam,  people of Seo started to build a mosque in the village but they also depicted their ancient symbols on the pillars of the mosque. It is said that they brought heavy wooden logs from the forest which was located up the valley.  And it was difficult to transport these down to the village – so it took several years to construct the mosque. Skilled craftsmen carved the wooden pillars of the mosque.

A great variety of floral and geometric motifs are seen on the pillars of the mosque. Stylized sun motifs are engraved on pillars in both the verandah and main prayer chamber of the mosque. Jewellery depictions particularly ear ornaments and necklaces are also engraved on the pillars of the verandah. A fish scale pattern is seen on some of the pillars too. On some of the pillars, riders and horses were engraved. Even a warrior holding a sword is depicted on a pillar in the verandah of the mosque. On some other pillars, birds were also engraved. All these pillars which depict figural designs are found in the verandah of the mosque.

Professor Ahmad Hasan Dani believed that figural depictions appear as decorative motifs and establish a cultural link with local earlier rock carvings in the area. Local artists were inspired to depict the same motifs on the pillars of the mosque as they observed on the boulders and cliffs along the Silk Road. The majority of the motifs and symbols on the pillars of the mosque are from the pre-Islamic era and represent the ancient cosmology of the populace of Indus-Kohistan in general and Seo valley in particular.

The Kalima Tayyiba is also engraved in one of the pillars in the verandah. Two pillars in verandah depict spouted vases.

The most distinctive features of the pillars in the verandah of the mosque are the stylized double voluted capital – volutes which are not seen elsewhere in the Seo valley. While one finds stylized voluted bracket capitals in other valleys in Indus-Kohistan and even in Thor valley in the Diamer district,  they are not as impressive as those in the Seo mosque. Both square and octagonal pillars are found in the verandah of the mosque. The square pillars are decorated with a variety of floral and geometric designs. Some square pillars have rectangular slits. I have seen similar rectangular slits in the mosques in Darel and Tangir valley in the Diamer district. The most interesting and impressive rectangular slits accompanied by floral scrolls are seen on the pillars of the mosques of Birkot in Somigal and Manikyala Bala in  Darel valley. I also noticed similar vertical slits on pillars in the Phuguch mosque in Darel valley which was rebuilt in 2019.

The most noticeable pillar in the Seo mosque is located at the southern entrance of the mosque close to the ablution area. The whole pillar is decorated with S-motifs. Each face of the pillar carries a chain of S-motifs.  This S-motif is peculiar to the mosque of Seo. I have not seen such a motif elsewhere in Indus-Kohistan. However, Peter Alford Andrews, who conducted fieldwork in Sazin valley under the supervision of eminent German anthropologist Karl Jettmar, reported some wooden coffins with S-shaped motifs. The same was also discussed in the book Sazin: A Fortified Village in Indus Kohistan coauthored by Peter Alford Andrews and Karl Jettmar. When I visited the Sazin valley in 2002, 2009 and later in 2019, I could not find such wooden coffins but I was told by local people that there existed such wooden coffins bearing S-shaped signs before 2000. But unfortunately, all have now disappeared.

According to Malik Shah Jahan Seglvi, a notable of Seo village, the covered verandah of the mosque was used in summer. It is still used in summer whereas the main prayer hall is mostly used in the winter. There is also a wooden mihrab in the covered verandah.

One enters through an ornately carved door from the verandah into the main prayer chamber of the mosque. The flat roof, which is now completely renovated, rests on 16 square and octagonal pillars. The number of voluted bracket capitals of pillars varies from two to four. The mihrab which rises from the thickness of the wall is in the western wall of the mosque. The mosque was renovated in 2018.

To the south of the mosque is located a graveyard where one finds old and new wooden coffins. Old wooden coffins which are mostly decorative are in a deplorable condition, as the wooden planks of the majority of grave coffins are broken. All the old grave coffins are ornately carved and carry both floral and geometric designs. Decorative wooden coffins are distributed in all the valleys of Indus Kohistan. But the majority of the decorative grave coffins have now disappeared from these valleys. There is also a series of shops to the east of the mosque from where the villagers purchase items of daily use.

The author is an anthropologist. He may be contacted at zulfi04@hotmail. com. Excerpts have been taken from the author’s forthcoming book “Cultural Heritage Along the Silk Road in Pakistan.” All photos by the author

The author is an anthropologist. He tweets at: @Kalhorozulfiqar