Tracing the roots of Buddhism in Chitral

8 Mar, 2018

.. by A. M. Khan

Time can’t keep its mark on a page of history unless it comes about worthwhile. With the course time turn and episodes of history are remembered or repeated and forgotten. The past history, culture and heritage of Chitral has had the same fate, and whatever now available are mostly the travelogues—personal accounts of travelers, and foreign missions’ visit reports on different occasions. These have now left to be the source of research on Chitral. The verbal history, even reminisced, is said to be least objective in terms of lacking modern cross-referencing paradigm. The available written data on Chitral, however, is helpful, seemingly meticulous observation and narration of every moment which passed before the writer.

Having been ‘a sea of mountains’ Chitral has been a locus of historically important cultures and experiences of people, but unrecorded! It was the dearth of educated persons that these peculiar encounters, vestiges of people and cultures were missed. F. E. Younghusband in his book “The Heart of Continent: A Narrative of Travels in Manchuria, Across the Gobi Desert, Through The Himalayas, The Pamirs and Chitral (1884-1894)” notes this predicament that “Chitralis are quite illiterate, and certainly not a dozen in the country can either read or write”. Recounting his experience of staying in Mastuj, he further adds that “for several months the Governor of Mastuj,…had no one by him who could read, and on the few occasions on which he did receive letters, he brought them round to my clerk to read for him”.  This is how there were even ‘not certainly’ dozen people in Chitral who can only either read or write. They may, or may not, even qualify for the definition of literacy currently used in Pakistan.   

Buddhist encounter in Chitral

Unearthing pre-Islamic era and reaching to an objective root of this part of history of Chitral is very difficult now. It is, however, intriguing to read cultural encounters in Chitral. Travelling through Lotkhoen-route (Lot) Owir and village Lone on his way to Mastuj, Algernon Durand in his book notes “the topes, chortens, and sculptured Buddhas scattered about in Chitral…testify to the spread of the gentle faith…and the voice of history…” in the area. Based on this it can now safely be inferred that rock carvings and topes were probably spread out at that time, but vanished from sight as insensitive and lackadaisical time passed.

Many of the travelers, invaders, merchants, pilgrims, and missionaries from different ages and cultures used the famous silk route, and its branches to enter Chitral. Several Afghan and Mongol invasions, and Alexander’s traverse through Chitral, and introducing Greek influence in the area is very famous.

According to Hauptmann, the historic period of early Buddhism started from Baltistan—part of Gilgit Baltistan province, and might had spread to other parts of northern areas and Chitral. According to S. R. Bakshi, Buddhist monk Sung-Yun (had) visited Chitral. In a paper “Pre-Islamic Heritage in the Northern Areas of Pakistan” briefly writing the part of history by the end of 5th century and beginning of 8th century, he records, ‘the political scenery (was) dominated by the dynasty of the PalolaS’ahis… and through there became connected to the domain of the Hephthalites who reigned in the region of Chitral’. It is, however, difficult to correctly specify for how long the reign of Hephthalites continued over Chitral but it may be argued that before 4th century the influence of Buddhism might had continued to be stronger over Chitral.

Illustration of petroglyphs

The Hungarian traveler Karl Eugenvon, as early as 1884, had published rock carvings and inscriptions from Baltistan, he also mentioned of similar representations in Gilgit and Chitral. The surviving rock carvings inBarenis, Charun and Rayeen, thus, correspond to the representations found in the northern areas of Pakistan. The 4th century petroglyph at Charun, according to Directorate of Archaeology and Museums Government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, had been written in Brahmi script—was a second Indian scripture (written from left to right) marks clearly the primacy of Buddhist cultural encounter in Chitral. The “Military Report and Gazetteer on Chitral” on the other hand reads that “In a house in this village (Charun) there is a rough drawing of a temple traced on a rock with a Sanskrit inscription similar to the drawing opposite to Barenis”. This report on Barenis relic, reads, of “Opposite the village (Barenis) is a figure with an inscription in ancient Sanskrit cut upon a rock which is said to mean “the pious gift of Raja Jiva Pala.” This inscription refers, in all probability, to a building of which the figure is a facsimile erected somewhere near. The figure is Buddhistic and is interesting, as helping to show that Buddhism existed in Chitral before Mahomedanism”.  According to the KP Directorate of Archaeology and Museums the rock carvings at Charun is in Brahmi script, and, the Military Report, identifies the rock in Sanskrit.  As the report reads that the rock is ‘in a house’ where the drawing of a temple was carved now it does not exist, but Sir Marc AurelStein, visiting Buddhist rock in Charun in 1906, has written that it was under a roof. The case of Barenis may be the same as well. This report has, however, no details about Rayeen Buddhist rock art work. The KP Directorate of Archaeology and Museums which finds petroglyph at Charun written as “Raji Ji Chanba” and a stupa engravedon the right side.For now, being none to re-search, we tend to rely because it might has been finalized based on expert findings of this institution. Another important aspect of the Military Report reveals an inscription which refers ‘to a building of which the figure is a facsimile’ on Buddhist rocks in Barenis. Where does this building ruin, probably temple, exist now? It “show(s) that Buddhism existed in Chitral before Mohamedanism”, as written in this report, is not so revealing because it has already been argued in detail that Buddhistencounter in Chitral from 3rd to 4th century was in its peak.

A report published in Dawn Newspaper reads, that “The venerations of Buddha and names of different kings (inscribed in rocks) show the climax of Buddhism…, underpins the premise that 4th century petroglyph at Charun, in which the name of the king “Raja Ji Chanba” with a side carving of a Buddhist stupa perhaps indicates the culmination of Buddhism in Chitral!

Now the 4th century (A.D.) Buddhist ‘Sacred Rocks’ located in village Charun, Barenis and Rayeen stand protected under Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Antiquities Act, 2016. These relics as per this act became protected, and damaging the carvings is a crime. Here question arises how these so-called sacred rocks survived without having such laws, and social awareness about the importance of historical relics; and why this specific rock and place was chosen for inscription?

The illustrations in different places reinforce the argument that the influence of Buddhism continued to be strongerfrom 3rd century in Chitral, and reached to its climax in 4th century.  The veneration and names of kings in rock inscriptions, now existing, indicate the period of its primacy. Some hamletsi.e.Buddh—name of a hamlet at village Kosht (renamed later), Xughur and Lot-Ovir, may be (other villages also) exalted places during 4th and later centuries. It is, however, very hard to find out details and artifacts in these and other areas of Chitral.

In the first part of the article, this writer, introducing the concept of “Sacred Rocks” in Buddhism had concluded that how these so-called sacred rocks survived without having such laws—protecting antiquities, and social awareness about the importance of historical relics. It is why specific rock (s) and place was chosen for rock inscription?

Why and how Buddhist rock carvings survived

When this question is posed, how the Buddhist stone carvings survived from far past amidst such an insensitive and uneducated people of Chitral? The most probable answers might be that these rocks were away from human and animal access, safe from floods and any other type of natural disasters and the topic is concluded. But the dominant reason which has kept the Buddhist rock carvings safe is ‘the myth’ of “Sacred Rocks”.

These rocks were certainly sacred for the followers of Buddhists; they visited them and would offer their adorations to them. The locals looking the respect, adoration and exaltation of the Buddhists, continued to believe that these rocks have something which brings such adoration! Inspired from Buddhist pilgrims with the passage of time, locals also believed them to be “Sacred Rocks”.

 When this writer asked, Gul Nayab, he has his house few meters away from carved rock in Charun, told, that we have seen it was paying. ‘By making dough it was being rolled pressing with this rock, and, as given to cows mixed with fodder, happened to be very effective in bringing cows into milk, he said assuredly. An elder-woman in a close hamlet told that many people of nearby areas from time to time visited this place, particularly from Kuragh, to get comfort from any ill-will and discomfort.

It is how when non-locals travelling from long distances came here paid their adorations, would greatly inspire, and turned figment of locals’ imaginations true. This was the process of changing engraved rocks into “Sacred Rocks” in Chitral. It was the dominant reason that the local people instead of destroying and using these rocks for construction, started to protect them with adoration. It is however, important to mention that there are Shrines, not rocks, in Mori-Lasht, Kuragh, Sonoghor and Junali-Koch which local people said to be visiting. The latter shrine is very famous, and a tract of land in Junali-Koch has taken its name “Ziarat” (means Shrine) because of it. (The village ‘Ziarat’ on the start of Lowari pass on Chitral side may have the same reason of taking its name)

Local people of Chitral on different occasions would visit shrines of saintly people in the past, now seen very rarely, not like the shrine-visits and events celebrated in other parts of Pakistan. Magnus Marsden in his book has highlighted this aspect of religious experience of the people of Chitral.

Why the rock at Charun chosen for carving

The Buddhist rock laying in Chitral (may be other rocks also) has probably been chosen for carving due to the following reasons:  First, the very stone was easily accessible for the pilgrims and travelers. It is said, from far past, caravans and cavalcade moving from a nearby route, had, few meters away, there was a famous place of sojourn. Even during state-rule this place continued to be resting place, local elders recounting it, and remember offering “Savrin” (Food items and fodder) to state officials. It was anything which locals offered to eat and drink to non-locals in different places.(According to Prof. Mumtaz Hussain “Savrin” was the transformed version of English word ‘serving’)Secondly, this place of stay was, and is, closer to the river for bringing water for drinking and watering animals.  Thirdly, this rock indicates that it’s a very hard type of rock can’t be broken easily, would not affect from rainfall, and weathering of wind, sun and coldness. Fourth, this rock is located in such a place that is safe from land-sliding, floods and other type of disasters. Due to these apparent reasons this rock has might be chosen for rock carvings.

The Antiquities Act, 2016 passed by the government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa not only preserved and protected the relics of the past, but also evoked to recount the scarce, dispersed and forgotten pages of history. Buddhist religion, according to history, had left great imprints on Chitral from the beginning of 3rd century and reached into its climax in 4th century. Having connected with adjacent states Chitral remained a trading route of Central Asia, Afghanistan, and Northern Areas, and India. Many travelers, pilgrims, and particularly invaders traversed through Chitral from time to time. The relics of Buddhist religion in village Charun, Barenis and Rayeen are traced back to 4th, century indicate its influence and climax in the area. With the passage of time these Buddhist rocks turned out to be “Sacred Rocks” for the locals, and survived for sixteen hundred years till now. These rocks also validate the insight of those who etched on the stones where distant past reverberates so far

References

  1. F. E. (1897).The Heart of a Continent:A Narrative of Travels in Manchuria, Across The Gobi Desert, Through The Himalayas, The Pamirs, And Chitral, I 884-1 894., John Murray, Albemarle Street, London
  2. A. (1900). The Making of a Frontier, Five Years Experiences and Adventures in Gilgit, Hunza, Nagar, Chitral , and Eastern Hindu Kush., John Murray, Albemarle Street. London
  3. Suhail.(May, 2011).Threatened rock carvings of Pakistan., Retrieved from The Dawn Is Online newspaper of Pakistan https://www.dawn.com/news/629659
  4. Military Report and Gazetteer on Chitral, General Staff India. (1928). 2nd, Government of India Press
  5. H. I. (2005). Culture and Customs of Pakistan., Greenwood Publishing Group., Amazon.com
  6. S. R. (1997). Kashmir: History and People., Sarup & Sons., Amazon.com
  7. M. (2006). Living Islam: Muslim Religious Experience in Pakistan’s North-West Frontier., Cambridge University Press

The Writer is M.Phil Research Scholar in the University of Peshawar

2 Comments

  • Zuhaib says:

    It’s good to read something newly produced after patient and analytical research work about past heritage of Chitral. We want to read more from you!

  • shakir says:

    Very informative and educative and research based article. Of course there is dearth of authentic research based study on human civilization in Chitral except folklore that are also skewed and of promotional types of the people who were at the helm of affair at that time. some written data available after 1880 when British officer and other European traveler visited Chitral but that history is also lacking cross referencing. I appreciate A.M Khan and your paper for publishing the valuable piece of information about Chitral and this effort should continue in future.