Uḍḍiyāna: legends and history

Uḍḍiyāna is mostly known as the legendary homeland of Padmasambhava, the great teacher who, summoned to Tibet by the king Trisong Detsen in the mid-eight century CE, introduced there an esoteric form of Buddhism – an inextricable melding of magic and mysticism – which is thought to be at the roots of Vajrayāna. Much less is known about Uḍḍiyāna as a historical region, which archaeology has long since identified with an area centred on modern-day Swat (north-western Pakistan). Excavations and surveys revealed here an astonishing wealth of Buddhist remains and civil settlements that to a large extent match the ancient topography of Uḍḍiyāna as described in Indian, Greek, Chinese and Tibetan sources.

Swat/Uḍḍiyāna across time

The very name Uḍḍiyāna (garden) reflects the refreshing beauty and mildness of this region, which actually looks like a garden to the traveller entering it from the severe mountains of the Himalayan range or the sunny expanses of the Peshawar plain. The favourable geographical position with relation to ancient communication routes between India and Central Asia and a long-lasting fame as one of the most sacred lands of Buddhism – still intact centuries after the Islamization of the country – ensured to Uḍḍiyāna economic and cultural prosperity, at least until the first decades of the sixth century CE. The words of the Chinese pilgrim Songyun, who visited the country in 520 CE, convey to us a vivid picture of Uḍḍiyāna: the pleasant weather, the abundance of crops, the sound of the bells that in the evening clang from the many Buddhist monasteries, the colours of the flowers that, everywhere and in every season, the land produces and people offer to the Buddha. Much different, one century later, are the words of another famous Chinese pilgrim, Xuanzang. He describes scarce crops, ruined monasteries, and a small population of monks who, incapable of understanding the true meaning of the doctrine, seem to be instead committed to magic and charms.

A dramatic change is also witnessed in Swat by the archaeological landscape of the second half of the first millennium CE. Research brought to light ample evidence of a general decay, possibly connected to some natural catastrophe (floods and earthquakes are not a rare occurrence in the region). At that time both Buddhist sacred areas and urban settlements show signs of decline, ill repair or even definitive abandonment.

Contrasting evidence

If the statement of Xuanzang about the “cultural” decay of the Uḍḍiyāna monks may sound like indirect evidence of a different form of Buddhism that we can dare label proto-Vajrayāna, more difficult to understand is how the famous doctrinal centre we know from Tibetan tradition could grow amidst the gloomy ruins of the past. Moreover, if we may give any credit to the legends about Padmasambhava and his homeland, we have to assume that Padmasambhava himself was the epigone, either real or fictitious, of a chain of anonymous masters who cultivated in Uḍḍiyāna, along with new doctrinal orientations, a related corpus of ritual practices and visual imagery. Thus if Uḍḍiyāna was so influential in the spreading of Buddhism across the Himalayan regions, it must have also been influential in the profuse artistic and cultural blossoms that grew out of this.

Can we find any empirical evidence of this in the seemingly conflicting archaeological records? This was the problem tackled by the FWF project “The cultural history of Uddiyana 4th to 8th century CE”.

Archaeology in Swat: an overview

From an archaeological point of view, Swat is one of the best-known regions of the Indian subcontinent. Systematic archaeological investigations have been carried out since 1956 by the Italian Archaeological Mission in Pakistan (IAMP) of the IsIAO (Italian Institute for Africa and the Orient, formerly IsMEO, Italian Institute for Middle and Far East) in close collaboration with the Department of Archaeology and Museums, Govt. of Pakistan. A constant and capillary activity of archaeological surveys and excavations is also being carried out by teams from the Department of Archaeology of Pakistan and the University of Peshawar.

Field research of the IAMP started in Swat from the identification of significant places of the ancient topography, in particular urban and Buddhist settlements mentioned in Indian, Greek, Chinese and Tibetan literary sources, with the implicit input to further developments that, by concentric circles, might lead to a more capillary knowledge. Among excavated sites, mention must be made of the Buddhist centres of Butkara I, the main Buddhist settlement of the region, identified by Tucci (1978: 60-61) as the splendid Talo/Tolo visited by Songyun and the Dhumatʻala of the Tibetan pilgrim O rgyan pa (Id.: 1971: 369 ff., 396 ff., 399), Saidu Sharif I, Panr I and Gumbat, and of the urban sites of Aligrama, Udegram (Ora/Oḍi in Greek and Indian sources), and Barikot (Bīr-koṭ-ghwaṇḍai; Bazira/Vajīrasthāna in Greek and Indian sources). Further, surveys contributed penetrating glimpses into distinctive aspects of the cultural history of Swat, as for instance a time-honoured rock art tradition spanning from the proto-historic to the late-historic period and encompassing diverse belief systems (pre- and non-Buddhist as well as Buddhist). A rich analytical bibliography was produced, which is now available in the form of a dedicated bibliographic database.

Towards a new reading of the sources

The contradictory aspects of the cultural history of late-antique Uḍḍiyāna challenge our interpretative models, for they make us deal with non-linear processes that involve not only religion and art, but also a much broader social, cultural and economic domain. With the aim of finding possible neglected keys to understanding the issue, the project analyzed published and unpublished documentary sources, mainly relating to the collection of archaeological data from the sites excavated and surveyed by the IAMP, in comparison with visual and literary sources.

Three points in particular were put under focus: 1) changes and continuity during the rule of foreign dynasties of nomadic origin (the Huns, fourth to sixth century CE, and the Turki Shahis, seventh to eighth century CE), often described (especially the Huns) as adverse to Buddhism; 2) the features and rank of Uḍḍiyāna Buddhism in this period; 3) the real cultural weight and geographic range of aboriginal beliefs and non-written traditions, and their interaction with Buddhism.

Tangible clues that challenged cultural stagnation were highlighted, even within the apparently decayed framework. Particularly relevant to this aspect were the connections established between outstanding art historical evidence and the Hunnish patronage (Filigenzi 2010a); the completion of the systematic analysis of nearly two hundred Buddhist rock sculptures dating back to the seventh to eighth century CE (resulting in a monograph financed by the FWF; Filigenzi in press), which attest to the robustness of Buddhist doctrinal and visual culture in spite of unfavourable conditions; a preliminary delineation of the distinctive features of the local cultural substratum, and the recognition of a factual interaction between the latter and Buddhism in specific forms of Buddhist art, doctrine and practice (Filigenzi forthcoming a).

Comparison with Afghan archaeological contexts showed close affinity between late-antique Afghanistan and Swat in terms of visual and religious culture (Filigenzi 2010a, 2013). This raised the possibility that – bearing in mind the earlier artistic and architectural patterns, based on the use of stone – one fails to recognize in Swat, in the objectively scanty and controversial archaeological record, a transition to new models and media coming from Afghanistan and Central Asia, which are based instead on the use of stucco, clay and wood. In Swat, however, the real magnitude and aesthetic dimension of the Buddhist monasteries of the late antique period cannot be investigated without considering that these new trends might be poorly witnessed by minor (and ephemeral) additions to pre-existing monuments in stone. Hence, we have to avoid reductionist interpretative models, which link cheaper building and decorative materials with the idea of cultural regression.

Particularly enlightening in this regard are the Buddhist rock sculptures. They long remained almost ignored or underestimated, and in any case regarded as having little artistic value and vague theoretical foundations, until analytical study highlighted how, with their refined aesthetics and innovative iconographic character, they can be considered the forerunners of themes which blossomed later in Himalayan art. Moreover, the seventh to eighth century is also the chronological frame of another sophisticated artistic production, closely related to the rock sculpture: the bronze sculpture from the Swat/Gilgit region. When analyzed together, these two artistic phenomena outline a different picture of late-antique Swat, which starts convincingly matching the legendary Uḍḍiyāna.

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