Tracing the roots of Buddhism in Chitral—1

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 Lotkho en-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 Palola S’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 in Barenis, 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 Aurel Stein, 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 engraved on 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 Buddhist encounter 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?

To be continued…

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

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