TRAVEL: BETWEEN THE ROCKS, AN ART PLACE

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It was nearing the end of March, when a group of eight Girls, took a hike in Swat’s Kandak Valley. Four of Them were young women belonging to the Uddiyana Trekkers, exclusively a girls’ group.

A striking landscape, prehistoric sites and the inclusion of four local women made the hike memorable. Men go on hikes and camping trips, but these women have hiked only twice — once last year, and again this March.

Kandak Valley’s rock paintings approximately date back to 3,000 years and reflect humankind’s innate desire to leave behind traces of the past. In my past visits, I had asked my friend Fazal Khaliq about visiting the rock painting sites. He promotes trekking and writes about the valley’s archaeological treasures.

The prehistoric rock paintings in Kandak Valley, Swat are worth the arduous journey

This year, Fazal organised a hike to three of nearly 55 rock art sites in the valley. Since the excursions in the past involved a short drive and a short hike, I assumed the same for this trip.

Fazal outlined the plan: “We will drive to a village and switch to a four-wheel drive to reach the first sites. From there, we will walk to the other two sites, take a shortcut down to the Balokaley monastery and then return to our cars.” It seemed quite simple.

Our destination lay south of Mingora/Saidu Sharif. We endured the main road choked with dust and exhaust, the clutter of shops, restaurants and plazas, and adjacent fields and orchards turned into concrete. But as we turned into Kandak Valley, the clutter fell away; orchards of fruit trees blooming with pink and white blossoms burst into view.

Rock art at Kakai Kandao, Swat, dating back to 1000 BCE and 1200 BCE and are located in Kandak Valley | Photo by Fazal Khaliq
Rock art at Kakai Kandao, Swat, dating back to 1000 BCE and 1200 BCE and are located in Kandak Valley | Photo by Fazal Khaliq

Two hours later we began the next phase of our journey in a small Toyota pickup, which typically hauls people and goods to remote hamlets.

The paintings didn’t offer themselves easily. I still had to wedge myself between the two rocks to admire a scene of an ancient battle. Fazal pointed out a warrior on a horse, one holding a sword aloft, another preparing to shoot an arrow. Absolutely mesmerising.

The vehicle was basic — a cab for the driver and two passengers, a back open to the elements, two wooden planks for seats with no cushioning.

An elderly lady sat up front with the driver. “Apa, you may sit in the front with the lady,” Fazal suggested. I rejected his offer, opting for the back.

We piled in, sharing floor space with a large sack of gurr (jaggery) and two sacks of flour and rice. Some of us sat scrunched on the planks, others stood. Malang Bacha, our guide and caretaker for the first rock painting site, positioned himself on the back running board.

The road looked like a typical mountain trail, wide enough for one vehicle, rocky and rutted, with switchbacks winding uphill.

The journey went smoothly for 10 minutes. The road became rougher when we began climbing. The pickup lurched from side to side to avoid ruts or rocks. It groaned as it laboured uphill, it strained on steep curves. When it hit a deep rut, it bounced violently. I launched nearly four inches up and landed hard back on the plank. We screamed and laughed — both in fun and fear.

When the pickup failed to negotiate a sharp uphill turn, the driver stopped and began to reverse. I looked down at the edge of the road and a drop of a hundred feet. I heard myself scream loudly, “God help us!” My friends roared. I learned later the manoeuvre was how drivers nudge a vehicle up and around a curve.

The high-spirited members of the Uddiyana Trekkers setting out for the day-long trek
The high-spirited members of the Uddiyana Trekkers setting out for the day-long trek

An hour later, we heaved up one last long incline that ended our journey. From there on we would walk, mostly downhill.

We meandered through fields of wildflowers to a small terraced clearing, near the first rock painting site. Four charpoys, with red gao takias awaited us underneath a large pine tree. Below, the valley spread out toward distant peaks, and terraces of wheat and rice stood out against arid areas of rocks in small assemblages of bright green.

At the first site, we saw the ritual killing of an ibex.

The paintings on all three sites were on an overhanging ledge of a large rock. The spaces were tight. It seems as though the artists must have laboured to recreate their stories. Even after more than 3,000 years the paintings retain their red colour, although faded in a few places.

Most of our knowledge of the rock paintings comes from the work of Italian archaeologist Luca Maria Olivieri. According to him, our ancestors depicted agricultural cycles, including ploughing and sowing, and supernatural beings.

I almost didn’t see the last set of paintings as these were on the bottom of a narrow ledge hovering over a nearly nine-foot high rock and with the most difficult access. It entailed jumping across a two-and-a-half foot gap from a lower rock.

Fazal beckoned me from the rock. “I’ll stay back, I am quite scared,” I admitted to him. He goaded me, “Apa, now I can see women can’t do everything that men can!” That was enough to challenge me, so I allowed myself to be hauled across the gap by Fazal and Malang.

The paintings didn’t offer themselves easily. I still had to wedge myself between the two rocks to admire a scene of an ancient battle. Fazal pointed out a warrior on a horse, one holding a sword aloft, another preparing to shoot an arrow. Absolutely mesmerising.

After the third rock, we started our descent on what looked like goat trails — rocky and steep. Along the way, we witnessed the harsh reality of the hard life the locals lead. I passed a young boy hauling water in two blue plastic cans slung over a donkey. Further along, an older boy sat on a wall with similar cans. I stopped to talk to them.

The boy, Fazal Rahman, was waiting for the spring to fill so he could fill the cans. The younger boy was his brother. Neither attended school. “We have never set foot in a school. We take up water for our family five to six times every day.”

This was climate change sticking out its ugly head. Apparently, it had rained only a few days this winter in Swat so the small steams were dry. Is there a bright future for the children of Swat?

After two hours of walking downhill, we reached the second-century, double-domed Balokaley vihara or monastery. The monastery which was buried for centuries, was unearthed by the Italian archaeological team and is one of the sites that is fairly accessible for the caretakers.

We paused for a short rest at Balokaley before walking through the village to our cars. What an exciting day it was, rich in every way, but sad too, to see the difficult lives of such hospitable people who live in the beautiful Swat valley.

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Categories: TRAVEL

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