Bhutan: A Second Swat

by: J.M.Butt

As one who called Swat home for 40 years, between 1970 and 2010, my first impression on visiting Bhutan was how strikingly similar it was in physical appearance to Swat. My first sight of the striking traditional architecture and trout-filled streams of the Himalayan kingdom brought to mind the pinewood fragrance of the bazaars, the turquoise brilliance of the river of what was then an independent Swati state, ceded to Pakistan the same year that I arrived.

I mentioned my impression to my host, soon after he donned me with a white scarf as Bhutanese do to their guests. “Swat!” he mentioned with surprising recognition. “You mean the Swat in northern Pakistan? That is a holy place for us Bhutanese. It was from Swat that Buddhism arrived in Bhutan, through the great Padmasambhava, better known Guru Rinpoche.” It was in the reign of the Emperor Trisong Detsen (742-797CE) that Guru Rinpoche was brought to Tibet, traveling up the Indus Valley. Legend has it that Guru Rinpoche’s onward journey to Bhutan was on the back of a tigress. The place where Guru Rinpoche first meditated in Bhutan is still known as the Tatsang – Tiger’s Nest.

In Bhutanese tradition, Swat is known as Ugyen. The actual place of origin of Guru Rinpoche is known in Bhutan as Uddiyana – the place that is better known nowadays as Udigram, some ten kilometers south of the Swat capital of Mingora. Near Udigram, there are a number of Buddhist remains, including a Buddhist stupa near the side of the main road, a few kilometers south of Udigram itself.

It is not only the physical features and spiritual connections that make for such striking resemblance between Swat and Bhutan. Like Swat until 1970, Bhutan is still ruled by a benevolent monarch. Like the Swat dynasty, the Bhutan ruling dynasty was established at the beginning of the 20th century. Unlike Swat, however, Bhutan has remained independent. It has close relations with neighboring India and the Indian government funds several major development projects in Bhutan. The Indian Army even maintains Bhutanese roads. However, Bhutan retains its distinct national character and patriotic pride.

Even the architecture of Bhutanese buildings bears resemblance to the traditional architecture in Swat, as I saw it 42 years ago, in the last year of the reign of the Wali of Swat. Wood was used extensively in buildings then, and traditional engravings adorned the rims of the roofs of houses. Bhutanese architecture has developed its own unique style, but the similarities with the Swat style of traditional architecture was unmistakeable. “If one wishes to build a modern, concrete house, will one be allowed to do so?” I asked, seeing that every house was in the traditional mould. I was told not. One has to stick to the traditional style, otherwise one will not receive planning permission.

There are striking similarities between many facets of Bhutanese policy today, and Swat policy when Swat was an independent state. The emphasis on education is one such policy. During the time of the Wali of Swat, schools were built in each village, with a higher learning institute being established in the capital Saidu Sharif. The King of Bhutan has initiated similar policies in his Himalayan kingdom. It is in the field of conservation and preservation of forest cover that the similarity in policies between the Western Himalayan State of Swat  and the Eastern Himalayan State of Bhutan are most striking.

The Royal Government of Bhutan has a policy guaranteeing that at least 60 % forest cover will be maintained at all times. In addition, 26 % of the total land area representing all climatic and biodiversity zones is under protected area management and an additional 9 % is set aside as biological corridors. In terms of species diversity conservation, the Royal Government is implementing several conservation programmes including the Tiger Conservation Programme and the Social Forestry Programme, which encourages local people to plant trees on private or community land. There is also an anti-poaching programme that has led to regular patrols in all protected areas to prevent poaching of animals and medicinal plants. Besides these specific programs, the Forest and Nature Conservation Act protects endangered species in general. Greed and financial gain has not undermined this policy in any way. When I asked whether Bhutan sold wood in the Indian market, I was emphatically told that it did not. “Once we start doing so, then there will be no end to the demand, and our forest cover will disappear.”

It was much the same in the Swat State, under the Wali of Swat. Unauthorized logging was not allowed. Officials of Wali Sahib’s Forestry Department used to patrol the forest, to ensure that no one was cutting down trees. Checkposts from Wali Sahib’s time, set up to ensure that no wood was being taken away from the Swat Valley. The check posts are still there today, only now they do not implement strict controls and much of the forest cover in Swat has disappeared. One result of this has been the recent cataclysmic floods in Swat, caused in part by soil erosion caused by a lack of forest cover.

Indeed, the similarity that struck me between Swat and Bhutan applies to present-day Bhutan and the Swat of 42 years ago – the Swat that I first arrived in as a teenage traveller. The Swat of today bears only historic resemblance to today’s Bhutan.


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