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Library: Member Essays

Uddiyana Until the Eighth Century: A Short Historical Overview

A long time ago, in the far northwest corner of Old India, there once was a verdant and splendid Kingdom, inhabited by a gentle and cultured race of people. Surrounded by high, rugged mountain peaks, the broad valleys of this Kingdom fostered fertile farms and bustling towns. Frequently the traveler could see, nestled in quiet vales, here and there throughout the land, the golden pagoda roofs of whitewashed temples and monasteries, where learned sages treasured wondrous archives of hand scripted books recording mankind's accumulated knowledge. Here too could be found the pleasant sanctuaries of gracious ladies of wisdom, the convents and forest chapels of a unique sisterhood-priestesses, prophetesses (name them as you will, there does not appear to be a proper English term for a wise woman of religion who need not be a nun) dedicated to knowledge and the science of harmonious spiritual development.

Here and there, in ages long gone, industrious men had raised towering white cenotaphs, with golden spires; those pyramidal monuments known in the East as Stupas, which honour the remains of some particularly renowned saint. In the towns of this magical Kingdom, merchants plied their ceaseless trade, displaying all the riches of greater Asia: the finest coloured silks from far off China, the softest kashmere from Kinnaur, lustrous golden ware from the matriarchy of Suvarnadwipa, rubies and emeralds from southern India and Ceylon, gleaming white pearls from the legendary island of Bahrain, delicate copper work from the craft shops of the Himalaya, orange coloured saffron from nearby Kashmir, subtle spices from Indonesia, and finely wrought sandalwood carvings from Nepal. From Persia came inlay and fine jewelry and poetry. From Bactria they imported skilled doctors and medicine and lapis lazuli and Greek knowledge from yet further west. This was a wealthy land.

This was the ancient Kingdom of Uddiyana; so beautiful a Kingdom, that its very name means "the royal garden" (from the Skt: udyana). With cascading pure rivers splashing down from ice-bound lakes high in the snowy peaks beyond, and quiet pools stocked with fish, with lush meadows,  in raiment of every variety of wildflower, Uddiyana truly seemed a paradise on earth. No wonder people from far and wide spoke of it as a magical place, the hidden flower garden of the wise and compassionate Lord Buddha.

We today are able to gain a fairly vivid picture of the ancient Kingdom of Uddiyana, because in the year 630 A.D., a renowned heroic Chinese Buddhist pilgrim, known by the name of Huen Tsiang, passed through the heart of Uddiyana on his way to India. Thankfully, he left behind him a brief but clear description of the now lost Kingdom's geography, culture and people. Huen Tsiang describes Uddiyana as a country bounded by snow capped peaks; a land of rugged mountains and broad valleys, of wide marshes, green meadows and high plateau, where grapes grow in abundance. He describes a land blessed by fine crops, by herds of well fattened cattle, and teeming with orchards of fruit-bearing trees—truly a nation of milk, bread, honey and wine.

Uddiyana is a land, said Huen Tsiang, that is rich in gold and iron and other profitable minerals. Throughout the year the temperature is never too hot nor too cold. It is thus, he said, a most agreeable land. The hillsides are covered in dense forests and the valleys are rich in flowers.

The people of Uddiyana, according to Huen Tsiang, were gentle, soft and effeminate. In our imagination he conjures a scene of healthy, tanned people, mostly clothed in pure white cotton. The men have white turbans, the women soft flowing saris, also white. These are a gentle, happy people, rarely endangered by war or calamity. They are a society appreciative of fine culture, and they are all, reported Huen Tsiang, great lovers of learning.

There is another characteristic which our Chinese Pilgrim noted concerning the people of this amazing Kingdom of Uddiyana. In what we take to be a disapproving tone, for Huen Tsiang viewed himself a scholar-monk of the pure Zen (Chan) tradition of Buddhism, he wrote, "They are addicted to the art of reciting charms."1 In fact, this statement may well be one of the earliest references concerning the Buddhist use of mantra that is known to scholars. Huen Tsiang, an adherent of a form of Buddhism that knows nothing of the Vajra Way, perceived mantra recitation not as a type of yoga, but rather as the utterance of superstitious spells.

It is of great interest to us personally, to see that already by the seventh century the usage of secret mantra, i.e., a system of Tantra, was already prevalent in Uddiyana. For in later ages, the Kingdom of Uddiyana is spoken of as the land of Tantra par excellence. Huen Tsiang's statement shows that Tantra was an ancient tradition in the Northwest, long before it gained popularity in India.

The usage of mantra recitation seems to have been Huen Tsiang's sole criticism of these people. And whether "addicted to reciting charms" or not, Huen Tsiang also perceived how devoutly "all the people greatly reverenced the profound teachings of the Buddha."2

Where is the location of the magical lost Kingdom of Uddiyana today? It is to be found amongst the rugged mountains of northern Pakistan, and consists of the high valleys of Swat, Dir, Pangkora, Bunir, Bijawar, and Chitral. Indeed, the Swat Valley and these other districts still have a garden like quality. A vivid scattering of flowers are seen everywhere, and the great clear rivers still pour forth their bountiful waters, as in the past. Vast broad valleys, bounded as ever by their magnificent mountains, continue to support a happy and hospitable people.

Swat is the long valley in the mountainous territory north of Peshawar, through which the Swat River cascades southwards, descending from the Hindu Kush mountains of the north. The Greek conqueror Alexander the Great crossed the Swat River with his Army and did battle with the locals at Udegram, before making his way on into India. It was his successors who later merged Swat into the Mauryan Empire. Now the Swat Valley can be easily found on any map of Pakistan as a favoured stomping ground for ardent trekkers from Europe. And just as Huen Tsiang said thirteen hundred years ago, it is an idyllic land, never too hot nor too cold.

As one enters the Swat Valley from the south, another long wide valley, breathtakingly beautiful, climbs off towards the Northwest. This is the region of Nimogram, where we are able to find the archaeological remains of Andan Dheri, and Chakdara, through which a dusty road will take you north up the Panjkora valley in the adjacent district of Dir. There are several archeological sites in the area, some of which have yielded Zoroastrian artifacts. If you courageously continue by jeep on the same treacherous road over the terrifyingly narrow, weather-beaten Lowari pass (at a height of 3,100 metres), you will eventually find yourself in the district of Chitral (anciently Hurmudzu), a large, mountainous region, sharing a long border with Afghanistan. Chitral is drained by the Kunar River which flows southward, through Afghanistan, to meet the East flowing Kabul River, which in times past, was known as the Sita, or White River. In the year 1900 the Russian mystic George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff traveled by raft down part of this dangerous river, as part of an expedition led by Prof. Kozlov in search of the ruins of ancient Shambhala.

In a sense everything in Swat, Dir and Chitral has changed. The old glories of Uddiyana have gone. Even its remains have been largely erased by time and the careless destruction of man. In another sense nothing has changed. The people who once occupied these valleys are not so different than they were in the past. In fact the same race of northern Pakistani people who lived in Huen Tsiang's era, a people now known as Swatis, live there to this day, though they share their land with the dominant immigrant population of Yusufzai Pushtuns.

Unfortunately today, as a result of centuries of human occupation, the green forests described by Huen Tsiang are severely depleted. The landscape is browner than it once was. The people are poorer, the farmlands less fertile. This is largely due to the peculiar system of land tenure which came along with Islam, as a result of the Moslem Invasion when, now generations ago, the country was despoiled of its ancient treasures. Consequently the people, direct descendants though they may be of ancient Uddiyana, in Huen Tsiang's age, no longer enjoy their past bounties. With their glorious wealth, art and culture all gone, they must today scrape a less luxurious living from the ruined soil.

Our aim must be to reconstruct as best we can, using what meager evidence modern archaeology is capable of supplying, a vision of what the ancient sites, mentioned in the old books, looked like, and where they were located. Only thus can there unfold before us a fresh and true understanding of the lives of those who lived so long ago. Previously many references in the biographies of the Yogi-saints have remained obscure or meaningless. As the life of the society of the Kingdom of Uddiyana comes into perspective, these references for the first time become historically meaningful.

Before Huen Tsiang passed through the Kingdom of Uddiyana we know that the capital was a citadel up the neighbouring Indus River. However by the time Huen Tsiang arrived on the scene, he tells us that a new capital had been erected on the Swat River. This new capital was evidently where today stands the modern town of Mingora. In fact the very name "Mingora" can be traced directly back to the ancient site itself, which Huen Tsiang tells us was called Mangalakosha, the treasury of good blessings. Professor Foucher has found references to this capital city in a Nepali manuscript of the 9th century, which mentions that a Royal Temple dedicated to the Bodhisattva Vajrapani was located there.3

Old Mingora, with the more recent town of Saidu Sharif grown up on its southern flank, is still the chief city of Swat. Mingora/Saidu Sharif is located at about the 900 metre level, on the south bank of the Swat River. Mingora sports a large dusty sprawling bazaar, typical of the Orient, full of frenetic movement, exhaust fumes and noise.

In ancient books4 we are also able to find mention of the long forgotten names of the various valleys or districts that once existed within the ancient Kingdom: names such as Hurmudzu, Rukma, Sikhadhara, Dhanakosa, etc. These various districts were apparently governed by vassal rajas or princes, under the overlordship of a single sovereign who is frequently referred to as great King Indrabhuti. This renowned king's name spans several generations, which tells us that more than one king of Uddiyana must have borne the same titular. We are also able to discover, by examining the Chinese Tang Annals, that one of these famous King Indrabhutis occupied the throne of Uddiyana in the year 642 A.D., just ten years after Huen Tsiang's visit.

Archaeology has not as yet fully located and uncovered many of the ancient sites mentioned in the old books. In fact the valleys of Swat, Dir, Chitral, etc., though rich in history and constantly under archaeological investigation, have as yet hardly been explored, and it remains for young archaeologist of the future to uncover the golden treasures that undoubtedly must still lie hidden there.

The reason why the Kingdom of Uddiyana became a lost civilization is a sad one. In the 11th century the Moslem conqueror, Mahmud of Ghazni, raided up the Swat Valley and turned the beautiful garden of Uddiyana into a desolate wasteland. The whole culture of the Kingdom was destroyed for ever. The population was put to the sword, the children pressed into slavery, the women forced into the harems of the conqueror, the golden roofed Temples and all the ancient monasteries—all the old centers of learning—were sacked. The sisterhood of the ladies of wisdom disappeared, or dispersed. The scholarly monks were slain, the nuns raped, and every single book was thrown to the fire.

Thus vanished much of the lore of archaic ages: fragile paper texts and parchment scrolls penned in Sanskrit, archaic Kharosthi, Gandharan, Central Asian, old Greek, Bactrian, perhaps even Armenian scripts. Today nothing is left of the ancient glories other than nameless ruins. Swat, and Dir, and Chitral are now entirely Moslem territories. The people have forgotten their past.

After the terrible Mahmud, came the first Pashtuns, forcing the native Uddiyans (ancestors of the present Swatis) north and east. By the 15th century Yusufzai Pashtuns, driven in front of the Moghul invasion of Babur, poured into southern Swat, Dir and Mardan. With them came violent missionaries, forcing at the point of the sword any remaining unconverted Uddiyans to Islam.

The British came to Swat and Chitral in the middle of the 19th century. Around 1857 the British, nervous about Russian spies then known to be penetrating Chitral from Central Asia, more or less bought the local ruler Aman ul-Mulk, paying him handsomely to ensure the capture of any Russians found in his territory. In Swat the British were opposed by a tribal uprising led by the Sufi ascetic Abdul Ghafoor, the so called Akhund of Swat. After the latter's death in 1877, the British continued to attempt to penetrate the region, though never gaining complete control. In 1894 Major Robertson with a detachment of 400 soldiers occupied Chitral fort, resulting in the famous siege of Chitral, and an eventual retreat. In 1926 the Akhund's grandson Mingul Wahdud, the first Wali of Swat, came under British influence and a period of prosperity followed, but in 1969 the Wali's sovereignty was abolished by the Pakistan government, which has since absorbed Chitral, Dir and Swat collectively into what is called the Malakand Division.

However, let us return to our reconstruction of the ancient past, and to the epoch when Sri Pramodavajra, first in the long line of the Golden Tradition of Supreme Yoga Tantra, was born.

The princedom of Dhanakosha, which at the time when our story begins lay within the Kingdom of Uddiyana, can be identified with the Chakdara plain and Nimogram valley of Swat, including what today is known as the district of Dir situated between modern Swat and Chitral. Huen Tsiang refers to this district as Shan-ni-lo-shi, where is to be found the convent of Sa-pao-sha-ti. Since Huen Tsiang notifies us that the Chinese word Shan-ni means "to give" (Skt: dhana), it is evident that Shan-ni-to-shi is his attempt to transcribe the local name Dhanakosha, which means "royal-treasury of bountiful gifts." The Chinese to-shi refers to the second part of the name, kosha, Sanskrit for a royal treasury.

At the convent of Sa-pao-sha-ti, says Huen Tsiang, there was a grand stupa5 that stood 80 feet high. Not far from this stupa there was another, called the great Suma stupa. Towards the north was yet another grand 80 foot high stupa, that literally shone from miles away in the light of the sun, where the sick would go in quest of miraculous healing. And concerning the latter monument our observant Pilgrim recorded an important religious legend. Once upon a time, he said, the king of the peacocks struck the rock with his beak at this spot, from whence a miraculous spring flowed forth. The water of this spring then formed a sacred lake. To this stupa and the adjacent lake the sick would come, and all those who drank the water or baptized themselves in this lake would be miraculously healed. Today we can identify this spot with the historical site of Andan Dheri. We shall see, in the life of Sri Pramodavajra, and later again in the biography of Lord Padmasambhava, that this sacred lake is highly significant.

Archaeology6 has shown that the great stupa of Andan Dheri stood 80 feet high (24 metres) and was surrounded by 14 votive stupas. This must have been the location of the famous Shankarakuta Stupa cited by early Buddhist historians in the Dzogchen tradition, the dazzling monument mentioned by Huen Tsiang and which was said to have graced the shore of sacred Dhanakosha lake.

According to tradition, the great white Shankarakuta Stupa and Temple was surrounded by 1,608 small chapels. Prince Uparaja and Princess Alokabhasvati, rulers of the princedom of Dhanakosha, lived in a splendid palace near there. The era in which they are said to have reigned, according to the legends, was some 360 years after the passing away of Buddha Sakyamuni (568-488 B.C.).7 But we know, historically, that they must have lived in the latter part of the seventh century.


1 (return) In the thirteenth century Marco Polo wrote that, "The people of Pashai (i.e., Uddiyana) are Great Adepts in sorceries and the diabolic arts."

2 Hiuen Tsiang belonged to that branch of Buddhism which frowned on the use of mantra (i.e., short, repetitious prayer) as a means of spiritual development. Like many other leading Buddhists of his time, he viewed the way of mantra not as a technique for self-realization, but as a type of magical charm. This is because, in Hiuen Tsiang's age, the tantras (the spiritual traditions that teach the way of mantra) were still being taught very secretly, and the difference between mantra as a mystical path and mantra as a form of spell or enchantment was not distinguished in the public mind. For the common people of India, mantra meant magic, and thus it still appears in folklore, legend and fairytale. Hiuen Tsiang's mention of the popularity of the practice of `charms' in the Kingdom of Uddiyana may be taken as an early reference to the dawn of tantra in Buddhist country, after the fall of the older, conservative establishments.

Hiuen Tsiang describes 1,400 old monasteries scattered up and down the Subhavastu (now called the Swat) river. Formerly this represented a population of some 18,000 monks and/or nuns, but since the depredations of the invader Mihirakula in circa 510 A.D. (Gupta Era 191), more than a century before Hiuen Tsiang's time, almost every monastic establishment had fallen into decrepitude from lack of state funds. Five Buddhist Orders were represented in the kingdom: namely, the Sarvastivada, Dharmagupta, Mahisasaka, Kasyapiya, and Mahasanghika. These are all ancient, well-recognized Indian institutions. Hiuen Tsiang says that the type of Buddhism practiced by these Orders was the Mahayana, but the evidence of "charms" implies that an early form of Tantricism was beginning to emerge. Beal, Buddhist Records of the Western World, vol.1, p.121, suggests that this development of magic and charms occurred largely as a result of Mihirakula's sacking and persecution of the country, after the fall of the older conservative establishments.

3 Foucher, Etudes sur 1'iconographie bouddhique, pp. 121, 148. The Mahayoga-tantra tradition mentions a certain King Indrabhuti who meditated upon a statue of Bodhisattva Vajrapani, Lord of the Mysteries, and thus acquired realization. It is from the latter that the eighteen tantras of Mayajala derive. In the Mayapathavyavasthapana attributed to this King, it is written: "I, the noble Indrabhuti, practised the Mayajala-tantras, having been taught by the Lord of the Mysteries himself. I actually realized Vajrapani, with his whole retinue." Does it not seem likely that the existence of a royal temple dedicated to the Bodhisattva Vajrapani in Mangakostha and the legendary origins of the Mahayoga tradition (which describes a King Indrabhuti attaining realization while meditating before an image of Vajrapani) are closely related?

4 Ancient books refer to Uddiyana variously as Oddiyana, Odyana, Udyana and U-dyan-na, etc. U-rgyen is the Tibetan version and the Chinese is Wu-chang-na.

5 A stupa (Tib; chorten) is a Buddhist pyramidal monument, or cenotaph, containing the relics of an enlightened saint.

6 "For a number of years since 1956 an Italian Archaeological Mission has been at work under the direction of Professor Tucci in Swat. Swat is a remote and beautiful country in the far north of West Pakistan, north of Rawalpindi and neighboured by Dir, Chitral and Azad Kashmir. It has a long history, may have been ruled by Archaemenian Persians, was certainly a centre of that blending of Hellenism and Hinduism which finds its finest expression in Gandhara sculpture, and became one of the holy centres of Buddhism." vide Edward Bacon, Archaeology, NY 1971.

7 Vide Chos-'byung mkhas pa'i-dga'-ston, by Karmapa Pa-wo Tsu-le. The early Dzogchen historical records may well be based on a local Uddiyana samvat, or even on the Gupta Era founded in 319-320 A.D. It is now very difficult to ascertain the proper number of years attributed to the early Dzogchen Masters because of the obscurity of time-measurements in early translations. There was once an ancient system of chronology, for example, in which six months formed an Ayana (Tib: bGrod pa), dividing the year into a northern course (uttarayana) and a southern course (dakshinayana). Another ancient chronology counted four periods in each year. Yet another divided the year into nine parts. Any of these lesser periods, including the twelve month periods we use today, may have been transcribed as, "years" when old biographical texts were translated from language to language. Thus when Manjusrimitra studied for 108 years under Sri Pramodavajra, as stated in one ancient hagiography, he may infact have spent 54 years, or 27 years, or as little as 12 years. If the period had originally been counted in months, then (108 divied by twelve) nine years would have been meant. The fact is, 360 years after the death of Buddha Sakyamuni (488 - 360 = 120 B.C.), the Shahi kingdom of Uddiyana had not as yet come into existence. Three hundred and sixty years of the Gupta Era would be the equivalent of 679-680 A.D.

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