Gandahara art flourished and produced some of the best pieces of art and sculpture of all time during Buddhist period in Swat. Stone carving or tracery was the favorite pursuit of the artisans of that age and they carved the life story of Mahatma Buddha in different postures. The artist also took interest in carving the activities of daily life, nature and flowers of various kinds. The carving of beautiful flowers, vines and branches reflect their skills and aesthetic sense and close relationship with nature.
The Pukhtun artisans inherited this passion and artistic pursuit after the occupation of Swat. Natural landscapes and natural beauty replaced the artist pursuits that focused on the statues and figurines in the previous era. These artists were iconoclasts who delegated stone carving in to wood and figurines into flowers and vines. This flow and tradition was passed on to the artisans of today who has devotedly preserved the art of woodcarving and is transferring the beauty of nature to wood with the same zest and passion that existed before.
Woodcarving on wood is not a time consuming and difficult vocation as compared to stone carving, which sometimes took years for an artisan to complete one statue. The huge statues of Buddha in Bamiyan, Afghanistan and the elaborately designed statues of Buddha in Swat are ample proof of the long lasting and devoted labour of the artists of that era. The tradition has lived on forever and still survives in the beautiful valley of Swat with great fervour and enthusiasm.
Due to the abundance of forests and wood in the valley, almost all the rustic people relied on wood as a major source of income and living. Among these users of timber were certain people with creative and innovative bent of mind who transformed a simple log of wood to a monument that was given the status of antiquity and glorious heritage which passed from one generation to the other, kept cautiously and protected immensely. The work of these gifted people became an essential feature of mosques, houses, even cemeteries and a source of pride for its owner. The huge framework and threshold of the main entrance and the door were so delicately and laboriously designed with vines and flowers of diverse sizes and lengths that an admirer, who had little understanding of this art, would stay for a while to have a closer look and admire the taste and labour of the artisan.
Woodcarving is the creative work of chiseling out intricate and elaborate designs in the wood through a sharp cutting metal tool for ornamentation and decoration. The carvings varied from place to place and were shape according to the artisan's inspirations, imaginations and the natural environment surrounding his impressionistic personality. Flowers, vines, statues, animals and natural landscapes dominated the art for a long time. For religious and sacred places like mosques and cemeteries, verses from the Holy Book were carved out with great perfection and dedication. The exquisitely carved wooden pillars in the mosques are the perfect examples of the genuine dedication of the artist with the place of worship and religion surviving till today.
The most celebrated wood for this art in Swat is the dark black, hard, durable and naturally hued wood of walnut trees. Its hard texture, pleasant appearance and strong fragrance reinforce the beauty of the designs and labour of the artist. Cedar and pinewood are used for woodcarving especially the naturally hued, shaded, designed and fragranced wood of Deodar tree.
The art is still admired and extolled in the valley but the only change that has entered in to this lofty art is the use of modern carpentry machines. In the past, most of the work was done with bare hands and with minute rustic and self created tools made by the local blacksmiths. This ancient art is much relished and celebrated worldwide and most of the antiques of our beautiful valley decorate the museums and houses of well to do people. Foreign admirers of this exquisite art throng the antiquary shops and marts scattered throughout the valley select and export this glorious heritage of our society to their countries and extradite our priceless treasures. The scarcity of wood in the valley may slowly and gradually strangle this art. The Cultural ministry must ponder over the prevailing condition and devise strategies to conserve and preserve these priceless treasures and provide special incentives for the maestro artisans in this rare art.
The buyers have several options to choose from i.e. chairs, sofas, and tables, artistic figurines, carved mirror frames, wooden and carved utensils, divans, and small chairs (Katkay) for seating around the traditional fireplace. But the most sought after item is a huge wooden box (Tawnrai) with four legs and a small opening for storing rice and flour, which are delicately carved and intricately embroidered.
These masterpieces of artwork are created in a very small number now because of the unavailability of the required wood and timber and the modern tin boxes, which has replaced them. The art of wood carving is so firmly rooted in the valley that even the utensils used daily in the household i.e. spoons, plates and bowels etc have been carved impeccably and dexterously manifesting the expertise and zest of the artists.
There are several distinguished artisans of woodcarving and sculpturing in the serene valley of Swat who are well known for their gifted skill and mastery in this creative discipline. The vale of beauties, Swat, and its talented dwellers has never been lagging behind others in the race of practical as well as philosophical pursuits and vocations. The history of this sublime art will continue repeating itself in this valley and the admirers will continue to throng, appreciate, venerate and acquire these rare and extraordinary artifacts of our meticulous and sublime artisans, the exalted and glorious wood carvers of the glamorous Swat valley.