The Buddhas of Bamiyan
CHALLENGED WITNESSES OF AFGHANISTAN'S FORGOTTEN PAST
By Jet van Krieken
(Published in IIAS 2000)
Only a handful were concerned about the plight of the cultural heritage of Afghanistan. Monuments were being neglected, if not badly damaged by the war, historic sites had been and were still being illegally excavated and, most importantly, the Kabul Museum, which houses an important collection, was being damaged and plundered.Many artefacts were leaving the country illegally. Nancy Dupree, an expert with many relations with Afghans 'in the field' and who is now working for ACBAR/ARIC in Peshawar, has played a major role in trying to stop the destruction. Together, with some others, we decided to set up the Society for the Preservation of Afghanistan's Cultural Heritage (SPACH) in September 1994. One of the aims of SPACH is to raise awareness within the country and abroad about the plight of Afghanistan's cultural heritage and to stop the destruction, plunder, and illegal sales of Afghan artefacts. Hence, the shock I just mentioned that was caused by an 'innocent' remark and, therefore, the relevance of SPACH.
Buddhism in Afghanistan
Afghanistan is a country with a very rich, fairly complicated, history. Because of its mountainous terrain, it was often on the borders of different empires and has played a part in a host of different era's. Although ancient texts about the region exist, their interpretations give rise to some heated discussions. As most of the objects known from this area were produced by excavations, archaeological findings are an extremely important source of information. This is why illegal digging, which may cause the destruction of unknown contents of historical significance, is all the more regrettable.
Buddhism was introduced into this area in the third century B.C. by the Mauryan emperor Ashoka. It found fertile soil in the former Gandhara province (nowadays, East Afghanistan and North Pakistan) around the first and second centuries A.D. under the rule of the great Kushan ruler Kanishka. At that time, Afghanistan lay at the heart of the Silk Route, as everybody travelling over land from East to West had no option but to journey through it. Along its roads passed silk from China, delicate glassware from Alexandria, bronze statues from Rome, and beautifully decorated ivories from India. These kinds of objects have been excavated in Afghanistan.
Accompanying the caravans of precious goods, Buddhist monks came and went, teaching their religion along the route. From this very part of the world Buddhism established itself over the centuries in China, Korea, Japan, Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan, and Mongolia.
In the early centuries of the Christian era, Eastern Afghanistan was full of lively Buddhist monasteries, stupas and monks. In this rich and peaceful climate, a new art form emerged: the art of Gandhara, bearing the same name as the province in which it appeared. The origin of this art is a matter of debate, but Hellenistic influence was strong. During this period, the earliest Buddha images in human form also evolved in this Kushan/Saka area. Some scholars, like A. Foucher, argued that this transformation was engendered by the influence of Greek examples, but this assumption is also constantly being challenged.
Two monumental Buddhas
In this Buddhist richness of inspiration, two masterpieces were produced which stand out head and shoulders above the others, the Buddhas of Bamiyan. These two giant Buddhas (53 m. and 38 m. high, respectively) stand in the beautiful Bamiyan valley, situated 230 km NW of Kabul at an altitude of 2500 metres. The caravans on the Silk Route invariably made a stop in this valley. It was one of the major Buddhist centres from the second century up to the time that Islam entered the valley in the ninth century.
The features of the Buddhas have disappeared. During the centuries they have probably been assailed by iconoclasts. The idea behind the destruction was to take away the soul of the hated image by obliterating, or at least deforming, the head and hands. Although there is no firm evidence the Buddhas were subjected to iconoclasm, this fate was certainly meted out to the frescoes surrounding the Buddhas, namely the numerous religious places and monk’s cells also hewn out of the rock and covered with beautiful paintings. The faces in these were destroyed by one of the many groups of invaders who have passed that way.
Based in Islamabad/Peshawar, SPACH was, of course, greatly concerned about the fate of the Buddha. In 1997, a Taliban commander trying to take over the valley stated he would blow up the Buddhas the moment the valley fell into his hands. After international protests, the Taliban high command in Kandahar denied they would harm the Buddhas and promised to do their best to protect Afghan cultural heritage. But SPACH was not fully satisfied and asked the leader of the Hezb-e Wahdat party, under whose authority was the commander who controlled the dump (at the foot of the Buddha), to ensure the removal of the ammunition. He not only agreed, but a General Office for the Preservation of Historical Sites in Hazarajat was even established.
Initially, SPACH’s major concern was not the Buddhas, but the Kabul Museum. Between 1992 (after the fall of Najibullah) and 1996, the museum was damaged and plundered. Although the attacks were aimed at the Ministry of Defence, located opposite the museum, many rockets missed their target and hence hit and damaged the museum. After years of negotiating with the different factions, SPACH has succeeded in getting permission to move the remaining artefacts to a safer place in Kabul. They are being watched over by guards with Kalashnikovs.