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The Buddhas of Bamiyan



     By Jet van Krieken

      (Published in IIAS 2000)

Buddha of Bamiyan

At a symposium last April on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the Kern Institute in Leiden, Dr P. Verhagen emphasized the importance of manuscripts from Afghanistan for the understanding and study of early Buddhism. He told the audience that, during the last decade, many of these kinds of manuscripts had shown up in the Western world. Quite a number are in the hands of the Schøyen collection in Norway. Perhaps for the audience it was an interesting statement, but for me it was quite a shock.

I lived in Peshawar, half an hour from the Afghan border, during the years 1993 - 1995. This town itself has quite a few monuments in its neighbourhood. Most of the Westerners working in Peshawar were involved with refugees who were fleeing the devastating war in Afghanistan. 

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.

Bamiyan Buddha
Buddha of Bamiyan

The two statues were hewn out of the rock (estimates of dates vary, but most probably around the fourth and fifth centuries A.D.). They were covered with a mud and straw mixture to model the expression of the face, the hands and the folds of the robes. This was then plastered and, finally, they were painted: the smaller Buddha blue, the larger one red, with their hands and faces gold. They must have been quite impressive for monks travelling through the harsh surrounding landscape, who finally reached the beautiful valley with the peaceful Buddhas making the gesture of reassurance.

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.

The Buddhas, at once so impressive and yet so vulnerable, have survived the hostile onslaughts over the centuries. Even so, they are still at risk. In the mid-1990s, the space at the feet of the bigger Buddha was being used as an ammunition dump by one of the warring factions. It was practical: it was an easily defendable, dry position. Who would dare to attack it? One shot might blow this giant up. But on the other hand, who would care? This image could be regarded as an idol, and human and animal depictions are forbidden by Islam. So it was worth taking the risk.

Buddha Bamiyan in rock
Buddha of Bamiyan


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.

Bamiyan Valley
The Valley of Bamiyan, Afghanistan

The valley has been in the hands of the Taliban since the autumn of 1998. In spite of all the efforts, statements and promises between the Taliban and SPACH negotiators, it was around that time that the head and part of the shoulders of the smaller Buddha were blown off, partly by a rocket, partly by explosives. Even worse, the infamous Taliban commander who threatened to damage the Buddhas in the first place had succeeded in drilling holes in the head of the bigger Buddha with the aim of inserting dynamite into the holes. 
He appears to have been stopped at the last moment by the Taliban governor of the Bamiyan Valley, with whom SPACH was in contact. The most recent damage has been the burning of tires just above the mouth of the big Buddha, so his entire face is now blackened. Apparently, the commander concerned has recently been arrested. It seems, nevertheless, a miracle that these incredible Buddhas have more or less survived in a country in which they have become strangers who were not able to flee.

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.

SPACH is likewise trying to trace objects illegally exported from the Kabul Museum and, if possible, to purchase them and eventually to give them back to the museum when the situation in the country is stable. A controversial activity indeed because, although the aim is to save the artefacts for the country, it might have the effect of stimulating the illegal digging and plundering. Nevertheless, the International Council of Museums (ICOM) gave SPACH the green light on this, provided that the items will indeed be given back to the museum. In order to collect as much information as possible about the area, SPACH has been building up a network of people who are experts on, or interested in, Afghanistan's cultural heritage specifically. 

Kabul museum
Kabul Museum

This is also the reason that a photo collection is being set up: to keep their memory alive. SPACH is financially supported by donations from various governments and individuals. It is backed by Unesco, ICOM, and the International Blue Shield Committee, with which there is intensive contact. The most important goal is to raise awareness of the plight of the cultural heritage of Afghanistan, especially among the Afghans themselves. As an Afghan friend once said: interest in Afghanistan's past gives hope for Afghanistan's future.


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