Buddhas of Bamiyan

Buddhas of Bamiyan

The Buddhas of Bamiyan (Dari: بت بامیان‎; د باميانو بتان) were two 6th-century monumental statues of Gautama Buddha carved into the side of a cliff in the Bamyan valley of central Afghanistan, 130 kilometres (81 mi) northwest of Kabul at an elevation of 2,500 metres (8,200 ft). Carbon dating of the structural components of the Buddhas has determined that the smaller 38 m (125 ft) "Eastern Buddha" was built around 570 AD, and the larger 55 m (180 ft) "Western Buddha" was built around 618 AD.

The statues represented a later evolution of the classic blended style of Gandhara art. The statues consisted of the male Salsal ("light shines through the universe") and the (smaller) female Shamama ("Queen Mother"), as they were called by the locals. The main bodies were hewn directly from...Read more

The Buddhas of Bamiyan (Dari: بت بامیان‎; د باميانو بتان) were two 6th-century monumental statues of Gautama Buddha carved into the side of a cliff in the Bamyan valley of central Afghanistan, 130 kilometres (81 mi) northwest of Kabul at an elevation of 2,500 metres (8,200 ft). Carbon dating of the structural components of the Buddhas has determined that the smaller 38 m (125 ft) "Eastern Buddha" was built around 570 AD, and the larger 55 m (180 ft) "Western Buddha" was built around 618 AD.

The statues represented a later evolution of the classic blended style of Gandhara art. The statues consisted of the male Salsal ("light shines through the universe") and the (smaller) female Shamama ("Queen Mother"), as they were called by the locals. The main bodies were hewn directly from the sandstone cliffs, but details were modeled in mud mixed with straw, coated with stucco. This coating, practically all of which wore away long ago, was painted to enhance the expressions of the faces, hands, and folds of the robes; the larger one was painted carmine red and the smaller one was painted multiple colors. The lower parts of the statues' arms were constructed from the same mud-straw mix supported on wooden armatures. It is believed that the upper parts of their faces were made from great wooden masks or casts. The rows of holes that can be seen in photographs held wooden pegs that stabilized the outer stucco.

The Buddhas are surrounded by numerous caves and surfaces decorated with paintings. It is thought that the period of florescence was from the 6th to 8th century CE, until the onset of Islamic invasions. These works of art are considered as an artistic synthesis of Buddhist art and Gupta art from India, with influences from the Sasanian Empire and the Byzantine Empire, as well as the country of Tokharistan.

The statues were blown up and destroyed in March 2001 by the Taliban, on orders from leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, after the Taliban government declared that they were idols. International and local opinion strongly condemned the destruction of the Buddhas.

38 m (125 ft) "Eastern Buddha"
55 m (180 ft) "Western Buddha"
The Buddhas of Bamiyan in 1886, as published by P.J. Maitland, The Illustrated London News.

Bamyan lies on the Silk Road, which runs through the Hindu Kush mountain region, in the Bamyan Valley. The Silk Road has been historically a caravan route linking the markets of China with those of the Western world. It was the site of several Buddhist monasteries, and a thriving center for religion, philosophy, and art. Monks at the monasteries lived as hermits in small caves carved into the side of the Bamiyan cliffs. Most of these monks embellished their caves with religious statuary and elaborate, brightly colored frescoes, sharing the culture of Gandhara.

Bamiyan was a Buddhist religious site from the 2nd century AD up to the time of the Islamic invasion of the Abbasid Caliphate under Al-Mahdi in AD 770. It became again Buddhist from AD 870 until the final Islamic conquest of AD 977 under the Turkic Ghaznavid dynasty.[1] Murals in the adjoining caves have been carbon dated from AD 438 to AD 980, suggesting that Buddhist artistic activity continued down to the final occupation by the Muslims.[1]

The two most prominent statues were the giant standing sculptures of Buddhas Vairocana and Sakyamuni, identified by the different mudras performed. The Buddha popularly called "Solsol" measured 55 meters tall, and "Shahmama" 38 meters—the niches in which the figures stood are 58 and 38 meters respectively from bottom to top.[2][3] Before being blown up in 2001 they were the largest examples of standing Buddha carvings in the world (the 8th century Leshan Giant Buddha is taller,[4] but that statue is sitting). Plans for the construction of the Spring Temple Buddha were announced soon after the blowing up of the Bamiyan Buddhas and China condemned the systematic destruction of the Buddhist heritage of Afghanistan.

Mapping of the 38 meter smaller "Eastern Buddha", dated to AD 591 to 644, and its surrounding caves and chapels.[1]

Following the destruction of the statues in 2001, carbon dating of organic internal structural components found in the rubble has determined that the two Buddhas were built circa AD 600, with narrow dates of between AD 544 to 595 for the 38 meter "Eastern Buddha", and between AD 591 and 644 for the larger "Western Buddha".[1] Recent scholarship has also been giving broadly similar dates based on stylistic and historical analysis, although the similarities with the Art of Gandhara had generally encouraged an earlier dating in older literature.[1]

Historic documentation refers to celebrations held every year attracting numerous pilgrims and that offers were made to the monumental statues.[5] They were perhaps the most famous cultural landmarks of the region, and the site was listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site along with the surrounding cultural landscape and archaeological remains of the Bamiyan Valley. Their color faded through time.[6]

Chinese Buddhist pilgrim Xuanzang visited the site on 30 April AD 630,[7][8][9] and described Bamiyan in the Da Tang Xiyu Ji as a flourishing Buddhist center "with more than ten monasteries and more than a thousand monks". He also noted that both Buddha figures were "decorated with gold and fine jewels" (Wriggins, 1995). Intriguingly, Xuanzang mentions a third, even larger, reclining statue of the Buddha.[10][9] A monumental seated Buddha, similar in style to those at Bamiyan, still exists in the Bingling Temple caves in China's Gansu province.

The destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas became a symbol of oppression and a rallying point for the freedom of religious expression. Despite the fact that most Afghans are now Muslim, they too had embraced their past and many were appalled by the destruction.[11]

Local men standing near the larger "Salsal" Buddha statue, c. 1940

Photographed by Françoise Foliot

Smaller, 38 meter Buddha in 1977

A possible reconstitution of the original appearance and attitude of the Western Buddha. Two monks at his feet, for scale.

Attacks on the Buddha's statue

In 1221, with the advent of Genghis Khan, "a terrible disaster befell Bamiyan."[12][13] Nevertheless, the statues were spared. Babur wrote in September 1528, that he ordered both be destroyed.[14] Later, the Mughal emperor, Aurangzeb, tried to use heavy artillery to destroy the statues. The legs of the Buddhas were broken because of Aurangzeb's action.[15] Another attempt to destroy the Bamiyan statues was made by the 18th century Persian king Nader Afshar, directing cannon fire at them.[16]

Afghan king Abdur Rahman Khan in the 19th century destroyed its face during a military campaign against a Hazara rebellion in the area.[17]

1998 to 2001, under the Taliban
Taller, 55 meter Buddha in 1963 and in 2008 after destruction
Smaller, 38 meter Buddha, before and after destruction. The paintings of Hepthalite royal sponsors on the ceiling also have disappeared.[18][19][20]

During the ongoing Afghan Civil War, the area around the Buddhas was under the control of the Hizb-i-Wahdat militia, a part of the Northern Alliance which was fighting at the time against the Taliban, an Islamic fundamentalist militia. Following the Taliban's capture of Mazar-i-Sharif in August 1998, Bamyan valley was entirely surrounded by the Taliban.[21] The town was captured by the Taliban on 13 September.[22] At the time, the Afghan population was described as "exhausted, starving".[23]

Abdul Wahed, a Taliban commander operating around the area, announced his intention to blow up the Buddhas even before taking the valley. Wahed drilled holes in the Buddhas' heads for explosives. He was prevented from taking further action by the local governor and a direct order of the Supreme Leader, Mohammed Omar, although tires were later burned on the head of the great Buddha.[24] In July 1999, Mullah Mohammed Omar issued a decree in favor of the preservation of the Bamiyan Buddha statues. Because Afghanistan's Buddhist population no longer exists, and the statues were no longer worshipped, he added: "The government considers the Bamiyan statues as an example of a potential major source of income for Afghanistan from international visitors. The Taliban states that Bamiyan shall not be destroyed but protected."[25] In early 2000, local Taliban authorities asked for UN assistance to rebuild drainage ditches around the tops of the alcoves where the Buddhas were set.[26]

The Taliban's intention to destroy the statues, declared on 27 February 2001, caused a wave of international horror and protest. According to UNESCO Director-General Koïchiro Matsuura, a meeting of ambassadors from the 54 member states of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) was conducted. All OIC states—including Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, three countries that officially recognised the Taliban government—joined the protest to spare the monuments.[27] Saudi Arabia and the UAE later condemned the destruction as "savage".[28] Although India never recognised the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, New Delhi offered to arrange for the transfer of all the artifacts in question to India, "where they would be kept safely and preserved for all mankind". These overtures were rejected by the Taliban.[29] Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf sent Moinuddin Haider to Kabul to try to prevent the destruction, by arguing that it was un-Islamic and unprecedented.[30] According to Taliban minister, Abdul Salam Zaeef, UNESCO sent the Taliban government 36 letters objecting to the proposed destruction. He asserted that the Chinese, Japanese, and Sri Lankan delegates were the most strident advocates for preserving the Buddhas. The Japanese in particular proposed a variety of different solutions to the issue, these included moving the statues to Japan, covering the statues from view, and the payment of money.[31][32] The second edition of the Turkistan Islamic Party's magazine Islamic Turkistan contained an article on Buddhism, and described the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan despite attempts by the Japanese government of "infidels" to preserve the remains of the statues.[33] The exiled Dalai Lama said he was "deeply concerned".[34]

In Rome, the former Afghan King, Mohammed Zahir Shah, denounced the declaration in a rare press statement, calling it "against the national and historic interests of the Afghan people." Zemaryalai Tarzi, who was Afghanistan's chief archeologist in the 1970s, called it an "unacceptable decision."[35]

Abdul Salam Zaeef held that the destruction of the Buddhas was finally ordered by Abdul Wali, the Minister for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice.[36]

2001, destruction by the Taliban
Destruction of the site by the Taliban
Site of the larger statue after it was destroyed
Site of the smaller statue in 2005

The statues were destroyed by dynamite over several weeks, starting on 2 March 2001.[37][38] The destruction was carried out in stages. Initially, the statues were fired at for several days using anti-aircraft guns and artillery. This caused severe damage, but did not obliterate them. During the destruction, Taliban Information Minister Qudratullah Jamal lamented that, "This work of destruction is not as simple as people might think. You can't knock down the statues by shelling as both are carved into a cliff; they are firmly attached to the mountain".[39] Later, the Taliban placed anti-tank mines at the bottom of the niches, so that when fragments of rock broke off from artillery fire, the statues would receive additional destruction from particles that set off the mines. In the end, the Taliban lowered men down the cliff face and placed explosives into holes in the Buddhas.[40] After one of the explosions failed to obliterate the face of one of the Buddhas, a rocket was launched that left a hole in the remains of the stone head.[41]

In an interview, Taliban supreme leader Mullah Omar provided an ostensible explanation for his order to destroy the statues:

I did not want to destroy the Bamiyan Buddha. In fact, some foreigners came to me and said they would like to conduct the repair work of the Bamiyan Buddha that had been slightly damaged due to rains. This shocked me. I thought, these callous people have no regard for thousands of living human beings—the Afghans who are dying of hunger, but they are so concerned about non-living objects like the Buddha. This was extremely deplorable. That is why I ordered its destruction. Had they come for humanitarian work, I would have never ordered the Buddha's destruction.[42]

On 6 March 2001, The Times quoted Mullah Mohammed Omar as stating, "Muslims should be proud of smashing idols. It has given praise to Allah that we have destroyed them."[43] During a 13 March interview for Japan's Mainichi Shimbun, Afghan Foreign Minister Wakil Ahmad Mutawakel stated that the destruction was anything but a retaliation against the international community for economic sanctions: "We are destroying the statues in accordance with Islamic law and it is purely a religious issue." A statement issued by the ministry of religious affairs of the Taliban regime justified the destruction as being in accordance with Islamic law.[44]

On 18 March 2001, The New York Times reported that a Taliban envoy said the Islamic government made its decision in a rage after a foreign delegation offered money to preserve the ancient works. The report also added, however, that other reports "have said the religious leaders were debating the move for months, and ultimately decided that the statues were idolatrous and should be obliterated".[45]

Then Taliban ambassador-at-large Sayed Rahmatullah Hashemi said that the destruction of the statues was carried out by the Head Council of Scholars after a Swedish monuments expert proposed to restore the statues' heads. Hashimi is reported as saying: "When the Afghan head council asked them to provide the money to feed the children instead of fixing the statues, they refused and said, 'No, the money is just for the statues, not for the children'. Herein, they made the decision to destroy the statues"; however, he did not comment on the claim that a foreign museum offered to "buy the Buddhist statues, the money from which could have been used to feed children".[46] Rahmatullah Hashemi added "If we had wanted to destroy those statues, we could have done it three years ago," referring to the start of U.S. sanctions. "In our religion, if anything is harmless, we just leave it. If money is going to statues while children are dying of malnutrition next door, then that makes it harmful, and we destroy it."[45]

The destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas despite protests from the international community has been described by Michael Falser, a heritage expert at the Center for Transcultural Studies in Germany, as an attack by the Taliban against the globalising concept of "cultural heritage".[47] The director general of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Koichiro Matsuura called the destruction a "...crime against culture. It is abominable to witness the cold and calculated destruction of cultural properties which were the heritage of the Afghan people, and, indeed, of the whole of humanity."[48] Ahmad Shah Massoud, leader of the anti-Taliban resistance force, also condemned the destruction.[49]

A local civilian, speaking to Voice of America in 2002, said that he and some other locals were forced to help destroy the statues. He also claimed that Pakistani and Arab engineers "were involved" in the destruction.[50] Mullah Omar, during the destruction, was quoted as saying, "What are you complaining about? We are only waging war on stones".[51] An author for Time magazine reported that the Koran does not command the destruction of images of other faiths, and that Islamic teachings did not justify the Taliban's actions.[52]

There is speculation that the destruction may have been influenced by al-Qaeda in order to further isolate the Taliban from the international community, thus tightening relations between the two, however the evidence is circumstantial.[53]

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