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Buddhas of Bamyan, Hazarajat, Afghanistan - Leading Landmarks
93    Dibyendu Banerjee    02/07/2021

Bamyan town is located in the Bamyan Valley, at an elevation of 8495 feet (2590 m), 130 km (80 miles) northwest of the Capital City of Kabul, in central Afghanistan. Located between the Indian Subcontinent and Central Asia, it lies close to one of the most important branches of the Silk Route, which runs as a historical caravan route through the Hindu Kush, connecting the Eastern world through China to the West, and carried material wealth and ideas.

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Its location along a fertile plain amid the harsh terrain made Bamyan an ideal stop for the merchants and missionaries during their travels, most of whom were Buddhists during the middle of the first millennium. Having been introduced to Buddhism during the early Kushan Period, Bamyan was the site of several Buddhist monasteries and a centre of Buddhist philosophy and arts. Several monks of those monasteries lived as hermits in small caves carved into the side of the Bamyan cliffs, and most of those caves were embellished with coloured frescoes.

buddhas of bamyan hazarajat afghanistan
One of the Bamiyan Buddhas before it was destroyed in 2001

Against this backdrop of carved caves two colossal figures of Lord Buddha were carved in the 4th and 5th centuries, probably first mentioned by the Chinese Buddhist monk and traveler Xuanzang. The huge statues were once finished with fine plaster and painted, and according to Xuanzang, they were decorated with gold and fine jewels. The main bodies of the two enormous Buddhas were directly hewn from the sandstone cliffs, and the details were modeled in mud mixed with straw and coated with stucco. This coating was painted to enhance the expressions of the faces, hands, and folds of the robes. While the larger figure was painted deep red, the smaller one was painted with multiple colours. It is believed that the upper parts of their faces were made from great wooden masks or casts, and the lower parts, including the arms, were constructed from the same mud-straw mix supported on wooden armatures.

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Both the Buddhas were described as having wavy curls of hair and wearing flowing robes, seemingly a blended style of Gandhara art with Hellenistic influence. According to historian Susan Huntington, the larger 55 m (180 ft) Western Buddha, built around 618 AD, represented the Buddha Vairochana, and the smaller 38 m (125 ft) Eastern Buddha, built around 570 AD, depicted Shakyamuni.

buddhas of bamyan hazarajat afghanistan

Although Bamyan was destroyed by the Mongol invader Genghis Khan in 1221, the statues were spared. However, as Islam condemns idolatry, the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb used heavy artillery to destroy the Bamyan Buddhas, when the legs of the statues were broken. Another crucial attempt to destroy huge statues of Buddha was made by the 18th-century Persian king Nader Shah Afshar, one of the most powerful Iranian rulers in History, directing cannon fire on the statues. But in the 19th-century, during a military campaign to destroy a Hazara rebellion in the area, Afghan king Abdur Rahman became successful to destroy its face. Unfortunately, despite international appeals to preserve the huge Bamyan Buddhas, they were finally destroyed by Taliban. However, it was not an easy task, and the process of destruction took several weeks as both the statues were carved into a cliff and were firmly attached to the mountain. When even anti-aircraft guns had little effect, anti-tank mines were placed between the feet of the statues, and the soldiers came down the cliff to bore holes into the heads, and placed dynamites into the holes. But as the explosion failed to obliterate the face of one of the Buddhas, a rocket was launched to complete the job.

buddhas of bamyan hazarajat afghanistan
Afghan boys play football in front of the gaping niche where a giant Buddha statue once stood

The intention of the Taliban extremists to destroy the historic images of Buddha was definitely motivated by their iconoclastic campaign, which was later confirmed on 6 March, when The Times quoted Mullah Omar’s statement that the Muslims should be proud of smashing the idols. Later, a statement issued by the ministry of religious affairs of the Taliban regime also justified the destruction, as done in accordance with the Islamic law.

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However, ridiculously in an interview on a later date, the Taliban supreme leader stated that he really did not want to destroy the Bamyan Buddhas, but he became disgusted by the proposals of the western countries to conduct the expensive repairing of the statues that had been slightly damaged by rain and rough weather. It shocked him as he felt that those people have no regard for the thousands of Afghans dying of hunger, but are deeply concerned about inanimate objects like those statues. He also added that had those people come for humanitarian work, he would have never ordered the Buddha's destruction.

buddhas of bamyan hazarajat afghanistan
The 3D projection marks 20 years since the statues were blown up by the Taliban in 2001

Nevertheless, the area and the archaeological remains of the Bamyan Buddhas were enlisted in UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2003, although the preservation efforts by an international team have been ongoing since 2001. There have also been arguments over how or whether to reconstruct the site. As a temporary solution to fill in the gap, two Chinese documentary filmmakers used the 3-D technology in 2015 to project holograms of the Buddhas into their hollow niches, but no permanent solution has been done. Recently, the government of Afghanistan has requested to reconstruct the smaller statue to attract foreign visitors as the Bamyan area is one of the poorest in the country, and income from the tourists would immensely help the locals. Recently, the government of Afghanistan has requested to reconstruct the smaller statue to attract foreign visitors as the Bamyan area is one of the poorest in Afghanistan, and income from the tourists would immensely help the locals.

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Author Details
Dibyendu Banerjee
Ex student of Scottish Church College. Served a Nationalised Bank for nearly 35 years. Authored novels in Bengali. Translated into Bengali novels/short stories of Leo Tolstoy, Eric Maria Remarque, D.H.Lawrence, Harold Robbins, Guy de Maupassant, Somerset Maugham and others. Also compiled collections of short stories from Africa and Third World. Interested in literature, history, music, sports and international films.
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