Art and War: The Bamiyan Buddhas

In the center of the long valley that separates the chain of the Hindu Kush from that of the Koh-i-baba range, lays the oasis town of Bamiyan. In the foothills northeast of the town is a series of sanctuaries and assembly halls that for more than a mile honeycomb the cliff side, along with the carvings of two colossal standing Buddhas. Before the destruction at Bamiyan, by the Taliban in 2001, the monastery consisted of rock-cut halls and cell-like sanctuaries, which were carved entirely from the face of the sandstone cliff. At the eastern end a Buddha stands 120 feet high and has been designated as the Sakya muni (or Historical Buddha) and to the west stands the 175 foot Buddha known as Maitreya (or Buddha Image.)

The first accurate information regarding Bamiyan and the Buddhas was recorded by the seventh-century Chinese scholar monk Xuanzang (Tsuan-tsang) who traveled the Silk Road and reached Bamiyan around 630 CE. Xuanzang made a sixteen-year pilgrimage to India, in order to learn about Buddhism and its teachings. During his travels he wrote Records of the Western Region, which he wrote for the Tang emperor, and it contains a description of Bamiyan and the Buddhas. In his journal he mistakenly described the smaller statue as being made of metal, because at the time of his visit it was entirely covered with gold-leaf and metal ornaments. It as from Xuanzang’s writings that later inspired 19th century Europeans to visit Bamiyan and learn about this vast monastery.
Bamiyan came to notice through the travels of nineteenth century explorers such as Alexander Burnes and Charles Masson. The first full-scale archaeological investigation of Bamiyan began with the founding of the Déleéation archéologique français en Afghanistan (DAFA) and was completed in November 1922, emphasized the importance of the sites at Bamiyan. After the Second World War, Benjamin Rowland and Zemaryalai Tarzi have been the most active Western researchers. With Proffesor Tarzi continues today to search at Bamiyan for the Reclining Buddha.

The towering image was a focus of attention for all pilgrims traveling the Silk Road to Bamiyan and then to India. The larger Bamiyan Buddha, because of its impact on the traveler, was of great importance. Small replicas of the Bamiyan Buddha were carried back by pilgrims to China and Japan, and so became prototypes for particular sacred or holy images. Little if anything of colossal statues had been known before in China and Japan.
The Bamiyan caves have undergone both natural and intentional destruction. Since the ninth century, after the Muslim community drove the Buddhist out of Bamiyan, the caves have become the target of purposeful desecration. In the seventeenth century, Auragzeb a Mughal Emperor of India used the larger Buddha as a target for firing his cannon, which caused damage from the knees down. In our own time, the faces of the two Buddhas have been destroyed and both sets of hands broken off. Most recently, anti-government military groups in Afghanistan’s civil war have used caves as barracks and powder magazines. In September of 1998, a renegade Taliban commander blew off the head of the smaller Buddha using dynamite. He also fired rocks at the large Buddha’s groin, damaging the folds of the statues dress.

On March 2, 2001 the Islamic Taliban militia began the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas. They used anti-aircraft fire, rocks, cannons, tanks and motor shells to blast the Buddhas. It took three separate blasts to destroy the larger Buddha. They first blew up the legs, then the head, and finally the torso. The entire operation took two weeks to complete. The reasons the Taliban decided the destroy these ancient statues came from their iconoclasm,, which goes in line with Islamic law. In July of 1999, Omar issued a decree that said the Bamiyan Buddhas should be preserved. They were, he pointed out, no Buddhist left in Afghanistan to worship them, but he added, “The government considers the Bamiyan statues as an example of a potential major source of income for Afghanistan from international visitor. The Taliban states that Bamiyan shall not be destroyed but protected.” What caused the Taliban government’s attitude to change was prompted a month before the Buddhas were destroyed. When a visiting delegation of mostly European envoys and representatives of the United Nations Education, and Cultural Organization (Uneco) offered money to protect the giant standing Buddhas, while millions of Afghans faced starvation. The reasoning can be summed up by the Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbafi who said, “I am now convinced that the Buddhist statues were not demolished. They crumbled to pieces out of shame, because of the West’s indifference toward Afghanistan.” This resentment the Taliban’s felt toward the West pushed Omar to issue a decree that the destruction of the Buddhas were “irreversible.” This statement was met with outrage from leaders around the world. On March 2, 2001 the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas began and two weeks later they were completely obliterated.

To be rebuilt or not?

Those in favor argue that, if the Buddhas were to be rebuilt then it would bring back tourism the Bamiyan Valley. The reconstruction would be good for the economy, bring jobs, and eventually tourism. However, the cost of such a project has been estimated at $30 million dollars per Buddha, money the Afghan government does not have. Those opposed to reconstruction argue, rebuilding the Buddhas is unpractical, and additionally it would destroy the full history of what happened to the Buddhas.

The Eight Wonder of the World:

In addition to the reconstruction of the Bamiyan Buddha, archaeologist Zemaryali Tarzi of Strasbourg University has been on the search for the missing Buddha described in the journals of Xuanzang. Tarzi says there is a third statue believed to be 1000 feet long, known as the Sleeping Buddha, shown in a reclining position. He says, “I believe the writings of Xuanzang indicated that it is east or south-east of the smaller Buddha on the site of a former monastery.” Tarzi believes that Xuanzang’s journal is reliable, as it gives the exact measurements of the two destroyed Buddhas. It is believed to be clay, which would slowly fragment over the centuries. But Tarzi hopes to find enough fragments and some of the foundation to reconstruct the statue. In ?? a 62 foot statue in a sleeping position, which dates back to the third century was found. This newly fund statue has been badly damaged, but some parts of it, such as the neck and right hand remain in good condition. These latest finding give hope to archaeologist to find the 1000 foot Reclining Buddha. If this giant statue was to be found it would bring enormous press, business, and tourism to Bamiyan as well as add on to the story of the Bamiyan Buddhas. It ahs already been deemed the eighth wonder of the world upon its discover. ‘

First Oil Paintings:

The wall paintings at Bamiyan combined fresco painting with sculpted secco forms marking the introduction of a mixed-media tradition. This novel experimentation of paining was not the only kind at Bamiyan. A team from the European Synchrontron Radiation Facility in Grenoble has analyzed these ancient paintings and discovered that in 12 of the caves painted in the seventh century were created using oil paint. The oil paint was derived possibly from walnuts or the poppies which grew in the area. Before this discovery it was believed oil painting in Europe some six centuries after.