Bamiyan, the glory and the tragedy

By Ven S. Dhammika

The valley of Bamiyan is about a hundred miles north-west of Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan. The valley is green and fertile in stark contrast to the surrounding countryside which is dusty, rugged and without vegetation. The north side of the valley is formed by a impressive cliff about a mile and a half long and in places over two hundred and fifty feet high. Cut into this cliff are hundreds of niches, tunnels, halls and rooms which formed part of several huge monasteries that once existed here. But the most prominent of the man-made cxcavations on the cliff are four huge niches containing images of the Buddha, one of them being the biggest statues ever made. On the far eastern end of the cliff is the remains of a niche over a thousand feet long which once sheltered a reclining image of the Buddha. Most of the cliff has collapsed and little can be seen there today. Further to the west is a second niche containing a standing Buddha about one hundred and twenty feet high. On the cliff to the left of this statue was a huge buttress erected in the 1960’s by Italian archaeologists to protect the side of the niche from collapsing. Despite being badly damaged and weathered the original beauty of this statue was still apparent. Further along is a niche about thirty feet high containing statue of the Buddha sitting in meditation. This statue is very rough and apparently was never finished.

The Red Idol

The largest and most famous of these statues is near the western end of the cliff. This huge statue is one hundred and seventy three feet high and was known by local people as Surkh’bud, the Red Idol. It seems that the statue was originally covered with gold leaf applied to a red arsenic base and when the gold wore off the statue appeared red coloured for some centuries and hence its popular name. Carved into the cliff around the Great Buddha’s feet were nine shrines which gave a good idea of the richness and sophistication attained by Bamiyan’s monasteries. The first shrine consisted of an eight-sided chamber (one side forming the door) with a domed roof. Niches rose in three tiers consecutively seven, fourteen and twenty one in number, each containing an image of either the Buddha or a bodhisattva and each beautifully painted. Rather than a dome the roof of shrine No V consisted of juxtaposed square rafters in imitation of the wooden architecture of the time. And once again all this was covered with delicate stucco work and paintings. From shrine No VIII stairs led up through numerous other rooms mainly monks cells to the very top of the Great Buddha’s head. From there, looking up to the curved roof above, the visitors would have noticed that large areas were covered with paintings, mainly depicting scenes from the life of the Buddha and still vivid after nearly one and a half millennium. Looking straight ahead the visitor would be rewarded by a breathtaking view over the town below, the verdant fields beyond and the snowdusted mountains on the distant horizon. Obviously those who constructed the Great Buddha envisaged it gazing protectively over the countryside and the inhabitants in turn looking up from their daily labours and being reassured by its benign and gentle smile. If the visitor descended the stairs, walked about a quarter of a mile from the base of the cliff and looked back, he or she got some idea of just how remarkable the Great Buddha of Bamiyan really was. It was made in the Indo-Greek, sometimes called, Gandhara, style and was probably constructed in the fourth or fifth century CE. It stood in the tribhanga posture, that is, with one leg bent and slightly forward. The right hand was raised, palm outward, in the gesture of fearless and the left hand probably held the corner of the robe, as was commonly done in Gandhara representations of the Buddha. Despite the enormous dimensions they were working with, the artists managed to create a well-proportioned image with all the lightness and grace characteristic of much smaller Buddha statues from the same period.

No records

One is forced to wonder how something so huge could have been constructed before the advent of modern engineering. So how was it made? No records survive but we can speculate. It seems probable that the artist or artists conceived the general size and outline of the figure and then the stone masons, suspended from ropes hanging from the top of the cliff, just started cutting into the rock, probably starting at the top and working downwards. Of course this would have been done by hand. Many thousands of tons of rock had to be removed and this formed the large terrace that extends outward from the statue’s feet. When the rough outlines of the figure began to emerge wooden scaffolding had to be erected around it so that the masons could do the finishing and the fine details. For some reason the masons decided not to cut the folds of the Great Buddha’s robe out of the rock. Instead they draped ropes loosely over the statue, fixed them with pegs and then placed wooden poles along them. Likewise the hands were made separately. Holes were cut into the wrists, long wooden poles were driven into them and the hands were built up out of clay on these. When this was done the whole statue was covered with fine clay, polished, painted and then, at least at one period, covered with gold leaf. The rock forming the robe below the left hand collapsed at one time and the holes drilled into the rock there are remnants of attempts to repair this. The whole project must have taken many years and an investment of vast amounts of labour and resources.

Huien Tsiang

In about 630 CE the Chinese pilgrim Huien Tsiang passed through Bamiyan on his way to India and left a description on the place as it existed at that time. He found ten monasteries housing about a thousand monks. They belonged to the Lokottravadin School and "were distinguished from their neighbours by their love for religion". Concerning the great Buddha images he wrote: "To the north-east of the royal city there is a mountain on the face of which is a stone statue of the Buddha standing, 140 or 150 feet high. Its golden hues sparkle on every side and its precious ornaments dazzle the eyes by their brightness. To the east of this spot there is a monastery which was built by one of the former kings of the country. To the east of the monastery there is another standing figure of Sakya Buddha made of metallic stone about 100 feet high. It has been cast in different parts and joined together and thus placed in a completed form as it stands. To the east of the city 12 or l3 li there is another monastery in which there is a figure of the Buddha reclining as when he attained Nirvana. The figure is a 1000 or so feet long". Bamiyan is situated on what was the main trade routes from Central Asia and China to India and the routes from India to Persia. Trade routes can also serve as highways for invading armies and this was to have disastrous consequences for Bamiyan and its inhabitants. Trade brought pilgrims and wealth hut some time before Huien Tsiang’s it also brought the first of a long line of very destructive visitors, the notorious White Huns. These raiders did great damage hut their primary interest was loot and after getting what they wanted they passed on and Bamiyan’s monasteries were able to recover. But then in the second half of the eight century came the newly Islamised Arabs who, while greedy for loot were also interested in imposing their faith on the peoples they conquered. To save their skins the rulers of Bamiyan converted to Islam although their faith seems to have been lukewarm because records show that they continued to patronize Buddhist monasteries.


But as one ruler followed another and the pressure of Islamisation intensified the monasteries ceased to find royal support, were occasionally attacked and found less and less young men willing to become monks. In 870 CE Saffarid Yakub looted the place and carted many Buddha statues off to Baghdad where they were probably desecrated and then destroyed. The coup de grace came in the early thirteenth century when Genghis Khan’s hordes broke out of Central Asia and swarmed south and west. The impact they had on Islam was so devastating that the faith almost ceased to exist. But when the storm passed it was able to recover with help from Islamic lands untouched by the Mongols. The same was not true for Buddhism in Afghanistan. In 1222 the Mongols raged Bamiyan and because Buddhism in adjoining regions was itself weak or fading it was unable to help in the reconstruction. Bamiyan’s monasteries were abandoned and gradually began to crumble. But even this was not enough for the fanatics and random acts of vandalism and desecration continued for centuries. At the end of the seventeenth century the Mogul emperor Aurangzeb ordered that Bamiyan’s huge statues be destroyed by cannon fire. It was at this time also that the faces of the two largest statues were broken off. Huge pegs were driven into the tops of the statues heads-until the faces broke off as huge single slabs and fell crashing to the ground.


The last act in the long sad saga of abuse of the Great Buddha took place just a few months ago when Afghanistan’s Islamic government announced that it had ordered the statues complete destruction. Protests from governments, cultural organizations, museums and concerned individuals poured in from all over the world. A Taliban public relations spokesman tried to explain the reasons for the destruction including that that representations of humans are forbidden in Islam. A UN official commented, "The Taliban don’t need a public relations expert, they need a psychiatrist". It is a reflection on the Taliban’s mentality that they not only announced their intention but that they actually filmed the desecration and then released it for the whole world to see. Even common vandals commit their deeds stealthily and when no one can see. Not so the Taliban a single gun was positioned about a mile from the Great Buddha and a single explosive shell was lobbed at it. When the dust cleared only the crudest outline of the Great Buddha remained. The concussion from the explosion must have also caused the collapse of the many shrines around the Great Buddha and the severe damage if not complete obliteration of the paintings within them.

The Great Buddha of Bamiyan was the most famous of Afghanistan’s art treasures to be destroyed but by no means the only one. The Taliban announced that they intended to destroy all Afghanistan’s non-lslamic art and indeed it seems they have. About fifty miles south-east of Bamiyan are extensive ruins now called Begran which represent the remains of the ancient capital city of the Buddhist kingdom of Kapisia. In the 1930’s, 50’s and 60’s French and Italian archaeologists did major work here, uncovering vast amounts of sculpture and other artifacts, much of it Buddhist. Even at that time Afghanistan’s government was not particularly interested in its pre-Islamic heritage and while some of the finds from Begram were taken to the Kabul Museum much else was shipped back to Europe where it can be seen today at the Musee Guimet in Paris. Much else was stored in a large building on the site. At the time the Great Buddha was destroyed all this sculptures was destroyed too. Reports say all the statues had there heads broken off with hammers and were then taken to a nearby gorge and thrown over the side. The Afghan countryside was dotted with the remains of stupas, often situated in prominent places like passes and the tops of mountains. The fate of only one of these monuments is known, the nearly complete stupa at Guldara. In March this year dynamite was placed around this beautiful stupa and it was unceremoniously blown to bits. The fate of the other stupas is not known although it seems likely that it was the same.

But the most tragic and shocking example of all this vandalism was the apparent complete destruction of the collection of the Kabul Museum. This institution housed the largest and finest collection of Indo-Greek art in the world; sculptures, jewellery, inscriptions, pottery and paintings of inestimable value and importance. Much had already disappeared in the years of chaos prior to the Taliban’s capture of the capital. Unruly soldiers and frightened museum staff hoping to secure their futures simply stole the gold and silver jewellery and melted it down.

Largest museum

This is believed to be the largest museum theft in history. The numerous paintings, statues and other artifacts had no immediate value and thus survived although some smaller pieces turned up in Pakistan from where they found their way to the international art market. Art historians were hoping that the rest might survive but it was not to be so. Simultaneously with the announcement of the destruction at Bamiyan the government also proclaimed that it had destroyed all the ‘idolatrous art’ in the museum. One can only hope that some of the more corrupt Taliban officials saved some pieces with the intention of selling them later, although this seems unlikely. All this has to be the most terrible blow to the art world, indeed to civilization in general, since the Nazis assault on art during the Second World War. In time of course the Taliban will go the way of all tyrants but the ugly black hole they have smashed in humankind’s common cultural heritage will, tragically, remain forever.