3 Things About: “The Buddhas of Bamiyan”

The Buddhas of Bamiyan by Llewelyn Morgan. Harvard (242 pp.)
  • For 1,400 years they towered over a remote valley in Afghanistan, fascinating people of many faiths.  The two colossal Buddhas of Bamiyan stood 180 and 121 feet high respectively, carved into a cliff of reddish conglomerate stone in the Hindu Kush mountains of Bamiyan Province, about 150 miles from the capital of Kabul.  The brightly decorated statues attracted “throngs of people: pilgrims and merchants in an unimaginable array of costumes alongside the yellow-robed monks, the smell of incense, the noise of prayer and chanting, the drums and cymbals of worshippers bringing their own colorful, precious or pungent offerings to the sacred places, and the conches and gongs which marked the passage of the monastic day,” writes Oxford lecturer Morgan in this fine history. Nearby were two seated Buddhas and a 62-foot reclining Buddha, as well as a Great Stupa, a sepulchral mound, which for Buddhists represented transcendence of this illusory world.
  • Much degraded and neglected over time, the two Buddhas remained impressive monuments until early 2001, when, the world learned, they were demolished on the orders of Mullah Muhammad Omar, leader of the Taliban.  There were no Western witnesses.  A demolition team spent weeks on their task, using dynamite, artillery, and anti-aircraft weapons. Still the statues stood. Finally, expert Pakistani and Arab engineers, who knew where to drill holes and insert explosives, were brought in to finish the job.  “These statues have been and remain shrines of unbelievers…,” said Mullah Omar. “God Almighty is the only real shrine and all fake idols must be destroyed.” A team of senior Islamic scholars had told Mullah Omar that his action was contrary to Islamic law, but to no avail.
  • In the 19th and 20th centuries, Afghanistan “came to exert a powerful mystique for Westerners, and that was as true for East India Company officers in the early 1800s as it became for hippies 150 years later,” writes the author.  By the 1960s and 70s, that mystique drew increasing numbers of tourists to the peaceful valley. Today, efforts are being made to bring tourists back, says Morgan. For many, the empty niches have seemed monuments in their own right, but there is also considerable support for reconstructing the giant Buddhas. The artist and Hiroshima survivor Ikou Hirayama has urged that any funds raised for reconstruction be spent on humanitarian relief of refugees. “I suggest that the Bamiyan caves be preserved as a symbolic reminder of the barbaric destruction of culture by human beings,” he said.

-Joseph Barbato edits Red Weather Review. An author and journalist, he has written on literary topics for many publications.  He is a former columnist and contributing editor at Publishers Weekly.


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