- Afghan Statues Models for
Asia's Giant Buddhas
- Tom Heneghan
PARIS (Reuters March 2) - The two huge cliff-side Buddhas
at Bamiyan, now reported to be under shelling from Afghanistan (news
sites)'s Taliban movement, are the first known examples of the massive Buddha images
that later spread throughout Asia.
Towering 175 feet and 120 feet high, the two sandstone
statues were erected at a caravan stop in central Afghanistan along the fabled Silk Route
They are the best-known product of the fusion of European
and Asian art that flourished in Afghanistan and northern Pakistan between the fourth and
Over the next five centuries, Arab invaders, Persian
armies and the Mongol hoards of Genghis Khan brought waves of death and destruction over
the mountains and valleys of the Hindu Kush.
But none until the Taliban, fundamentalists who take
Islam's rejection of graven images extremely literally, had set out to destroy the awesome
masterpieces in the town that long was the capital of Buddhism for Central Asia and India.
The international outcry against their destruction -- most
notably from Buddhist or Buddhist-inspired countries such as Japan, Thailand, India, Sri
Lanka and Nepal -- reflects the seminal role these colossal statues played in Asian art.
They are so well-known that the United Nations (news
sites) Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization thought they were among its
690 World Heritage treasures deserving special protection.
But, through some unexplained error, there are no Afghan
sites mentioned on the list at the Paris-based UNESCO (news
``This is a scandalous omission ...we are treating them as
though they were on our list,'' said Michael Barry, a UNESCO expert documenting all Afghan
art works for the organization.
``To be honest, everyone just assumed that they were on
the list,'' he said. ``They were put forward several times in the 1970s for inclusion and
a lot of preparatory work was done, but for one reason or another they never made it.''
One reason could be Afghanistan's turbulent politics at
the time. A 1973 coup overturning the monarchy was followed by a bloody putsch five years
later by Marxist leader Nur Mohammad Taraki. By 1979, Soviet troops arrived to prop up the
shaky communist government and spark all-out war with Islamic rebels.
Splendid In Gold, Blue
The two statues stand in niches hewn into the cliff
overlooking Bamiyan, a main stop along a southern spur of the Silk Route which led from
Central Asia down to the Khyber Pass, the Indus River to central India and the Arabian
Caravanserais for travelers between Europe, China and
India and cave-like cells for Buddhist monks were also dug into the cliff, producing the
many pockmarks seen around the statues.
The smaller of the two Buddhas was sculpted in the second
half of the third century after Christ while the larger one dates from the fifth century.
According to Jet van Krieken of the Society for the
Preservation of Afghanistan's Cultural Heritage, both had faces and hands covered in gold
-- a style familiar to many tourists who visit the Buddhas of Thailand or Burma.
Old photos show that the features of the two Buddhas
disappeared long before the Taliban took their first shots at them in late 1998, causing
an initial outcry and blowing off the head and part of the shoulders of the smaller
A Taliban commander was reported to have drilled holes in
the larger Buddha's head to shove in dynamite sticks and blow it up, but was persuaded to
hold off by a local official.
The large Buddha lost much of his left leg and his lower
right leg long before this latest long Afghan war broke out.
Originally the flowing robes on the smaller Buddha were
painted blue while those on the larger one were red.
``They must have been quite impressive for monks traveling
through the harsh surrounding landscape, who finally reached the beautiful valley with the
peaceful Buddhas making the gesture of reassurance,'' van Krieken wrote.
Writing last year, when the threat to the Buddhas seemed
to have passed, van Krieken observed: ``It seems a miracle that these incredible Buddhas
have more or less survived in a country in which they have become strangers who were not
able to flee.''