Tale of great Buddhas set in stone
The destruction of the famous site of Bamiyan in Afghanistan in 2001 still causes controversy
THE footage is poor quality — grainy and a peculiar colour. In the distance, a cliff and an indistinct carved figure in a niche surrounded by caves. Then a sudden orange flash, the boom of an explosion and, as the shockwave jerks the camera, a thick, billowing cloud of dust.
There are cries of ‘‘Allahu Akbar! [God is great!]’’ from men out of picture. It is March 2001, in Bamiyan, Afghanistan, and we are witnessing the destruction of the smaller of two colossal Buddhas.
Other footage shows the larger Buddha, already demolished from the waist down, as its torso explodes. The images were captured by a journalist from Arabiclanguage broadcaster al-Jazeera, Taisir Alluni, who was subsequently, controversially, jailed in Spain for collaboration with al-Qa’ida.
In Christian Frei’s documentary The Giant Buddhas (2005), Alluni comes across less as a collaborator than a journalist determined at any cost to secure the story. He confesses to some guilt at his participation, but also admits that the scenes were irresistible to a ‘‘journalist who wanted to get sensational pictures, the big scoop’’.
Frei presses Alluni for a deeper analysis of the events at Bamiyan. The destruction came after the intensification of UN sanctions against Afghanistan; Alluni says the Taliban thought the world had abandoned them.
They were spitting in the face of a world that did not give a damn about their country, that was more interested in stone sculptures than the thousands of Afghan children who were facing starvation in the winter of 2000-01. The West had made no attempt to understand the Islamic world and this was the payback.
These and similar attempts to rationalise the deliberate destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan were repeated
AP by commentators across the world in 2001, and have been since — but never very convincingly. In truth, Alluni and Frei and everybody else seemed to be fishing for an explanation of an inexplicable turn of events.
Even Taliban spokesmen at the time were struggling to account for their leaders’ actions which, apart from anything else, represented a dramatic shift in policy — in 1997, the Taliban ambassador to Pakistan was insisting that ‘‘the Supreme Council has refused the destruction of the sculptures because there is no worship of them’’.
As late as September 2000, Mullah Omar had issued a clear decree to similar effect: ‘‘The government considers the Bamiyan statues as an example of a potential major source of income for Afghanistan from international visitors. The Taliban states that Bamiyan shall not be destroyed but be protected.’’ The Taliban leader’s subsequent volte-face was bizarre and shocking. To a senior Taliban commander, Ghulam Muhammad Hutak, Mullah Omar’s actions seemed pure madness.
The motivation behind the destruction mayhave been obscure, but its target was not. Bamiyan was Afghanistan’s Stonehenge, the most celebrated archaeological site in the country: two colossal standing images of the Lord Buddha carved from a cliff of reddish conglomerate stone in a valley high in the Hindu Kush mountains.
In their first two centuries of existence, until about 800, the Buddhas were the brightly coloured, flamboyantly decorated centrepieces of a flourishing Buddhist community. By the end of the 20th century, they had endured more than a millennium of natural degradation and human neglect, but were still exceptionally impressive monuments.
The most distinctive feature of the Buddhas was their faces, blank in both cases from the top of the hair to above the lips, a clean vertical slice. For some viewers, the absent faces were essential to the impression they made: ‘‘No statue which has had its face removed can express justice or law or illumination or mercy,’’ Peter Levi wrote in 1970, ‘‘but there is a disturbing presence about these two giants that does express something.’’ It is a matter of debate whether the faces were removed by medieval Islamic iconoclasts or if this was an original feature, the prevailing view now being the latter: a trough between the horizontal and vertical planes of the recess on each Buddha’s face has been interpreted as an anchoring point for wooden structures — face masks, effectively — that represented their features.
The larger Buddha’s head was still topped by the Buddha’s characteristic cranial protuberance, the usnisa, a representation of his transcendent intelligence, and both Buddhas still had parts at least of their pendulous ears (elongated earlobes were a characteristic appendage of the once princely and bejewelled Buddha), moulded in clay, and traces of hair, realistically moulded in wavy curls that betrayed a slight lingering influence from the Greek-influenced sculpture that had flourished at the northwestern edge of India in the early centuries AD.
Even before 2001, it should be said, that description of the Buddhas’ heads would require modification. At the end of 1998, zealous Taliban, who had captured Bamiyan shortly beforehand, blew off the head and part of the shoulders of the smaller Buddha. At around the same time, tyres were burned on the ledge above the larger Buddha’s mouth, blackening its ‘‘face’’. At this stage the Taliban leadership had been a restraining influence, and the destruction was not allowed to go any further. This is an edited extract from The Buddhas of Bamiyan by Llewelyn Morgan (Profile Books, $29.99).
Japanese artist Hiro Yamagata has been commissioned by the government of Afghanistan to create laser light images at Bamiyan