Tale of great Bud­dhas set in stone

The de­struc­tion of the fa­mous site of Bamiyan in Afghanistan in 2001 still causes con­tro­versy

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - LLEWE­LYN MOR­GAN

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

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