The Bamiyan Valley – A Lost Treasure

Posted in Asia | October 12, 2010 | 0 Comments


Afghanistan has long been considered a country of contrasts. This is a land whose citizens are Muslims (around 96% of the population) and yet it is right here that you can see one of the largest Buddha statues of the world, or whatever is left of it.

About The Land:

Bamiyan Valley is situated at an altitude of about 8000 feet and is located at the central highlands of Afghanistan. This land was first said to be inhabited during the 3rd century BC. This region became an important center for Buddhism during the second century AD. When the fourth – eighth centuries came along, the region reached its peak. The giant Buddha statues that had been carved into the hills gazed upon the people of Bamiyan valley.

The Bamiyan Valley lies on the historic route called the Silk Trading Route. This point of the route was what could be called a melting pot of Chinese, Indian and Gandhara cultures. This was a place where Hinduism and Buddhism coexisted peacefully and Islam as well once it rose in the later centuries.

The Standing Buddhas of Bamiyan Valley:

There were two standing Buddhas that had been carved into the walls of the cliff that lay on the northern side of Bamiyan Valley. According to art historians who have studied the place, the smaller statue is a depiction of Shakyamuni who was also known as Mahayana Buddha. The bigger statue is said to belong to Variocana Buddha. A lot of people, however, believe that both the statues were said to depict the later.

The Hazara, or the locals, believe that the smaller statue is that of Shamama or King Mother. They say this due to the lumps that they say would depict breasts. The other one was Salsal.

According to the carbon dating conducted on both these statues, they belong to the year 507 and 554 respectively. They have been roughly carved out of the stone. In order to create the rippling effect of the clothes, ropes were attached to the stone and then were plastered with mud. The faces of these statues were believed to have been marred by iconoclasts. The faces may have been hewn to fit what may have been a plaster mask.

There were other Buddhas that were said to exist and were said to be seated in between these two Buddhas. The cliff walls that surround the Buddha are dotted with caves; each of which was carved out so that the followers could come here and worship. The monks are said to have painted colorful murals on the walls of these caves. Around 1000 manmade caves were said to exist in the land of Bamiyan Valley.  Some of these caves doubled up as sanctuaries and chapels and were said to have elaborate frescoes. Some of the others functioned as simple yet utilitarian monastic cells.

Mass Destruction:

When the whole of central Afghanistan embraced Islam, the statues remained intact. By this time, the statues had lost their status of being worshipped. They did, however, remain a source of pride for the Hazara people (as they came to be known later). They were the Shia Muslims who lived in a predominantly Sunni locality. Over centuries, the valley was attacked and looted many a times and this caused for a loss of many artifacts from these monasteries. The iconoclasts ended up damaging the Buddhist monuments and matters were made worse by the illegal archaeological digs conducted in the region.

The statues were said to have remained almost intact until the year 2001.

After the biggest attack on these structures happened in 2001, only about 20% of the frescoes remained. All that remained of the frescoes was a spray painted inscription that read – The just replaces the unjust.

UNESCO and Bamiyan Valley Today:

There have been talks about restoring the art work at Bamiyan Valley. The only problem is that like mentioned before only about 20% of the original work remains today. Unfortunately, restoration might end up turning into reconstruction. According to UNESCO World Heritage Site criterion; you cannot restore a piece of work if less than 50 % of it is going to be that of the original work.  50% of the original art work seems like an impossible task with the current demolished state of this piece of art.

The Others Speak:

Yet other restoration experts have proposed that no restoration work should be carried out on the Buddhas and they should be left the way they are. They’ll work as a stark reminder of the desecration that had once taken place in the region and the country.

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