Broken Buddhas; the Ruins of Bamiyan
Ian D. Robinson.
“The people are remarkable for their love of religion and the highest forms of worship to the Three Jewels of Buddhism, there is not the least absence of earnestness and the utmost devotion of heart.”
(The Chinese traveller Hsuen-Tsang on the people of Bamiyan, 630AD)
‘WELCOME TO BAMIYAN CITY’ The battered sign on the edge of town shouted its greeting to the one street village, by my reckoning it had probably been a thousand years since Bamiyan could have honestly described itself as a city. It was late in the day when I arrived, I’d left Kabul at four a.m. to allow enough daylight, the dirt roads were insecure after dark as the Afghan police and military retreated into their compounds. The driver dropped me at the Zohak Hotel, a fly-infested hole with ghastly toilets and beds so filthy I slept on the floor.
Across the Bamiyan River I wandered between twilight fields a-sway with wheat ripening in the breeze. Above me rose dull brown cliffs, their niches which once sheltered the largest Buddhist statues ever made stood vacant like empty coffins. The famous figures traced their lineages back to the information super highway of old; the Silk Road. Bamiyan lay at a convergence of trails from China, Rome, India and Persia. Here, sheltered from the winds of the deserts around, the valley provided fodder and water for beasts of burden and rest and recuperation for their drivers. Faces from every corner of the known world mingled and haggled in the markets and serais. They exchanged goods and currencies, philosophies and new thoughts, ideas to be shared and adopted.
The teachings of Buddha spread throughout Central Asia after the Indian king Ashoka converted and gave the faith a major celebrity endorsement in 260BC. Five hundred years later the giant Buddhas were nearing completion and Bamiyan had grown to be one of the world’s greatest monastic centres. Dozens of universities had been built and thousands of monks were resident in caves and aesthetic meditation cells dug into cliffs all over the valley.
However, as the Silk Road declined so did the fortunes of Buddhism. Islam, spread by the sword, was no match for the pacifist monks and the final blow was dealt when Genghis Khan’s hordes exploded from the east in 1222, forever consigning the Bamiyan Valley to the realms of poverty. Bamiyan lies in the region of Hazarajat, homeland of the ethnic Hazara minority who trace their ancestry back to Mongols who settled here after the invasions. Being followers of Shiite Islam in a predominantly Sunni country, and the fact that they are descended from Asian hordes, has always marked the Hazara for persecution, they suffered terribly under the fist of the Taliban.
The following morning, after being woken early by the swarm of flies in my $10 room, I stood at the foot of the ‘Small Buddha’ niche in the spot where the Compassionate One’s feet would have once been. At 38 metres it was anything but small and the enormous hollow, filled with scaffold to prevent any further collapse, towered such that I could barely fit it in my camera lens. In a shed nearby were chunks of rock recovered from the destruction. Ranging from rough pebbles to large boulders, they had been numbered, catalogued and kept, for what?
A bored and uncommunicative guide lead me to a small wooden doorway in the base of the niche and unlocked a jangling chain. Inside the entire cliff had been hollowed out with spiralling stairways cut into the solid rock. Breath-snatching climbs lead to cells and chapels perfect for meditation; cool, still and quiet. Smaller alcoves which would have once contained Buddhist figures were set into the empty walls below ornately domed ceilings. In some it was possible to make out the remnants of painted murals and frescoes, the faces of Buddha scratched off and scrawled over with Islamic graffiti.
The guide hurried me on through the empty rooms, some blackened by the fires of more recent occupation. On an open balcony that would have once been at the top of the figure’s head majestic views of the Bamiyan Valley, surrounded by khaki desert but high-lit by the greens of leafy crops in the canyon’s floor stretched all around.
A short time later and five hundred metres away I stood in front of the empty hole once home to the 55 metre ‘Big Buddha’ which was just that and more, colossal might have been a better way to describe it. Nothing of the monument remained and in one corner twisted metal shrapnel had been heaped. A family of Afghan/American tourists followed me through the gate, hitching a ride on my officially purchased ticket.
“Fantastic, isn’t it?” the father breathed as we stared up at the deserted hole.
“Not really.” I replied.
“The Taliban used the Buddhas for target practice for a week! Apparently Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar were actually here themselves when they blew them up!” he told me excitedly.
Despite pleas from the outside world in March 2001 the Taliban dynamited what they saw as idols and un-Islamic representations of living forms.
“All we did was destroy some rocks!” Taliban leader Mullah Omar is quoted as saying. Visiting the niches and walking through the hollowed rooms the mass effort that had gone into the construction of the Buddhas and the entire cave complex was unimaginable, impressive and incredibly sad.
Such cultural vandalism had taken place right across the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan which once abounded in ancient Buddhist sites. In Kabul I had visited the state museum; opened in 1919 it had at one time held one of the greatest historical collections in the world. A vast amount was looted over the raging decades of conflicts, rare and unique artefacts turning up on international markets. What wasn’t stolen was destroyed by the Taliban, priceless stone Buddhas with their faces smashed off while other figures in clay had been completely shattered, thankfully some have been pieced back together like an ancient 3D jigsaw puzzle.
What the Taliban had really destroyed in Bamiyan was what had once been, and could have been again, one of the greatest tourist attractions in the world. The monuments here rivalled the Great Wall and the Pyramids of Egypt, they could have lifted Bamiyan’s people above the breadline by enticing thousands of visitors a year. The Buddhas were monuments that had been created by a cultured and peaceful people only to be smashed by a moronic bunch of religious nuts who impressed no one.
Naturally when, in 2001, images of the exploding Buddhas were flashed across the world followers of the faith they represented saw the demolition as a teaching of impermanence in the endless cycle of creation and destruction; nothing, not even a more than thousand-year-old Buddha carved in solid stone, lasts forever.
On the other side of the Bamiyan valley facing the obsolete niches was the site of equal and even older desecration, the citadel of Shahr-e Gholghola. The ‘City of Screams’ was reduced to mud-brick ruins by the Mongolia’s favourite son Genghis Khan. In his conquest of Central Asia the Great Khan sent one of his grandsons, a lad barely in his teens but already in command of an army, to take the region of Bamiyan. Instead of surrendering immediately the foolish inhabitants of the valley killed the teenaged general, a mistake which delivered to them the full wrath of Genghis. The city was surrounded and after a lengthy siege the order was given to put everything living being in the valley to death. The screams of the slaughtered are still heard in the name of the ruins.
Little is left of the scream-wracked citadel except for a watch tower which looks to have been split in two. I climbed through the heat and crumbling remains to the top where the views of the valley, with the distant niches and the clash of dusty brown hills and richly cultivated green were well worth the effort. On the summit a young boy waited out the sun in a little mud hut to check my entrance ticket, a kind of multi-ticket which included the Buddhas, his guard dog snored in the shade of a wall. I wondered how long he had been sitting there since he’d clipped the ticket of the last visitor (I hadn’t seen any other travellers in town) and if he would have sent me all the way back into town if I hadn’t had one myself?
The armies of Genghis Khan weren’t the only to have a connection to Bamiyan. Within sight of the Shahr-e Gholghola lay a short dirt airstrip used by the UN and others among the dozens of humanitarian agencies operating in the region. Just south of the strip was a fortified military compound home to the town’s PRT (Provincial Reconstruction Team) lead by New Zealand troops in a combined force of army, navy and air-force along with a few Kiwi police sent to mentor the local constabulary.
Fronting up to the gate unannounced my arm was nearly broken by the military strength handshake I received from the guard on duty who happened to be from Rotorua. I was loaded into a jeep and driven inside to the mess hall, just in time for lunch of burgers and fried chicken.