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Bamiyan, The Destroyed Buddha Images & Meditations on Art


Dec 22, 2012 , ,

This article was originally posted on 3quarksdaily and is reprinted with permission. 

Buddhism is a religion that teaches the truth of impermanence, yet should its greatest artwork be preserved or restored?
Buddhism is a religion that teaches the truth of impermanence, yet should its greatest artwork be preserved or restored?

by Leanne Ogasawara

There was recently mention in the media of a religious extremist in Egypt calling for the destruction of the pyramids. I first heard talk of this last summer– around the time that the shrines in Timbuktu were destroyed.

Holy hoax or not, I could not help but think of Bamiyan.

I can remember exactly where I was and what I was doing the moment I learned that the Taliban had blown up the Buddhist statues of Bamiyan.

Sitting in the backseat of a car in Los Angeles in 2001, we were stopped at a traffic light. The radio news mentioned it, but conversation in the car continued on– I don’t think anyone noticed or was really listening.

Despite the fact that they had been firing rockets at the statues for months, still it was a shock to hear that the statues had been completely destroyed– and that these 1400 year old statues no longer existed.

How could they actually have gone through with it? I thought.

Although their destruction came as a shock, in fact the two statues had been practically tortured to death after months of rocket fire, canon fire, machine gun volleys and weeks of dynamiting.

The Japanese had been working furiously behind the scenes when the Taliban first made their intentions known to the world. Working with UNESCO and several Islamic governments, even their concentrated efforts could not stop what was to be. Years later, my Japanese friends still bring it up.


Even a thousand years ago, the statues were famous in China and Japan. So important were they in ancient times that rather than taking the direct route straight to India, the venerable Chinese Buddhist monk Xuanzang walked an extra thousand miles or so just to see them during his famous 7th century journey to India.

Sally Hovey Wriggins in her book, The Silk Road with Xuanzang, describes the monk’s first sight of the famed statues:

Xuanzang’s caravan prevailed against blizzards, mountain gods, and robbers and finally approached Bamiyan, an oasis town in the center of a long valley separating the chain of the Hindu Kush from that of the Koh-i-baba range…The first sight of the Great Buddha must have made the weary travelers gasp.– Immense cliffs of a soft pastel color and behind them indigo peaks dusted with snow, rising to a height of 22,000 feet. They saw reddish cliffs in the cold, clear air; as they came closer, they could make out two gigantic statues of the Buddha standing in niches carved in the mountain. Closer still, they saw the two colossal figures were colored and glistening with ornaments; the smaller wore blue, the larger one red, and their faces and hands were gilded.

Once painted in ultramarine and carmine, the statues were as famous for their extravagant colors as they were for their size. It must have been a spectacular sight!

The ultramarine pigment used at Bamiyan was the same blue so adored by the Renaissance painters. The pigment is painstakingly derived from the lapis lazuli rocks mined from one place in northeast Afghanistan. The mines are located not far from Bamiyan; and from there, donkeys transported the expensive pigment in rough sacks over mountain ranges East into Central Asia and West to Venice and beyond.

DuccoIn Europe, the precious pigment was so valuable that it was worth more than its weight in gold, and the legendary painters of the Renaissance were often forced to wait till their patrons provided them the pigment before they could apply the heavenly blue to Mary’s robes –for ultramarine had become the color associated with the Virgin Mary by that time (For more, see my post: Sacre Bleu 瑠璃色).

Bamiyan was long famous for being a conduit between East and West. Located on the trade route between India and Persia, the art of the region has had a tremendous influence on the artistic traditions of both the East and the West. So when, for example, Ikuo Hirayama–Japan’s celebrated painter and Hiroshima survivor– visited Bamiyan in 1968, he said he was going there in order “to seek the origins of Japanese culture and follow the way Buddhism diffused.” For Bamiyan was at the very heart of things.


But the Statues are gone. So, now what?

Part of Mary Beard’s Wonders of the World Series, I highly recommend The Buddhas of Bamiyan, by Llowelyn Morgan. In addition to the historical context, Morgan goes into some detail on the destructions of the statues and what he believes to be the Al-Qa’ida connection. It is very interesting–for according to Morgan, Afghani religious scholars, as well as a delegation of religious leaders from many Muslim states, were very clear in telling the Taliban leader, Mullah Omar, that the destruction of the statues could never be sanctioned or explained by Islam. The statues were no longer objects of worship–they were relics.The leader of the Taliban himself had made it clear he had no intention to do harm to the statues not months before. So this “change of heart,” says Morgan, can be traced back to Al-Qa’ida influence.

But what can be done now–at this point in time, now that the statues are gone?

In general, I favor the Japanese National Treasures system of protecting cultural properties within the context of the nation-state. By designating National Treasures and Important Cultural Properties, certain works of art become protected by law (and thus cannot ever be sold as their preservation is safeguarded by the various nation-states who lay claim to them).

Bamiyan, however, is unique in that the art works had such a profound influence both East and West to the extent that their significance utterly transcendends the current nation-state of Afghanistan. Like ancient Egyptian art, the art works are situated in a pre-Islamic culture that has little to do with the nation-state of that place today.

We are reminded by the experts not to forget that along with these Buddhas, 2000 sculptures in what was left of the Kabul Museum were also smashed. So much has been lost.

A German team was pushing for rebuilding the statues. Some think that if at least one of the statues can be pieced-back together again, they should be. It would cost something like $30 million to piece together the smaller one. UNESCO rejected this plan.

Paris-based Afghani archaeologist, Dr. Zemaryalai Tarzi has another plan. Instead of re-building what is lost, Dr. Tarzi would like to unearth a third statue (said to be 1,000 feet long), which if it exists at all, has not been recorded as having been seen by anyone other than Xuanzang over a thousand years ago! If it does exist, it would be the biggest Reclining Buddha statue on earth. The only problem is that no one has seen it in over a 1000 years. Dr. Tarzi, however, remains undaunted. “Let’s raise this new masterpiece from the earth and waive it in the face of the terrorists who destroyed our statues!” he says.

Another provocative idea was J. Otto Seibold’s 2002 New Yorker proposal. I can’t find an online reproduction of the image (here is a photo of a reproduction from Morgan’s book). Seibold had suggested that two huge Buddhas be erected in Manhattan and two miniature twin towers be created in the empty niches at Bamiyan–this perhaps illuminating the notion of “spectacle” that connected the destruction of both the twin statues and the towers? (“Dynamite and Celebrity” says Morgan about Al Qa’ida). The miniature Twin Towers would be used to house refugees, thereby silencing the complaints that everyone cares more about the statues than the human beings who are hungry and were living in their shadows.

And, finally there was one more idea concerning how to replace what was lost.

A Japanese artist, Hiro Yamagata, a few years ago set in motion a plan to “re-store” the statues through laser technology –beaming images of the statues onto a cliff using $9 million solar and wind enerated technology. The plan never received UNESCO approval.

I loved the idea myself since –in the end– the inherently ephemeral nature of a beam of light would bring home the idea that something precious and irreplaceable has been lost. And that there are some things that once gone can never be brought back again. Transience also being something appreciated by Buddism, I think it is both appropriate and poignant.

In fact, I can’t think of a better idea, can you?



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