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Monday, April 12, 2021

Explained: The legacy and return of the Bamiyan Buddhas, virtually

The Bamiyan Buddhas are said to date back to the 5th century AD and were once the tallest standing Buddhas in the world. Salsal and Shamama, as they were called by the locals, were set in niches on either ends of a cliff side and hewn directly from the sandstone cliffs.

Written by Benita Fernando , Edited by Explained Desk | Mumbai |
Updated: March 12, 2021 7:35:45 am
Bamiyan Buddhas, Bamiyan Buddhas 3D projection, Bamiyan Buddhas Taliban, Taliban blows up Bamiyan Buddhas, What is Bamiyan Buddhas, Indian ExpressA 3-D projection of how a destroyed Buddha, known as Solsol to locals, might have looked in Bamiyan, Afghanistan. (Jim Huylebroek/The New York Times)

In March 2001, the Taliban began blowing up two monumental Buddha statues in Afghanistan’s Bamiyan Valley. Once among the tallest statues in the world, the ancient Bamiyan Buddhas were lost to the world forever, turned into smithereens through Taliban’s shelling. Now, two decades later, on the anniversary of the annihilation, the Bamiyan Buddhas have been brought back to life in the form of 3D projections in an event called “A Night With Buddha”.

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The legacy of the Bamiyan Buddhas

In their Roman draperies and with two different mudras, the Bamiyan Buddhas were great examples of a confluence of Gupta, Sassanian and Hellenistic artistic styles. They are said to date back to the 5th century AD and were once the tallest standing Buddhas in the world. Salsal and Shamama, as they were called by the locals, rose to heights of 55 and 38 metres respectively, and were said to be male and female. Salsal means “light shines through the universe”; Shamama is “Queen Mother”. The statues were set in niches on either ends of a cliff side and hewn directly from the sandstone cliffs.

The significance of Bamiyan

Bamiyan is situated in the high mountains of the Hindu Kush in the central highlands of Afghanistan. The valley, which is set along the line of the Bamiyan River, was once integral to the early days of the Silk Roads, providing passage for not just merchants, but also culture, religion and language.

When the Buddhist Kushan Empire spread, acting as a crucible of sorts, Bamiyan became a major trade, cultural and religious centre. As China, India and Rome sought passage through Bamiyan, the Kushans were able to develop a syncretic culture.

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In the rapid spread of Buddhism between the 1st to 5th centuries AD, Bamiyan’s landscape reflected the faith, especially its monastic qualities. The two colossal Buddhas were only a part of several other structures, such as stupas, smaller seated and standing Buddhas, and wall paintings in caves, spread in and around surrounding valleys.

Bamiyan Buddhas, Bamiyan Buddhas 3D projection, Bamiyan Buddhas Taliban, Taliban blows up Bamiyan Buddhas, What is Bamiyan Buddhas, Indian Express A full moon illuminates a Buddha niche in Bamiyan, Afghanistan, May 19, 2019. (Jim Huylebroek/The New York Times)

Taliban’s destruction of the Buddhas

The hardline Taliban movement, which emerged in the early 1990s, was in control of almost 90 per cent of Afghanistan by the end of the decade. While their governance supposedly curbed lawlessness, they also introduced so-called “Islamic punishments” and a regressive idea of Islamic practices, which included banning television, public executions, and lack of schooling for girls aged 10 and above. The destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas was part of this extremist culture. On February 27, 2001, the Taliban declared its intention to destroy the statues, despite condemnation and protest from governments and cultural ambassadors world over. Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf and the Dalai Lama were among those who voiced their concern; India offered to arrange for a transfer and safeguard of artefacts.

However, it seemed that the Taliban was interested not just in destroying the Buddhas but also in the spectacle. On March 2, the destruction started with guns and artillery; when that proved ineffective, they progressed to mines and a rocket. It took nearly a month for the statues to be razed to the ground.

In interviews, a Taliban supreme leader had given various reasons for wanting to destroy the Buddhas, ranging from pride in smashing idols in accordance with Islamic law to teaching people a lesson on diverting funds for humanitarian work.

Bamiyan Buddhas, Bamiyan Buddhas 3D projection, Bamiyan Buddhas Taliban, Taliban blows up Bamiyan Buddhas, What is Bamiyan Buddhas, Indian Express One of two niches, which are at the center of an international restoration dispute, in Bamiyan, Afghanistan, Feb. 18, 2014. (Mauricio Lima/The New York Times)

Not the first attack While this year marks the 20th anniversary of the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas, the Taliban wasn’t the first group to target the statues or the Bamiyan Valley. In the 17th century, the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb had the giant statues defaced using artillery.

The aftermath of the destruction

The Taliban’s destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas met with global criticism, many of whom saw it as a cultural crime not just against Afghanistan but also against the idea of a global syncretism. Unfortunately, the event paved the way for similar attacks on cultural heritage, such as the ISIS’ destruction of the ancient city of Nimrud in 2016, along with the murder of archaeologist Khaled al-Asaad, when he refused to disclose the location of Palmyra’s valuable artefacts, in 2015.

Following the fall of the Bamiyan Buddhas, UNESCO included the remains in its list of world heritage sites in 2003, with subsequent efforts made to restore and reconstruct the Buddhas in their niches with the pieces available. The question has become a heated discussion, however. One of the prime concerns raised is about the need to rebuild Buddhist statues in an Islamic country, which no longer has the same sense of syncretism as during the Kushan Empire. Some others have pointed out that the empty niches must be kept as they are, as a reminder of the fanatic acts that led to the destruction of the statues.

Bamiyan Buddhas, Bamiyan Buddhas 3D projection, Bamiyan Buddhas Taliban, Taliban blows up Bamiyan Buddhas, What is Bamiyan Buddhas, Indian Express A huge empty niche now punctuates the majestic Bamiyan Valley of Afghanistan where the giant western Buddha, one of two, once stood. (Hiromi Yasui/The New York Times)

Resurrecting the Buddha, virtually

“A Night with Buddha” started in 2013 as a way of creating a bridge between different cultures and in memory of Afghanistan’s pre-Islamic heritage. On March 9, the minifestival featured a projection of Salsal, the taller of the two Buddhas, into the niche where it once stood. In the midst of tight security, the event was attended by several locals with lanterns, accompanied by dancing. In a world where several artefacts have been lost to both extremist attacks as well as colonial plunder, 3D projections and holograms may be one way of restoring things to their past glory while simultaneously reminding audiences of the permanent loss incurred through human fanaticism and greed.

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