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On the Bamiyan Buddhas



Those who neglect their history are condemned to forfeit it. Those who destroy their own history deserve oblivion.

There are many occasions when civilization has been vandalized – most notably, in 330 BC when Alexander the Great destroyed the ancient city Persepolis in Iran, the destruction by the great library in Alexandria in 3rd century AD, the pillage of Chinese treasures in the Old Summer Palace outside Beijing in 1860, and more recently the wanton looting of the Iraq Museum during the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 during which ‘170,000 items were looted, including 5,000 year old statues.’

In the 1960s, following the construction of the Aswan Dam, the waters of the river Nile rose threatening the temple built on its banks at Abu Simbel by Ramesses the Great in 1244 BCE. The temple was dismantled and reassembled at an elevation that enabled the rays of the sun on October 22 and February 22 each year to penetrate its inner sanctum, as they had done for millennia before.

Such a reconstruction took almost five years of planning and detailed engineering by UNESCO and Egyptian specialists. In 2001, it took the Afghan Taliban less than five days to destroy the colossal statues of Buddha in Bamiyan. The Taliban did more than vandalise the helpless Buddha, They destroyed their own standing in the international community.

Today, there is a void where the statues once stood. Fortunately, illustrations done by British visitors in the late 19th century allow us to recall what Bamiyan looked like in its glory. 


On 15 October 1878, the British artist William Simpson left London for Afghanistan.  He was commissioned by The Illustrated London News to provide illustrations of the Afghan war. He passed through Lahore, Peshawar and the Khyber Pass. Intrigued by the number of Buddhist stupas and sites he saw en route, he expressed a keenness to see the Bamiyan buddhas. He had read about them in the writings of Chinese pilgrims Fa Hsien (c.400 C.E.) and Xuanzang (632 C.E.). He was unable to see the buddhas at Bamiyan on this tour, nor on the subsequent visit he return as part of the Afghan Boundary Commission of 1884-86.              

However, Simpson was not above borrowing from others more intrepid than himself. He accessed sketches done of the Bamiyan buddhas by a British officer Captain Pelham James Maitland (later British Political Agent in Aden, 1901-1904). The drawings Simpson derived from Maitland’s sketches were reproduced (with due acknowledgement to Maitland) in The Illustrated London News in its issues of 6th and a week later on 13th November 1886.

The extensive notes compiled by William Simpson accompanying these illustrations read: ‘The existence of the great statues of Bamian have been long known to Indian archaeologists, but correct drawings of them, or reliable measurements, have never been brought home till now. At last they have been drawn and measured in a manner that can be relied upon. This is one of the many important results of the Afghan Boundary Commission [.] It is to Captain Maitland that we are indebted for the Sketches of these great statues, as well as the remains of paintings on the walls of the niches and caves.

Bamian is on the road between Cabul and Balkh, where it crosses the Paropamisus range. The situation is high, being somewhere about 8,500 ft. above the sea. The rock is conglomerate, or pudding stone, of which there is a high cliff in the valley. In this, at an early period, probably during the first centuries of the Christian era, Buddhist monks excavated the caves. There are large numbers at Bamian - “extending for miles”- but there are numerous groups of caves besides extending northward, along the road as far as Haibak.  Judging by the remains in the Jelalabad valley, these caves would not be the only viharas or monasteries; there would be built structures as well. When Hwen Tsang [Xuanzang], the Chinese pilgrim, visited Bamian about 630 AD, he states that there were 1,000 monks at it, and ten convents. He describes Bamian as a kingdom; but we only know the spot from its caves and the great statues, which are remains of Buddhism, and none so far as is known, the remains of anything like a capital or a kingdom.‘’

‘’There are five statues at Bamian: three of them are in niches, which have been cut out, the figures being formed of the rock within the niche. The largest statue has been produced in this way. Its size has been variously estimated by travellers, some putting it at 100 ft., and others as high as 150 ft.  Capitan Talbot used a theodolite, and found that all previous estimates had been short of the truth. The figure is 173 ft. high, which is 29 ft. lower than the London monument, the exact measurement of it being 202 ft. The Nelson column in Trafalgar square is 176 ft., just three feet higher than the Bamian figure, and thus giving an exact counterpart of its height.

If a general meeting of all the colossal statues of the world could be brought about – if the Memnon figures from the banks of the Nile could come (they are 51ft. high, and would be taller if they could stand up out of their seats); the four Great Guardians in front of the temple at Ipsambul [Abu Simbel]; the bronze Dai Bootz of Japan, […] the statue of Athene, made by Phidias for the Parthenon, which was 39 ft. in height […] or the still greater Colossus of Rhodes, were to meet at one place and the hitherto almost unknown Bamian great statue were to appear amongst them, what pigmies they would seem.’

Simpson dismisses the notion proffered by some historians that the Bamiyan statues predate Buddhism. To him, the top knot, the long ears, and the folds in the figure’s garments clearly support the subject as Lord Buddha. He adds that ‘at the feet at the statue there are entrances, which communicate with stairs and galleries, so that the top can be reached.’

In its day, the largest statue would have been painted and adorned with jewels. The Chinese pilgrims recorded that ‘its golden hue sparkle on every side, and its precious ornaments dazzle the eyes by their brightness.’

Simpson quotes local tradition as asserting that ‘when the soldiers of Timur passed on their way to the invasion of India, they shot arrows at the idols; and that the troops of Nadir Shah fired artillery at them.’ And in a prescient remark, he comments that Muslims ‘would most willingly destroy such objects of idolatry’.

The Taliban did just that in 2001. Today’s pilgrims must content themselves with hologram images projected into the empty niches.

And what would Lord Buddha have had to say to those who destroyed his images, and to us today who callously neglect our past: “I do not believe in a fate that falls on men however they act; but I do believe in a fate that falls on them unless they act.”



[DAWN, 9 April 2023]


10 April 2023
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