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Buddhas of Bamiyan: Keys to Asian History

Buddhas of Bamiyan: Keys to Asian History

Author: Holland Cotter
Publication: The New York Times
Date: March 3, 2001

The archaeological site of Bamiyan, about 100 miles west of Kabul in Afghanistan, is set in a broad, flat valley flanked by high stone cliffs. It's a place of open fields and sky, with a long, rich history that scholars are just beginning to understand.

Some 1,500 years ago, the valley was a busy node on the trade route between China and India, in a part of Asia where languages and religions - Buddhism, Hinduism and, later, Islam - coexisted. It was also home to a great Buddhist monastic centre, one that nurtured epoch-changing religious concepts and produced a fantastic new art, including the world's largest rock-carved figures of the standing Buddha.

Changes of a violent nature may be under way there now, since the Taliban decree to demolish pre-Islamic religious images. Bamiyan, with its towering seventh-century Buddhas - one nearly 175 feet tall, the other 120 feet - is a prime target, as it has been in the past. (In 1998 a Taliban commander fired grenades at the smaller figure, destroying its upper half.)

To scholars of Asian art, the destruction of these Buddhas would be catastrophic. Apart from Bamiyan's rarity as one of the few examples of monumental Buddhist sculpture, it holds a key to countless questions about how Buddhism developed internally and shaped or inflected virtually every culture in Asia.

At this point, basic facts about its art -when it was made, for what purpose - are matter of debate, though there is no question that it was an overwhelmingly ambitious undertaking.

The two large Buddhas were cut in deep relief directly from the rock. The surrounding cliffs were honeycombed with dozens of small caves, dug out either as monastic residences or for rituals. Many caves, along with the niches around the Buddhas, were covered with murals, now largely damaged or missing.

The art is a compendium of ancient styles, from India, Persia and Gandhara, where Greco-Roman-inspired traditions survived. For years the Buddhas were dated the fifth century and assumed to be prototypes for rock-cut sculpture in China, notably in the caves at Dunhuang.

But in 1989 the art historian Deborah Klimburg-Salter persuasively argued a seventh-century date, nearly two centuries later than Dunhuang. In a stroke, a neat, linear view of history was complicated and refreshed.

Along with its stylistic dynamism, Bamiyan reflects major shifts in Buddhism itself. For centuries, the Buddha was revered as a human figure, but with time he came to be seen as a transcendent being and icon.

The Bamiyan Buddhas catch this transition in action. According to the art historians Susan and John Huntington, the carvings represent a form of the Buddha known as Vairocana, in whom the entire universe in encompassed, and in their stupendous scale, this immensity is made literal.

The sculptures were originally painted and gilded, their heads probably fitted with masks. The lack of facial features on the sculptures is usually attributed to vandalism, but Ms. Klimburg Salter suggests they were made that way to accommodate masks.

Visible from across the valley, they must have been a visionary sight.

That sight is now retrievable only when pieced together from material evidence. And evidence, at Bamiyan and elsewhere in Afghanistan, may be going fast the fate of thousands of precious objects in the Kabul Museum, one of the most important collections in Asia, is unknown. Among its treasures are the priceless Begram ivories, pocket-size carvings that in art-history terms have a weight as ponderous as the Bamiyan colossi.

Voices of protest are raining down on Afghanistan, though what would persuade the leaders to relent is impossible to say.

History, maybe: Buddhism and Islam have much in common; both were on-the-move religions, inclined to adapt and to learn from other cultures.

Or maybe their own faith: "I do not serve what you worship; nor do you serve what I worship. You have your own religion, and I have mine." This terse statement of live-and-let-live religious tolerance is from the Koran.

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