By Buddhistdoor Buddhistdoor Global | 2017-01-27 |
After a long and difficult journey across the precipices and through the blizzards of the Tian Shan mountain ranges, Xuanzang (fl. c. 602–64) finally reached the town of Bamiyan in modern-day Afghanistan. His celebrated pilgrimage to India was one of astonishing tenacity, aided by the protection of bodhisattvas from the forces of nature, and on this leg of his journey Xuanzang arrived in a valley separating the Hindu Kush from its western extension, the Koh-i-baba. The residents of Bamiyan, according to the Chinese monk, wore furs and rough woolen clothes, and made a living growing spring wheat, flowers, and fruit, and herding cows, horses, and sheep. The people had coarse, uncultivated manners, but Xuanzang admired their simple and sincere religious faith, which they expressed by carving two colossal Buddha images into the rocky northeastern hill overlooking their settlements (a third reclining Buddha recorded in Xuanzang’s journal has yet to be found).
It is not known when the affectionately bestowed nicknames for the larger Buddha, Salsal (“light shines throughout the universe”), and Shamama (“Queen Mother”) for the smaller image, came into use. Historian Mahmud ibn Wali of Balkh (b. c. 1004 or 1095) wrote in his hagiography Bahr al-Asrar: “One cannot believe that there were made by human hands.” Frédéric Bobin of Le Monde put it quite well: “For 15 centuries the two mystic colossi gazed down as the trading caravans and warring armies streamed past. Monks came from China to worship here. Others meditated in nearby caves.” (The Guardian) Until they were desecrated and destroyed by the Taliban in 2001, the Bamiyan Buddhas inspired Buddhist, Christian, and Muslim observers alike, with one mullah (who no doubt represented the tolerant Islamic community in Bamiyan) lamenting, “The statues symbolised Bamiyan.” (The Guardian)
The Alliance for the Restoration of Cultural Heritage (ARCH)* supports full restoration of the Bamiyan Buddhas and has carried out a rigorous study of eight options for rebuilding them. This is a proposal that makes many conservators at UNESCO blanch. It was UNESCO that declared in 2011 that the statues would be best remembered by their absence. “The two niches should be left empty, like two pages in Afghan history, so that subsequent generations can see how ignorance once prevailed in our country,” said Zamaryalai Tarzi, a Franco-Afghan archaeologist. (The Guardian) This is the dominant school of conservation at Bamiyan, which has been the victim of continuous political wrangling from different organizations and experts. Official UNESCO policy is based on the 1964 Venice Charter, which demands that “original material” be used for the conservation and restoration of monuments and sites, and if this rule is disregarded, there is the threat of UNESCO striking the site off its World Heritage List. Continue reading