The Colossal Buddha Statues of Afghanistan

The Giant Buddha Statues of Afghanistan, also called the Buddhas of Bamiyan, are two of the oldest and culturally significant monuments.  But, unfortunately, by decree of the Islamic religious fundamentalist group, the Taliban, they have been destroyed in 2002.  Yet, documentary and photographic evidence of the site prior to 2002 offer a rich historical narrative on the two statues. Also, since 2002 numerous new discoveries of ancient statues, caves and paintings surrounding the two giant statues have been made.  The Giant Statues are unique in several respects.  They are sculpted into naturally formed mountain cliffs. The Buddha figures are unusual in that they are in a standing posture.  Usually Buddha statues, paintings and miniatures show him in sitting position. (Wriggins 1996)  Incidentally, a big statue of Buddha in the reclining position is unearthed recently in the area proximal to the two Giant Statues.

The Giant Statues were built in 6th century AD by the kingdom of the Kushans.  This was a time when Gandara art, architecture and philosophy thrived in the Kingdom, now identified as part of Afghanistan.  The Bamiyan Valley in which the Buddhas are carved, as well as the Hazarajat region in which Bamiyan is located was historically a site for Buddhist culture and thought.  The numerous caves in this area attest to the fact that many monks found abode in them for contemplative practices.  Located along the Silk Road, the region saw a confluence of cultures, religions and philosophies.  This resulted in establishing Buddhism as the prominent religion at the time.  This lasted till the 7th century AD, when Bamiyan was invaded by Islamic kingdoms from the East.  From this point on there were several other Islamic invasions witnessed in the region.  Each of these occasions posed a threat for the survival of the Giant Statues, for idol worship is forbidden under Islamic doctrine.  So, the last 13 centuries of the statues’ existence have seen them being repeatedly vandalized under the name of religious purification.  The culmination of these events is the radical move on part of the Taliban to destroy the statues altogether.  They accomplished this by detonating powerful bombs within the mountain niche. (Gerstenblith 2006)

Buddhism is more a philosophy and an attitude toward life than a ritual-filled religion. In this regard, the role of physical icons such as the Giant Buddha statues serves a symbolic purpose only.  There is not much material significance attached to them.  Seen in this perspective, the destruction of the Buddha statues should not be offensive to the Buddhist faithful. If anything, the event proved to be a test case for Buddhists to practically illustrate their adherence of the principle of tolerance and non-violence.  They were largely successful in this respect, for none of the countries where Buddhism is dominant had officially retaliated against the Taliban – either militarily or through economic sanctions. In contrast, this unfortunate episode illustrated the duplicity and high intolerance of the Taliban. (Parenti 2008)

The loss of the two Giant Statues is a loss to humankind’s cultural heritage.  The effort that must have gone behind constructing these magnificent monuments is a real feat of ingenuity, conception and engineering. It is in recognition of this colossal loss that ideas for putting together the statues from their fragments have been mooted in recent years.  Many countries across the world, acknowledging the value of the statues as a cultural-historical artifact have come forward to support its reconstruction.  But it is estimated that such an endeavor would cost millions of dollars, which could be put to equally good use to fulfill the basic needs of Afghans in the region.  With Afghanistan civil society currently in tatters as a result of US occupation of the country since 2001, the country is desperately in need of rebuilding its economy and social harmony.  The funds that are proposed for reconstructing the Giant Statues could instead be channeled into this noble enterprise of rebuilding the nation.

Works Cited

  • Gerstenblith, Patty. “From Bamiyan to Baghdad: Warfare and the Preservation of Cultural Heritage at the Beginning of the 21st Century.” Georgetown Journal of International Law2 (2006): 245+.
  • Parenti, Christian. “The Bomber of Bamiyan.” Mother JonesMay/June 2006: 17+.
  • Wriggins, Sally Hovey. Xuanzang: A Buddhist Pilgrim on the Silk Road. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1996.