Buddhas of Bamyan: History Destroyed by the Taliban

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In 2001, the Taliban destroyed two large statues of Buddha that had stood since Buddhists populated Afghanistan between the 2nd to 9th Centuries.

The Bamyan valley is an area in mountainous central Afghanistan. Despite being a primarily Islamic region today, from the 2nd Century to the 9th Century, the valley was home to mostly Buddhists and Hindus. It was the location of numerous Buddhist and Hindu monasteries. The valley was a cultural center in Afghanistan; a place of learning, religion, philosophy, and art. Scholars and learners flocked to Bamyan to study.

Bamyan also happened to fall along the ancient Silk Road, a trade route between China and western Asia that was first used starting in the 2nd Century. Many travelers from the west passed through Bamyan on their way to India and China. The Bamyan valley grew in reputation as a place that was both inviting and enlightening.

The Buddhist monks who lived in Bamyan at the time lived a simple life. They lived in small, isolated caves built directly into the side of the Bamyan cliffs. Their caves were simple, but decorated with elaborate religious paintings and statues.

The Statues of the Bamyan Buddhists

Two of the largest statues built by the Buddhist monks of Bamyan were long known simply as the Buddhas of Bamyan. These two statues, one standing 180 feet tall and the other 120 feet tall, were carved directly into the cliff wall in the 6th Century. They were the largest Buddha statues in the world, and they were a major cultural attraction for the region since they were built. Buddhist scholars and practitioners as well as interested tourists have made journeys to the Bamyan valley to catch a glimpse of Afghanistan’s historical and cultural past.

Originally the Buddhist monks of Bamyan set out simply to carve their statues from the cliffs. Once the carving was done, however, the monks decided to continue their work and enhance the statues. Using mud, straw, and stucco, the monks coated the surface of the statues. This allowed the monks a medium for painting the Buddhas. They were able to add colors and enhance facial features. The larger Buddha was originally painted a crimson red color. The smaller one was multi-colored and very brightly painted.

Buddhism Departs from Afghanistan

In the 9th Century the Buddhists moved from the Bamyan valley as Muslims moved in. Naturally, the Buddhas of Bamyan were left behind. But they were not forgotten.

Throughout the centuries, the statues have served as an important pilgrimage site for Buddhists of the world. The Buddhas of Bamyan have long been considered a culturally important location for all of Earth’s people, not just Buddhists. Such large sculptures are a marvel of the ancient world, and their presence in the modern world helps to reaffirm the great will and artistic abilities of ancient civilizations.

The Buddhas of Bamyan Destroyed

In March 2001, several radical clerics of the Taliban declared that the Buddhas of Bamyan were “anti-islamic” and ordered them destroyed. Taliban destruction crews set about to swiftly and violently destroy the Buddha statues.

Over several weeks, the Buddhas were fired upon using military guns and tanks. Once this was sufficiently completed, the destruction crew filled holes along the surface of the Buddhas with bundles of dynamite and other types of explosives. These explosives effectively destroyed the Buddhas of Bamyan. Today, the only evidence of the Buddha statues are the flattened cliff walls upon which they once stood in relief.

In the aftermath of the destruction, Mullah Mohammed Omar, the spiritual leader of the Taliban, stated, “Muslims should be proud of smashing idols. It has given praise to God that we have destroyed them.”

The Bright Side

Many researchers and historians have tried to find a bright side to this story. And many believe they have. After the destruction of the statues was complete, 50 caves were discovered. These caves had been previously blocked or hidden by the massive statues. Inside many of the caves, colorful wall paintings were discovered.

After years of research scientists have finally determined that the wall paintings were done between the 5th and the 9th Centuries. These scientists believe the wall paintings were created by artists traveling along the Silk Road at that time. It is believed these are the world’s oldest oil paintings. Their discovery has triggered a reassessment of the ancient art of the countries that lay along the Silk Road.