The Buddhas of Bamiyan: A Tradition of Buddhist Art in the Heart of Afghanistan

Drawing of the Buddhas of Bamiyan by Alexander Burnes 1832

Today the locals call them “Salsal” and “Shamama.” The world knows them as the Buddhas of Bamiyan.

Salsal and Shamama presided over the Bamiyan Valley for nearly 1,500 years. Their presence still fills the imagination despite their decimation at the hand of Taliban explosives in March 2001. In a Buddhist manner, their absence is a fitting symbol for sunyata (emptiness). Their destruction gave voice to a region in Afghanistan the world hardly new suffered.

The Creators of the Buddhas of Bamiyan

An obscure Buddhist community called the Lokottaravadan’s settled in Bamiyan somewhere around the first century BCE; exactly when remains unknown. They were a subgroup of the Mahasanghika school that believed in the instantaneous attainment of prajna (wisdom); as opposed to a gradual realization of enlightenment. Their Hinayana-based theology venerated the ultimate transcendence of the Buddha, exalting his status above the restrictions and jurisdiction of earthly law.

Secluded in the heart of Afghanistan, then known as Bactria, Bamiyan is tucked in-between the mountain ranges of the Hindu-Kush in the north and the Koh-i-baba in the south. The Lokottaravadan’s built monasteries in the shadows of 20,000 foot summits, and carved out hundreds of caves in the sheer cliffs that guard the valley. They faded early into history, but not without leaving behind epic monuments of their faith.

The Creation of the Buddhas of Bamiyan

They carved Shamama out of the sandstone cliff-face first in 507 CE. He ascended 125 feet above the earth. Shamama’s robes were painted indigo. His adorned body shimmered with jewels, and his gilded face and hands reflected the golden southern sun. The story has it that the artists were dissatisfied with flaws in Shamama, and endeavored to sculpt a larger, more worthy Buddha.

Sculpted in 554 CE, Salsal towered 180 feet above the valley floor. He sparkled in the spectral light of hundreds of jewels. His robes were painted crimson, and his sunlit gilded face and hands gleamed. Salsal was the largest Buddha sculpture in the world until his 21st century demise.

Graeco-Bactrian Buddhist Art

Buddhism made its entrance into Gandhara—now the Peshawar valley in Pakistan—in the third century BCE. With the establishment of the Kushan Empire around the time of Christ, stability and security soothed the region and opened the trade routes to caravans from distant empires. A frenetic convergence of artistic forms met in the Gandharan valley, forever influencing the evolution of Buddhist art.

The Kushans ardently subscribed to the Buddhist faith. They adorned the region, from Kabul to Peshawar, with stuppas and monasteries and commissioned Buddhist works of art on a majestic scale.

Bactrian and Gandharan artists were the first in history to render the image of the Buddha. The works of the era, known as the Graeco-Bactrian, formed the basis from which all forms of Buddhist art would emerge for centuries.

A History of Destruction

The Buddhas of Bamiyan suffered malicious intent long before the Taliban came along. The Ghaznavid despot Mahmud (998 – 1030 BCE) attempted to permanently scar the sculptures in an effort to eradicate Bactrian idolatry and heretical faiths. In 1211 BCE Genghis Khan led his horde into Balkh and murdered every soul before laying ruin to the city. Over the course of 1,500 years mother nature wreaked more havoc with her violent shaking of the earth than did Genghis Khan’s warriors or Mahmud’s persecutions.