Each figure was hand carved directly from the cliff wall. The larger Buddha measured 180 ft tall, while the smaller stood 121 feet tall. Originally there was an outer layer of stucco on the figures that defined the fine details and provided a surface for the monks to paint upon. According to the writings of sixth century Chinese Buddhist pilgrim Xuanzang, the figures were at one time also decorated with gold and fine jewels.
Buddhism began on the Indian subcontinent starting in approximately 400 BCE. The religion is based upon the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, a noble born prince and philosopher who rejected the comforts of wealth to wander the world in search of enlightenment and Nirvana, a perfected state of mind. In 250 BCE, the Mauryan emperor Ashoka the Great carried the religion from India into Central Asia and Afghanistan, where it flourished. The Bamyan Valley in the Hazarajat region of central Afghanistan became a large and thriving Buddhist center. This region’s growth was due in part to the proximity of the Silk Road, a major trade route connecting China with Eastern Europe.
In the Buddhist tradition, the process of creating of a work of art depicting the Buddha serves as an active meditation upon the divine Buddha Nature. Artists will often imagine themselves as the Buddha while working, thereby internalizing the Buddha qualities and helping to guide them further down the path of enlightenment. In the Tibetan tradition of Thangka painting, the figure and composition must follow specific rules outlined in the Buddhist scriptures regarding proportions, shape, color, stance, hand positions, and attributes in order to properly channel the Buddha spirit.
Taliban leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, ordered that the gigantic Buddha sculptures be destroyed because he felt that they were “idols”, and as such were against Islamic law and therefore against Allah. This went contrary to statements that he had previously made concerning the figures. His original stance in 1999 had been that the Buddhas could potentially provide a source of revenue as tourist attractions. His reason for changing his position remains unclear.
The intolerance and lack of respect shown by the Taliban in this case is symptomatic of their severely militant belief system. They have imposed bans on employment and education for women, movies, television, videos, music, dancing, hanging pictures in homes, clapping during sports events, pork, satellite dishes, cinematography, musical equipment, pool tables, chess, masks, alcohol, tapes, computers, VCRs, television, wine, lobster, nail polish, firecrackers, statues, sewing catalogs, and pictures. Theft is punished by the amputation of a hand and adulterers are stoned to death publicly.
From an American perspective, it is very difficult to understand how a culture could disregard and destroy such a monumental human achievement. Our culture values most creative endeavors as unique products of the human spirit. The Taliban see Buddhist art merely as idolatry, and therefore they believe it is against Allah. In this country we value religious and cultural diversity, whereas the Taliban view any lifestyle not specifically outlined in the Qur’an as a direct threat to God.
Obviously this is not the first time that artwork has been lost or destroyed over ideological differences. The Nazis burned thousands of paintings they found distasteful during World War II, as well as using many national monuments for target practice in their occupied territories. The Museums of Baghdad were looted and during the US invasion of 2003, and the vast majority of that artwork has never been recovered.
The Government of Japan has expressed an interest in recreating the Buddhas of Bamyan. This is a heartfelt gesture, but the true history that these sculptures represented has been lost to mankind forever. The senseless destruction of these monuments gives one reason to pause and wonder how many other major historical artifacts have been lost and forgotten? How much of human history is buried in our past, never to be recalled or remembered? I believe that it is in our best interest as a species to embrace our history and retain as much of it as possible for future generations. For it is through the study of our history that we will discover and ultimately learn to direct our own evolution.