The Bamiyan Valley is in a place called the Hindu Kush which is among the peaks of the central highlands of Afghanistan. The valley is around 264 km away from Kabul and is at an altitude of 2500 meters. The Bamiyan Valley has an interesting history and legend attached to it.
Besides the stunning scenery, Bamiyan valley is famous for its two magnificent Buddha statues, carved into the cliff face. These statues are the largest standing statues of the world. One of the statues measures around 125 feet high while the other measures around 180 feet high. Both these figures date back between 544 and 644 AD. The Buddhas were cut into sandstone cliffs about half a mile apart.
The features were created using mud, straw, and coatings of stucco. The features were painted intricately for exquisite detailing. The lower parts of the arms were made of straw and stucco while the faces are wooden masks. The eyes were crafted using rubies that glow in the moonlight. The statues were earlier coated in gold foil and embellished with many jewels and gemstones. However, with time, these detailing faded and wore away. The rubies and other gems are believed to have been stolen, and now only sturdy stone bodies remain.
Buddhism in Afghanistan
Afghanistan was not always Islamic. There are many such majestic Buddhist relics in this country. Bamiyan was once the crossroads of the Silk Road. The Silk Road had people with various culture and religion. Buddhism was introduced in Afghanistan from India through the Silk Road around 1st century AD.
Kushans, a nomadic tribe, started ruling the Silk Road by the 2nd century AD. This tribe is known for their tolerance and benevolence in art and religion. Kushans helped in spreading Buddhist art, and many Buddhist monks started living in the Bamiyan valley. Buddhism prospered, and the foothills of many valleys had monasteries, sanctuaries and other places of Buddhist artwork and relics.
Buddhism was prevalent in the valley, and Islamic art and architecture were taking a backseat until the 11th century AD. Between 998 to 1030, under the rule of Sultan Mahmud of Chazna, Buddhism boomed in the valley.
Destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas
The Bamiyan Buddhas survived the passage of time along with extreme heat and climatic conditions. They even escaped destruction under the rule of Muslim conqueror Yaqub ibn Layth Saffari of the 9th century, who ordered to destroy all Buddhist imagery and monasteries.
In early 13th century, the menace of Genghis Khan and his army came upon Bamiyan. They slaughtered the people of the valley. It was a time when one area of Bamiyan was known as “The Valley of Screams” due to the sounds of countless people being massacred by the army.
Khan’s army looted and defiled the Buddhist monasteries. However, the statues stood firm. In the 17th century, Mughal emperor Aurangzeb ordered his men to shoot the legs of the huge statues. Despite the vandalism, the statues remained intact. Again, in the 19th century, the statues survived the flying bullets and bombs during the British-Afghan Wars.
Islam took root in Afghanistan following a war between the Soviet Union and the Mujahedeen in the 1980s. Taliban began to emerge from the war and started looming over the country. In 2001, the Taliban leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, declared to destroy the Buddha statues.
Despite passionate pleas from world leaders and the UN’s cultural organization, UNESCO, the Taliban soldiers blasted and crushed the two Buddhas using high explosives and rocket fire. The Taliban took just a couple of weeks to destroy a history of thousands of years. Taliban had a solid grip on the region, and so not much could be done.
Post the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas, in 2001; a discovery revealed strewn cavities where the Buddhas once stood. The explosions opened a new system of caves that no one was aware.
These were not ordinary caves and were adorned with unknown paintings of Buddhist imagery and artwork. The paintings and artwork date back between 5th and 9th centuries AD. Besides these, there were oil paintings that were as old as 1000 years.
Nirvana Buddha Statue in Bamiyan Valley
Scholars, historians, and conservationists are pushing forward plan to rebuild and restore the majestic Buddha statues. While these talks are on, a mysterious third Buddha is said to be somewhere in the Bamiyan valley which is supposed to be larger than the destroyed ones.
The existence of the third Buddha statue was reported by a Chinese monk, Xuanzang, who had spent several weeks along the Silk Road across the Taklamakan Desert in around 629 AD. The monk claimed of having seen a colossal Buddhist statue in a reclining position and measures around 1000 feet long. The third Buddha came to be known as the Nirvana Buddha due to the reclining position. The statue is said to signify Buddha’s transcendence to Nirvana. Over the years, the Nirvana Buddha was seen by few travelers in ancient times. The third Buddha could not be traced in the modern era.
Unfortunately, the Chinese monk’s details give an ambiguous location, making it difficult to search. Despite numerous excursions, the third Buddha statue has found its way to world’s greatest archeological mysteries. No one knows the location of the statue, what happened to it or whether it indeed existed.
Afghan archaeologist and former Director of Archaeology and Preservation of Historical Monuments in Afghanistan, Dr. Zemaryalai Tarzi, believes that a third Buddha existed and he has been scouring the valley for years to find a sign but in vain.
In spite of this, Tarzi is confident that the statue is hidden somewhere in the valley owing to the accuracy provided by the Chinese monk Xuanzang. According to Tarzi, the monk’s notes are detailed and accurate, and hence it is unlikely that it is a complete fabrication or overestimation. Tarzi continued his search till he was forced out of the country after the Soviet invasion.
In 2002, Tarzi returned to continue his quest for the third Buddha. When he started the excavations, he was ejected by a fearsome warlord who had taken over the region. Tarzi fled to France, and after receiving consent from the Afghan President Hamid Karzai, he started his excavations again.
With cooperation from the Afghan government and annual funding from France, Tarzi opened many pits and found seven unknown Buddhist monasteries in the valley. However, he did not locate the statue. In 2008, he found fragments of unknown reclining Buddha statue which measured around 62 feet long. Along with these fragments, he unearthed Buddhist relics, pottery, and artwork. The search for the Buddha statue continued.
Tarzi went all over the valley looking for the third Buddha. Currently, Tarzi and his team are looking into the tunnels and cave galleries. It has become a lifelong mission for Tarzi, who is obsessed to find the statue. At 71 years of age, Tarzi is digging and hunting for the lost Buddha.
Meanwhile, there are plans to reconstruct the other two statues that were rumbled by the power of bombs and hate.