Lost History: the Buddhas of Bamiyan

Last month, I wrote a set of posts talking about two ‘rediscovered libraries’–Timbuktu and Dunhuang, whose manuscripts were revolutionising the way that we perceived the past in those regions. These stories benefit from the allure of the unknown and the exotic, but to my mind, the most remarkable thing about them is their utter rarity. Huge numbers of documents from the Middle Ages–including the state archives of Byzantium and Safavid Iran, to name only two–simply have not survived, the victims of accidents or deliberate destruction. It’s not only manuscripts that suffer either, as both moveable art and architecture can degrade or disappear.

A sketch of the Buddhas in the hillside as they stood in the 1830s, as seen by Alexander Burnes (Wikimedia Commons.)

Today, I’d like to turn my attention to one such pair of lost artefacts, the colossal standing Buddha statues carved into the cliff-face of Bamiyan, in Afghanistan. The region itself has been a crossroads of civilisations for many centuries. Alexander conquered it, the Persian empires ruled it, but it was a local king, Ashoka, who brought Buddhism to Afghanistan from his territories in subcontinental India, in the 3rd century BCE. These events in ancient Gandhara, as the area is known to scholars, bequeathed a diverse cultural tradition to the late antique and early mediaeval residents of Bamiyan, influences clearly visible in the Buddhas.

Photograph of the Buddha in his cliff-face niche. They overlook the valley of Bamiyan, and would have been painted in red (larger) and white (smaller). (Wikimedia Commons)

Carved sometime between the 4th and the 7th century in the time of the Kushans, the Bamiyan Buddhas stood at nearly 175 ft and 120 ft respectively–making the larger of the two the biggest such standing Buddha in the world. They were constructed from a core of stone from the cliff-face, then given a moulded exterior of painted clay. It is this technique which gave the statues their graceful draping robes and delicate details, all of which contributed to the transcendent nature of the figures. Depictions of the human form like this were only introduced into Buddhism through Hellenic influences, but Bamiyan’s statues also display the subsequent influence of Iranian and Indian artistic developments.

Surrounding the Buddhas on all sides were caves and galleries that housed a Buddhist monastic community. Paintings inside the cave walls represent the earliest known oil paintings, and depict a variety of devotional themes, but these images are sadly corroded.

Remnants of the cave paintings in the monastic centre of Bamiyan, Afghanistan. (Wikimedia Commons)

Buddhism flourished in Bamiyan, and in Gandhara more widely, for several centuries, drawing upon the wealth of the Silk Route which it straddled and relying upon the surrounding mountains for protection. With the arrival of Islam in the 7th century, however, a new religion and a new political power began to influence the area. While the Buddhist monasteries were not deliberately destroyed, they eventually lost the vitality of the earlier centuries, although perhaps did not disappear entirely until as late as the 12th century.

The empty niche of the largest Buddha, seen across the valley and the town of Bamiyan, (Wikimedia Commons)

Although the Buddhists of Bamiyan may have disappeared before the end of the Middle Ages, the Buddhas themselves did not. As late as the year 2000, they were visible, though faceless, in their niches above the valleys. In the next year, however, both statues would be dynamited by the Taliban as examples of ungodly idols. The blasts, which reduced the statues to rubble, have also damaged the integrity of the cliff face, endangering the many surrounding caves. Thus, although the site has been formally recognised by UNESCO as a World Heritage site, these Buddhas and many other Gandharan artefacts are already lost.

Visiting the statues now can only be done through pictures or through the words of previous travellers. Peter Levi, who visited Afghanistan in the 1970s, for example, wrote this about them:

“Their faces have been cut away and the restored pieces have a coldness, the feet a solid stance. No statue which has had its face removed can express justice or law or illumination or mercy, but there is a disturbing presence about these two giants that does express something. I do not know if it is ‘expressionless, expresses God’ or not.

We climbed, like all tourists, from gallery to gallery through the monks’ caves, and stood on the head of Buddha listening to the swallows below our feet twittering round his faceless face. Was Buddha put here to contemplate or to be contemplated? …”

Learn More: 

Levi, Peter, The Light Garden of the Angel King: Travels in Afghanistan with Bruce Chatwin, (London, 1972), p.39.




6 thoughts on “Lost History: the Buddhas of Bamiyan

  1. Hi Marissa,

    Thank you for this great post about Bamiyan. It is a great loss. The Hellenic influence on Buddhist iconography (evident for example if you compare early Buddha statues to Greek statues of Apollo) may have come from Alexander the Great’s campaign in that part of the world.

    I was not previously aware of the cave complex in the cliffs around the statues and their now decaying decoration. I think I have read somewhere that there is a French archaeologist who is collecting the statue fragments from the explosions in an attempt to put together a project and obtain funding to restore them.

    Incidentally there is a very touching film about the lives of contemporary Afghan children around the Bamiyan area that is worth seeing if you can find it. It’s called “Buddha Collapsed Out of Shame” by the young Iranian film maker Hana Makhmalbaf.


    • Hi Peter,

      You’re very welcome for this post–it Was a joy to write and I’m glad you liked it! You’re right that the first contact of Buddhist and Hellenistic art came through Alexander’s invasions, and was perpetuated and altered through the settlement of Greeks (Macedonians?) in the area. Peter Levi, whose book The Light Garden of the Angel King I quoted, is a classist by training, and his travels through Afghanistan are primarily aimed at this early period in art. Aurel Stein, too, spent most of his career trying to get into Afghanistan to study the period, but died very soon after being allowed entry.

      The cliff-complex reminds me quite a lot of Dunhuang, but I don’t know enough to compare them in much depth. I also ran across a reference to reconstruction efforts, but the article said that the first proposals were rejected by the Afghan government.(The article is here) With the continuing conflict in Afghanistan, I doubt if much progress has been made. I was interested to learn that scholars only learned about how the Buddhas were constructed because of their destruction, but it seems like a very steep price to pay.

      The documentary sounds very interesting–I’ll have to add it to my list of things to do after my exams are over. Thanks for the recommendation and for your comments. It’s always nice to talk Central Asian history with another enthusiast 🙂


  2. Nice post. You might be interested to know that in Gwalior in India, there are similar statues carved onto the hillside. They were of course quite smaller than the original Bamiyan Buddhas, but nevertheless, they were taken in themselves, huge enough to attract interest. Imagine an entire facade of the hill filled with such sculptured images! Beaut!

    • Thank you! I haven’t heard about the Buddhas of Gwalior, but it sounds like something I would be very interested in. I’ll be sure to look it up and try to find some photos, thanks for the recommendation!

  3. I saw a paper at a conference in 2008 that was dealing with the reconstruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas via photogrammetry and 3D modelling. Then, the idea was not to reconstruct the statues using the on-site materials but to build replicas elsewhere that could be substituted for the dynamited statues with the 3D models as a guide. From what you link to, that doesn’t seem to have progressed, which is a pity. Reference: Armin Gruen, “Image-Based 3D Modeling of Cultural and Natural Heritage Objects” in Digital Cultural Heritage – Essential for Tourism. Proceedings of the 2nd EVA 2008 Vienna Conference, Vienna, August 25-28, 2008, edd. Robert Sablatning, James Hemsley, Paul Kammerer, Ernestine Zolda & Johann Stockinger, books@ocg.at 238 (Vienna 2008), pp. 11-35 at 22-25.

    • That sounds like it would be a very interesting process. It’s a shame that the Buddhas don’t seem very high on anyone’s agenda at the moment, but I can understand why the Afghan government is focusing on other priorities. After all, they’ve been destroyed already, and reconstructing them isn’t a process with a time limit.

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