Buddhas of Bamiyan

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Drawing of the Buddhas of Bamyan, visited by Alexander Burnes in 1832

The Buddhas of Bamiyan were two 6th-century monumental statues of Vairocana Buddha and Gautama Buddha carved into the side of a cliff in the Bamyan valley of central Afghanistan, 130 kilometres (81 mi) northwest of Kabul at an elevation of 2,500 metres (8,200 ft). Carbon dating of the structural components of the Buddhas has determined that the smaller 38 m (125 ft) "Eastern Buddha" was built around 570 AD, and the larger 55 m (180 ft) "Western Buddha" was built around 618 AD, which would date both to the time when the Hephthalites ruled the region. The statues represented a later evolution of the classic blended style of Gandhara art.


  • But who cut the Bamian, still more colossal, statues, the tallest and the most gigantic in the whole world, for Bartholdi’s “Statue of Liberty” (now at New York) is a dwarf when compared with the largest of the five images. Burnes, and several learned Jesuits who have visited the place, speak of a mountain “all honeycombed with gigantic cells,” with two immense giants cut in the same rock.... Central Asian traditions say the same of the Bamian statues. What are they, and what is the place where they have stood for countless ages, defying the cataclysms around them, and even the hand of man, as in the instance of the hordes of Timoor and the Vandal-warriors of Nadir-Shah? Bamian is a small, miserable, half-ruined town in Central Asia, half-way between Cabul and Balkh, at the foot of Kobhibaba, a huge mountain of the Paropamisian (or Hindu-Kush) chain, some 8,500 feet above the level of the sea. In days of old, Bamian was a portion of the ancient city of Djooljool, ruined and destroyed to the last stone by Tchengis-Khan in the XIIIth century. The whole valley is hemmed in by colossal rocks, which are full of partially natural and partially artificial caves and grottoes, once the dwellings of Buddhist monks who had established in them their viharas. Such viharas are to be met with in profusion, to this day, in the rock-cut temples of India and the valleys of Jellalabad. It is at the entrance of some of these that five enormous statues, of what is regarded as Buddha, have been discovered or rather rediscovered in our century, as the famous Chinese traveller, Hiouen-Thsang, speaks of, and saw them, when he visited Bamian in the VIIth century. When it is maintained that no larger statues exist on the whole globe, the fact is easily proven on the evidence of all the travellers who have examined them and taken their measurements. Thus, the largest is 173 feet high, or seventy feet higher than the “Statue of Liberty” now at New York, as the latter is only 105 feet or 34 metres high. The famous Colossus of Rhodes itself, between whose limbs passed easily the largest vessels of those days, measured only 120 to 130 feet in height. The second statue, cut out in the rock like the first one, is only 120 feet (15 feet taller than the said “Liberty”).† The third statue is only 60 feet high — the two others still smaller, the last one being only a little larger than the average tall man of our present race. The first and largest of the Colossi represents a man draped in a kind of toga; M. de Nadeylac thinks (See infra) that the general appearance of the figure, the lines of the head, the drapery, and especially the large hanging ears, point out undeniably that Buddha was meant to be represented.
  • You know, when I despair, I don't always have before my eyes the apocalyptic scenes of September 11. ... Often with the two Towers that no longer exist overlap the two Buddhas which the Taliban destroyed in Afghanistan. The two images mix, unite, become the same thing, and I think: have people already forgotten it? Not me. In fact when I look at the two little Buddhas I keep in my living-room which an old monk persecuted by the Khmer Rouge gave me in Pnomh Penh, my heart is tightening. And instead of two small brass Buddhas I see the two huge Buddhas in the valley of Bamiyan.
  • My heart is also tightening for the way in which they have killed them [the Buddhas of Bamiyan]... They have not acted with the irrationality and bestiality of the Chinese Maoists who destroyed Lhasa in 1951, broke into monasteries and into the palace of the Dalai Lama and like drunken buffalo razed to the ground the monuments of a civilization... The destruction of Lhasa was not preceded by a trial... But in the case of the Buddhas of Bamiyan, there was a real process. There was a real sentence, then an execution was decided based on legal norms or presumed legal norms. It was therefore, a premeditated crime.
  • I did not want to destroy the Bamiyan Buddha. In fact, some foreigners came to me and said they would like to conduct the repair work of the Bamiyan Buddha that had been slightly damaged due to rains. This shocked me. I thought, these callous people have no regard for thousands of living human beings – the Afghans who are dying of hunger, but they are so concerned about non-living objects like the Buddha. This was extremely deplorable. That is why I ordered its destruction. Had they come for humanitarian work, I would have never ordered the Buddha's destruction.
  • Bamiyan was stormed by Muslims many times. All these images and paintings were destroyed. The images suffered much damage, their hands were mutilated and their noses cut... The damage to colossi did not stop. Aurangzeb ordered cannon-shots to be fired at the colossal images of the Buddha, signs of which can still be seen on them.
    • Swarup, R. (2015). Hinduism and monotheistic religions. 517.
  • While the Ottomans moved into South-East Europe, the Moghul invasion of India destroyed much of Hindu and Buddhist civilization there. The recent destruction by Moslems in Afghanistan of colossal Buddhist statues is a reminder of what happened to temples and shrines, on an enormous scale, when Islam took over.
  • The princes of Bamiyan were converted to Islam probably during the time of Abbasid dynasty, either in the ron of al-Mansur (755-775 A.D.) or in that of al-Mahdi (775-785A.D.).* The conversion of the Bamiyan princes to Islam must have created dismay and a dreadful impact on the fate of the monks and monasteries of this locality. Whether it was on account of the vehment Islamic zeal that led to the persecusion of Buddhists resulting in indiscriminate massacre of the monks and wanton destruction of the monasteries, and presumably some being converted to Islam by persuasion or under pressure, it is remarkable to note that the prince of Bamiyan, after his conversion from Buddhism to Islam, and so also the members of his dynasty enjoyed an influencial position in the court of Baghdad; and the prince of Bamiyan was appointed as the Sher(Ruler) of Bamiyan. In 844 he was also appointed as the Governor of Yaman. The Buddhist community had been left forlorn with no choice but to adopt Islam. In 256 Hizri i.e. 869-870 A.D. Bamiyan was again stormed by Yakub-bin- Laith resulting in the destruction of the images and other embellishments of this great monastic establishment. In the following years he removed some of the beautiful and precious images to Baghdad.! It seems that those images of the Buddha which once adorned many of the niches and which are not now traceable, were then removed from there and despatched to the capital. It also seems possible that the gems and jewels which were studded on the colossal images were also removed. The images suffered much damage, their hands were mutilated and, in particular their noses were battered.2 The dismembering of the colossal images must have continued for a long time on account of the Islamic abhorrence for idols of all kinds. In 970 A.D. Bamiyan witnessed another invasion by Alaptagin, the Turkish Governor of Balkh along with his slave Subaktgin. No doubt, the remaining glamour of Bamiyan was further obliterated, and many embellishments and images which escaped earlier rampages also suffered a lot. The prince of Bamiyan was taken captive. It is well known that Subaktgin, who later founded the Ghaznavi dynasty, was fanatically zealous to propagate Islam. He probably caused more havoc than others; and during his reign Islam was permanently established throughout Afghanistan. In 1222 the armies of Changiz Khan again invaded Bamiyan and caused widespread devastations, leaving nothing untouched except the inaccessible images of the Buddha. The damage to colossi did not stop then, rather they suffered destruction in the middle ages too. Aurangzeb, the Indian Mughal emperor (1658-1707 A.D.) who is noted for his religious fanaticism, ordered cannon-shots to be fired at the colossal images of the Buddha, signs of which can still be seen on them.
    • C.S. Upasak, in his History of Buddhism in Afghanistan, [1]

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