We used to rise early and stare in wonder at those two gigantic Buddha statues. Now the Taliban have dynamited them, blown them to pieces.
Around A.D. 300, Persian and Kushan monks had carved the first of the Buddhas in a niche in the sandstone cliff. Around A.D. 500 a second gigantic figure was added to encourage religious tourism by pilgrims and traders who followed the ancient Silk Road leading from China to the Roman Empire.
From the windows of the Bamiyan Guesthouse, we gazed in awe as we drank our green tea and chewed unleavened bread, imagining the labor of love needed to create a statue 150 feet tall. It was cold autumn weather. Soon the snows would close this valley for six months of winter, cutting off the Hindu Kush mountains from the Indian subcontinent. We were nearly cut off ourselves, finally leaving Bamiyan 20 feet in the air atop a lorry-load of potatoes. We drove at 15 mph and the night was frigid. It was the only vehicle leaving Bamiyan that week.
That was 30 years ago; there was still a king in Afghanistan, and there was peace.
Hindu Kush. The name of the mountains sounds beautiful to the Western ear, but it translates as "Killer of Hindus" because it takes astonishing hardiness just to survive the annual mountain freeze. Medieval traders or invaders coming north from the heat of India sometimes perished here in the mountain snows.
The residents of Bamiyan are Hazaras, Shi-ite Moslem descendants of the hordes of Genghis Khan. Genghis Khan king of the nomadic tribes of Mongolia was the atom bomb of the 1220s. Genghis, the supreme khan, has become a mythical figure of world history. He claimed descent from a legendary virgin who was ravished by a moonbeam. His mastery of cavalry warfare was complete. When Persians first saw the Mongol army, they believed this was a new race of two-headed demons, with the head of a man plus the head and body of a horse. Europe was terrified of the Mongols, who became known as the "Yellow Peril".
There is a city at the head of the Bamiyan valley called "The City of Screams," Shar-i-golgola, where Genghis Khan slaughtered every living thing, even the dogs and cats. The only things Genghis ever built were pyramids made from the skulls of his victims.
Those serene Buddhas of Bamiyan watched Genghis Khan command his troops to slaughter. They watched patiently over the Bamiyan valley for 1,500 years and more. High above the green valley and our tiny Bamiyan Guesthouse, the cliff was pockmarked with caves where monks lived for centuries. Now the cliff is pitted from bazooka shells.
My companion and I would sip tea in the teahouse, sitting cross-legged on the red carpets of the chaikhana, and meditate on the devotion needed to carve art on such a grand scale. We would chew grilled shish kebab, gazing in wonder at the skill. A hundred and twenty feet tall, 150 feet high: How had they been carved? How had they been worshipped?
Pilgrims came to Bamiyan, just as they travel now to Mecca. (Just a month ago, millions of the Islamic faithful were in Mecca for the haji.)
The medieval Buddhist pilgrims prayed, too. They crawled along the valley floor, eyes down in slow humility as they inched toward the holy cliff. As the sun set, the chanting of the monks reached a point of frenzy, gongs sounded and the pilgrims raised their faces at last to gaze in wonder at the cliff, at the Buddha, the Enlightened One.
The Buddhas were carved only up to the chin. Their faces were built in wood, in those far-off days, centuries before the birth of Mohammed the Prophet (Peace be upon Him). As the pilgrims watched, monks high up in the cliff would light a fire in each statue, and suddenly the eyes of the Lord Buddha would come alight, flaming with life. The pilgrims gasped in awe and believed in God. One God. One Creator. Far above all spirits and saints and mullahs and ayatollahs. The same Creator, in fact, as The One worshipped by Jews and Christians and Moslems. One God, different methods of worship, but the same God nonetheless. Buddha is not God. Like Mohammed the Prophet (Peace be upon Him), the Lord Buddha claimed only to show The Way.
Now it is Mullah Omar of the Taliban who is showing a new way: The Buddhas of Bamiyan show the Taliban on a path of destruction. The "Taliban" claim to be students of religion; but what sort of politicized Islam is their religion? Destroying history and culture is not how I understand the Way of Islam.
Islam has created art through calligraphy and mosaic, and through the famous miniatures of Persia; Islam inspired great buildings like the Taj Mahal of India. The pharaohs of Egypt were not Moslems, but theirs was a great civilization, which no one wishes to destroy. So was the Greco-Buddhist Kushan civilization of Afghanistan, Bamiyan and the Indus Valley.
Mullah Omar has a narrow and rigid idea of religion, of history, of culture, of God. The mullah's way has been repudiated by every country in the Organization of Islamic States. His way is no closer to Islam than the way of Genghis Khan, the ultimate infidel who destroyed everything and created nothing but a pile of skulls: a pyramid which began with screams, and which has long since turned to dust.
Even Genghis Khan did not destroy the Buddhas of Bamiyan. If this is how Mullah Omar treats history and things of beauty, I wonder what he does to people. I wonder whether, like Genghis Khan, he also slaughters dogs and cats. Gone today. And gone tomorrow.Robin Edward Poulton, a former resident of Afghanistan, now lives in the Fan in Richmond.
For more about the Buddhas on the Internet go to www.purabudaya.com/resources/bamiyan/bamiyan.htm
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