Blasting Buddhas

In complete contrast, across the Subcontinental expanse in present-day Pakistan and Afghanistan, there is (or was) Buddhistic art and statuary in abundance but hardly any sensitivity for the Buddha. Unlike a Bangladesh made up of silt thousands of feet deep, northern Punjab and Afghanistan are all rock—schist and conglomerate. No wonder, the art of statuary flourished here, after kings like Kanishka of the Kushana dynasty, coming in from the north and east, took to the Buddha's teachings at the very start of the first millennium. It was in this region, just a few centuries after the passing of the Sakyamuni, that his image was for the first time locked into human form. What emerged in and around the centre of Taxila came to be known as the Gandhara shaili.

Unlike the snub-nosed, round-faced, Mongoloid images of the more oriental Buddhas and Bodhisattvas of Nepal, Tibet and elsewhere, the 'original Buddhas' of Gandhara were decidedly occidental. They took after Greco-Roman and Persian traditions of statuary, wearing thick togas, and sporting aquiline features on an oval face, most prominently a straight nose and occasionally even a moustache.

Northern Punjab and Afghanistan have been the inheritors of the relics of that long-ago Buddhistic epoch on the headwaters of the Indus, and since British times it is the Lahore Museum which has been the institutional repository of much of the art from that period, including the 'Starving Buddha'. But the state ideology of Pakistan, geared to Islamic nation-building alone, makes it difficult for Pakistanis to proudly call this Buddhist iconography their own. This, too, has been the reason why the loot of Gandharan period statuary continues today from crude excavations in Pakistan headed for Western museums and private collections, with little concern among the citizenry.

The Pakistani's absence of consideration for Gandhara period-pieces expresses itself as indifference to excavated loot. Tragically in Talibanised Afghanistan, it was hostility rather than indifference, and it allowed the Gandhara statuary to be hacked, blasted, destroyed in March 2001, after standing for two millennia.

With the Bamiyan Buddhas and, who knows, thousands of other statuary and frescoes similarly destroyed, the only thing that remains to be done is to try and learn from the monumental desecration. And certainly, any kind of sectarian reaction against the musalman is totally misplaced. The main reason to be angered by what the Taliban mullahs and ulema have done should not even be purely religious—how many Buddhists around the world even knew of Afghanistan's Buddhistic heritage before March 2001? Instead, the Taliban are to be condemned for their anti-intellectual lack of empathy, for present-day Buddhists, certainly, but more so for the people of the upper Indus region, long dead, who once lived and created great art.

In 1977, as a student in Delhi, I headed for Bamiyan overland. Making it through the Atari-Wagah border checkpoint after reassuring the Pakistan immigration officer that I was born Buddhist (there was trouble then if you said Hindu), I headed up to Peshawar, and past Torkham and Jalalabad. Kabul's Chicken Street, much like Kathmandu's own Freak Street of the time, was populated by Western hippies. From Kabul I took a packed local bus to Bamiyan, sitting on the floor next to the driver's gearshift and the roaring engine. However, this gave me vantage to look out of the windscreen.

And there, out of the desert terrain marked by a long cliffside, emerged two gigantic Buddhas. Silent sentinels in rock conglomerate, one larger than the other, they looked out over the oasis of Bamiyan Valley as they had since the Kushan age. It was possible to climb through the tunnels that honeycombed the statues and outlying caves, and I remember going up and looking from the overhang down at the larger Buddha.

This Bamiyan Buddha's sides were pockmarked with arrow-heads and pellets, as Indian archaeologists discovered when they restored large parts of his gigantic girth back in the 1970s. These were the projectiles of anti-idolators of the past, including the cavalry of Genghis Khan. But modern methods bring a modern scale of devastation to the heritage of humankind. Ghengis Khan did not have gelignite, nor howitzers, to convert the Bamiyan Buddhas into rubble. The Taliban did. And who was it that trained them and gave them the guns in the first place?

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Himal Southasian