THE ROVING EYEThe Buddha of Dushanbe
Asia Times, September 3, 2001
DUSHANBE, Tajikistan - There are few
more head-spinning experiences on the planet than being marooned in a remote Central Asian
republic in the underbelly of the former USSR, waiting for a Russian military helicopter
to take you to the "heart of Asia" (Afghanistan).
It is an exercise in
patience and persistence not unlike the pilgrimage along the Silk Road - the mother of all
trade routes - by the venerable monk Xuan Zhang, the foremost Chinese Buddhist of the 7th
Xuan Zhang visited the
land of the Tajiks almost 14 centuries ago. And also the land of the Afghans. He crossed
the mighty river Oxus, deviated from the Samarkand-to-Balkh caravan route, crossed the
Hindu Kush (the Snow Mountains), facing great hardship, and even saw the giant Buddhas
sculpted on the rocks of Bamiyan in Afghanistan.
Islam at the time didn't
even exist. The valley of Kabul was pure India. The valley of Bamiyan had frescoes of
Buddhas alongside Indian dancers - with their multilayered jewels and complex hand
choreography. Faces evoked Persian paintings. The Buddhas posed like Apollonian statues.
But Xuan Zhang couldn't possibly know, at the time, that Bamiyan's great Buddha (53 meters
high), with his impeccable draperies, was basically an Hellenistic statue blown up to
gigantic proportions. This was Greco-Buddhist art at its best - one of the most sublime
historical fusions of East and West.
For monks like Xuan
Zhang, the Silk Road was the Journey to the West - an odyssey as much as a moral fable. A
pilgrimage, a quest, a rite of passage - the journey as revelation and salvation. Almost
14 centuries later, Balkh is in ruins, the Oxus (now the Amu Darya) is patrolled by
Russian troops, the Bamiyan Buddhas have been blown up by the fanatical Taliban, and the
only way to cross the Hindu Kush is by Russian helicopter. The helicopter was to come,
eventually, after many close calls. Meanwhile, we had to do something. So we decided to
look for the Buddha of Dushanbe.
Contrary to the words of
the venerable Tang master Lin-chi ("In Buddhism there is no place for using
effort"), to find the Buddha of Dushanbe we almost had to move a few sections of the
Hindu Kush, with some of the Pamirs range thrown in for good measure. Most of the local
citizens are indifferent to the fact that they now possess one of the most precious
Buddhist relics of mankind. Fate - manifested through the Taliban's barbarism - wanted
that the destruction of the blind standing Buddhas of Bamiyan coincided with the
"awakening" of their 5th Century contemporary, the sleeping Buddha of Dushanbe.
Actually, this reclining
Buddha - now promoted to the status of the largest Buddha in Central Asia - was discovered
by Soviet archeologists in 1966 in a monastery build under the kings of Kushan, now in
southern Tajikistan, right on the legendary Silk Road. Xuan Zhang certainly saw the Buddha
during his pilgrimage. But since 1966, it had been sleeping in the basement of a Dushanbe
museum, dismembered into about 100 boxes. It was considered by the Soviets to be too big
to be transported to its supposedly rightful place, the Hermitage in St Petersburg, the
Credit for the
restoration goes in great part to ACTED, a French NGO running many programs in Tajikistan
and Afghanistan - from brick- making and shelter-building to road construction and wheat
distribution. ACTED paid for an archeologist imported from the Hermitage, who spent three
months in Dushanbe reassembling the Buddha.
All the action in
Dushanbe takes place basically in one tree-lined boulevard, the Prospekt Rudaki (the
Champs-Elysees it ain't), where among some happy faces licking ice-cream it is possible to
see the same old lady standing on the same spot, every day, all day long, contemplating
the void and waiting for a handout of a fraction of somonis - the new currency. After a
lot of walking about the Rudaki and a flurry of phone calls, we finally received help from
a history major who guided us to the man who was theoretically responsible for the Buddha
- Masov Rakhim Masovich, director of the Institute of History.
When we arrived at the
institute, Masov was not there, and neither was the Buddha, it was at the soon-to-be
inaugurated Museum of National Antiquities, where it will go on display in September.
Nobody was able to locate the director of the Museum, Saidmurad Babamulloev.
When we arrived at the
museum we were refused entry. After much misunderstanding we learned that Masov, by
telephone, had a few minutes earlier forbidden the entrance of these
"strangers", even though we were duly accredited by the Ministry of Foreign
Affairs of Tajikistan.
So it was back to the
Institute of History, where we decided to wait and confront Masov - dubbed
"Hitler" by his former students. A typical Soviet cement mind, the suspicious
Masov finally deigned to say through an interpreter that the Buddha could not be shown to
"foreigners" - it was a precious property of Tajikistan and all information
about it would be released through "official channels". Talk about an exclusive,
Soviet-style. In his mind, Masov was the "owner" of a news item of worldwide
interest, so nobody else had the right to see it or talk about it. Crouching Soviet,
In the end, we never saw
the Buddha of Dushanbe - although we kept a mental image as consolation: the largest
Buddha in Central Asia is reclining, with a smile, a few moments before his death and
entering the hallowed state of nirvana. It is comforting to know that Xuan Zhang saw the
statue, and was illuminated by it, as many of the millions of pilgrims along the Silk Road
Bamiyan was crucial to
the dissemination of Buddhism through Central Asia and through China: when they destroyed
the Bamiyan Buddhas, the Taliban may have destroyed one of the greatest cultural icons of
pre- Islamic Central Asia - as the students at the Institute of History argue. But it is
comforting to know that the Taliban will never be able to destroy the Buddha of Dushanbe.
Just a non-Buddhist
afterthought, a question that a Western monkey- mind cannot help but pose - with
"friends" such as Masov and his Soviet-style mind, does Tajikistan need enemies.