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I can't sleep, says the man who helped save the Buddhas
Kota Neelima

NEW DELHI, MARCH 2: ``I lived for nine years next to the Bamiyan Buddhas. They are so much a part of me that I feel a sense of deep shock and personal loss to know they are being attacked,'' says archaeologist Rakhaldas Sengupta, who was awarded the Padmashree for his ``exemplary work'' in conserving the Buddhas.

Sengupta, former director of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), was the head of the Indo-Afghan team set up in 1969 to help conserve the crumbling Buddhas. The cost of the Rs 20-lakh project, which wrapped up in 1979, was split between India and Afghanistan.

But as reports come in that the Taliban is targeting what he helped conserve, Sengupta says that all he can hold on to are the memories and the photographs. ``I am depressed,'' he says. ``I cannot sleep with the vision of the magnificent Buddhas haunting me. I am so sorry this had to happen.''

Perhaps, history is of some consolation. ``The last attack on the statues was mounted by the Mongolian warrior Genghis Khan,'' Sengupta says.``He and his men cut off the legs of the majestic monuments which stand on the side of the ancient Silk Route.'' Ironically, the Mongolian army had also used mortar to demolish the statues, just as the Taliban says it's doing now.

Sengupta hopes that the reports are exaggerated, that somehow the damage can be restored. Just as it was years ago. ``When we reached the provincial capital Bamiyan in central Afghanistan in 1969, it was a small village with just locals. The only place available for living was a four-room prison which was converted into a hotel for our team. It was renamed the Bamiyan Hotel.''

Born and educated in Bangladesh, then East Pakistan, Sengupta moved to Calcutta after the partition and joined the ASI. He had taken up the project as a ``challenge'' even when a number of countries turned it down saying the task was ``impossible''.

The project which went on till 1979 was mostly done during the summer months, the winters being too cold in the region. The monuments are carved out of a mountainside. ``They were in a very poor condition when we saw them first. The Buddha's robe was also degenerating. We also had to strengthen the statue which had become weak as the legs were already missing,'' he says.

``After considerable research, we decided to use the combination of the local earth, lime and finely chopped hemp to stabilise the robe and support the statue from the lower side,'' Sengupta says.

On the demolition, Sengupta says,``All that work is a waste now. This is the end of the story. Never again can the statues be seen standing again. It is a great loss to history.''

At present working on a book on the Bamiyan Buddhas, he is nostalgic about the statues besides which he spent many a sleepless nights working out solutions to prevent their collapse. ``We could not keep any proper timings for food or sleep. We would have our food in the jeep which was given to us. We usually had naan and chicken cooked in butter oil. Then it was back to work,'' he says.

``But it was nice to see that when our work was done in 1978, the small village had expanded with about 120 yuths or huts and about two dozen hotels. There was a tremendous foreign tourist inflow into the area, including the Japanese royalty, after the word spread that the Buddhas have been preserved,'' he says.


Updated: 3-3-2001

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