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Bamiyan Buddhas a greater loss for India
Sudha Passi

NEW DELHI (March 5, 2001): As the world mourns the loss of the tallest Buddha statues at Bamiyan, for India, which sought world intervention to prevent the ravage, the loss is a lot more, for its association with the Bamiyan Buddhas was not just spiritual and cultural.

To the Indian archaeologists goes the credit of having conserved the gigantic Buddhas hewn out of a sandstone mountain more than 1500 years ago -- a task that took nearly a decade and was a challenge to which only the Indians had responded 30 years ago.

"It was a daunting task," said Rakhaldas Sengupta, retired director (conservation) of the Archaeological Survey of India who led the 15-member Indian team in 1969 under a joint Indo-Afghan project, which is regarded as one of the greatest works of conservation.

Standing tall at 53 metres and 38 metres respectively at an altitude of 2,500 metres the two gigantic structure in the picturesque Bamiyan Valley, were a marvel in itself combining the Indian and Iranian schools of sculpture that evolved at this confluence of great civilisations on the famous Silk Route of yore, recalls Sengupta. He had taken up the job at a time when foreign experts were not willing to lay their hand on the Buddhas.

Sengupta's main work there comprised buttressing the outer rock cover of the bigger statue "that had suffered a crack due to a quake. This long crack that used to get filled by water during the rains and condensed to ice in the winter threatened to push apart the cover and expose the huge shrine to the vagaries of nature.

"Our main job was to take care of this crack, which was done with the help of a drilling engineer from the Geological Survey of India. Holes were drilled in rocks at select points and inserted with rods, which were then concretized to provide anchorage to the outside piece."

But for those who think that the world's tallest Buddhas were destroyed by the Taliban in the 21st century, Sengupta says the face and half a limb of the bigger Buddha was not there when they had taken up the work in 1969. The upper garments of the statutes were also degenerating.

The Buddhas were first targeted by Mongol ruler Chengis Khan in the 14th century. In the medieval times also during the reign of Aurangzeb the statues were vandalised, said Sengupta.

"The faces were destroyed as the invaders burnt them, he said explaining that the facial expressions to the statues were made with the help of wooden frames, which were later plastered with a unique mix of lime, mud, wool and straw for the final shape.

"The plaster, which speaks volumes for the craftsmanship of the people of that age, was required because sculpting the mountain was very difficult. It was not just sandstone but also made of pebbles which rendered chiselling impossible," explained Sengupta, who was decorated with Padmashree for the monumental task.

The Indian team, which comprised engineers, chemical restorers as well as photographers and even masons, however, did not reconstruct the faces. They were simply left untouched.


Updated: 5-3-2001

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