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Afghan Statues Models for Asia's Giant Buddhas
Tom Heneghan

PARIS (Reuters March 2) - The two huge cliff-side Buddhas at Bamiyan, now reported to be under shelling from Afghanistan (news - web sites)'s Taliban movement, are the first known examples of the massive Buddha images that later spread throughout Asia.

Towering 175 feet and 120 feet high, the two sandstone statues were erected at a caravan stop in central Afghanistan along the fabled Silk Route to China.

They are the best-known product of the fusion of European and Asian art that flourished in Afghanistan and northern Pakistan between the fourth and seventh centuries.

Over the next five centuries, Arab invaders, Persian armies and the Mongol hoards of Genghis Khan brought waves of death and destruction over the mountains and valleys of the Hindu Kush.

But none until the Taliban, fundamentalists who take Islam's rejection of graven images extremely literally, had set out to destroy the awesome masterpieces in the town that long was the capital of Buddhism for Central Asia and India.

The international outcry against their destruction -- most notably from Buddhist or Buddhist-inspired countries such as Japan, Thailand, India, Sri Lanka and Nepal -- reflects the seminal role these colossal statues played in Asian art.

They are so well-known that the United Nations (news - web sites) Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization thought they were among its 690 World Heritage treasures deserving special protection.

But, through some unexplained error, there are no Afghan sites mentioned on the list at the Paris-based UNESCO (news - web sites).

``This is a scandalous omission ...we are treating them as though they were on our list,'' said Michael Barry, a UNESCO expert documenting all Afghan art works for the organization.

``To be honest, everyone just assumed that they were on the list,'' he said. ``They were put forward several times in the 1970s for inclusion and a lot of preparatory work was done, but for one reason or another they never made it.''

One reason could be Afghanistan's turbulent politics at the time. A 1973 coup overturning the monarchy was followed by a bloody putsch five years later by Marxist leader Nur Mohammad Taraki. By 1979, Soviet troops arrived to prop up the shaky communist government and spark all-out war with Islamic rebels.

Splendid In Gold, Blue And Red

The two statues stand in niches hewn into the cliff overlooking Bamiyan, a main stop along a southern spur of the Silk Route which led from Central Asia down to the Khyber Pass, the Indus River to central India and the Arabian Sea.

Caravanserais for travelers between Europe, China and India and cave-like cells for Buddhist monks were also dug into the cliff, producing the many pockmarks seen around the statues.

The smaller of the two Buddhas was sculpted in the second half of the third century after Christ while the larger one dates from the fifth century.

According to Jet van Krieken of the Society for the Preservation of Afghanistan's Cultural Heritage, both had faces and hands covered in gold -- a style familiar to many tourists who visit the Buddhas of Thailand or Burma.

Old photos show that the features of the two Buddhas disappeared long before the Taliban took their first shots at them in late 1998, causing an initial outcry and blowing off the head and part of the shoulders of the smaller statue.

A Taliban commander was reported to have drilled holes in the larger Buddha's head to shove in dynamite sticks and blow it up, but was persuaded to hold off by a local official.

The large Buddha lost much of his left leg and his lower right leg long before this latest long Afghan war broke out.

Originally the flowing robes on the smaller Buddha were painted blue while those on the larger one were red.

``They must have been quite impressive for monks traveling through the harsh surrounding landscape, who finally reached the beautiful valley with the peaceful Buddhas making the gesture of reassurance,'' van Krieken wrote.

Writing last year, when the threat to the Buddhas seemed to have passed, van Krieken observed: ``It seems a miracle that these incredible Buddhas have more or less survived in a country in which they have become strangers who were not able to flee.''


Updated: 2-3-2001

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