Rebuilding Buddhas a Symbol in Rebuilding Afghanistan

by Peter Schurmann, New America Media, Dec 17, 2006

The rebuilding of two colossal Buddhas in Afghanistan’s Pamir Valley destroyed by the Taliban is a symbolic first step in piecing back the country’s shattered past and looking toward a better future.

Kabul, Afghanistan -- For more than a millennium Afghanistan’s lush Pamir valley lay beneath the benevolent gaze of two colossal standing Buddhas, monuments to an efflorescent history of pilgrims and merchants, of religion and culture. In 2001 the statues were destroyed by the ruling Taliban, some say out of religious fanaticism, others as a political statement against the West. What’s left are fragments of stone and wood strewn across the war-torn land like broken pieces of a once resplendent past.
The statues were built sometime in the 6th century as part of a larger Buddhist monastery, itself the center of a major religious and trading post on the Silk Road connecting Europe to the Tang Dynasty capital in China.  Much of the area, as well as present day Pakistan and parts of North India belonged then to the rulers of the Kushan Empire, an Indo-European people ancestral to the present-day Pashtuns that inhabit the valley. The Kushan empire thrived from the wealth of culture and trade that flowed across the Silk Road.
Unlike today, Buddhism in the 6th century was also a major proselytizing faith, sending missionaries far and wide to convert rulers and thereby entire peoples to its doctrine. Kings and emperors alike saw in Buddhism a powerful tool to unite, and in many ways subjugate, a people to the royal will. The rulers of Kushan were no doubt of this mind, and the building of the mammoth stone Buddhas would serve as a testament to the spiritual and political power of the state. It was a project born of faith and politics, state and religion.

In 2001, when the Taliban set their rocket launchers on the still, serene faces of the two Buddhas the world stood up in outrage, aghast at the callous and wanton destruction of such valuable treasures of ancient human history. For many it was further proof of the inhumanity of Afghanistan’s Islamic rulers.
Wanton, yes! Inhuman, maybe. One has to remember that in 2001 Afghanistan was experiencing a severe drought, with thousands suffering from starvation. In March of that year the New York Times reported that in the midst of famine-like conditions, a foreign delegation had offered money to renovate the Bamyan statues, and had refused to allocate a portion to relieve hunger. Outraged the Taliban’s clerics sealed the fate of the Bamyan Buddhas. Or did they?
Since the U.S. led invasion ousted the Taliban from power in Afghanistan a host of countries including Japan and Thailand have offered to rebuild the statues. Today teams of Afghans under the direction of a German architect and Italian engineers work to rebuild the two Buddhas. It strikes me as ironic since a century ago it was Europeans who led in the looting of Afghanistan’s cultural relics, bringing back the heads of stone and marble Buddhas to be put on display, a symbol of Europe’s preeminence in all things, past and present. And yet it was exactly these stolen treasures that first introduced Westerners to the beauty and elegance of Afghanistan’s Buddhist art. Which brings us back to Bamyan.
Bamyan’s Buddhas stood in the midst of war, of oppression and religious fanaticism. Obscured by the dust and smoke of gunfire, they seemed a dim recollection of a more glorious period now far removed. One has to wonder, in light of this, what the symbolic significance of these two Buddhist statues can be for an Islamic country desperate to rebuild itself, and for the larger world which shares in a piece of the country’s past, and present. The destruction of these statues by the Taliban is certainly not the first time a government has attempted to erase history in order to create a new nation with a new ideology. And yet, as with the shards of the two Buddhas, history remains, broken but powerful.
An interesting feature of the two statues was their Greek influence, a reflection of the highly cosmopolitan world of the Silk Road. The statues were a blending of East and West. Today, as Europeans and Afghans work to reclaim the splendor of Bamyan piece by piece, painstakingly putting back together the fragments of a shattered past, perhaps the statues will symbolize a new Afghanistan, one that embraces a diverse and inspiring past, gazing, like the Buddha, at a more prosperous future.

Peter Schurmann is a student at UC Berkeley in Asian Studies.