Bamiyan Buddhas: What are they?

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The Bamiyan Buddhas were two large Buddha statues in Afghanistan, considered endangered after being destroyed by the Taliban in 2001. Bamiyan was historically a center of Buddhism, with many monks living there. The Buddhas were the largest standing Buddha statues in the world, mixing Indian and Greek styles. Despite being spared destruction in the past, they were destroyed in 2001. Restoration efforts have begun, but it will take years to restore them to their full splendor. They remain a popular tourist attraction.

The Bamiyan Buddhas were two enormous Buddhas carved into a cliff face in Afghanistan. The Buddhas of Bamiyan are a UNESCO World Heritage Site and have been since 2003. They are considered highly endangered, following their virtual destruction by Afghanistan’s Taliban government in 2001.
Bamiyan is located on the Silk Road, the route that historically connected India and China with Europe and the Middle East. Bamiyan was part of an Indian kingdom until the 12th century and was greatly influenced by the Buddhist culture of the kingdom. Small man-made caves dot the mountainside in Bamiyan, and these caves have been home to Buddhist hermits for centuries. These hermits carved religious art into the hills along the cliffs, but the Bamiyan Buddhas were by far the largest and most impressive of these sculptures. Historically, Bamiyan was described in the 7th century by a Chinese pilgrim as a bustling center of Buddhism, with more than a thousand monks living there.

The Bamiyan Buddhas were 121 feet (37 m) and 180 feet (55 m) tall. These statues were, until their destruction, the largest standing Buddha statues in the world. The statues were awe-inspiring in both their size and complexity, with details done with mud and straw stucco. The entire statues were painted over at one point, but even before their destruction this paint had all but disappeared, with only small spots remaining.

Both Bamiyan Buddhas were carved in the early 6th century. They mix both Indian and Greek styles of art and wear Hellenic-type tunics, no doubt due to Alexander the Great’s incursion into the region and the introduction of Greek styles

Beginning in the 12th century, various Buddhist shrines and statues began to be attacked in Afghanistan, mainly by conquering Muslim rulers and armies. Buddhist statues have been seen as a direct violation of a commandment against carved images by many hardliners over the years. However, the Buddhas of Bamiyan were spared destruction time and time again, even as other sacred places were looted and defaced.

In 1999, the Mullah of Afghanistan issued a decree stating that the Buddhas of Bamiyan would continue to be preserved. As his main justification he pointed out that since the country no longer contained a Buddhist population, it was highly unlikely that the Buddhas of Bamiyan were a source of reverence, and therefore did not violate the commandment.

Over the next two years, however, radical clerics in Afghanistan began a full-scale attack on many forms of imagery, even those traditionally accepted by Islamic societies. In 2001 this came to a head with a decree ordering the destruction of all statues in the country. In response, the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) met and issued a statement supporting the preservation of the Bamiyan Buddhas. The three states that officially recognized the Taliban government were among those that supported the preservation of the statues.
However, in March of that year, the Bamiyan Buddhas were destroyed by dynamite. After their destruction there was a huge public outcry. After the fall of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, a number of groups banded together to pledge money to finance their restoration. Work on this restoration has begun, but it will probably be many years before the Bamiyan Buddhas are once again visible in their full splendour. Even in their somewhat ruined state, however, the Buddhas of Bamiyan remain an incredible sight to behold, and although the region is somewhat unstable at the moment, they are still a popular tourist attraction.

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