The Buddhas of Bamyan: Afghanistan’s stony-faced palimpsests

An article in The Art Newspaper (February 2014) reports that a team of archaeologists has been reconstructing the feet and legs of the smaller of the two Bamyan Buddhas, the monumental Afghan sculptures blown up by the Taliban in 2001.

Bamiyan(1)The Buddhas of Bamyan were two monumental statues carved into the side of a cliff in the Bamyan valley in the Hazarajat region of central Afghanistan, northwest of Kabul. Built in 507 AD (the smaller) and 554 AD (the larger), the statues represented the classic blend of Greco-Buddhist art.

The main bodies of the Buddhas were hewn directly from the sandstone cliffs, but details were modeled in mud mixed with straw and coated with stucco. This coating was painted to enhance the expressions of the faces, hands and folds of the robes. The larger Buddha was painted carmine red and the smaller one multiple colours.

Since 2003 UNESCO has been fronting a plan aimed at consolidating and safeguarding the site. Andrea Bruno, architectural consultant to UNESCO for the past 40 years, has confirmed that the restoration work was carried out in contravention of a decision not to rebuild the Buddhas. Bruno accuses the archaeologists of causing “irreversible damage, bordering on the criminal.”

UNESCO decided the future of the site at a meeting in Tokyo in 2011 when several plans were reviewed for its conservation and/or restoration. They included reassembling the surviving fragments of the smaller Buddha in its niche and laser projections of the Buddhas onto a nearby cliff face. The final decision was to leave the niches themselves empty – the absence of the Buddhas becoming a metaphor for their former presence.

Bamiyan(2)Instead UNESCO has asked Andrea Bruno’s studio in Turin to supervise four related projects:

• The largest initiative is a cultural centre and museum devoted to the area’s rich Buddhist and Muslim history. The building, inspired by the traditional Afghan “fortress-house”, will sit on a plateau facing the cliff out of which the statues were hewn. South Korea has said that it will foot the $5.4m bill and it is hoped that the building will be finished by October 2016.

• A concealed underground viewing chamber will be built at the foot of the larger Buddha. A small replica of the statue will stand at the end of the chamber and visitors will be able to see the empty niche through an opening in the ceiling.

• A bazaar is being planned along the remains of the ancient Silk Route, on the esplanade that lies between the cliff face and the plateau where the museum will stand.

• Three interconnected caves in the nearby ancient site of Shahr-i Ghulghulah, a 13th-century city conquered by Genghis Khan, are to be restored with a $1m grant from the Italian government. The intention is to use them to host temporary exhibitions and other cultural events.

If ever peace and stability are restored to Afghanistan, the Buddhas – absent but present – will once again become a major historical and cultural attraction.

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