On the cliff face of a sandstone mountain, visible from the ancient Silk Road near the town of Bamiyan in Afghanistan, are two massive voids left by two monumental statues of Buddha that once stood there. In 2001, the nearly 1,500 year old statues were blown to bits by the Taliban in an act of violence that shook the entire world, and set a disturbing precedent which has been imitated in recent years by Islamic State fighters in the Middle East.
For a long time, Buddhism was an important religion in the Indian subcontinent and Central Asia, having been introduced during the early Kushan period, in the 1st century. Along the Silk Road, on which Bamiyan lies, are several Buddhist monasteries, chapels and sanctuaries constructed inside caves carved into the mountains. In several of the caves and niches, often linked by galleries, there are remains of wall paintings and seated Buddha figures.
The two most prominent figures were the giant Buddha statues destroyed in 2001. The larger of the two stood 175 feet tall, and was one of the largest standing Buddha carvings in the world. The second figure was also enormous and measured 120 feet in height. Both figures were carved into niches of the cliff side in high relief. The main bodies were hewn directly from the sandstone cliffs, but details were modeled in mud mixed with straw, coated with stucco. This coating had worn away a long time ago, but in the early days, it served to enhance the expressions of the faces, hands, and folds of the robes. Both statues were originally painted—the larger one in carmine red and the smaller one in multiple colors. The area near the heads of both Buddha figures and the area around the larger Buddha’s feet were carved in the round, allowing worshippers to walk around as a form of worship.
Much of what we know about the monumental Buddha sculptures comes from the travelogue of the Chinese monk Hsuan-Tsang, who traveled to Bamiyan in the 7th century. Hsuan-Tsang described Bamiyan as a flourishing Buddhist center “with more than ten monasteries and more than a thousand monks”. He also noted that both Buddha figures were decorated in “dazzling golden color and adorned with brilliant gems”. Historians believe that the monumental Buddha sculptures were carved into the cliffs between the 3rd to 6th centuries A.D. They were perhaps the most famous cultural landmarks of the region attracting numerous pilgrims from all around.
After the Islamic invasion in the 9th century, the presence of a large Buddhist cultural icon in Afghanistan greatly disturbed the Muslim rulers. The 17th century Mughal emperor, Aurangzeb, and the 18th century Persian king Nader Afshar, both tried to destroy the statues by using heavy artillery but failed to inflict any noticeable damage. It was the Afghan king Abdur Rahman Khan who eventually managed to destroyed its face.
In 2001, the leader of the Taliban movement ordered that all statues and non-Islamic shrines in the different areas of the Islamic Emirate must be destroyed. Accordingly, in March the same year, Taliban fighters laid explosives at the base and the shoulders of the two Buddhas and blew them to pieces.
Later in an interview, the Taliban supreme leader Mullah Omar defended his actions by saying:
I did not want to destroy the Bamiyan Buddha. In fact, some foreigners came to me and said they would like to conduct the repair work of the Bamiyan Buddha that had been slightly damaged due to rains. This shocked me. I thought, these callous people have no regard for thousands of living human beings - the Afghans who are dying of hunger, but they are so concerned about non-living objects like the Buddha. This was extremely deplorable. That is why I ordered its destruction. Had they come for humanitarian work, I would have never ordered the Buddha's destruction.
The only silver lining in the cloud was, that after the destitution, several new caves and wall paintings were discovered, including fragments of a previously unknown 62-foot long reclining Buddha.