Lying sprawled amid the craggy peaks of the central highlands of Afghanistan, in a place called Hindu Kush, is the Bamiyan Valley. The valley is around 264 Km from Kabul, and has an altitude of 2,500 meters. Bamiyan Valley is steeped in legend and history, having been inhabited and partly urbanized since at least the 3rd century BC. Apart from its long heritage and stunning scenery, Bamiyan Valley was known for harboring two enormous ancient Buddha statues that were carved right into the cliff face and were the largest standing Buddha statues the world had ever seen.
The statues themselves were gigantic, unmatched in size and once towering over the surrounding landscape like epic giants of legend. One of the statues measured an impressive 125 feet high and another, even larger one was a staggering 180 feet high. These majestic Buddhas were constructed around 50 years apart, sometime between 544 and 644 AD. Both of the Buddhas were hewn right into sandstone cliffs about half a mile apart at a great expense of time and effort of the people of the time, and the features were laboriously created with mud, straw, and coatings of stucco which were all intricately painted in great detail. The lower parts of the arms were also made of the same straw and stucco material, and the faces were basically immense wooden masks, with eyes made of rubies embedded within the wood that were said to glow in the moonlight. Much of the statues were said to be coated in gold foil and encrusted with various jewels and gemstones. In their prime condition surely the great Buddhas of Bamiyan would have been a breathtaking sight to behold. Sadly, these details were not on materials built to last the passage of centuries, and gradually faded, wore away, or, in the case of the rubies and gems, likely stolen over the years until only the sturdy, stone bodies remained, standing just as proud and unfazed by the ravages of time as they had always been.
Afghanistan may seem like a strange place to find such majestic Buddhist relics, but historically the area was not always Islamic. Bamiyan was once one of the cross roads of the Silk Road, which crossed through Afghanistan, then one of the provinces of the Persian Empire known as Bactria. The Silk Road brought with it an influx of people from exotic, far away lands, turning the area into a rich melting pot of cultures, arts, people, and religions. As early as the 1st century AD, Buddhism was already being introduced to Afghanistan from India via the Silk Road, and was diffusing throughout the region.
In the 2nd century AD, this area was the ruled by a group of nomadic tribes known as the Kushans, who were rather well known for being tolerant and benevolent patrons of art and religion. It was the Kushans who helped to spread the incorporation of Buddhist art into the Bactian culture, and a large number of Buddhist monks called the Bamiyan Valley home, often making their dwellings in the many caves and cliffs of the region. The religion prospered here, and the foothills of the valley were dotted with Buddhist monasteries, sanctuaries, and repositories of Buddhist artwork and relics. In fact, for centuries Buddhism was very prevalent and booming in the valley, with Islamic art and architecture not really taking hold in the region until the 11th century AD, when the central part of Afghanistan was under the rule of Sultan Mahmud of Chazna (998- 1030).
It is somewhat remarkable that the two known Buddhas of Bamiyan loomed over the valley as long as they did, as the region has proven to be historically a very volatile place plagued with violence despite this long ago age of prosperity. The statues stoically survived not only the relentless passage of time and extreme heat and climate conditions inherit to the valley, but also 1,500 years of upheaval, turmoil, strife, and war.
One of the first things to challenge their continued existence was the coming of the Muslim conqueror Yaqub ibn Layth Saffari in the 9th century, who ordered all Buddhist imagery and monasteries destroyed, yet the immense statues defied the destruction and prevailed. In the early 13th century, the scourge of Genghis Khan and his army horde descended upon Bamiyan and laid waste to much of the settlements there, as well as slaughtering nearly every single inhabitant of the valley. This was a bloody time when one area of Bamiyan was known as “The Valley of Screams” due to the sounds of torment of countless people being massacred by the warlord. During this time, Khan’s army looted and indiscriminately defiled Buddhist monasteries, yet the great statues continued to stand defiantly. In the 17th century, the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb ordered his men to shoot off the legs of the larger of the two Buddhas, yet even despite this callous vandalism, the statues remained more or less intact. In more recent times, the British-Afghan Wars of the 19th century raged around the statues, yet they stood proud in the face of the flying bullets and bombs, once again avoiding almost certain destruction.
The doom of the two known great Buddhas of Bamiyan came in the form of a new type of fanatical Islam that took root in Afghanistan following the war between the Soviet Union and the mujahedeen in the 1980s. This was when the specter of the Taliban began to emerge from the ashes of the war to loom over the region in its mad dash for power. In 2001, the Taliban leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, proclaimed that the Buddha statues were idols and were thus to be destroyed. Passionate pleas from world leaders and the UN’s cultural organization, UNESCO, were ignored and as the world watched on in horror, Taliban soldiers blasted and pulverized the two Buddhas with high explosives and rocket fire. It took the Taliban only a couple of weeks to achieve what over a thousand years of violent history had failed to do; the utter destruction of these two irreplaceable relics from the past. It was a cultural hate crime that was met with nearly universal condemnation, and for many remains a potent symbol of indiscriminate desecration and religious intolerance to this day. The head of UNESCO at the time said of the brutal act:
“It was abominable to witness the cold and calculated destruction of cultural properties which were the heritage of…the whole of humanity.”
Despite the outrage sparked by the wanton devastation of the Bamiyan Buddhas, there was not much anyone could do about it until the end of 2001, when the Taliban’s power waned and they lost their grip on the region. In the aftermath of the Taliban’s rule and the destruction of these two ancient relics of Buddhist art, a silver lining was found in a remarkable discovery that was made in the gaping, rubble strewn cavities where the great Buddhas had once mightily stood. The explosions had unearthed a system of caves that no one had ever been aware of. These were no ordinary caves, but rather had been adorned with previously unknown frescoes of Buddhist imagery and other artwork that was estimated to have dated from between the 5th and 9th centuries AD. Included among this treasure trove was the shocking find of oil paintings that were 1,000 years old, a significant find considering that the technique of oil painting was not thought to have been put into practice until at least the 14th and 15th centuries half a world away in Italy. They are believed to be the oldest oil paintings in the world. However, despite these exciting discoveries, the statues themselves were smashed to pieces beyond repair.
As scholars, historians, and conservationists scrambled to push forward plans to rebuild and restore the two shattered statues, there are others who were on a quest of a different sort.
Apart from the two known Buddha statues of Bamiyan destroyed by the Taliban, a mysterious third Buddha has long been said to be somewhere out there in the Bamiyan Valley that is even much larger than both of the others combined. The first account of this lost third Buddha was from a Chinese monk by the name of Xuanzang, who had spent several weeks in the area during his travels along the Silk Road across the Taklamakan Desert in around 629 AD. At the time, the Bamiyan Valley had a prosperous Buddhist community, and the monk was able to see the statues in their full, shining splendor. In addition to the two known Bamiyan Buddhas, the monk also described seeing a colossal Buddhist statue in the reclining position that dwarfed the others. Xuanzang described in his account how he came across the statue within an as yet unknown monastery and that it was an epic behemoth measuring a staggering 1,000 feet long. This third Buddha came to be known as the “The Nirvana Buddha,” due to its reclining position, which was said to signify his coming transcendence into Nirvana. Over the years, the alleged third Buddha of Bamiyan was occasionally sighted by travelers through the region and garnered a legendary status.
Although the third Buddha of Bamiyan was reported in ancient times, it seems to have mysteriously disappeared in the modern era. Unfortunately, the Chinese monk’s account leaves the location of the statue a bit ambiguous, making searching for it difficult. Despite excursions to find the elusive, ancient relic, no sign of such a large statue or the monastery it was said to reside within has ever been found, and it has garnered a reputation as one of the world’s greatest archeological mysteries. It is not known exactly where the statue is, what became of it, or indeed if it ever existed at all. There are those who say that the statue was likely made of clay and thus has long crumbled to dust, that the monk had grossly overestimated the size of the statue, or that he had seen merely a large rock formation that resembled a Buddha. The discovery of such a relic would be an extremely important archeological find, and so the search for the mysterious third Buddha of Bamiyan has over the years become an almost mythical quest, akin to trying to find the real Holy Grail or Noah’s Ark.
To Afghan archeologist and former Director of Archaeology and Preservation of Historical Monuments in Afghanistan, Dr. Zemaryalai Tarzi, there was never any doubt that the third Buddha is out there, and he has become sort of an Afghan Indiana Jones figure in the search for the statue. Since he had first laid eyes upon the magnificent statues as an archeology student in 1967, Tarzi had long been involved in their restoration, mostly involving stabilizing the crumbling bases and restoring some of their finer details that had worn away. He had also long been convinced that a third Buddha existed, but years of scouring the Bamiyan Valley for any sign of it had turned up nothing.
Despite this, Tarzi was certain that it was somewhere hidden away in the valley due to the overall accuracy of the Chinese monk Xuanzang’s notes and measurements in most respects. According to Tarzi, the monk’s notes had been very detailed and accurate concerning the monasteries, artwork, and the two known Buddhas of the valley, always offering precise measurements, so it seemed unlikely that he would throw a complete fabrication or overestimation into his meticulous account out of nowhere. Encouraged by the apparent soundness of Xuanzang’s accounts, Tarzi continued undeterred in his search for years until he was forced out of the country when the Soviets invaded.
It wasn’t until decades later, in 2002, that Tarzi would return to continue his quest for the third Buddha of Bamiyan with the help of funding from the French government, but it would not be an easy task. As soon as he arrived to begin excavations, Tarzi was ejected by a fearsome and territorial warlord who had taken over the region. Tarzi fled to France, and it wasn’t until the following year, when he got the consent of Afghan president Hamid Karzai himself, that he was able to finally begin excavations in earnest. Even with safe passage guaranteed by Karzai and without the warlord breathing down their necks, there were perils to excavating in the region. Years of conflict had turned much of the area into a landmine infested danger zone where the ground threatened to explode at any moment and every step the team took was potentially their last. It was reported that some excavation workers had their legs blown off, only to be fitted with prosthetics and continue their work. It took extensive work by demining teams before they were able to excavate in anything remotely resembling safety.
With full cooperation from the Afghan government and backed by continual annual funding from France, Tarzi has subsequently opened several excavations and discovered a total of seven previously unknown Buddhist monasteries in the valley, but has still not found the elusive statue he seeks. In 2008, he found fragments of a previously unknown reclining Buddha statue that would have measured around 62 feet long, but he is certain that that is not the massive third Buddha that was described in the Chinese monk’s accounts, as other measurements had been so precise. In addition to the statue fragments, Tarzi and his team have uncovered various Buddhist relics, pottery, and artwork that have helped shed light on the history and art of these ancient people, so the time, money, and grueling digging under scorching heat spent on the seemingly endless quest has not been a complete waste of time. However, there is no denying that the magnificent, gigantic third Buddha is what everyone really wants to find, and so the searches and excavations continue.
Tarzi’s quest for the enigmatic third Buddha has taken him all over the valley. The team first searched for tell-tale mounds that would indicate some chamber underground large enough to house such an immense statue, but there was nothing in the flat landscape that hinted at this. Tarzi has long thought that the surrounding cliffs nearby the two known statues held the secret, yet this too has thus far remained a dead end, producing various small chambers of more ceramics and ancient artifacts, but no giant third Buddha. Currently, Tarzi and his team are looking into the possibility that the third Buddha of Bamiyan lies within the vast systems of tunnels and cave galleries such as the one found in the aftermath of the two known statues’ destruction. It is thought that perhaps one of these ancient, little explored tunnels will open up into a new monastery holding the long sought after third Buddha, reclining just as it always had, free from the devastation and war that claimed its brethren.
For Tarzi himself, and others like him, the quest for the Buddha has transcended mere archeology. It has become a lifelong mission, and a burning obsession with not only finding the statue, but also giving the people of Afghanistan something to truly be proud of, something to bolster their confidence in their heritage. At 71 years of age, Tarzi’s days of digging and relentlessly hunting for the lost Buddha are dwindling. It is unknown if he will ever find what he seeks, but others pursue the same goal and someone will invariably follow in his footsteps. For now, he plans to continue the excavations until he is no longer able.
In the meantime, what of the other two statues, smashed to rubble by the power of bombs and hate? There are various plans to try and reconstruct them, but there are many people, including Tarzi himself, who would rather see the niches remain empty. For them, there is a certain powerful poignancy to leaving the enormous niches just the way they are, as blasted, vacant voids where beauty once stood. Tarzi once said himself:
“Leave the two Buddha niches as two pages of history, so that future generations will know that at a certain moment, folly triumphed over reason in Afghanistan.”
This to me seems to go beyond borders. It is a message that not only Afghanistan, but the whole world would do well to keep in mind. Perhaps we should allow the splendor of these lost relics to remain solely in our hearts, where no force of man or nature will ever touch them. As for the third Buddha, whether it exists or not, it certainly seems to be a powerful beacon of hope in this sun scorched, war ravaged land.