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Thursday, November 25, 2010

Silk Road from Bamiyan

Travel by Sun Lai Yung
A Sri Lankan of Chinese descent

The dusty small town of Bamiyan lies on the famous Chinese Silk Road. The destruction of the colossal Buddha brought Bamiyan to the world stage. The two Buddhas’ remained virtually unharmed for 1,500 years except for two occasions. In the 11th century Mahmud of Ghazni attacked Afghanistan, he looted the monasteries for important artifacts but left the statues alone. Then in 1931 King Nadar Shah fired cannons at the Buddha, He damaged the statues but was beyond his ability to destroy it. Even the Invasion by Genghis Khan in 1221 generally left the statues alone. The two Buddha statues were positioned to face the rising sun and they watched the Bamiyan valley below with benevolent eyes of Karuna (Compassion). The smaller statues (121 ft) were built in 507 AD and the second larger statue (180 ft) was built about 50 years later in 554 AD. This was the largest Buddha carvings in the world. The larger statue portrayed the Dipankara or Vairochana Buddha and the smaller as the Sakyamuni Buddha.

The Taliban (the word Taliban means student) came into power in 1996. The Afghan people supported the Taliban, thinking they would be better than the warring Mujehedins. In March 2001 The Taliban radical clerics declared that the Buddha statues were against the tenants of Islam. Taliban regime banned all form of entertainments such as sports, music, and television, singing and dancing. This was in accordance to the strict interpretation of Islamic laws. Three countries recognized the Taliban government, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates (UAE). The whole world protested in vain and ultimately the statues were savagely destroyed while the world watched.

Taliban Boasts about their act

The statues were carved out of the rock from the cliff and attached to the mountain. Destroying it was not easy. First dynamite was used and later anti aircraft guns and when this did not have the desired effects, anti tank mines were placed at the bottom. Still it was not as successful, then men were lowered to the cliff and explosives placed into the holes of the statues. Finally a rocket was fired to break the colossal head of the statue. (the pic above is by an unknown photographer, I am told taken from the Bamiyan Roof Top hotel)

On March 6, 2001 The Times reported that Mullah Omar stating " Muslims should be proud of smashing idols, it has given praise to god that we have destroyed them" Taliban Foreign Minister said " We are destroying the statues in accordance with Islamic law and it is purely a religious issue". The person widely seen as responsible for this destruction was Mawlawi Islam Mohammadi a cleric and Governor of Bamiyan at that time. Eventually he was elected to the Afghan parliament in September 2005. However, he was assassinated on January 26, 2007. Ironically King Nadir Shah who fired cannons was also assassinated two years later in 1933.

My Impression – What I learnt

My understanding and image of the Bamiyan Buddha was only the statue. I did not realize that there were two statues involved. What I learnt on my visit was the Bamiyan Buddha was a huge complex of monasteries, caves, stupas , paintings and a major cultural and learning centre on the famous Silk Road. In terms of a cultural centre it is comparable to Nalanda of India, Mahavihara, Abayagiri viharaya and Jetawanarama viharaya of Sri Lanka. The physical similarity of the statue is similar to Aukana Buddha 470 AD. (Height 38 feet 10inches) And Gal vihara of Polonnaruwa (12th Century A.D) in Sri Lanka where the statues are carved from granite rock.

The Bamiyan complex stretches for about a mile in length now, but during its heydays it would have encompassed the whole area for miles. Looking at the empty space I was amazed at the size and the workmanship of its time. Behind the Buddha one can walk up almost 10 stories on carved steps and higher (which I did not go beyond) to enter the accommodation of the monks. The caves were cool and well ventilated. The whole cliff was dug and tunneled and connected from East to West. There were shrine rooms and living accommodation dug into the rock. They were rock cut, cave temples. They were huge places for worship. Every room was painted long ago with frescoes depicting the life of the Buddha and other Jataka stories and also pictures of Kings, Queens, ladies, monks, artists and prominent gentry of its time. The paintings portrayed a great amount of historical references and the style of dresses and its culture at the time. The whole complex would have taken 0ver 100 years to complete.

The holes seen from outside the cliffs; where the empty Buddha stand now are caves and carvings of the seated Buddha and some openings were huge open spaces overlooking the Bamiyan valley below. Thousands of Buddhist priests lived here and there were over 10 monasteries.

It must be mentioned that the large Buddha’s robes was painted red. According to 7th century Chinese traveler Huan Tsang " the face of the giant Buddha was covered with gold and decorated with precious gems that dazzled the eyes". The overhead roof of the Buddhas was painted too. Beside the Buddha, all the rooms inside the complex were also painted with frescoes. These paintings were done by travelers on the silk road. Research on the paintings was conducted by the Japanese centre of scientist at the National Research Institute, the French museum and the Getty’s Museum of America. All of them declared that the painting was oil based and the oldest oil based paintings in the world. Europeans had not discovered oil paintings until 600 years later. After this discovery all ancient ruins were re examined in Iran, India, Turkey, China and Pakistan.

As I climbed storey after storey I was amazed at the complexity of the place. I wondered how could they carve such large shrines through the rock, how could they paint thousands of caves and every inch of the cave was painted. All caves had space for many Buddha statues. Today none of the Buddha statues remained only the remnants of the carvings and most of the paintings have been deliberately chipped and destroyed. I saw a few paintings and took photographs. The attack on the Buddha was an attack on man kind’s legacy. I came out a sad man, wondering why we do this to ourselves.

The Silk Road and its influence to the region.

One cannot take Bamiyan in isolation from the Silk Road. It was the silk Road that gave prominence and character to this ancient city. The word Silk Road was first coined by the German geographer Ferdinand Von Richtheofen in 1877. Since then, the term has been used for this caravan route from Rome, Egypt, Turkey, and Africa to China and all the 6,500Km of roads including India, Vietnam, Malacca, port of Mahatitta from Sri Lanka (Mannar). Today both sea and land routes are known as the silk Road.

The Silk route existed for almost 3,000 years. It was during the Han Dynasty (206 BC to 220 AD) that the routes gained prominence in the Silk trade, ivory, slaves, spices, musk, jewellery, glassware etc. The exploration of Zhang Qian of the Han dynasty around 114 BC extended and expanded the route to Central Asia which included Afghanistan.

What is not known is that the Silk road contributed to the development of civilization in these countries and laid the foundation of the modern world.

Donkeys were used at the beginning. The domestication of animals helped transportation. Once the Bactrian camel was domesticated, heavier loads over long distance were made possible.

To link the Silk Road from Egypt the successive Pharaohs even tried to build the ancient Suez canal to link the Nile to the red sea. Over the centuries many attempts were made. The plan was abandoned when it was discovered the sea was higher than the land and feared sea water will be mixed with the Nile. However, the succeeding Pharaohs completed 85 kms of the canal, a 4 days journey; this was done 3000 years ago.

Silk Road and Gandhara

The expanded Silk Road brought Alexander the Great in 329 BC to the region. Greeks ruled Central Asia including Afghanistan for over 300 years. During this period Greek and Indian arts merged to form the Gandhara period. Initially Gandhara was a settlement where Greco?Buddhist art emerged, eventually to affect the cultural, religious and art of the region.

With the expansion of the Silk Road many new nations emerged. The road opened to new technology and information, beside commerce, cultural values exchanged, poor isolated tribes benefited by new opportunities in trade. Many barbarian tribes became skilled warriors and were able to conquer rich cities.

On the other hand the Chinese always admired the tall powerful horses ridden by the nomadic tribes of Central Asia. The Chinese called them "Heavenly horses". The Chinese were able to acquire the powerful Arabian horses and other horses from the great plains and improve their war machinery using the Silk Road.

Asoka the Great introduced Buddhism to Afghanistan, north west India (Pakistan) and to Sri Lanka. His edicts were carved in stone and wood and his empire reached beyond Afghanistan by the end of Asoka’s life. By this time the Kushans ruled the Bamiyan region. The Kushans were a Chinese tribe from Yuezhi The Kushan empire spread from Afghanistan, modern Pakistan to the Han Empire of China. The Great King Kanishka of the Kushans (144?172 BC) greatly influenced Buddhism in this early stage in the settlement of Gandhara. Under King Kanishka, the Gandhara period of art reached it Golden age. Great amount of art was produced during this period. Many great monasteries were built. A 400 ft monument was built in Purushapura the capital of the Kushan empire (City of men), today; its { Peshawar Pakistan) It was destroyed by Muhamud of Ghazni during the 11th century. One of the notable relics was "Buddha’s Bowl". Fa Shien the great Chinese traveler wrote in 400AD, that he saw the Bowl in Kandahar. This city was named after Gandhara. This was last sighted in Kandahar in 1872 by Britisher Bellows and noted in his journal. Olaf Caroe in his book wrote that he saw the Buddha’s bowl in 1958 in the Kabul Museum. Today its whereabouts are unknown. This is what has happened to all the artifacts and relics of Afghanistan. It must be noted the Gandhara period lasted almost 900 years.

Under Kanishka, Buddhism expanded and Bamiyan on the Silk Road was the intersection and strategic road to Persia, Egypt, India, Central Asia and China. The influence of the Gandhara period brought Buddhism to China.

The influence of Buddhism had a great affect on the lives of the nomadic tribes of central Asia. These people lost their barbaric and soldierly qualities, eventually losing their nomadic qualities to live in fixed abodes and farmed. These people became more civilized and were accepted as civilized by their civilized neighbours. Buddhist kings introduced more humane legislations. Learning started to take place, many Buddhist manuscripts were translated, Sanskrit was used, art in the form of painting started to take place. Sculpture with the influence of Greco styled was mixed with Buddhist art.

In the past, the old school of Buddhism, The Buddha was represented by a footprint, an empty seat or throne or a horse without a rider. It was in Afghanistan during the Gandhara period sculptures of Buddha emerged in a new form. Initially they were very Greco in style and later sculptures were made with a mixture of Greco, Indian and Iranian influence. The Buddha statue that emerged later depicted 4 sublime state of Buddhism, namely Metta ( Loving kindness) Karuna (Compassion) Mudita (Blissful joy) and Upekkha (Equanimity). This style portrayed Buddha in a human form, rich aesthetically, thus inspiring the worshipper. The Buddhist faith through Buddhist missionaries from Kushan and Parthian, were able to travel freely and eventually Buddhism spread along the Silk road and had a great cultural and religious influence all the way to China. Similarly few centuries later, Chinese missionaries and travelers were able to reverse the trend and visited the great learning centres of Bamiyan.

Buddhas of Bamiyan

At the beginning Bamiyan had Theravada or Hinayana Buddhism. Bamiyan was a Buddhist cultural and learning centre for almost 1000 years. Later due to Chinese influence the monasteries would have converted to Mahayana Buddhism. The height of Buddhist culture and influence was in the 8th to the 9th century in Afghanistan. Some of the early Hinayana frescoes were repainted over, with Mahayana art. Then the Arabs invaded Afghanistan and Buddhism eventually was overtaken by Islam. The early Islamic conquerors did not damage or destroy the monasteries. Islamization took 150 years before whole of Afghanistan was converted to Islam.

After the Islamization of Afghanistan the monasteries were abandoned, the priests could not survive without the help of the public. Due to wars most of the manuscripts were burned and the temples looted. Many Buddhist priest were killed. Slowly the once great centre of learning crumbled and fell into decay.

The caves where the priests lived and the cave temples were occupied by the local residents. Cooking with firewood and char coal sooted the paintings of these caves and slowly the paintings were first blackened and the plaster fell off or peeled for the heat and the severe cold winters. Human neglect and nature’s ravages gradually destroyed everything. Water seepage and extreme cold weather affected the sandstone cliffs of the Buddha. Small earth quakes cracked some parts of the cliff and parts of the statue fell piece by piece over time. The Bamiyan Buddha complex became a human settlement for over 1200 years.

Today the place is guarded; however the entrance to the complex is open. The UNESCO is involved in rehabilitating the Buddhas. Huge boulders taller than me were strewn at the foot of the Buddha. Most fragments were collected and stored carefully and housed shading from the sun. The Governments of Switzerland, Germany and Japan will finance restoration work. Locals are charged Afghani 60.00 and foreigners are charged Afghani 500.00 ($10.70) A Ministry of Culture (MOC) official will accompany you when you visit the complex. He is a young boy with no knowledge and little interest. He was around to make sure we did not vandalize the place. He was with us for about half an hour and he disappeared. I never learnt any thing from the MOC official. It is sad there are no professional guides at the place to explain the history that changed China and the regions around. People never understand; that Chinese Arts and crafts, writings, culture and philosophy changed after Buddhism was introduced from Afghanistan.

I walked about the complex with my Afghan friend Abdullah who is a graduate in Business from Bangalore University, we explored the caves freely. Both of us were amazed at the works of art and the complexity of the place. Abdullah felt happy that his ancestors were great creators of art and men of great learning, but today most Afghans are illiterate and hardly get any schooling beyond 5th or 6th grade. Abdullah was saddened at the destruction as much as I was. The Taliban deliberately damaged most of the frescoes and murals on the cave temples, they chiseled off the plaster. The few years of Taliban rule did more damage than 1200 years of neglect and apathy. We agreed that we had lost a great treasure for mankind and Afghanistan’s Heritage.

Genghis Khan Destroys City of Bamiyan

Few centuries after the Islamization of Afghanistan, Genghis Khan invaded Afghanistan in 1219. His army met a crushing defeat at the hands of General Kutikonian in Parwan, close to Kabul. Genghis was waging a campaign in Herat. He hastened to Bamiyan, laid siege to the city. It was here that his grandson Mutugen or Motuken was killed. This infuriated Genghis Khan. Finally when he captured the Citadel he instructed nothing was to be spared. Every man and animal was killed and the city laid waste. The column is the remnants of the Citadel on a hill opposite the Bamiyan complex. From here the Bamiyan Complex could be seen clearly.

A little must be mentioned of Genghis Khan. His invasion affected Bamiyan and the regional political and economic landscape. Genghis Khan had the largest empire in the world. What took 400 years for the Romans was conquered in less than 50 years. (Even after his death). His conquest covered areas much greater than the Romans or the Greeks. He had many traits that made his soldiers to die for him. Genghis Khan was greatly misunderstood. The books written by the west portrayed him as a Horde of Mongol savages. Genghis Khan was a superb strategist and militarist. His soldiers were well disciplined. He decreed the Yassa code of conduct. This conduct forbade to hunt during breeding season, No selling of women, prohibiting to take other people’s property. He forbade his soldiers to take civilian property. The poor, artists and the monks were not taxed, he allowed universal education to his people.

He learnt some of his war strategies from the Chinese. Especially laying siege to a city. He would divert the river and cut off the water supply. He used Chinese engineers to build catapults. He used spies very effectively. Every military campaign was planned carefully. The Soviets studied his war tactics during the Second World War, so did the Germans. He selected his generals through meritocracy and loyalty. Pic: of Genghis Khan

In the past generals were selected among family members. He did away with that. He was tolerant to many religions. In Europe there was no religious tolerance at that time. All European nations had to be under the Holy Roman Empire. However, Genghis Khan ruled 30% of the land mass, 24,000,000 sq Km and over a 100 million people. Since he ruled a large area and most of his subjects were Hindus, Buddhists, Islamic and Christian. He gave religious tolerance. He also had advisors from these religions. His descendants married Christian princesses from Europe, or forged alliances through marriages that were Christian. The armies that were captured were absorbed into his army. The orphans were looked after, he even gave some of the orphans to his mother to take care.

He was ruthless when he was resisted. When he was insulted he is known to pour molten silver into the ears and eyes of the victims or boil them alive. He used great psychological warfare. Those who waged war and resisted were demolished and crushed and the whole royal family killed. Whole cities were utterly devastated. This gave fear to his enemies to surrender. To hear his name created fear, that was his psychology. The name preceded the man.

Genghis khans’ conquest of Eastern Europe and Western Crimea and Russia had a great influence on Europe. Europeans started wearing pants or trousers after seeing the Mongol Army. Until that time Europeans wore robes and tunics. The real art of horse riding was shown to the west by the Mongols. Even the cuisine changed in Europe. Genghis khan introduced paper and paper money to Europe, the compass, gunpowder, and even astronomy, where Asian star charts proved European knowledge was wrong. It is believed and not wrong to state that the European renaissance (Europe’s awakening and its greatest period in art, culture and invention) came about because of the Mongol invasion and rule of Genghis Khan.

However, Bamiyan never recovered from the destruction. Agricultural land laid waste with nobody to farm. There were no cattle left to work or live on. The knowledge to trade on the Silk Road had been crushed. The city became Mounds of tombs where the dead were hastily buried or simply piled together and covered with lime. The Silk Road faced new challenges. Eventually the new Islamized nations closed the Silk Road and made it difficult to travel. By then the Europeans found new sea routes to go to China and had better ships and better guns. The Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, French and the British ruled the seas. The Silk Road was abandoned.

Going back to Bamiyan now, you will see people riding donkeys and going about as they did 1000’s of years ago. It seemed life had not changed. Predominantly the Hazara’s live here. It is believed they were the remaining troops of Genghis’s army who stayed back. Travelling in Afghanistan has it rewards and dangers. I did not know what to expect when I started. My trip to Bamiyan was traveling to the past and wondered what the future of Bamiyan would be in another 100 years. Well, there will be somebody else to write and record.

Leaving Bamiyan, I saw an abandoned Soviet era T?55 Main Battle Tank. They all came and they all left leaving scars in Afghanistan’s history. Now Life in Bamiyan goes at its own pace like 1000 years ago.

News Source: http://www.island.lk/index.php?page_cat=article-details&page=article-details&code_title=11134

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