This history of the colossal Bamian Buddhas appears in AFGHANISTAN: PHOTOGRAPHS 1971-1972 by Adrian Panaro and Arthur Panaro.
Adrian Panaro, BA Anthropology (University of Delaware, 1974) is a professional photographer and artist. He has work in various museum and private collections. A long time resident of New York City, where he began his career as an assistant to Richard Avedon, he currently resides in Corrales, New Mexico.
Arthur Panaro, MA Philosophy (University of Delaware, ) and MA Counseling (Southwestern College, Santa Fe), currently resides in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
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The visual record of Bamian contained herein as it existed in the Summer of 1972 is now a small testament to the destroyed cultural relics.
The selection and arrangement of the photographs in this book was nearing completion when Arthur chanced to find a book in Santa Fe, New Mexico entitled “Buddhist Cave Paintings at Tun Huang” by Basil Grey. The caves of Tun Huang are in China, yet Arthur discovered three references to Bamian in the book’s index. The references consisted of a few sentences but led us to further inquiries about Bamian and how the art in the valley played a role in the subsequent development of Buddhist iconography throughout Asia.
The Bamian valley has been inhabited since at least the 3rd century BCE, during which time period it was part of the Greco-Bactrian kingdom (250-130 BCE). The kingdom was settled by support staff of Alexander the Great, who, after conquering the Persian Empire, wished to pacify and consolidate the regions directly to the east in what is now Afghanistan. The Persians had traditionally drawn some of their best warriors from the mountains of Afghanistan, and so the fighting was fierce. It took Alexander nearly 2 years to subdue the tribes and set up an administrative center in the city of Balkh (p. XX-XX) and founded a kingdom in Bactria. Balkh later became a center of Buddhism around the same time as Bamian.
In the coming centuries, the valley gained prominence as a crossroads along the ancient Silk Road, a route thought to have originated in the 2nd century BCE, connecting China and India with the West through trade along the way. The city of Bamian itself was established when the Kushan Empire ruled the area, in the 1st century CE, and lay at the halfway point between Balkh and the Kushan capital near modern Bagram. Buddhism was adopted by the Kushans, who established monasteries in the Bamian valley. During this period the Gandhara school of Buddhist art developed—a fusion of Eastern art with the Greco-Bactrian Hellenistic tradition. The style emphasizes strong idealistic realism and sensuous forms following the conventions of Classical Greek sculpture. Previous depictions of the Buddha were limited to symbols such as the lotus or footprints; with the introduction of the Greek aesthetic from artists left in the wake of the conquests of Alexander the Great, images of the Buddha himself emerged. These portrayals took hold in popular imagination and led to the creation of the great standing Buddhas of Bamian.
In the 4th century, Bamian was invaded by the White Huns (Hephthalites); the creation of the Buddha statues is dated to around their reign, some time between the 3rd-7th century CE. Although the Hephthalites persecuted Buddhists in their kingdom, they focused their attention on the wealthy monasteries at Ghandara and seemed to have left the Buddhist community at Bamian intact (Lee, p. 125). Situated at the crossroads of many cultures, the Buddhas display elements of religious and artistic customs from India, China, Persia and the Hellenistic legacy that persisted beyond Alexander’s conquest, influencing the Buddhist art of China and traceable to the paintings in the caves of Tun Huang.
The forms of the Buddhas were roughed out of the tall sandstone escarpment leaving tall niches that were lined with interior spiral stairs with openings onto the niche for pilgrims to view the figures while ascending and descending in vertical circumambulation. The rough surfaced sandstone figures were fleshed out with details. The folds in their robes were formed with a mud and straw stucco mixture laid over ropes anchored to wooden pegs. (p. XX-XX) A finishing skim of China clay, or kaolin, mixed with chalk gave the figures a fine surface that was then painted using gums and oils mixed with pigment, a very early usage of oil paint. (see p. XX for an illustration of the layers of details)
The details of drapery folds are a Central Asian prototype derived from Hellenistic influence, a stylistic technique that spread to China and is seen in paintings of the thousand Buddhas in the caves of Tun-Huang (Gray, p. 37). The cave paintings at Tun-Huang also show portrayals of apsarases (p. XX), celestial nymphs drawn from Hindu mythology, images which are derived from the style at Bamian (Gray, p. 42). In the niche walls on either side of the large Buddha are rows of medallions containing sitting Buddhas, referencing the Thousand Buddhas, each a Bodhisattva foregoing Nirvana to guide humanity and identified by the positions, or mudras, of their hands, palms and fingers.
The smaller buddha was 120 feet high, and the larger statue was 175 feet; up until their destruction, they were the largest examples of standing Buddha carvings in the world. The smaller Buddha could be circumnavigated vertically using interior spiral staircases cut into the rock on either side, and reaching the top of the head. The feet of the large Buddha were circumambulated using passages cut around the sides and behind the heels (previous page). Circumambulation, walking around a sacred object, is an act of devotion common in Buddhist practice.
Bamian, the furthest west, at the time, that Buddhism would travel, became one of the most important Buddhist pilgrimage sites in the world and an important stop along the Silk Road. In the 7th century, Afghanistan became primarily Islamic; Bamian, a valley situated at 8000 feet, maintained its position as a Buddhist redoubt through the 11th century, when the Ghaznavid dynasty established Islam as the only religion in the valley. In 1221, the armies of Genghis Khan besieged Bamiyan; while they killed most of the population, the statues remained untouched. The remains of the civilization he destroyed are the haunting ruins of Shar-e Gholghola, or City of Screams, a citadel located across the valley from the statues (p. XX-XX).
The subsequent centuries were not kind to the statues. Islamic iconoclasm, the destruction of religious images, has made the statues targets since Muslim control of the region began in the 11th century. Bouts of iconoclasm and years of neglect gradually degraded the statues and other remnants of the Buddhist establishment. In order to destroy what Islamic tradition considered idolatry, the 17th century Mughal emperor Aurangzeb used artillery to smash their faces, and 18th century Persian King Nadir Shah cut off the legs of the large Buddha. In the 19th century, Afghan king Abdur Rahman Khan further destroyed the face of the large Buddha during a campaign against a Shia Hazara rebellion in the valley. The final destruction of the Buddhas at Bamiyan at the hands of the Taliban in 2001 required more than two weeks of effort. After tank fire failed, conscripted workers drilled holes, planted dynamite and conducted a series of explosions to bring the giant statues down, leaving only traces of outlines in the empty niches.
Gray, Basil, and J.B. Vincent. Buddhist Cave Paintings at Tun-Huang. The University of Chicago Press, 1959.
Le, Huu Phuoc. Buddhist Architecture. Grafikol, 2010.
also see Morgan, Llewelyn. The Buddhas of Bamiyan. Harvard University Press, 2012