Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Rebuilding the Bamiyan Buddhas

Afghans believe that the reconstruction of the famous Bamiyan Buddhas could prove to be an important, symbolic step towards the country's recovery.
By Thomas Withington

Some believe the Taleban's fate was sealed the day they set about destroying Afghanistan's most prized religious artefacts.


"It is the curse of the Gods," said Paramhamsa Ramchandra, president of India's Ram Janambhumi Nyas Hindu Trust, a Hindu religious pressure group. "The seeds of the Taleban's destruction were sown the day they blew up the Bamiyan Buddhas."


Pictures of this gross act of vandalism outraged audiences around the world in March last year. The Taleban leadership claimed that the giant statues carved into the rock in central Afghanistan were un-Islamic.


Taleban leader Mullah Omar ignored international entreaties over the demolition plans, saying that all be was doing was "breaking stones".


The statues were carved during the third and fourth centuries AD when Afghanistan was an important junction on the Silk Road. Originally painted red, blue and gold they were the focal point of a complex of caves, shrines and grottoes.


"The golden hues sparkle on every side," commented one early Chinese traveller, "and its precious ornaments dazzle the eye by their brightness."


Over the centuries, the statues have withstood numerous wars and invasions, including that of Genghis Khan. They survived to become one of Afghanistan's primary tourist attractions before the soviet invasion of 1979.


Now that the Taleban have gone, plans are afoot to replace the Buddhas. According to Bernard Weber, who runs the New7Wonders.org cultural heritage website advocating the reconstruction, "we want to prove that even wilful destruction cannot bring oblivion to that which mankind holds dear".


Paul Bucherer, head of the Afghanistan Museum in Budendorf, Switzerland, is perhaps the world's foremost expert on the statues. He has said that the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, UNESCO, will be holding a conference in Afghanistan later in the spring to discuss their possible restoration.


Already, those appalled by the wanton destruction of the Buddhas have made reproductions of the statues elsewhere. Last November, a group of 300 stonemasons started work on recreating the two figures in sandstone cliffs in the western Chinese province of Sichuan.


The project is the brainchild of Liang Simian, who has already constructed one Buddha-double in his Buddha theme park in the south-western province of Sichuan.


Bucherer insists that the Afghan government and people are fully behind the reconstruction project. "It's an absolute political priority for everyone in Afghanistan," Bucherer commented last week. "It will be a symbol for the Afghans of the liberation from Taleban and al-Qaeda influences."


The Afghan minister for information and culture, Raheen Makdoom, has already given the initiative his blessing. "We know that the new Buddhas won't exactly be what they were before, but we need to rebuild them," he said.


Makhdoom may be concerned over the country's cultural heritage but he also has his eyes on tourist dollars. "Afghanistan is one of the most ancient countries of the world, with lots of ancient monuments and lots of natural, interesting places. I'm sure when things get back to normal, there will be thousands of tourists."


Much as they revered these colossi Afghans have a long tradition of selling off their bits of their cultural past. Bits of the Bamiyan Buddhas as well as frescoes from caves around this religious complex have found their way via Pakistan into the collections of dealers around the world. "It's a question of survival. I know it's important for Afghanistan's heritage but we can't eat gold coins and they're no good to us if we're dead," said one Kabul antiquities dealer.


Bamiyan town desperately needs to generate cash as it suffered terribly under the Taleban regime. It was also badly damaged during clashes between local Hazara fighters and Taleban forces just days before the fall of Kabul in November.


Around 150 families made homeless by the fighting are attempting to survive in the smoke-blackened caves close to where the Buddhas once stood.


Bucherer estimates the cost of rebuilding the statues at between 30 and 50 million US dollars. The sum, he insists, should not be taken out of the money already being pledged for humanitarian assistance and reconstruction in the country.


Almost no one disputes the gravity of the Taliban's cultural vandalism, and any money generated by reconstructing the Buddhas could have a positive trickle-down effect for the residents of Bamiyan.


Thomas Withington is a research associate at the Centre for Defence Studies, King's College, London.


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