The Two Biggest Standing Buddhas On The Planet Are Gone
POSTED ON JULY 18, 2019 NEW YORK TIMES BY ROD NORLAND
The World Heritage Site of Bamiyan, Afghanistan’s famous Buddhas has seen varying degrees of destruction over the years. The worst was the Taliban’s effort in March 2001, when the group blasted away at the two giant statues, one 181 feet and the other 125 feet tall, which at the time were thought to be the two biggest standing Buddhas on the planet. It took the Taliban weeks, using artillery and explosive charges, to reduce the Buddhas to thousands of fragments piled in heaps at the foot of the cliffs, outraging the world. Since then, the degradation has continued, as Afghanistan and the international community have spent 18 years debating what to do to protect or restore the site, with still no final decision and often only one guard on duty. One recent idea came from a wealthy Chinese couple, Janson Hu and Liyan Yu. They financed the creation of a Statue of Liberty-size 3D light projection of an artist’s view of what the larger Buddha, known as Solsol to locals, might have looked like in his prime. The image was beamed into the niche one night in 2015. The local authorities bring it out on special occasions, but rarely, as Bamiyan has no city power supply, other than fields of low-capacity solar panels. The 3D-image projector is power-hungry and needs its own diesel generator. Most of the time, the remains of the monument are so poorly guarded that anyone can buy a ticket ($4 for foreigners, 60 cents for Afghans), walk in and do pretty much whatever he wants. And many do. Souvenir-hunters pluck pieces of painted stucco decorations from the network of chambers or take away chunks of fallen sandstone. Graffiti signatures, slogans, even solicitations for sex abound. The Buddhas, built over perhaps a century from 550 A.D. or so, were just the most prominent parts of a complex of hundreds of caves, monasteries and shrines, many of them colorfully decorated by the thousands of monks who meditated and prayed in them. In the 1990s, the caves around the Buddha complex in Bamiyan were home to mujahedeen factions that burned wood for heating. As hard-line Islamists, they were against Buddhism, slapping their shoes on the cave walls out of disrespect. Even without the Buddhas themselves, their niches remain, impressive in their own right; the Statue of Liberty would fit comfortably in the western one. Unesco has declared the whole valley, including the more than half-mile-long cliff and its monasteries, a World Heritage Site. “If the Taliban come back again to destroy it, this time they would have to do the whole cliff,” Aslam Alawi, the local head of the Afghan culture ministry, said. Unesco has also declared the Bamiyan Buddhas complex a “World Heritage Site in Danger,” one of 54 worldwide. The larger western niche is still at risk of collapsing. Most archaeologists oppose restoration, arguing that the damage was too great and that the cost would be prohibitive. Estimates range from $30 million for one Buddha to $1.2 billion for the whole complex. Others argue that the destruction itself has become a historical monument, and that the ruins should be preserved as is, a visible reminder of Taliban iconoclasm.
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