Unearthing Afghanistan's Glorious Past

Nov 27, 2010 By Deepa Gopal
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Lets go back to 5th century AD. Imagine a weary traveler on the Silk route, the main trading route between Europe, Northern Africa and Asia (China, India). After crossing through rugged mountainous country, he reaches a city at the crossroads -- a beautiful lush green valley with a river winding through it. It is a sight for sore eyes!

Carved into a red sandstone cliff are two gigantic statues of the Buddha - one 175 feet tall and another 125 feet tall. The face is covered with gold and decorated with precious gems that glitter in the sun. The entire landscape is filled with smaller statues and stupas (mound like structures, used as places of worship). The cliff face is dotted with caves where the monks live and meditate. Frescoes on the walls of the cave depict stories from the life of the Buddha.

What is this heaven on earth, an oasis of beauty and tranquility? It is the city of Bamyan, an ancient seat of culture and learning in present day Afghanistan.

Reach of Buddhism

Buddhism is a religion founded in India by Siddhartha Gautama, a prince who renounced his kingdom and sought enlightenment. The simplicity of the religion made it popular with the masses. As the religion grew popular, it was carried by traders traveling along the Silk route and made its way to present day Afghanistan.

Afghanistan was situated at the crossroads of different cultures and trading routes, which shaped Buddhism as it took root there. The original religion did not advocate idol worship; however for the first time, the Buddha was portrayed in human form. The statues and frescoes had a distinct Greek influence and this was known as the Gandhara school of art.

King Kanishka, a ruler in 2nd century AD is credited with spreading the religion, building cultural centers throughout his empire and ordering the construction of these giant statues. From Afghanistan, Buddhism spread to China and the Far East (Japan).

Lost to history

The statues survived the rule of Alexander the Great as well as the many Muslim invaders over the ages. But in 2001, they fell to the Taliban regime in Afghanistan who blasted the statues completely using dynamite and anti-aircraft weapons, inspite of appeals from the international community. The Talibans preached a fundamentalist, intolerant form of Islam and viewed the images of the Buddha as an affront to their religion.

Race against time

The Talibans were removed from power forcibly after the U.S led war on Afghanistan. As the country tries to get back on its feet, it has given the rights to a Chinese mining company to tap into its vast deposits of copper. Mes Aynak, the area that is to be mined, is also home to the remains of a 2000 year old monastery and twelve other such sites.

The monastery complex has been dug out revealing hallways and rooms decorated with frescoes and filled with clay and stone statues of standing and reclining Buddhas, some as high as 10 feet. An area that was once a courtyard is dotted with stupas standing four or five feet high.

The mining company has given the archaeologists three years for a task that may take upto ten years. The government of Afghanistan is eager for the revenue from the copper mines as well. Archaeologists are racing against time to map the ancient city and unearth the statues and artifacts that once belonged to Afghanistan's glorious past.