Sunday 12 June 2022

Endangered Buddhist Heritage of Afghanistan

Across Afghanistan, the remnants of Buddhist heritage is under threat under the Taliban government (Lynne O’Donnell The Taliban Take Aim at Buddhist Heritage Foreign Policy June 7, 2022):

Immediately after storming to power in Afghanistan last August, the Taliban renewed their assault on the country’s rich pre-Islamic heritage by looting archeological treasures in Bamiyan province, in Afghanistan’s central highlands [...] Mullah Abdullah Sarhadi, the Taliban’s de facto governor of Bamiyan province[...] has been overseeing the plunder of protected Buddhist antiquities, according to archaeologists and experts with knowledge of destructive activity. He is also implicated in the massacre of Hazaras, who regard Bamiyan as their homeland [...] Shiites who account for about 10 percent of Afghanistan’s population of an estimated 38 million and regard themselves as guardians of the region’s heritage.[...] Once the Taliban were back in power, they went straight back to dismantling and looting the historic sites. Locals said that Sarhadi brought in non-Afghans to do much of the excavation and looting. The Art Newspaper reported that at least two sites around the giant Buddha niches were excavated, including some caves that had never been opened before. It is impossible to know what they might have held and what, if anything, was taken. [...] The region has been dug over and looted for millennia, and many experts believe that there could be little of value left to be found. Like the empty niches where the Buddhas once stood overlooking Bamiyan’s wheat fields, much of Afghanistan’s cultural heritage could soon be consigned to memory.
The region of modern Afghanistan was of importance to the spread of Buddhism from India to China, Japan, and Korea. This religion began spreading here under the Kudshans (1st - 3rd cents AD) and in subsequent periods until the Islamic conquest and Ghaznavids (11th cent AD). Western and Asian collectors have long sought examples of 'Gandhara art', the style of Buddhist visual art that developed in what is now northwestern Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan between the 1st century BC and the 7th century AD. The renewed interest in this material dates from the 1880s and it seems that one of the people promoting it was John Lockwood Kipling, curator of Lahore Museum (and Rudyard Kipling's father). The main period of the flourishing of the Gandhara artstyle came to an end in the mid-fith to late fifth century AD.

The Buddhist art in the Bamiyan valley (the main topic of this article) postdates the Gandhara style and is contemporary with the culture of India in the Gupta period. The rock walls of the valley were riddled with (over 1000) caves dating to the period from 450 to 850 AD (other valleys in the region all around this valley contain many thousands of other caves). Some of them were inhabited in the sixth century, forming a monastic community of some 2000 monks. It was in the 6th century, too that the two large Buddha statues (one 53m tall) were constructed in the large rock facing the north side of the valley. The statues were destroyed by the Taliban in March 2001, on the grounds that they were an affront to Islam. After the Taliban were driven from the region, civilians made their homes in the caves. Attempts were made by Afghan teams working with foreign conservation bodies to reconstruct the dynamited statues, but with little permanent effect.

The Foreign Policy article also mentioned the major Hindu-Buddhist settlement site at Mes Aynak, (Pashto/Persian: مس عينک, meaning "little source of copper") Logar Province 40 km southeast of Kabul. This is sited on a massive copper deposit that was exploited for centuries and formed the basis for the wealth of the settleent that grew up here. The earliest Buddhist remains date from the Kushan era, and the site developed into a 40 ha complex scattered over a wide zone with at least 19 separate areas known, including two small forts, a citadel, four Buddhist monasteries, several Buddhist stupas, over 400 Buddha statues, a Zoroastrian fire temple, as well as residential structures and market areas. These are ancient copper workings, smelters and miners' dwellings. The site was at the peak of its prosperity between the 5th and 7th centuries AD. A period of slow decline began in the 8th Century, and the settlement was finally abandoned 200 years later after destruction in the 10th century by the Gaznavids. The site is currently being recorded due to the threat posed by ongoing and proposed copper mining around and under the site (William Dalrymple, 'Mes Aynak: Afghanistan's Buddhist buried treasure faces destruction', Guardian 31 May 2013).

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