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The Buddhas of Bamiyan

By: Ardis E. Parshall - February 08, 2010

Upon taking leave of a group of his followers in 543 B.C.E., the Buddha is reported to have said, “All things change. Nothing is permanent.”

They must have seemed permanent, those huge carvings of the Buddha hewn out of the cliffs near Bamiyan, Afghanistan. At least, they stood there for approximately 1,500 years despite damage caused by earthquakes and by the rifle fire and even cannon shot of the armies of the world traveling on the ancient Silk Road between China and India and the West. The caves that pepper the cliff faces around the statues served as quarters for traveling monks. Centuries ago the region passed from Buddhist to Islamic control, but the Bamiyan Buddhas remained an attraction not only for Buddhist pilgrims but for scholars and tourists who appreciated the carvings as part of humanity’s shared cultural heritage.


Until March 2001. You probably remember hearing news that the Taliban had dynamited the Bamiyan carvings and used anti-aircraft weapons to obliterate all traces of the figures, leaving only their empty niches on the cliff faces. The Taliban couched its announcements of the destruction in terms of religion – Sharia law forbade “idols,” including all depictions of human or animal forms – although political motives were also likely involved, since the region around Bamiyan had not yet been brought fully under Taliban control. Then came 9/11, and when we thought of Afghanistan or the Taliban our thoughts were no longer focused on the destruction of ancient artworks. Now there is talk of reconstructing the destroyed statues by means of laser representations. That, or any other form of reconstruction, is apt to be years down the road.

I don’t think I had ever heard of the Buddhas of Bamiyan until the outcry over their 2001 destruction. I wasn’t as well educated as the little Mormon boys and girls of the late 19th century, whose Sunday School leaders – with no fear of the religious objects of others – had an appreciation of these “monuments of perseverance not unmixed with skill” and pronounced them “worthy of preservation.”

From the Juvenile Instructor, 1888 –

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An Immense Statue.

We of the United States have been wont to look upon the Bartholdi Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor as a wonderfully large image, and such it is when compared with similar productions in the civilized world; but there is a statue of very ancient construction which is no less than one hundred and seventy-three feet high, thus exceeding by thirty-six feet that of which the American people feel so proud. Of the former, which is worthy of being considered one of the world’s wonders, we to-day present our readers with an illustration.

This remarkable piece of work is located near the small town of Bamian in Afghanistan, Asia, where four other figures of immense size, though less than the one here illustrated, are also situated. They are all cut out of the solid rock of the perpendicular walls at the foot of the Hindu-Kush Mountains, and are so large that caravans camp beneath the folds of the skirts. Within these images stairs are cut, by means of which access can be had to the body and head, while in the adjoining rocks there are, it is said, no less than “twelve thousand galleries” in which a whole people could find room and shelter. The bluffs, as can be seen in the engraving, are pierced with so many chambers as to make them look like beehives.

It is supposed that these remarkable pieces of work were constructed about nineteen hundred years ago by Buddhist monks who were at that time very numerous in that region. The first description given of them was furnished by a Chinese pilgrim, Huen Tsang, who visited them about 630 A.D. Even at that time he considered them very old.

The Hindoos, when they pass either or all of these carved figures, raise their hands in adoration, but others hurl stones at them. Soldiers in passing have even levelled their cannon at the lower portions, the result of which is that these parts are somewhat mutilated and partly demolished.

Whatever motive may have prompted the carving of these images, they are monuments of perseverance not unmixed with skill, and because of their antiquity as well as their enormous size are worthy of preservation.



13 Comments »

  1. I was much disappointed when the international community failed to stop the destruction of those Buddhas. Oh well. It would be nice to get Afghanistan back to some semblance of order and rebuild those statues.

    Comment by Dan — February 8, 2010 @ 7:22 am

  2. What a tragic loss!

    I’m glad to see a Church publication stressing the importance of perserving such religious monuments. I hope we haven’t lost that generousity and appreciation for other of the world’s great religions. I remember a few years ago in a Gospel Doctrine class when I mentioned, paraphrasing President Kimball, that Muhammad was an inspired religious leader. Some of the gasps and looks I got were quite telling.

    Comment by Steve C. — February 8, 2010 @ 7:26 am

  3. A lot of Saints may not yet have heard of BYU’s Middle Eastern Text Initiative, or how LDS Humanitarian Aid cooperates with Islamic Relief, or about the church’s statement on pure religion (“People the world over share this philosophy, as is evident in the lives of many Buddhists, Muslims, Catholics, Jews and adherents of other religious traditions. The common thread is a respect and love for God that spills over to a respect and love for His children.”)

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — February 8, 2010 @ 8:17 am

  4. Ardis,

    When do you start to see a shift in Church publications where they wrote less about religions other than our own?

    I’d be a bit surprised, for instance, to see something like this in a Church publication today.

    Comment by SmallAxe — February 8, 2010 @ 8:35 am

  5. I’d be surprised, too, SmallAxe, unless there were a clear Mormon tie-in like those linked in #3.

    Until well into the 1930s, all the church magazines, especially the Improvement Era, had a heavy dose of more-or-less secular subject matter. I’m guessing that was a habit, a legacy of the Juvenile Instructor which began with the intent to furnish worthwhile reading of all kinds, and with the realization that the JI would likely be the only children’s publication that went into many Mormon homes. There was a similar expectation with the IE as the organ of the Mutual Improvement Associations, which from the beginning promoted improvement in education, occupational choice, and “how-to” skills perhaps even greater than improvement in religious knowledge and behavior. Those other topics, including world religions, gradually dropped away as other reading material became easily available and as there came to be more news about Mormon activities to fill the pages. I’d be surprised to learn that that was a conscious editorial decision rather than an unconscious drift into a niche market.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — February 8, 2010 @ 8:48 am

  6. Beautiful! So sad that they are were destroyed. I hope they can be reconstructed at some point. I read about them and their destruction in a couple of popular works of fiction about Afghanistan, and wondered about their appearance. Never thought I would have the curiosity itch scratched here, thanks for that. :) I know the books were fiction but the Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns, by Khaled Hosseini really helped open my heart and mind to a people and a part of the world that I had little understanding of.

    Comment by Dovie — February 8, 2010 @ 9:05 am

  7. It gives me a heavy heart to see people abuse and destroy history/ culture regardless of who created it. Thanks again for another interesting post.

    Comment by peter Fagg — February 8, 2010 @ 9:23 am

  8. Wholly unexpected. I was operating under human default (things have always been the way thing are) with regard to church publications. I had no idea they respectfully discussed world religion in the past. Fascinating. Thanks!

    Comment by Moniker Challenged — February 8, 2010 @ 11:51 am

  9. I remember hearing about the Taliban destroying “cultural artifacts” but, until now, had never seen any images of what they destroyed. What an immense statue.

    And I loved seeing that illustration from the JI! Speaking of Utah and the Mormon settlements, my sense, as Ardis said, is that early church periodicals were more comprehensive in their subject matter due in large part to the fact that other reading materials weren’t as prevalent.

    Still, it makes my heart swell with pride a little everytime I see examples of the various Church publications educating readers in all sorts of “non-Church” areas (nations, cultures, governments, history, art, etc.).

    Comment by Hunter — February 8, 2010 @ 2:43 pm

  10. Thanks for your recommendation, Dovie, and glad to provide you with a little backscratching.

    Welcome to Keepa, Peter — I hope we hear from you more often.

    Moniker, I could go all schoolmarmy and say something about this being one of the lessons of history and why we need to study the past yada, yada — but I’d have to stop grinning first. Isn’t it fun to get an unexpected insight?

    And Hunter, I can always count on you. An article like this may not be in depth and may not individually have played a lasting role in anybody’s life, but the accumulation of such articles might. JI brought the world to some isolated families without many other resources.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — February 8, 2010 @ 7:47 pm

  11. I’d be surprised to learn that that was a conscious editorial decision rather than an unconscious drift into a niche market.

    I believe you’re right. Do you get the sense that Church publications were seen as less authoritative then they are now? In other words, I think most members nowadays view Church publications as kind of defining the parameters of the gospel. If earlier saints had very much this same view, then it would seem like the parameters of the gospel were construed much larger then they are now.

    Comment by SmallAxe — February 9, 2010 @ 9:54 am

  12. The earlier magazines certainly published stuff — even Mormon stuff — that wouldn’t cut it today in Church magazines. I’m thinking of Oliver B. Huntington and his claim that Joseph Smith described men on the moon, and all the guff we have taken since then over that remarkable and apparently unfounded claim, but it isn’t limited to that. A lot of doctrinal speculation published in the past just wouldn’t be tolerated today.

    The magazines into the 1960s carry official directives of the auxiliaries and Presiding Bishop’s Office on how various programs are to be run, but I can’t remember ever seeing any similar claim for the authoritativeness of doctrinal articles, even Conference talks, the way we see it today with the insistence that “your Ensign is your 5th standard work.” It would be interesting to track down the first occurrence of a claim like that.

    I think you’re right in how we view Church publications today, but I suspect that’s a post-correlation view. I don’t know how I’d prove it, but I have a gut feeling that in prior years, members made appeals to the authority of this or that individual GA when they bashed each other about orthodoxy, not to whether or not something had been published in a Church magazine.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — February 9, 2010 @ 10:23 am

  13. In the Buddhist perspective, everything changes. Before the destruction, there was an image of Buddha. Now there IS the Buddha. no need to rebuild them. they are now a symbol of religious tolerance. Send out love and compassion to those fanatics who would destroy culture, because they are destroying two cultures, the second being there own.

    Comment by Sean — September 29, 2010 @ 3:58 pm

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