With the images of the footage of the brutal Taliban destruction of the enormous Buddha statues of Bamiyan on the back of our minds, we are on a small plane taking us directly there from Kabul. I hope we are sitting on the right side of the plane, and as we land, know we are. While we fly very close to Shahr-e-Gholgola, just behind the ruins of this ancient city we see the rockface in which we see not only two big, empty niches, but also hundreds of caves. After settling down in the only surviving building of old Bamiyan - a new town has been constructed between the airstrip and the rocks - the only way to go is towards the cliffs where the famous statues once stood. The moment we leave our guesthouse, the empty space of the Great Buddha niche is right above us, filled with scaffolding, looking like a giant sarcophagus in a vertical position. It somehow gives us hope of a possible reconstruction of the unique statues. At the small visitor centre, we get an information leaflet and our ticket; someone walks with us to open the gate to the niche of the Small Buddha. On the way, he explains that the Big Buddha niche is not accessible, but the small one is. More Buddha statues have been destroyed here, and many of the caves where monks once meditated, too. We walk here with mixed feelings: at the one hand, we feel we are in a unique place: Bamiyan once was on of the main centres for Buddhism in the region. The Buddha statues looked out over town and much of the valley for 1500 years: also in the heydays of the Silk Road when caravans stopped here. Back then, they were painted, and at 35 and 53 metres (the Small and Big Buddha, respectively) must have looked awe-inspiring even when there were no more Buddhists left. At the same time, we feel a deep sadness for the destruction of these majestic carved Buddhas and the ignorance of those who perpetrated these cultural crimes.
On our way, we meet a director of the small visitor centre, and he ends up taking us around and explaining more about what we see, and much more often, what we cannot see anymore. He tells us about the destruction, also of the frescoes - which we already learned about when we visited the museum in Kabul. He explains how the locals were forced to put the dynamite in the statues, hanging from ropes, and how people who refused were killed. The story of the destruction, which was world news when it happened in March 2001, turns out to be even much more cruel when you listen to the personal losses suffered in Bamiyan. When we arrive at the base of the niche, and look up, we can see the silhouet of the Small Buddha. There are stacks of rocks, covered by a roof: the debris caused by the destruction. Much of the debris has been sold, however, as have parts of the frescoes - to further finance the Taliban in their war effort. Plans to rebuild the statues have never materialized: as our guide says: Afghanistan has other problems to deal with first. We now walk up the stairs inside the cliffs, and stop at every level. Here, we find caves where we can still see partial frescoes, others where the frescoes have been destroyed by fire. The steep stairs then take us to a balcony, right above where the Buddha statue once stood. We have a free view over town and the valley beyond. We see more caves, a place where books were once placed, and another viewpoint, before we walk down on the other side of the Buddha. The idea was that pilgrims could walk up one way and down the other, so they completed a tour around the statue.
We now walk back along the base of the cliffs, and enter the restricted area at the foot of the Great Buddha. This was the younger statue, and it was destroyed after the Small one; its destruction seems more intense. The staircase is partly destroyed as well: it is currently impossible to walk around the niche. A strange feeling of nostalgia wells up: my parents walked up these destroyed stairs on their visit back in 1962. We do see some caves with vague frescoes, and rubble from the destroyed statue. Standing in the middle of the niche, and looking up, seeing the blue sky and the ceiling of the niche make you realize even more how enormous this statue must have been. The next day, I am up early and hike up the steep slope above the Great Buddha. I now see that channels have been constructed to prevent water from rushing down the sandstone cliffs, thus eroding whatever is left of the statues. I am rewarded by views over the valley, with fog hanging low over the fields, between the trees and houses, and lurking against the base of the rockface on which I am standing. Walking on the edge of the cliffs, the views get even better when the sun rises and shines through the shreds of clouds. Such a beautiful sunrise, I am back the next day. Now, I walk the entire ridge, until I can climb down into a narrow gorge where I have to squeeze myself through boulders, without any traces of steps. After a while, to my surprise, the gorge opens, and I am next to the niche of the Small Buddha. I walk back along the base of the cliffs, while the soft sunlight warms up the face of the cliffs just as it has been doing for many, many centuries. The empty niches in the sandstone wall look like open wounds: their precious contents violently amputated. The double feeling remains. Will they ever be restored? If so, I will be back!
Personal travel impressions both in words and images from Bamiyan Buddhas (Afghanistan). Clicking on the pictures enlarges them and enables you to send the picture as a free e-card or download it for personal use, for instance, on your weblog. Or click on the map above to visit more places close to Bamiyan Buddhas.
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