Buddhas of Bamiyan

October 25, 2016

By Owen Seeber, Langston Peterson, and Chase Viland

The destruction of two statues made of sandstone…

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One of the Buddhas of Bamiyan, before and after its destruction

    • Who: Taliban
    • What: Destruction of Buddhas of Bamiyan
    • When: March 2001
    • Where: Hazarajat Region, Bamiyan Valley, Afghanistan
    • Why: Reason; proclaimed an idol by the Taliban Regime/political statement to the West

The Buddhas of Bamiyan were once the largest-standing statues of Buddha in the world. The first was built in 507 CE, with the second being built in 554 CE, standing both at 35 meters tall and 53 meters tall respectively. The Buddhas were carved into the cliffs of the Bamiyan Valley, an isolated region in central Afghanistan about 150 miles northwest of Kabul. The taller of the two Buddhas is said to represent Vairocana, denoted the “light Shining throughout the Universe Buddha” (Rathje). The smaller Buddha supposedly represents Buddha Sakyamuni,the founder of the religion. The Buddhas stood for over one thousand years on the historic Silk Road. The area also served as a transition point and resting location for travelers and caravans traversing the path. The Bamiyan Valley was a homestead for the Buddhist religion and a center for Buddhist activity for around 500 years. As a result, the region dotted with the dwellings of thousands of Buddhist monks carved into the cliffs as caves, just like the statues.

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Figure 1: Two Muslim women clad in burkas enjoying the company of the statues

Over time, the Bamiyan Valley lost its reputation as a Buddhist center and Islam became the predominant local religion. Nonetheless, the statues remained a community symbol. Figure 1, for example, depicts two Muslim women, clad in burkas, enjoying a visit to the statues. After surviving over one thousand years in such a busy junction of the Middle East, the targeting and censorship of the statues poses some major questions.

The Buddhas were censored, or destroyed, in March, 2001, under the orders of Mullah Mohammed Omar, pictured in figure 2. Mullah, meaning village-level religious leader, was the title Omar had taken as leader of the group. The Taliban does not have a long history relative to the history of Afghanistan and the land in which the state occupies, but holds an eventful history. The Taliban had a swift rise to power in Afghanistan from 1991-2001. Michael Semple points this out in his article “The Taliban in 2024,” as he explains to audiences that “the Taliban is seen as working with Sunni clerics to foster a shariat movement for advancing economic justice and (corporal) punishment. Before long, the organization began substantially rewarding joiners, arming for jihad, and resisting international forces in Afghanistan.” This build up of power grounded in their desire to push their shariat movement, or sharia law, is what propelled the Taliban to 2001 to destroy the statues.

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Figure 2: Mullah Mohammed Omar

In other words, Omar’s decision to destroy the Buddhist icons was formed through extensive and meticulous planning. Afghanistan had been a war-torn country since the Cold War era, decades before the Taliban’s rise to power. It is important to note that “immediately after their rise, the Taliban were supported by most of the civilian population,” according to Francesco Francioni and Federico Lenzerini, authors of “The Destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan and International Law” (622). Their support sprang from their “frustrate[tion] by the situation of civil war persisting in the country since the end of 1970s” (622). Thus, the Taliban were welcomed as a leadership that promised to bring stability to the country. As Francioni and Lenzerini point out, “At the critical date of the destruction of Buddhas, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, established by the Taliban, covered some 90–95 percent of the Afghan territory, including the capital Kabul” (622). Even though the country entered a period of stability, however, the country suffered greatly in many areas, including the quality and length of life of its citizens, the continued prevalence of war, and significant regulations that decreased the freedoms of the people. Therefore, despite all of the stability and prosperity the Taliban had promised, “Afghanistan managed to reach the world’s lowest life expectancy in 2001 and, together with Somalia, is one of the two hungriest countries in the world” (Francioni & Lenzerini 623).

Not only did the Taliban leave the country in poor physical standards, but they practiced extreme intolerance and censorship that preceded the destruction of the Buddhas. Equally as drastic as the censoring of the statues was the censoring of rights on the individual level. The Taliban practiced extreme religious intolerance and gender discrimination against women (which can be seen in Figure 3, as a member of the Taliban beats a woman) through which “such intolerance included an absolute lack of freedom of expression and a total ban on pictures” (Francioni & Lenzerini 624). This religious intolerance and banning of various forms of expression stems from the fact that one of the foundations of the Taliban is its extremist interpretation of the Quran and practice of Islam.

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Figure 3: A member of the Taliban beats a woman in the streets of Kabul

Over the course of multiple weeks in March 2001, the Buddhas of Bamiyan were destroyed. Pierre Centlivres, author of The Controversy over the Buddhas of Bamiyan states that “on 26 February, 2001, and after having consulted a college of ulema, Mullah Omar, the leader of the Taliban, issued a decree ordering the elimination of all non-Islamic statues and sanctuaries from Afghanistan.” This decree officially marked the Taliban’s initiative of censoring the Buddhas from the public view.

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Figure 4: Mirza Hussain

To destroy the Buddhas, the Taliban put into work an operation that functioned on a massive scale. The Taliban devoted an incredible amount of resources in order to ensure their destruction and make sure that this act was understood and felt by all Afghan communities and beyond. In an interview conducted by Nasir Behzad and Daud Qarizadah through BBC news, the extent of the destruction is highlighted through their conversation with Mirza Hussain, pictured in Figure 4. Hussain, along with 25 other prisoners taken captive by the Taliban, were forcibly conscripted in aiding with the demolition process. Hussain begins by explaining that “‘First they fired at the Buddhas with tanks and artillery shells, . . . but when that was ineffective, they planted explosives to try to destroy them.’” Hussain shares further that after the primary efforts to destroy the Buddhas failed, the Taliban “‘brought in the explosives by truck, . . . then we carried them on our back or in our arms to the statues, or we tied big bombs to long sticks to carry them to the site.'” The men planted explosives around the statues for 3 days before the primary detonation, where the Taliban was under the impression they were going to bring down the whole cliff, but only ended up destroying the legs of the large Buddha (Behzad & Qarizadah, BBC). Hussain continues his elaborate explanation, stating that “‘from then on, they carried out two to three explosions every day to destroy the Buddha completely . . . we drilled holes into the statue to plant the dynamite. We didn’t have proper tools. The whole process took 25 days.'” The demolition of the Buddhas can be seen in Figure 5.

Along with this extensive destruction process, Hussain’s experience along with the other conscripted men reinforces a pattern of harsh treatment of minority groups in Afghanistan (the men were Shi’a Muslims, while the Taliban follows the Sunni tradition). While working, Hussain explains how the Taliban treated him and the other men. He describes, “‘once I witnessed one of the men who had a bad leg and couldn’t carry the explosives any more . . . the Taliban shot him on the spot and gave the body to another prisoner to dispose of.'” This description reveals the Taliban’s singular focus on achieving their objectives. Hussain recognized that his actions could result in his life or death. “‘ I regretted it at that time,” he says, “I regret it now and I will always regret it.'”

However, the process of the censorship would have not been complete, in the eyes of Omar, unless there was public documentation and dissemination of the event. Centlivres points out that “this is why journalists, after witnessing the emptiness of the Kabul Museum, were flown to Bamiyan on 26 March to see with their own eyes the gaping openness of the niches, deep into the cliff, where the statues used to be.”

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Figure 5: The explosion aftermath of the detonation of one of the Buddhas

At first glance, the Taliban’s censorship of the statues seems predictable. The Taliban claimed that the Buddhas were idols and it did not allow for idols in its interpretation of the Quran, where idolatry is outlawed. This order came straight from the Taliban’s leadership, as W.L. Rathje states, arguing that the “supreme Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar issued an edict against un-Islamic graven images, which means all idolatrous images of humans and animals. As a result, the Taliban are destroying all ancient sculptures.” With this Muslim law in mind, however, many scholars and leaders believe there is another reason the Buddhas were destroyed. Even when Omar states in his decree on February 26th that “‘these statues were and are sanctuary for unbelievers. These unbelievers continue to worship and to venerate these statues and pictures’” (Centlivres), there is further cause to believe the destruction was actually a political statement. Centlivres clarifies this viewpoint, stating,

 Though the moderate clerics and the special emissary of UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) brought the theological argumentation forward during their meeting with the Mullah’s representatives, most of the commentators were convinced that the Mullah’s decree was rather linked to the political context, to the progressive isolation of the Taliban.

Why would the Taliban need to make a political statement when the group already had firm control over the country by 2001? The Taliban, in fact, was not recognized by most governments around the world as a legitimate regime. Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and only a handful of neighboring countries recognized the Taliban as the active political rulers of Afghanistan (Rathje). Their treatment of Afghanis, including discriminatory gender practices and extreme religious intolerances, and perhaps the fact that the Taliban was harboring radical terrorists such as Osama bin Laden, led to a lack of international recognition of their authority. Figure 6 shows the Taliban’s dedication to bin Laden, as there were protests in Afghanistan when it was proclaimed that he had been killed. To the Taliban, bin Laden was a guest in their country and they refused to extradite him, even though he was outwardly targeting western civilization and training more followers in the region. Due to this situation, the UN national security council and UNESCO posed major economic restrictions on Afghanistan. Francioni and Lenzerini elaborate on how the harboring of bin Ladin impacted Afghanistan, explaining that “such support prompted the UN Security Council’s decision to adopt broad economic sanctions against the Taliban” which “led to the concurrent downgrading of diplomatic relations between Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia,” as Saudi Arabia was a major economic partner of Afghanistan (624). These sanctions against the Taliban were major factors, it seems, in the Taliban’s continued isolation and rebellion from the rest of society. Francioni and Lenzerini highlight this outcome, noting that the Taliban leaders’ response to the sanctions was that “‘any attempt to ‘try to change our ideology with economic sanctions will never work, because for us our ideology is first. The sanctions do have an effect, but exactly the wrong effect. The people are suffering’” (624-625).

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Figure 6: Pro-Taliban supporters protesting the death of Osama bin Laden

The descruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan have repercussions for the Buddhist community. While it angered many Buddhists, there was no declaration of war against the Taliban or violent riots/protests. Diwand Chand Ahir, a member of the neo-Buddhist intellectuals, who published a book on the destruction of the Buddhas, explains to Centlivres that the destruction “‘shattered the sentiments of millions of Buddhist followers.'” They were a meaningful part of Buddhist history. While Buddhists did not protest the event, other people around the world appealed to Omar to not destroy them. UNESCO’s “emissaries,” for example, as Pierre Centlivres explains, “pleaded in vain that a necessary distinction should be made between idolatry and exemplarity, idol and icon, between admiration and worship.” In Japan, not only did citizens protest locally, but the government also got involved. As Rathje explains, “a Japanese parliamentary delegation offer[ed] humanitarian aid in exchange for moving the statues out of the country.” Other European countries joined the conversation, with France prominently protesting the statues’ destruction through specific demonstrations. Centlivres states that “the Centre Pompidou in Paris displayed on its main front a gigantic photographic reproduction (40% of the original statue) made from a 1887 etching. ‘The picture’, said the officials of the Centre, ‘is a sign of protest against fanaticism, a sign of resistance to the rough demonstration of hate for differences.’” Thailand, Sri Lanka, and Iran also offered to buy the Buddhas from Afghanistan (Rathje). All of these international appeals, however, failed.

This international concern for the statues was criticized and compared to the lack of attention given to poverty of the Afghani people. Figure 7 highlights the conditions during this time. Journalist Hebah Abdalla describes this situation best, when contends, “‘there was no ‘worldwide horror’ or ‘international outrage’ when UN officials announced Friday that more than 260 people have died in displacement camps in northern Afghanistan, where an additional 117,000 people are living in miserable conditions. … Perhaps the only consolation in all of this is that these refugees may never know how much the world cared for two statues and how little it cared for them'” (qtd. in Rathje).

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Figure 7: Living Conditions in Afghanistan immediately at the end of the occupation of the Taliban

The destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan was an elaborate, time-, and resource-consuming processes. It was a complex event, charged with religious and political overtones.

Works Cited

Behzad, Nasir. Qarizadah, Daud. “The Man Who Helped Blow up the Bamiyan Buddhas.” BBC News. BBC Afghan, 12 Mar. 2015. Web. 09 Nov. 2016.

Centlivres, Pierre. “The Controversy over the Buddhas of Bamiyan.” South Asia Multidisciplinary Academic Journal, 2008.

Francioni, Francesco. Lenzerini, Federico. “The Destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan and International Law.” European Journal of International Law, Vol. 14, No. 4, 2003, pp. 619-651.

Rathje, W.L. “Why the Taliban Are Destroying Buddhas.” USATODAY.com. USA TODAY, 22 Mar. 2001. Web. 9 Nov. 2016.

Semple, M., (2014). The Taliban in 2024. Stability: International Journal of Security and Development. 3(1), p.Art. 36. DOI

Key Word Search: Taliban, Buddha(s), Bamiyan, UNESCO, censorship, political statement, religious intolerance, aid, international community, destruction

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