Hair swirls into a bun at the back of the head. A small, narrow nose intersects deep eye sockets and round jowls, and the eyelids rest softly, closed. The right palm supports the head, which, in keeping with Buddhist tradition, faces southwest. The body reclines fully on its right side.
The forty-two-foot clay statue “Sleeping Buddha” was first unearthed by Soviet archaeologists in 1966, but for thirty-five years it lay scattered in seventy-two unwieldy fragments at the Institute of History of the Academy of Sciences in Dushanbe, the capital of the former Soviet Republic of Tajikistan. The statue remained in pieces during the Soviet war in neighboring Afghanistan, during the collapse of the Soviet Union, and then during the civil war that followed Tajik independence in 1991. It wasn’t until 2001 that the Buddha once again became whole.
Although it has become Tajikistan’s main tourist attraction, the statue’s significance reaches far beyond the borders of the country: following the Taliban’s destruction of the Buddhist statues in Bamiyan, Afghanistan, in March of 2001, the Sleeping Buddha was recognized as the largest Buddhist sculpture in Central Asia. The sculpture was discovered in Ajina Tepa, once an important post along the Great Silk Road and believed to be home to a Buddhist monastery in the seventh and eighth centuries C.E. Vera Fominykh, of the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, reconstructed the Buddha piece by piece over a two-year period as part of a project funded by a modest grant of less than ten thousand dollars from the Agency for Technical Cooperation and Development (ACTED), a private nonprofit humanitarian organization based in Paris. “We worked from six in the morning to midnight every day, without a break,” Fominykh says. “[The sculpture] was difficult to envision. The fragments are smooth and very heavy. All the difficulty was in putting them together until they became one.” She notes that the fragments varied widely in color because of poor storage conditions.
The Sleeping Buddha finally went on display at the National Museum of Antiquities on September 9, 2001, Tajikistan’s independence day, in a special second-floor room of the museum, where light is limited and the temperature kept cool by air conditioners. The statue is composed, for the most part, of crude adobe bricks covered by a layer of red clay several millimeters thick. According to Fominykh, Buddha sculptures of similar origin were typically painted in two different colors; the Sleeping Buddha is unique in that it wears a solid red robe. “Moreover, [Buddhas are] usually seated in the lotus position, with open or closed eyes,” Fominykh notes. “There are very few who appear to be in nirvana, which is why this one is so valuable.”
Saidmurad Babamulloev, the museum’s director, says that the sculpture remained in fragments for so long because of Soviet ethnocentricity: “The Soviets tried to tell the Tajiks that they had no history before the 1917 Russian revolution.” However, Fominykh and Florentin Blanc, the local ACTED program support coordinator, contend that the delay stemmed from practical, not ideological, concerns. “[The Soviets] were not hiding it because they didn’t want anybody to see it. They were planning to ship it, but it just didn’t happen,” Blanc says. Fominykh attributes this to a lack of qualified experts available to finish the job.
Tajik authorities, too, bear responsibility for the sculpture’s belated coming-of-age. The Museum of Antiquities is now effectively closed to the public because it cannot afford to pay security personnel, and the Academy of Sciences, which owns the sculpture, is not especially interested in tourism, and lacks the resources to promote the sculpture.
By funding the project, ACTED sought to boost the morale of an urban populace plagued by abject poverty, government upheavals, and street violence. “It has had an impact, that’s for sure,” says Blanc. “It’s a symbol of renewal for the city. It’s about the only famous thing in Dushanbe, or at least the only thing foreigners hear about, and the Tajiks are quite proud of it.”
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