In February 2001, Mullah Omer, leader of the Taliban, issued his infamous decree: all pre-Islamic art in Afghanistan was to be destroyed, including the two great Buddhas carved into the sandstone cliffs of Bamiyan. When Rob Schultheis began this article—a history of the ancient monument and the people who built it—the Buddhas were still standing.

The first historical account of the Buddhas of Bamiyan—the larger of which is said to have been the tallest Buddha in the world—comes to us from 632 C.E., in the words of the great Chinese pilgrim Hsuan Tsang. Hsuan was in the midst of an epic ten-thousand-mile trek along the Silk Road, to the westernmost outposts of the Buddhist world. Much of what is now Afghanistan consisted of small Buddhist kingdoms then, but the countryside was wild and lawless. Hsuan writes of narrow, precipitous trails, of snowdrifts twenty to thirty feet deep, of demon-haunted passes and murderous bands of robbers.

When he finally crossed the last crest of the Koh-i-Baba Mountains and gazed down into the Valley of Bamiyan, he beheld a marvelous sight: “To the northeast of the royal city of Bamiyan stands a sheer mountainside . . . and in a niche in its walls stands an erect stone Buddha. Its golden hues sparkle on every side, and its precious ornaments dazzle the eye with their brightness.”

The Great Buddha was 180 feet high, carved out of the conglomerate sandstone of the cliff, with details of features and robes added in wood, stucco, and polished brass and gold. The image was clothed in a huge brilliant red cloak, representing the Supranatural Buddha, Lord of the Cosmos. The niche around it was decorated with delicate frescoes in every color of the rainbow. A few hundred yards away, in another cleft in the cliff, stood a second Buddha, 125 feet high, also decorated with shining metal. This lesser figure, clothed in blue, represented Shakyamuni, the historic Buddha. The cliffs around the statues were honeycombed with the caves and aeries of ten monasteries, housing over one thousand monks.

A Hazara ethnic fighter guards one of the Buddhas in Bamiyan, Afghanistan, 1998, © A. Raffaelle Ciriello.
A Hazara ethnic fighter guards one of the Buddhas in Bamiyan, Afghanistan, 1998, © A. Raffaelle Ciriello.

The Bamiyan brand of Buddhism regarded the Buddha as a timeless expression of the divine as well as a human being and teacher. This Buddhism was also the basis of the valley’s political life. Bamiyan was ruled by a royal family of Turkic princes who eventually became vassals of the T’ang dynasty. Every five years, the valley’s inhabitants gathered for a great festival, during which the rulers offered up their wealth and earthly power to the Buddhas and their monastic caretakers. The chief monks accepted the offering and then returned it to the royal family, certifying their status as temporal and worldly representatives of the dharma. Despite these theological idiosyncracies, Hsuan Tsang was greatly impressed by the religious devotion of the people of Bamiyan. “These people are remarkable among all their neighbors,” he writes, “for a heart of pure faith, from the Three Jewels, Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, to the one hundred benevolent spirits.”

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