The Road To Bamiyan, Afghanistan

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The Bamiyan Buddhas may have been destroyed but visiting this heritage site is still a bucket list item for many. Maya Jayapal shares her story with us. 

We were at the top of the Shabir Pass in Afghanistan, about 13, 500 feet above sea level. All around us loomed Roerich-like powerful jagged grey peaks streaked and dappled with snow. Down below us we could see the road-if it could be called a road- snaking its way up. Even further down below an overloaded truck climbed painfully up, negotiating the small boulders and ruts. A man atop his donkey moved faster and more sure-footedly.

Taller Buddha of Bamiyan in this image from pre 2001. Source: Wikimedia Commons

We had driven 6 hours from Kabul and were to drive another 6 more to reach Bamiyan, about 250 kilometres away, where the historic 2000 year Buddhas had been, before the Taliban had destroyed them in 2001, as a reaction to the sanctions against Afghanistan by the United Nations. I remember a shocked world hear Mullah Omar’s words: “All we are destroying are stones. I don’t care about anything else but Islam.”

It was a spectacular drive, even though, literally, backbreaking. It was a travesty of a road, which the driver of our Toyota Hiace negotiated with commendable skill. The debris of war intruded into the topography. Shells of army vehicles, rusted tanks with just the guns like periscopes sticking out, skeletal chassis of jeeps placed at odd sites- on a rock in the middle of a stream, upended on a slope, under trees, in the midst of fields etc. And the green flags on sticks fluttering at grave sites dotting the countryside. “They are martyrs who fought against the Taliban” said our driver. De-mined areas alongside the road are marked by white stones, while red coloured stones marked as yet unde-mined areas.

We were followed by the Bamiyan River for most of the way. It gurgled and gushed its way past meadows separating us from the foothills of the mountains which changed their garb as we sped along. From the jagged dominating peaks to undulating smooth contours, as if swept by an ethereal broom, and on nearing Bamiyan, the strangely carved rock forms are transformed by magnificent colours- terracotta, slate blue, rust pink, even a dull green. Hypnotic images, even though in many ways it is a landscape which conspires against human settlement. Reminded me of Yeats’ “a terrible beauty”

We stopped at a chaikhana in a small village and fuelled enough conversation there for a week. The chaikhana is usually a long narrow room with a stone platform running almost the entire length of it on which the customers sit. We had huge boat-shaped nans, meat kebabs on skewers and a plate of radishes and spring onions and tomatoes. All washed down with green tea delicately spiced with cardamom. At one end sat a gargantuan man with huge pieces of meat which he was chopping up. He grinned when I took his picture and smilingly drew the knife across his throat.

The villagers milled around us, asking us questions about- who else- the king of Bollywood, Shah Rukh Khan. They seemed remarkably well informed about our movies. Young boys had catapults in their hands to shoot small animals and birds with. Their black eyes brimmed over with laughter. They were poor villages, with no running water and electricity and deplorable sanitation, but the children looked rugged and healthy. And poverty does not diminish their hospitality. We were besieged with offers to go to homes and have some tea. No women were visible.

As we proceeded up the breathtaking pass and down again, we passed Hazara villages (an ethnic Shia Muslim minority supposedly descended from Genghis Khan’s soldier hordes- from “hazars“ meaning thousands). Here the women were not in burqa although for the most part they did not want to be photographed, and if by chance they even smelt a camera would gracefully twirl around with the odhni across their faces. They worked in the fields in their bright clothes, sowing, gathering firewood, riding their donkeys with a child in front, the man by the side- a Biblical scene.

Bombed out shells of houses still dominated the countryside, both ordinary homes and magnificent stately fortress like buildings with turrets belonging to the rich and the influential. Empty, haunted and desolate, their inhabitants had fled to Pakistan and Iran. Occasionally relief appeared in the form of schools, many established by the Japanese and the sight of the rosy cheeked children trudging to school again was a welcome sight. A few young girls were also venturing out, warming the cockles of my heart!

The cavity where the smaller of the Buddha’s of Bamiyan statues, known to locals as the “Mother Buddha,” used to stand, as seen from above, June 14, 2012. The monumental statues were built in A.D. 507 and 554 and were the largest statues of a standing Buddha on Earth until the Taliban dynamited them in 2001. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The landscape echoes with legends, preserving collective reminders of war and death and loneliness and betrayal. Nearer to Bamiyan appeared the stark outline of a citadel, perched like an eagle’s eyrie on the crest of a hill blood-red in the rays of the westering sun. A bleak fortress, appropriated called the “City of Wails”- Shaare-e-Golgola. And therein lies tragic story of a princess, who, jealous of her father’s affection for his young and beautiful wife, betrayed the means of taking the citadel to Genghis Khan. The Khan destroyed every man, woman and child in the citadel, Now there is an eerie hush, a deathly quiet, broken, they say, only by the ghostly wails one hears at night.

Slowly the air grows perceptibly cooler, the colours soften. We see orchards, green fields of rice, and banks of poplars. Bamiyan means”City of Light”. It was once a thriving commercial centre on a caravan route with pilgrims and traders coming to and fro, resulting in this area becoming the meeting place of streams of culture from both Europe and Asia.

The Bamiyan caves
Photograph: Maya Jayapal

Now the niches in the cliff face which held the colossal Buddha statues stand empty, shorn of their sanctity. It is easy to evoke a picture of what might have been- yellow robed monks walking in and out of the several grottos and caves, the air resonating with the chanting of sacred mantras, the incense wafting in the air, serenity and peace in the land and on everyone’s faces. The Buddhas, two of them, one 38 metres high and the other, 55 metres high must have looked down benignly, their painted robes gleaming in the sun. Huen Tsang talks about”the golden hues sparkling”. They were in the Gandharan style, their draperies represented by looping robes attached by wooden pegs and covered with stucco. Apparently there was a circular gigantic staircase for circumambulation. The grottos and caves still have some murals but I did not dare to go up for fear of the crumbling edifices.

I was reminded of Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka, again once the scene of prayer and learning. But Anuradhapura still has its Buddhas under the trees. Here only bullet holes and scattering stone fragments remain. The UNESCO is spearheading efforts to shore up these niches and save whatever paintings remain. They also had to evict illegal squatters who took over many of the caves which honeycomb the cliff. Controversy reigns over the possible reconstruction. I am torn and cannot decide what is best. Would it be better to leave it as it is, for nothing can replace the originals, or would it be better, for future generations, to have them replaced by replicas, to tell of what they might have looked like? Do I want the Buddhas to rise again? I honestly do not know.

NOTE: In 2005, Maya Jayapal visited the famous Bamiyan Valley in Afghanistan, four years after the famous Bamiyan Buddhas were destroyed by the Taliban. Maya was 64 then and travelled with a group of friends. She’s 77 now. In her own words, there were no physical problems during the trip even though the drive to Bamiyan was long and arduous. The group may have been worried about toppling off the sheer mountain side but thankfully came away unscathed.

A version of this article was first published in The Deccan Herald in May 2005.

Featured image by author

About Author

Maya Jayapal

Maya Jayapal is a senior citizen and a teacher, writer and author of two books on Bangalore. She also reviews books and writes regularly for various publications.