Bamiyan Buddhas

Bamiyan Buddhas

Fig. 1. The empty caverns left behind from the Buddhas of Bamiyan (Source: UNESCO)


Built in the 6th century, the Buddhas of Bamiyan were two monumental size statues, standing at 115 and 174 feet tall, carved into the sandstone cliffs of the Bamiyan valley in central Afghanistan. These statues best exemplified the Gandharan Buddhist art school, as well as the greater cultural landscape of Buddhism and its influences during the 1st to 13th centuries. In 2001, the statues were destroyed by the Taliban over the course of 25 days. Although Islam became the dominant religion in the region, these Buddhist monuments were still integral to Afghan history and were a source of national pride, and their destruction has been seen as a great loss to many Afghan people. In 2003, the Bamiyan Valley was declared a World Heritage Site; however, the damage that has already been done to the site is irreversible. Though none of the bodies of the Buddhas remain, the empty space that they once occupied remains, cavernous fixtures carved into the mountainside.


Although it is a huge tragedy and undeniable loss to global heritage that these Buddhas have been lost, there is still something hugely valuable in the site as it exists today, even absent the Buddhas. There is something haunting about the absence of the Buddhassomehow, the cavities left behind in the aftermath of the destruction of the Buddhas has a sort of presence itself, that is felt as haunting. The capacity for viewers to feel a sense of grief or haunting when gazing upon the ruins perhaps attests to the cultural and historical significance of the act of destruction itself. A site is never staticit changes and accumulates traces of time and history. This capacity to accrue traces of memory and history, in fact, is what definitionally gives a cultural heritage site its value, according to the UNESCO definition. Though the event that has been recorded materially on the bodies of the Bamiyan Buddhas was horribly violent and destructive, the site now, which retains both the memory of the ancient Buddhas as well as modern cultural warfare, should be preserved as it is, rather than restored. The restoration of the Buddhas would efface the massive acts of violence that have been carried out at the site; any attempt at reconstruction, whether holographic, material, or otherwise, would be a failure to recognize the way in which land, objects, and architecture are always already changing and accumulating additional history. That the Buddhas are now gone doesn't diminish the value of the site; rather, the historical event of the Buddhas' destruction has now become a part of the site's heritage, recorded irrevocably in absence.


Standing Buddha

Fig. 2. The larger of the two Buddhas prior to the 2001 destruction. (Source: Khan Academy)


However, though the cavities where the Bamiyan Buddhas once stood should be preserved as they are today, rather than restored to a state prior to the 2001 Taliban attack, there should still be an effort to engage with the historical Buddhas, as they present the opportunity for visitors to visually interact with the original Buddhas. Without foreigners flocking to the Bamiyan Valley to see these monuments specifically, there has been a huge loss of tourism as a reliable source of income. An intentional, nuanced effort to remold the cultural and touristic landscape in the valley after the destruction of the Buddhas is necessary to reinvigorate the site as a place of cultural production for both global citizens and local residents alike. 

The Bamiyan Valley is also the largest province of the Hazarajat region in central Afghanistan, an area with the highest population of Hazara people. The Hazaras are an ethnic minority in Afghanistan who have historically been persecuted since the late 19th century. Under Taliban power, this oppresion grew more intense, and the Hazaras became victims of mass killings largely due to their belief in Shi'ite Islam, a denomination that conflicted with the Sunni regime. Evidence of mass graves have been located just a few miles from the site of the Bamiyan Buddhas, and the total number of Hazara deaths during Taliban rule is estimated to be around 15,000.


Bamiyan cultural center mock up

Fig. 3. Digital rendering of the winning entry for the Bamiyan Cultural Center (Source: UNESCO)


With this sort of history in mind, it is especially imperative that our commitment to protecting the culture and history of Bamiyan must not only be limited to its monuments, but also extends to the local people. On November 15th, 2014, the Afghan government, in conjunction with UNESCO and with the financial support of the Republic of Korea, launched an international design competition for the construction of a Bamiyan Cultural Center near the Bamiyan Buddhas. One of the driving factors behind the competition was to use culture as a tool for economic development in the area, as well as highlight the enduring traditions and cultural resilience of Afghanistan, a country whose history has been entrenched in conflict and whose contemporary image is often still represented to the global community through this one-dimensional perspective. Some of the design standards included centering the building around themes of unity and cross-cultural awareness, as well as respecting and complementing the natural landscape of the site. In February of 2015, UNESCO announced the winning design for the Bamiyan Cultural Center, which has been endorsed by the Afghan President as well. This plan was created by an Argentine Team:

"The Bamiyan Cultural Centre seeks to create a new vital centre for communicating and sharing ideas.  Therefore, our proposal tries to create not an object-building but rather a meeting place; a system of negative spaces where the impressive landscape of the Buddha Cliffs intertwine with the rich cultural activity that the centre will foster.  The Bamiyan Cultural Centre then is not a built but rather ‘found’ or ‘discovered’ by carving it out of the ground.  This primordial architectural strategy creates a minimal impact building that fully integrates into the landscape, takes advantage of thermal inertia and insulation of the ground and gives a nod to the ancient local building traditions."

Though the loss of the Buddhas is a great tragedy, it is also an unparalleled opportunity to explore different methods of technological re-rendering which would allow viewers to engage with the objects in ways impossible with the analog artifacts. One of these modes of engagement that would have historically been very difficult or impossible would be the capacity to view the Buddhas from different heights and observe at great detail the tiny sculptural motifs on the Buddhas' heads. Another example is the impossibility of viewing the Buddhas as free-standing sculptures, since they were carved as massive reliefs into the side of the Bamiyan valley's cliff faces. The opportunity for the Bamiyan Cultural Center to take advantage of technologies like holographic projections and other re-rendering tools has yet to be considered, and it can further enhance our understanding of the sculptures. How can the rendering of the Buddhas, instead, as a freestanding holographic sculpture rather than a relief, change and enrich the ways in which artists, viewers, and architects see the Buddhas?


Buddha spaces overlooking the valley

Fig. 4 .One of the spaces left from the Buddhas overlooks the valley. (Source: UNESCO)


Conservation practices regarding the Buddha cavities, the new Bamiyan Cultural Center, and the Bamiyan Valley at large should involve indigenous populations to the highest degree possible. Museum personnel, stewards of the site, and upper-level management of the entire site should draw from local labor pools. Consulting firms hired to help design and implement the project should similarly be local in origin and specialize in ecological, ethical design. The minutest details of the logistics of conservation should take into account the particular dynamics of the regionthe rotational schedules of workers and even the design of the paths which lead through the complex and bring visitors between buildings and to the cavities of the Buddhas should be constructed with particular attention to the cultural and social specificities of the valley.


Furthermore, aside from the physical reworking of the zone around the Bamiyan Buddhas, other less concrete tactics can be employed to reinvigorate the site for both local residents of the valley as well as for global visitors. For example, a commemorative festival or other event could be engaging for both locals and tourists alike, and it could manifest itself in a day-long, weekend-long, or even week-long period. The installment of a legitimized event could stimulate greater interest to tourists and help reanimate the economy. The aim of this initiative would be to include the entirety of the Bamiyan Valley community, and it would also energize the site as a living place of cultural exchange, rather than embalming it as a historical, archaeological entity, where the life and culture of the region lies in the past rather than the present.


Scaffolding of Buddha

Fig. 5. Scaffolding placed within one of the Buddhas as part of conservation efforts (Source: UNESCO)