Two hours north of Ghazni, on the road to Kabul, in an arid place, a dusty track leads westward. If you follow it, you enter a half-forgotten kingdom, and a legendary highway that traversed the known world. Beyond this, hidden in the mountains, are green valleys and rivers bordered with willows and hayfields. Even before Ashoka began spreading his empire through the western passes and into Bactria and Ghandara, traders had moved eastward and westward with caravans of silk and other precious goods bound for Balkh and distant Rome.
But at the beginning of the first millennium of our era, a new power arose in Asia. Its people had been driven westward by the consolidation of the Han empire. They settled in what is now known as Afghanistan, ending the rule of the Graeco-Buddhist kingdoms that had ruled there since Alexander’s conquest of Asia three hundred years before. Their empire flourished for about three centuries before they were overtaken by the expansion of the Sassanian kingdom in Iran, but their continuing influence was immense, and spread far beyond their borders across the whole of Asia. This influence strongly shaped eastern culture as we know it, and most particularly the development of Buddhism. This empire—the Kushan—seems to have been of people of largely Iranian stock, whose language had distinct affinities with the ancient Celtic tongues.
They settled at the crossroads of the ancient eastern world, and from there commanded the silk road between India, China, and the great entrepôt of Balkh, from which the caravans journeyed to Rome and the west.
Kanishka, the greatest of the Kushan kings, shrewdly exploited all the opportunities available to him. Under his rule, the Kushan empire grew to cover all the north of India and Afghanistan and up into the Pamir mountains to the Ferghana valley. The Kushans were famous patrons of art and religion and this was to have enormous repercussions throughout Asia. Even their styles of dress were copied, and their elegant partnering of coat and trousers is still echoed in traditional Indian dress today, two thousand years later.
Buddhism had already begun to decline in its ancient homeland, and by the time of the great Hindu sage Shankara in the eighth century, a renascent Hinduism had largely replaced it.
But to the west, this was not so. Under Kanishka’s astute rule, commerce and Buddhism spread throughout his empire and beyond along the Silk Road, integrating and consolidating all the cultural currents of the time; the Persian Sassanian, the Indian Gupta, Greek, Roman and even Chinese styles.
Until the beginning of the first millennium ce even on the great Buddhist monuments and stupas, there had been no image of the Buddha. There was either an empty space or perhaps a symbol, but no image. The Buddha was regarded as a ‘Thusness’ beyond self; in essence a transcendent absolute, and thus not describable or subject to representation. ‘He who sees the Dharma (the teaching) sees me,’ he said, to be echoed strangely by Jesus’ saying, ‘He who sees me sees the Father,’ half a millennium later. And thus it remained until Buddhism arrived in the Greek kingdom of Gandhara, and the Greeks with their love of sculpture and visual representation, changed everything.
There began the cult of the Buddha-rupa (Buddha image), and this—wedded to the rise of the Mahayana, the second development of Buddhism—produced the extraordinary profusion of images that characterised the period between the beginning of the first millennium and the 8th century ce. This required a stable kingdom and a patron, and Kanishka and his successors provided precisely that.
That the Kushans were highly cultivated and an indication of their taste, was made clear by the discovery of Kanishka’s palace in his summer capital at Bagan north of Kabul. Here a group of French archaeologists discovered a hoard consisting of Roman bronzes, plaster figures, porphyries and alabaster, carved ivories from India, lacquer work from China, and painted glass from Alexandria—a collection of the finest art works from all over the known world.
The road to Bamiyan mainly follows the river of the same name and curves round the hills, but before the valley is reached, the Shikar Pass must be navigated. At that point the road rises to 12,500 feet, and we had to get out to allow the loaded Landrover to reach the top. From there it is a few miles to the fork that leads north to Mazar-e-Sharif and west the last thirty miles to Bamiyan. Despite being so remote — so much like Tibet — the Barbarians came and destroyed — first the White Huns who sacked the town of Bamiyan and destroyed the holy places, then Genghis Khan. One of the local rulers raided one of the Khan’s caravans, killing some of his men, so he besieged the valley which was defended by a large fortress at each end. In the battle the Khan’s favourite grandson, Tetugen, was killed by an arrow and the Khan vowed to destroy all life in the valley, and did. The fortress has ever since been known as Shahr-i-Golgola, the place of moans, though there was another probable cause. The traveller, Masson, passing through the valley in the 1840s wrote:
The traveller surveying from the heights of Ghulghuleh the vast and mysterious idols and the multitude of caves around them, will scarcely fail to be absorbed in deep reflection and wonder, while their contemplation will call forth various intense associations in his mind. The desolate spot itself has a peculiar solemnity, not merely for its lonely and startling evidence of past splendour, but because nature appears to have invested it with a character of mystery and awe. The very winds as they whistle through its deserted pinnacles and towers, impart tones so shrill and lugubrious as to impress the most indifferent being with emotions of surprise. So surprising is this effect that often while strolling near it, the mournful melody irresistibly riveting my attention would compel me involuntarily to direct my sight to the eminence and its ruined fanes . . .
He further goes on to excuse the natives their superstitions, as they believe the sounds to be those of departed souls. I regretted that on my own visit the voices were silent. But things have clearly changed much since then.
In the latter half of the nineteenth century, the provincial authorities or the government in Kabul—I do not know which—decided to rebuild some of the famed irrigation system. This had functioned in the first few centuries ce, but with each destructive invasion—first by the Hepthalite Huns (the White Huns) in the sixth century, then Genghis Khan in the fourteenth—it had fallen further into decay, until it was unusable. By the end of the nineteenth century, the valley had become something of the verdant paradise it had once been, well sheltered as it is with a river flowing through its midst.
On the journey out we passed through small green villages with hay carts and goats and the odd caravanserai for travellers. But there were also high mud-walled citadels to protect the inhabitants from predators and feuding neighbours; there is something grim about these, even rather desperate.
Soon the road rises and for long periods follows the river in narrow defiles between towering cliffs of grey rock, at times driving through streams. At these points there is no road but worn, bare rock.
The descent into Bamiyan valley is steep and there is no indication of what is to come until huge, ruined fortifications appear, and then suddenly the valley spreads out, the high cliffs a shimmering red-gold. And there were the two giant Buddhas—one 150 feet tall, and the other 175 feet. When we stood beside it we came barely above its toes. But from above, where the warren of caves in the cliff lead, the whole valley spreads out below. In the many caves are frescoes showing the Buddha with the same flower mottoes and ornamentations as a Sassanian king. There are also sculptured rooms with curved beamed roofs that are echoed all the way up into China. But this is where they began, and so did the great Buddha statues.
When I visited Bamiyan in the 1970s, the government was doing restoration work on one of the statues. Soon it is hoped the restoration may begin again. And perhaps by then the legendary 1000 foot recumbent Buddha will have been discovered (there are tales that something has been found) as described by the pilgrim Hsuen Tsang a millennium ago, or the stories can be put finally to rest.
The destruction of the great Buddhas is not the end but the beginning of a new phase of Buddhism. Research and scholarship is opening up a whole new chapter on an almost forgotten but vital period in the history of Buddhism—and one of its most fascinating and glorious ones.
More articles by John Aske here.
First published in the February 2003 Buddhism Now