Wednesday, December 06, 2006

The Humpty Dumpty Buddhas

BAMIYAN, Afghanistan: The empty niches that once held Bamiyan's colossal Buddhas now gape in the rock face - a silent cry at the terrible destruction wrought on this fabled valley and its 1,500-year-old treasures, once the largest standing Buddha statues in the world.

It was in March 2001, when the Taliban and their Al Qaeda sponsors were at the zenith of their power in Afghanistan, that militiamen, acting on an edict to take down the "gods of the infidels," placed explosives at the base and the shoulders of the two Buddhas and blew them to pieces. To the outraged outside world, the act encapsulated the horrors of the Islamic fundamentalist government. Even Genghis Khan, who laid waste to this valley's towns and population in the 13th century, had left the Buddhas standing.

Five years later, the Taliban have been removed from power and Bamiyan's Buddhist relics are once again the focus of debate: Is it possible to restore the great Buddhas? And, if so, can the extraordinary investment that would be required be justified in a country crippled by poverty and a continued Taliban insurgency in the south and that is, after all, overwhelmingly Muslim?
The quoted article, by Carlotta Gall & distributed by the New York Times, received four headlines in four publications:

* Shattered Buddhas open gateway to discovery
* World ponders rebuilding biggest Buddhas
* Afghans consider rebuilding Bamiyan Buddhas
* From Ruins of Afghan Buddhas, a History Grows

I wrote my own headline. I'm ambivalent about restoring art objects that have been utterly wrecked. Sometimes it is symbolically justifiable, as with England's Coventry Cathedral. But that historical edifice had contemporary importance in national consciousness & life. Rarely, with smaller works, an artist just makes another. When Man Ray's "Object to be Destroyed" was actually destroyed, he named the replacement "Indestructible Object." I've never favored a "Freedom Tower" in New York; the main motivations for it come first from the value of the real estate & secondarily a nationalistic desire to put something in that blank space of the skyline as a challenge to future crazies. But some wanted to rebuild the Twin Towers looking just as they did on the outside.

Of those most concerned with restoring the Bamiyan Buddhas, nearly all the king's horses & all the king's men are from outside Afghanistan. I haven't read any opinions on the matter from Buddhists - if there are any remaining anywhere in Afghanistan, they are disguised as Muslims. The Buddhist aesthetic is inclined toward letting these giant Buddhas go as so much rock that would have crumbled in time anyway, no matter what the circumstances of their destruction. Before the Taliban, Afghans did not regard the Buddhas as Eygptians do their monuments from antiquity. & while there are ideas for preserving the Sphinx, nobody seriously wants to plaster its nose, or rebuild the Great Lighthouse of Alexandria.

What happened to those statues didn't only encapsulate for me the dangers of the Taliban's favored form of Islam, but also of the irrational fundamentalist impulses inherent in all religious & political systems. Religion isn't necessary; The Soviet Union razed Orthodox Cathedrals & Nazi Germany burned or banned whatever "degenerate" art its leaders didn't steal for themselves. It needn't even involve some major thing. When a mayor here in Jersey went ballistic over a Spanish language Dunkin' Donuts billboard in his town, that was his Bamiyan moment. But does gluing the two giant stone Buddhas back together really restore anything? They will no longer be 1,500 year old Buddhas.

I enjoyed your commentary on this. Well said.
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