Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
In March 2001, a group of uncouth men sporting thick beards walked up to two figures standing inside two niches carved into an arid, craggy stone face in the heart of Afghanistan. The men strapped dynamites to the stoic figures unmoved by the menacing men and what they were doing. The men walked away and detonated the explosives. Yellow fireballs shrouded the figures. When the dust subsided, they were no more.
No one died there in Bamiyan from the explosions on that day. But an important piece of not only Afghan but world history was lost. The uncouth men were Taliban militiamen on orders to destroy the “gods of the infidels.” The two figures were stone buddha statues. They had overlooked the Bamiyan valley since the 6th century. And now they were two sorry piles of rubbles.
Until then they were the largest outdoor standing buddha figures in the world. And in around 630 A.D., when the Chinese monk Xuanzang visited Bamiyan on his way to study sutras in India, he specifically took note of the two massive figures along with the dozens of temples and thousands of monks in this once-thriving buddhist city. For a thousand years even after the area’s conversion to Islam in the 10th century, the buddhas had stood tall. No more.
But according to Xuanzang, a third and even larger buddha statue existed only a short distance away. Xuanzang described the figure as follows:
To the east of the city... there is a convent, in which there is a figure of Buddha lying in a sleeping position, as when he attained Nirvana. The figure is about 1,000 feet or so.
Most scholars believe that this statue, which would be gargantuan and far larger than the destroyed ones if Xuanzang’s figure was correct, was destroyed long ago in the ebbs and flows of Afghan history. But not everyone. Dr. Zemaryalai Tarzi, for one, and Japanese archaeologist Kazuya Yamauchi, continue to search for the reclining buddha in nirvana. In 2008, Tarzi’s team in fact discovered a reclining buddha statue, although it is only 62 feet long.
It is easy to imagine Tarzi as a kind of real-life Afghan Indiana Jones. And “Indiana Jones and the Buddha of Bamiyan” sure sounds to me like a pretty good concept for a sequel. It has everything that an Indiana Jones film needs: an awesome, semi-mythical artifact; espionage and political intrigue; men with guns ready to chase the archaeologists across exotic locales rife with cinematographic opportunities.
The situation in Bamiyan even presents that classic Indy dilemma: Things he finds always seem to be hidden again in the end—the Ark of the Covenant ends up in a U.S. government warehouse, and the Holy Grail is buried in a collapsing temple. So similarly one wonders whether, if Tarzi or someone like him finds the great reclining buddha, it would not be better to bury it again in case the Taliban returns with dynamites.
An interesting footnote: Xuanzang’s mission to India, much embellished, formed the plot of the Ming Dynasty novel “Journey to the West.” In the novel, which has become a classic source in Chinese culture, the Monkey King, a mischievous god derived from the Hindu deity Hanuman, protects Xuanzang on his travels. As it turns out, an early script for what became “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” also featured the Monkey King. In this version, Indy goes to Mozambique and gets killed in a climactic battle, but the Monkey King (who for some reason has relocated from China to Africa) resurrects him. Had they ever made this movie, Indy would have in a way taken Xuanzang’s place as the pilgrim.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."