New details revealed about ancient Afghan Buddhas
CTV.ca News Staff
Published Saturday, March 5, 2011 5:43PM EST
Ten years after Taliban fanatics blew up two gigantic Buddha statues that had looked out over the Bamiyan valley since the 6th century, a conference to be held in Paris next week will try to come up with a plan for their future.
The conference comes as new details are revealed about the ancient and massive Buddhas in Afghanistan, such as the fact they were once intensely colourful, and were constructed using unique, previously unseen techniques.
Before they were blown up by the Taliban in 2001 the statues served as signposts of sorts on the ancient Silk Road caravan route where it passes through the Hindu Kush.
The now desolate and isolated site was once a meeting place for various cultures, religions, art forms and philosophies, and held Buddhist monasteries from the second century until the Islamic invasion in the 9th century.
The statues went largely unstudied and unrestored for years. Then in 2001, the Taliban government declared them idols, and Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar ordered them dynamited.
The destruction, which was devastating to historians, eventually triggered a massive restoration project by a team from Germany's Technische Universitat Muenchen (TUM), who have analyzed the fragments left behind after the blast.
The team, according to a news release, has been able to date the remnants for the first time. The smaller of the two, which stood about 38 metres tall, was built between 544 and 595. The larger Buddha, a massive 55 metres tall, was built slightly later, between 591 and 644, the researchers believe.
The team has also discovered that the Buddha statues were once vibrantly coloured. The outer robes were painted dark blue on the inside and pink, and later orange, on the outside.
Through careful analysis of the fragments, the team has also gotten a closer look at techniques used to construct the statues.
The statues themselves were carved out of the cliff. But the Buddhas' flowing robes were created using clay, applied in several layers on top of the stone.
"The surfaces are perfectly smooth -- of a quality otherwise only found in fired materials such as porcelain," said Professor Erwin Emmerling in the statement, noting that the work displayed an astonishing degree of craftsmanship.
Workers had used ropes and wooden pegs to secure the first layer of clay to the stone, a technique not seen elsewhere, which gave the statue incredible strength and allowed craftsmen to apply layers of clay as thick as eight centimetres. Adding to that strength, the original artisans used animal hair to act as a kind of rebar, to strengthen the clay.
"These have survived not only nearly 1,500 years of history, but even the explosion in some parts," Emmerling said.
The TUM team has made great strides in researching the origins of the Buddhas, reconstructing the statues, and even conserving the remaining fragments. But there are still far-off goals fraught with challenges.
Emmerling believes it may be possible to reconstruct the smaller of the two Buddhas. However the larger Buddha, which was originally carved 12 metres deep into the cliff, represents a much greater challenge.
Because the statue was carved from porous sandstone, and due to the climate of the region, synthetic resins that would normally be used are simply not up to the job.
However, Emmerling is looking into the possibility of using an organic synthetic compound that could theoretically be injected into the stone.
Emmerling acknowledges the challenges aren't just physical. Politically, the there are also large hurdles to overcome.
Conservation of the fragments alone would require the construction of a small factory in the Bamiyan Valley, or, alternatively, the transportation of some 1,400 rocks, weighing up to two tons each, would have to be transported to Germany, he said.