1933 - Robert Byron
The Buddhas of Bamian
I should not like to stay long at Bamian. Its art is unfresh. When Huan Tsang came here, the Buddhas were gilded to resemble bronze, and 5,000 monks swarmed in the labyrinths beside them. That was in 632; Mohammad died the same year, and the Arabs reached Bamian before the end of the century. But it was not until 150 years later that the monks were finally extirpated. One can imagine how the Arabs felt about them and their idols in this blood-red valley. Nadir Shah must have felt the same 1,000 years later when he broke the legs of the larger Buddha.
That Buddha is 174 feet high, and the smaller 115; they stand a quarter of a mile apart. The larger bears traces of a plaster veneer, which was painted red, presumably as a groundwork for the gilt. Neither has any artistic value. But one could bear that; it is their negation of sense, the lack of any pride in their monstrous flaccid bulk, that sickens. Even their material is unbeautiful, for the cliff is made, not of stone, but of compressed gravel. A lot of monastic navvies were given picks and told to copy some frightful semi-Hellenistic image from India or China. The result has not even the dignity of labour.
The canopies of the niches which contain the two figures are plastered and painted. In the smaller hangs a triumph scene, red, yellow, and blue, in which Hackin, Herzfeld, and: others have distinguished a Sasanian influence; but the clue to this idea comes from Masson, who saw a Pahlevi inscription here a hundred years ago. The paintings round the larger head are better preserved, and can be examined at close quarters by standing on the head itself. On either side of the niche, below the curve of the vault, hang five medallions about ten feet in diameter which contain Boddhisatvas. These figures are surrounded by horse-shoe auras off white, yellow, and blue, and their hair is tinged with red. Between each medallion grows a triple-branched lotus; at least we supposed it to be that, though in other surroundings it might be taken for an ecclesiastical gas-bracket upholding three glass globes. The next zone above is occupied by a pavement in squares out of perspective, and the zone above that by a wainscot of Pompeian curtains finished with a border of peacocks’ feathers. On top of this come two more rows of Boddhisatvas, seated against auras and thrones alternately, the thrones being decked; with jewelled carpets. Between these stand large cups on stems, resembling Saxon fonts and sprouting cherubs. The topmost zone overhead is missing. The colours are the ordinary fresco colours, slate-grey, gamboge, a rusty chocolate-red, a dull grape tint, and a bright harebel blue.
The subjects suggest that Persian, Indian, Chinese, and Hellenistic ideas all metat Bamian in the fifth and sixth centuries. It is interesting to have a record of this meeting. But the fruit of it is not pleasant. The only exception is the lower row of Boddhisatvas, which Hackin says are older than the rest. They achieve that air of repose, graceful but empty, which is the best one can expect of Buddhist iconography.
The chambers in the cliff preserve a similar record of contemporary architectural ideas. The monks were obliged to give some form to their ceremonial interiors. But of all conventions available to them, the inside of the Indian stone dome must surely have been the least suited to reproduction in monolith. Yet here they carved it, with its massive pendent brackets, its heavy crisscross beams, and its inept little cupola. The Sasanian influence produced more sensible results. One spacious hall bears an extraordinary resemblence to the dome-chambers at Firuzabad, and its
mouldings, breaking into bows or something of the sort on top of the squinches, may tell how Sasanian stucco was originally applied. Other caves show domes resting on circular and octagonal walls, some elaborately carved, and one bearing an arabesque frieze which might be a prototype of that in the Friday Mosque at Kazvin, erected six centuries later. But the most remarkable connection with Mohammadan architecture, proving how directly it borrowed the inventions of the fire-worshipping past, is contained in a square cave where the dome rests on four squinches composed of five concentric arches each. This most unusual device, with the addition of another arch, reappears in a mausoleum at Kassan in Turkestan, which was built in the fourteenth Century.
The French archaeologists have left the caves in good condition, repaired the painted plaster, added staircases where necessary, and put up sensible notices in French and Persian to guide those who have not had the chance of studying their published reports: ''Groupe C; Salle de Réunion ", "Groupe D; Sanctuaire, influences iraniennes", etc.
The Road to Oxiana