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Smithsonian Folklife Festival
The Silk Road

Samarkand Square

Sacred Space

Bamiyan Buddhas

During his journeys in the 7th century C.E. the Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang visited the beautiful Buddhist monastic establishment in Bamiyan, an important caravan town in a fertile valley just south of the Hindu Kush mountains (in present-day Afghanistan) along the Silk Road. His first view was of two colossal Buddhas. He mistakenly described them as made of metal, perhaps because they may have been covered in gold leaf and had metal ornaments on them. Bamiyan has a long history intimately connected with trade and warfare along the Silk Road. Genghis (Chinghis) Khan is said to have killed the entire population of Bamiyan during his sweep across Central Asia.

Carved into a sandstone rock cliff, the two Buddhas, one 175 feet and the other 120 feet tall, mark the first appearance of colossal images in Buddhist art. The great bronze Buddha in the Todaiji Temple in Nara, Japan, can be seen as a close relative of the great Buddhas of Bamiyan. These images served two purposes: to attract attention and command respect, and to suggest the superhuman power of the Buddha.

The Buddhist monastery in Bamiyan consisted of a number of caves that were filled with wall paintings and small sculptures of the Buddha. Buddhism swept across the Hindu Kush along the trade route to China in the early years of the Common Era. It was probably introduced by the Kushans, a Buddhist kingdom that ruled much of the area from Samarkand to the northern part of the Indian subcontinent. Buddhism and Islam coexisted in the area after the spread of Islam in the 8th century. The statues and monastery at Bamiyan were places of pilgrimage and historical research until the late 20th century. In March 2001, during the Taliban rule in Afghanistan, the two Buddhas were destroyed. The international outcry that followed has led to plans to rebuild the statues.

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