A description of the Buddhas of Bamiyan by Robert Byron

In early June 1934, on the 8th and the 9th of June to be precise, Robert Byron visited the Bamiyan valley and the two Buddhas.

This post will be kind off-topic for my blog since it will not deal with Islamic art. Nonetheless, I have decided to include the Bamiyan Buddhas in the Road to Oxiana project, for two reasons. The first is that the Buddhas, as everyone knows, are not there anymore. Also, Byron’s description is totally unexpected, particularly if read now, 17 years after those monuments have been destroyed. Reading Byron’s description I could not help but think about how strong is the influence of what happened before us on the way we perceive things and how our experience of events influences our tastes and evaluations.

But let’s see Byron’s description.

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View of the larger Buddha. Photo by Robert Byron (Conway).

When Byron arrived to the valley of Bamiyan, he was impressed by the natural beauty that surrounded him, where the two giant Buddhas and the caves of the monks merged perfectly in the setting:

“…  the colours of this extraordinary valley with its cliffs of rhubarb red, its indigo peaks roofed in glittering snow and its new-sprung corn of harsh electric green, shone doubly brilliant in the clear mountain air. […] And there suddenly, like an enormous wasps’ nest, hung the myriad caves of the Buddhist monks, clustered about the two giant Buddhas.”

His awe disappeared the following day: on the 9th of June 1934 Byron writes down in his travelogue that “its [Bamiyan’s] art is unfresh”.

Nonetheless, Byron gives a sort of historical background of the monuments of Bamiyan valley, starting from 632: the year when Prophet Muhammad died and year of the Buddhist monk Xuanzang‘s arrival in the valley. When the Buddhist monk arrived in Bamiyan, after a long travel throughout Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, and the surrounding regions, he found there a community of 5,000 monks. The Arabs reached the valley at the end of the 7th century but the Buddhist population remained in the area for 150 years after that.

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The larger Buddha. Photo by Robert Byron (Conway).

In Byron words, the monks were “finally expatriated”. He also sympathizes for the Arabs, understanding their frustration in front of the Buddhas, in front of the two giant Buddhas: “One can imagine how the Arabs felt about them and their idols in this blood-red valley. Nadir Shah must have felt the same 1000 years later when he broke the legs of the larger Buddha.”

Would have Byron written this same words 70 years later, after the giant Buddhas had definitively been swept away by Islamic fundamentalism? Probably not.

In the very same way, probably he would have written a totally different description, with totally different feelings.

In Byron’s description of the giant Buddhas we read, for instance, that [n]either has any artistic value, due to their monstrous flaccid bulk. If the artistic value is not appreciated by Byron, the same is for the material: unbeautiful, for the cliff is made […] of compressed gravel.

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The smaller Buddha. Photo by Robert Byron (Conway).

All in all, too much trouble for nothing: The result has not even the dignity of labour.

Byron does recognize the importance of the Buddhas as symbols of cross-cultural influences: the Persian, Indian, Chinese, and Hellenistic ideas meet and mingle, in these 5th-6th-century monuments. But even if Byron admits that it is interesting to have a record of this meeting, the result is in no way matching the expectation: the fruit of it is not pleasant.

Writing something similar is simply inconceivable for us, given the terrible fate of the two Buddhas.

Robert Byron disliked, in general, the art that was not Islamic and purely Persian, even more so at the end of his long journey. This can, of course, explain its attitude towards the giant Buddhas. But, setting personal tastes aside, what really makes an impression here is the irreverence and light-hearted comments made on monuments, an attitude that sounds well beyond what’s politically correct and well mannered. It is simply something you cannot do.

It is a good reminder of how easy is to discard things and be over-critical, just to realize their importance once they are gone.

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The empty seat of the larger Buddha. Photo from RFERL (no copyright info found).

For sure, the giant Buddhas of Bamiyan were important and were a great witness of the Buddhism as developed in the region, and they were examples of the cultural and artistic influences that from different times and places were funneled in Bamiyan in the 5th and 6th centuries.

And even Byron recognized this.

Suggested reading

On the change of the perception in the Buddhas of Bamiyan, there is also a beautiful article by Charles Paul Freund, “Wonders Never Cease. Destruction was the luckiest thing to happen to the Buddhas of Bamiyan.”, published on Slate, Jan 18th, 2002 [link (last accessed: 23rd of July 20189] 

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