An Afghan experience

The news of the destruction of the two gigantic Budha statues in Bamiyan, Afghanistan, by the Taliban in 2001, came as a rude shock to right-thinking people all over the world but it was doubly so in my case because there was a personal connection.

I was part of the Archaeological Survey of India team that carried out the conservation and restoration of these statues, under an agreement between the Indian and Afghan governments. The work was done during the period 1969 to 1977, our team being able to work for only four months in the year from June to September, the other eight months being too cold. A team of about 15 members, consisting of engineers, chemists, draftsmen, photographers etc was engaged in the work every season and I had the good fortune to lead  the team during the final year (1977 ) when the work was completed and the monuments were formally handed over to the Afghan government.

The two statues were a truly awe-inspiring sight, the so-called small Budha being 139 ft in height and the big Budha, 183 ft. (Compare this with our own Gomateshwara statue at Shravanabelagola which is 58 ft high and looks so impressive.) You could reach the top of the big Buddha’s head by climbing the hill from the rear side and when you stood  there, it was like  standing in a fair-sized room. After a scaffolding was erected  up to a height of 200 ft for the work and when sometimes you had to climb down from the top, if you came down 30 ft from the top of the head, you would have just reached the shoulder. When our work began  in 1969, the local population was not favourably disposed  to it because any sort of recognition to icons was against the tenets of their religion but as the work progressed year by year and tourist inflow increased, resulting in a marked improvement of the economy of the village, with several new hotels coming up, the people realised the importance of the work and became  cordial and co-operative.

It is pleasant to recall the support and the warmth  we received from S K Singh, our then ambassador at Kabul, who later became India’s foreign secretary, and the wonderful kindness and hospitality of several Indian families who lived in Kabul at the time, whenever we came down from Bamiyan on some work.

To end on a rather somber note, over the nine year duration of this work, some team members had to pay with their lives. One member died in Afghanistan from heart attack while five or six others developed complications later, as a result of living in an atmosphere of lesser oxygen at that height of 11,000 ft from sea-level, and passed away a few months after return. We have to console ourselves with the thought that this was a sacrifice we had to make in a great cause.

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