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Tajikistan Discovers New Giant Buddha


News Category: Sasanian Dynasty

 04 June 2001



A 1600 year old statue of a sleeping Buddha - uncovered by archeologists from the former Soviet Union 35 years ago and never before seen by the outside world - will soon be on display in Dushanbe, the capital of the Central Asian Republic of Tajikistan. After Afghanistan’s Taliban destroyed the largest Buddhas in Central Asia, the newly unveiled Tajikistan Buddha, which dates back to the 5th century AD, will be the largest ancient Buddha statue in Central Asia.

The 14 meter long Tajik Buddha was first excavated by archeologists from the former Soviet Union in 1966, from a vast Buddhist monastery complex in Ajina Tepa in southern Tajikistan. Ajina Tepa was on the ancient Silk Route connecting both China with Europe and Central Asia with the Indian seaports. Instead of publicizing their enormous find, the Soviets excavated the Buddha only to hide it.

Bringing the Buddha to light has been the lifetime task of Dr. Babamulloev Saidmurad, the newly appointed Director of Tajikistan’s Museum of National Antiquities which will officially open in August. ‘’The Soviets tried to tell the Tajiks that they had no history before the 1917 Russian Revolution even though the Tajiks are the most ancient race in Central Asia,’’ says Saidmurad. He says smaller Buddhist statues and murals were shipped to the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg and hidden away in its vaults, but the Tajikistan Buddha was too big to move and was buried in the basement of a Dushanbe museum.

‘’The Soviets never allowed Tajikistan to show its pre-Islamic and Islamic archeological collections,‘’ says Frederick Roussel of Acted, a leading French non-governmental organization in Central Asia, which funded the restoration of the Bhudda. Nine months ago Acted paid for a Russian archeological expert to come from the Hermitage Museum to spend three months putting together the puzzle of the Buddha.

‘’The Buddha was in 100 pieces stored in boxes in the basement of the museum and it had to be put together like a huge jigsaw,’’ says Saidmurad. ‘’We worked like demons around the clock for six months.’’ The Buddha lies on his side, his face showing absolute serenity reflecting the nearness of nirvana in the last moments before his death. Around the base of the sleeping Bhudda and on the walls of the monastery were more than one thousand paintings in bright colors depicting the life of Buddha, many of which were sent to the Hermitage.

Some 300 kilometers north of Bamiyan, Ajina Tepe was part of the widespread Buddhist renaissance and culture in Central Asia and Xinjiang under the Kushan kings. The Kushans were descended from a branch of the Chinese Yueh-chih tribes that first invaded Central Asia around 140 BC. The Kushans created their empire in the first century AD uniting a vast land area stretching from southern Pakistan and western Iran to Afghanistan, Central Asia, and Xinjiang. In the second century AD, the great Kushan king Kanishka, who extended the empire to India, was a major patron of the Mahayana school of Buddhism, the first to humanize the figure of Buddha. Previously Buddha had only been depicted by symbols such as the prayer wheel. Although the Kushans later broke up into smaller kingdoms, they continued their dominance of the region until the 6th century AD.

In March the Taliban dynamited two soaring statues of Buddha cut into limestone cliffs of the Hindu Kush mountains in Bamiyan, in the Hazarajat region of central Afghanistan. The larger Buddha, which stood at 57 meters, was the largest standing Buddha in the world and was carved between 300-400 AD. The Taliban rejected numerous international appeals including strong protests by the Buddhist countries of south east Asia.

‘’I did not sleep the whole night when I heard that the Taliban had destroyed the Bamiyan Buddhas, but it only moved us to work harder to restore our Buddha which is now the largest in Central Asia,’’ says Saidmurad. ‘’The Taliban have destroyed not just Afghanistan’s history but also the pre-Islamic cultural heritage of all Central Asia, because the Bamiyan Buddhist civilization was the center for the spread of Bhuddism in Central Asia and China,’’ says Parveen Abdullova, an assistant to Saidmurad and a prominent Tajik restorer and artist. ‘’The Buddhist Ghandara civilization in Pakistan, Bamiyan in Afghanistan and Kurgan Tepe in Tajikistan were all interlinked,’’ she added.

The first Tajiks heard of their rediscovered Buddha was in mid-March when a local newspaper ran a story headlined ‘’Tajikistan’s Buddha is sleeping safely despite Taliban actions.’’ When Tajik President Imamali Rakhmanov opens the new Museum in August, remarkable artifacts of Zoroastrianism and Hinduism will also be on display. The Kushans allowed all three religions to flourish side by side in their empire. A 5th century statue shows the Hindu god Shiva and his wife Parvetti sitting on a cow. The statue is the largest artifact to date showing the spread of Hinduism so far north into Central Asia, where it was able to co-exist with Zoroastrianism and Buddhism.

The Zoroastrian finds are remarkable in their own right: the Museum will have the best collection of the 3,400-year-old Zoroastrian civilization outside Iran. The Zoroastrians, or Parsees, who still survive in small numbers in Iran and South and Central Asia, developed a major center in Pendzhkent in the western corner of southern Tajikistan close to the border with Uzbekistan. Here, the ancient city of Zoras included a vast temple complex and a developed urban infrastructure, which the Soviets had excavated in the 1960s, but also refused to display. A few Zorastrians still live in Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan and Bukhara in Uzbekistan. Bukhara became the capital of Islamic Central Asia, demonstrating the tolerance shown by all Muslim rulers to other faiths in Central Asia.

A remarkable 5th century carved wooden gate which was displayed at the entrance to a Zoroastrian temple near Khodjent in northern Tajikistan, excavated in 1957, gives incredible detail of Zoroastrian history and mythology. According to Saidmurad, the Persian poet Firdausi used the detail on this gate to write his epic poem of Persian history the Shahnama. The panel, which is charred with fire, shows the legendary giant, Shah or King Zorak - a figure which abounds in ancient carvings and paintings in Central Asia, Iran and Afghanistan and is also the name of an abandoned mountain and town close to Bamiyan. The town was destroyed by the Mongols in 1220. There also paintings of Zohrak depicted as a frightening demon. Another figure shows a bird-angel with two heads.

Greek and Roman civilization will also be represented when the Museum opens. Early Kushan culture was heavily influenced by the Greeks who invaded Central Asia under Alexander the Great in 329 BC. Central Asia was then ruled by the Sogdians, whom the Tajiks consider as their ancestors. After defeating the Sogdians, Alexander married a Sogdian princess Roxana from the city of Oratoba, which is close to modern day Khodjent.

The discovery and restoration of Tajikistan’s giant Buddha gives hope to those who were distraught by the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas. ‘’This Buddha is a most remarkable discovery for the Buddhist world and the cultural heritage of mankind, ‘’ says Hiroshi Takahashi, a former Japanese and now UN diplomat in Dushanbe, who saw the Buddha recently. ‘’There will be many people in Japan and other countries who will be enormously interested in coming to see this Buddha,’’ he added. Beset by years of civil war, draught and economic misery, landlocked Tajikistan badly needs a boost to attract foreign investment and tourism. The opening of the new Museum in August will clearly put Tajikistan on the map for devotees of three major religions as well as lovers of ancient art and history.

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