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Archaeologists Find Giant “Sleeping” Buddha In Afghanistan

One of the Buddha statues in the Bamiyan Valley, before its destruction by the Taliban in May 2001.

More than seven years after the Taliban destroyed two giant Buddha statues in Bamiyan, an Afghan-led archaeological team discovered the remains of a third giant Buddha nearby.

 The remains of the 19-meter-long reclining Buddha statue were discovered this summer within the foundations of an ancient Buddhist temple less than 2 kilometers from the niches where Bamiyan’s two giant Buddha statues once stood.

Chief archaeologist Professor Zemaryali Tarzi has spent years searching there for a 300-metre-long sleeping Buddha described in the diary of Xuanzang, a Chinese pilgrim who traveled to central Afghanistan around 630 AD.

“This Buddha was found in the Eastern Buddhist temple where I have been conducting excavations for the past seven years,” Tarzi says. “I think there might be similar [reclining] Buddhas, but I’m still looking for the 300-meter sleeping Buddha.”

Tarzi is one of the world’s most knowledgeable experts on the giant Buddhas that were destroyed in March 2001 by the Taliban regime.

By 1979, when Soviet forces invaded Afghanistan and Tarzi fled the country, he had already spent three decades studying the area and repairing the 55- and 38-meter standing Buddhas.

Now, as long as his health and finances hold up, Tarzi says he is willing to repair the newly discovered reclining Buddha. But he will require a lot of work.

“Most of the pieces are damaged. But we discovered a piece from the upper part of the right arm to the elbow. We discover his neck and shoulders. But the head is broken due to water damage under the ground. Still, the pillow he sleeps on is in perfect condition,” says Tarzi.

“If I had permission and lived long enough, I would definitely restore it for Afghanistan. And then the world will be able to see how important this discovery is.”

The cultural history of Afghanistan

Researchers believe that Bamiyan, once a stopping point along the Silk Road between China and the Middle East, was the site of monasteries housing up to 5,000 monks during its heyday as a Buddhist center in the 6th and 8th centuries. VII.

The region’s artisans were influenced by the Greek civilization that Alexander the Great established hundreds of years earlier in northern Afghanistan. Researchers believe that cross-pollination of European and Asian influences led to Bamiyan being the site of some of the first statues showing the face of Buddha. Previously, artists depicted Buddha as a footprint or an umbrella.

Another significant discovery this year in Bamiyan was made by Japanese researchers who discovered that many murals in the caves near the Standing Buddhas contained oil-based paint. Since the paintings date back to approximately 650 AD, the discovery overturned common perceptions about the origins of oil paintings, which were previously thought to have emerged in Europe hundreds of years later.

In the 10th century, the area around Bamiyan converted to Islam, which generally regards human representations as idolatry. However, for centuries, the standing Buddhas of Bamiyan remained a widely accepted part of Afghan heritage and culture. That is, until March 2001, when the Taliban and Al Qaeda used explosives to destroy the statues that Tarzi had worked so carefully to restore.

Mohammad Zia Afshar, an advisor to Afghanistan’s Ministry of Culture and Information, says the Sleeping Buddha is just one important discovery made this year by Tarzi’s archaeological team.

The group has also unearthed 89 ancient relics, including coins and ceramics, providing a better understanding of Buddhist culture in Bamiyan about 1,500 years ago.Funded by the French Foreign Ministry and the US National Geographic Society, Tarzi and his team have worked on excavations in Bamiyan every summer since the collapse of the Taliban regime.

Tarzi explains to RFE/RL that his hope of finding a 300-meter-long Buddha has been a great motivation for the work

“The talk about a third Buddha is not new,” he says. “Around 1975 or 1976, when he was still living in Afghanistan, he had studied the possibility of the existence of a third ‘sleeping’ Buddha. But I left the country before I could finish that work and I never expected to return to Afghanistan.”

Tales of ancient travelers

Tarzi says he learned from his restoration work in the 1970s that the descriptions of the two standing Buddhas provided by Xuanzang’s 1,400-year-old diary were extremely accurate. So accurate, in fact, that he couldn’t help but wonder all these years about Xuanzang’s descriptions of a nearby giant reclining Buddha.

“I am now looking for a Buddha which I believe is about 300 meters long and was built in a sleeping or lying position (originally within a very large temple complex). We have been able to locate [what we believe is] the correct temple and excavations continue. This is not a small compound. That is why we have not been able to finish our excavations even in one or two years. We need to be patient and do it the right way,” says Tarzi.

“The temple is approximately 1.5 kilometers east of the ancient royal city of Bamiyan. That temple was discovered by my archaeological team. We are now studying a Chinese tourist’s travel diary from 632 AD to see if the descriptions of a third giant Buddha from Bamiyan are accurate.

“In archaeological work, any expected result is never a 100 percent guarantee. But we continue. If found, this would be the largest Buddha statue in the world. It is described as lying horizontally with a length of about 300 meters, and the Buddha form is said to have 1,000 legs.”

Over the past three or four years, Tarzi’s excavations at the eastern temple have also recovered the heads of dozens of Buddhist statues. Tarzi says that has raised his hopes of eventually finding the reclining Buddha described in the ancient diary.

But for now, he says, the discovery of a 19-meter sleeping Buddha is enough to help restore Afghans’ morale and national consciousness about their rich history. With so many of Afghanistan’s ancient artifacts looted, vandalized or destroyed by war in the past 30 years, Tarzi concludes that each newly discovered monument gives the country something to help make up for its lost ancient treasures.