Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Rediscovering treasures of Bamiyan

Rediscovering treasures of Bamiyan

When the Buddhas of Bamiyan were carved out of the mountainside, the Roman Empire still held sway.
They towered over a rich valley in what is now central Afghanistan, where caravans of traders would stop and rest on the Silk Road as they transported goods between east and west.


Today there isn't even a paved road connecting the valley to Kabul, but yet inside the caves are a reminder of Bamiyan's past wealth and glory and a new claim to fame that could put the province back on the map.
Inside those caves the steep, narrow steps are crumbling, there are cracks in the mud tunnels carved into the mountainside, and still visible high in the echoing chambers are pieces of Buddhist iconic art which are now thought to be the oldest oil paintings in the world.




Only a few fragments of the ancient paintings remain


Japanese, European and American scientists restoring the cave murals dating back to around 650AD, discovered oil was used in the paint.
Yoko Taniguchi, one of the Japanese experts working on the caves, told reporters this is the earliest known use of this technique in the history of art.
She said it was previously thought the technique originated in Europe during the Renaissance, eight centuries later.
But wandering through the Buddhist temples carved out of the rock, there is little left of the murals destroyed in the last 30 years of war after surviving for centuries.
A tourist guidebook to Afghanistan written in the 1960s and 70s by Nancy Dupree, a famous traveller who dedicated much of her life to the country, gave an account of the artwork as it was then.
Fragments
"The rest of the hall is elaborately decorated in a varied palette of burnt sienna, green, lapis lazuli blue, and yellow ochre depicting flowers, trees, stylised floral sprays, cornucopias and figures of kneeling worshipers," she wrote.
"A series of Buddhas dressed in sombre-hued maroon robes and framed with aureoles against an azure background walk on lotus pads set among flowers."




Most paintings have heads and hands missing
There's little evidence of this today apart from a few scraps of colour and detail here and there, but there are isolated caves higher up the mountain, impossible to get to without a rope, where some of the best examples still survive.
A combination of the vibration from artillery shells, the Taleban chiselling away the depictions of faces and hands, and looting put paid to most of the paintings.
But there are enough fragments left to give a hint of what it must have been like.
The views from the caves looking out over the valley are stunning and there is another twist to the story of the Buddhas of Bamiyan.
A Buddhist pilgrim wrote around the time the paintings were finished in the mid seventh century of the amazing statues - but he described three.
According to his account, the third reclining Buddha was a 1,000 feet long and lay on the valley floor.
It would be remarkable if it was buried beneath the river sediment and two teams of archaeologists, one from France another from Japan, are in a race to find it.
It sounds like an Indiana Jones film, but there have been many interesting archaeological discoveries in Bamiyan and this beautiful valley may not yet have revealed all its secrets.




Researchers take samples from the caves at Bamiyan, Afghanistan. (Image courtesy National Research Institute for Cultural Properties, Tokyo)



Close-up of a painting in the Bamiyan cave. (Image courtesy National Research Institute for Cultural Properties, Tokyo)





The world's largest statue of Buddha (174 ft high), shown in the Bamiyan Valley in Afghanistan in 1963





A cross-section of the sample, where the different layers are visible. (Image courtesy National Research Institute for Cultural Properties, Tokyo)

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