Taliban now guard site of Bamiyan Buddhas they destroyed

Taliban gunmen now stand guard at the gaping rock cavities that once housed two ancient statues of the Buddha – desecrated with dynamite by the Islamists during their last stint in power.

The monuments in Bamiyan province had stood for 1,500 years but their destruction was ordered in 2001 by that regime – already infamous then after banning television and imposing ultra-strict rules governing the conduct of women – for being against the Muslim faith.

Hundreds of cadres from across the country spent more than three weeks demolishing the towering statues carved into the side of a cliff, sparking a global outcry.

“The Buddhas were destroyed by the Taliban authorities in 2001,” reads a bronze plaque set in the stone, while the white flag of the country’s new leaders flutters on a nearby gatehouse.

Two young fighters loiter listlessly just yards away.

Afghanistan’s new Prime Minister Mohammad Hassan Akhund was “one of the architects of the destruction of Buddhas”, according to historian Ali A. Olomi of Penn State Abington University.

Asked if it had been a good idea to blow up the statues – regarded as one of the greatest crimes against world heritage – young Taliban member Saifurrahman Mohammadi does not hide his embarrassment.

“Well… I can’t really comment,” said Mohammadi, recently appointed to the Bamiyan province cultural affairs office.

“I was very young,” he said. “If they did it, the Islamic Emirate must have had their reasons.

“But what is certain is that now we are committed to protecting the historical heritage of our country. It is our responsibility.”

Mohammadi said he recently spoke with Unesco officials who fled abroad after the Taliban takeover to ask them to return to Afghanistan and guarantee their safety.

Local officials and former Unesco employees formerly based there said that around a thousand priceless artefacts once stored in nearby warehouses were stolen or destroyed following the Taliban takeover.

“I confirm that looting did take place, but it was before our arrival,” Mohammadi said, blaming the thefts on the vacuum left by the old authorities after they fled.

“We are investigating and we are trying to get them back,” he added.

Crossroads of civilisations

The Bamiyan valley is nestled in the heart of the Hindu Kush mountain range and marks the westernmost reach of Buddhism from its birthplace in the Indian subcontinent.

Persian, Turkish, Chinese and Greek influences have also intersected there over the centuries and left behind an extraordinary built environment, much of which remains unexplored.

The statues survived a 17th-century incursion by Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, and later those of Persian king Nader Shah, who damaged them with cannon fire.

Traces of them remain lying around the Bamiyan site under canvas tents, torn by the winds of the valley.

World heritage specialists are highly doubtful they will ever be rebuilt.

But the new Taliban regime insists that it wants to protect the country’s archaeological heritage, despite the global shock triggered by the images of the Buddhas disappearing in clouds of dust.

With the country’s economy reeling “they realise that the work to protect heritage provides regular income,” said Philippe Marquis, the director of the French archaeological delegation in Afghanistan.

Labourers are working at Bamiyan to put the final touches on a cultural centre and museum as part of a US$20mil (RM84mil) Unesco-backed project that was to be inaugurated with great fanfare this month.

“Now we have to see how it will work,” said Philippe Delanghe, chief of the culture programme at Unesco’s Kabul office, currently based in France.

“The current administration wants us to come back to work together. It seems pretty secure,” he added. – AFP

Should a deity have two arms or more?

The earliest Hindu iconography showing a four-armed Vishnu has been found in Malhar in Madhya Pradesh, dating to 100 BCE

In Kushan coins, minted over 1,800 years ago, we come across images of a woman holding the horn of plenty. She is identified with the Roman Goddess Fortuna, the Greek goddess Tyche, the Central Asian Ardochsho, the Buddhist Hariti, and the Hindu goddess Lakshmi. Images of Lakshmi are also found on pillars and medallions of early Buddhist stupas. She is visualised there as a bejewelled woman, standing in a pond of lotus flowers, surrounded by elephants, very similar to Lakshmi images found in Hindu homes today. But there is one crucial difference. Lakshmi images today show her as four-armed, not two-armed.

The transformation of two-armed Lakshmi into four-armed Lakshmi happened in the Gupta period, 1,700 years ago, when the old Vedic way reinforced its power by redefining itself through the Puranas, and pushed back on Buddhist popularity. The shift began in the earlier Kushan period. The rise of four-armed deities effectively marks a turning point in assertive Hindu art.

Not more than two

The earliest Indian art comes from Harappa. Here we have images of men meditating, or escaping from tigers, or leaping on bulls, and women in procession, or resolving conflicts. All human characters have only two arms. Nearly 2,000 years after the Harappan period, we have the remarkably evolved Gandharan and Mathura art, mostly Buddhist, telling stories from the life of the Buddha and folktales inspired by Jataka tales. In Mathura art, we find the earliest image of Saraswati, from a Jain site, seated with a book in her hand. She too has two arms. Here we find celestial beings with wings, heads, and bodies of horses, indicating the clear influence of Greek and Persian art. But no four-armed beings.

The earliest images of Hindu gods are found on coins. Indo-Greek coins from 200 BCE have images of Krishna holding a wheel; he is two-armed. Kushan coins from 200 CE have images of Shiva holding a trident, many showing him with four arms. But the oldest Shiva lingam at Gudimallam, Andhra Pradesh, dated to 300 CE, shows Shiva with two arms only. From the Kushan period, we have the earliest images of Durga, showing her killing a buffalo. She too has multiple arms. The Kushans were migrants from South-West China and had no religious affiliations, which is why their coins in the western edge of their empire show Greco-Roman-Scyhtian influence while their coins in the eastern edge show Buddhist and Hindu influences. By the time of the Guptas, the Buddhist influence was on the wane.

The earliest Hindu iconography showing a four-armed Vishnu has been found in Malhar in Madhya Pradesh, dating to 100 BCE. It becomes more explicit in the Hindu temple in Deogarh that dates to the Gupta period, where we find the four-armed Vishnu in three forms: riding Garuda, reclining on Shesha, and as a teacher. When he is reclining, Lakshmi is at his feet. But she has only two arms.

The sprouting of multiple arms and later, multiple heads, differentiated supernatural beings from regular humans. In Buddhist art, Brahma and Indra are often shown bowing to the Buddha. How does one know they are not just any kings or priests? Brahma is shown with four arms, establishing his divine status and Hindu roots. In early Jain art, we find four images of the Tirthankara Rishabhdev facing four directions. But in Hindu art, we find chatur-mukha lingas showing Shiva’s head on four sides. In Jain art, we do find four-armed yakshas and yakshis, but the Tirthankara is never given supernatural form. At best, his limbs are longer than usual, reaching up to the knee, an indicator of being special.

No icons here

The idea of a god with multiple heads, arms and feet is first found in Vedic literature, and finds expression also in the Bhagavad Gita where Krishna takes his cosmic form, one that pervades every corner of the universe by expanding his form and by multiplying heads, arms, legs. The Vedic priests visualised the gods but did not turn them into icons of stone and metal. Local tribes gave form to their gods, but represented them symbolically through rocks, trees, rivers, or pots and baskets filled with food and water. Anthropomorphic images, where gods have human form, came much later. And images of gods with many heads and hands came even later. Tamil Sangam literature refers to gods like Mayon and Ceyon and Perumal, with their complexion, their abode, their banners, and sacred animals, but does not mention multiple arms.

Supernatural beings

The Mahayana and later the Tantrik schools introduced the idea of supernatural beings with multiple heads and arms into Buddhist art. But the form was associated with Bodhisattva, who is still to attain Buddhahood. He sprouts many heads and hands to see, hear and help the many suffering souls of the cosmos. On attaining Buddha status, he may have giant form, but retains only two arms.

Adi Shankaracharya is said to have established the worship of goddess Sharda, who is identified as Saraswati, nearly 12 centuries earlier. Early 20th century prints of the goddess show her as two-armed but new prints show her as four-armed. How do we resolve this mystery? Was she a Buddhist goddess who became Hindu under Shankara’s influence? Shankara was after all described by his opponents as Prachanna Buddha or crypto-Buddhist. And he did play a key role in eclipsing Buddhism from the Indian landscape. We will never know for sure.

But what we do know is that today, Hindu gods from Lakshmi to Ganesha to Saraswati are always depicted with four or more arms. They are two-armed only when they take mortal form, like Ram or Krishna. Four arms do what the halo did in Christian art — help the viewer quickly establish who is divine, who is supernatural, and who is worthy of veneration.

Afghanistan: Years after dynamiting Buddha statues, Taliban vow to preserve empty niches in Bamiyan

A Taliban member said the Bamiyan Buddhas were destroyed in 2001 because of religious ideology.

Two monumental statues of Buddha were created on either ends of a cliff side in Bamiyan during the sixth century

The Bamiyan Buddhas were once the tallest standing Buddhas in the world

Approximately 780 historical monuments can be found in Herat Province

Kabul: The Taliban have pledged to preserve empty niches of Bamiyan Valley’s two giant Buddha statues amid concerns over the safety of ancient objects, artefacts, and museums in Afghanistan.

Culture and art professionals have not forgotten that heritage was systematically destroyed during the Taliban’s previous rule. An example is the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in 2001 in Afghanistan.

Known as Salsal and Shamama locally, two monumental statues of Buddha were carved into the sandstone cliffs of Afghanistan’s Bamiyan province during the sixth century. The Taliban forces destroyed the Buddha statues in March 2001. Salsal (the symbol of a male) and Shamama (the symbol of a female) have heights of 53 meters and 35 meters, respectively.

In a statement to local media, the Taliban said the earlier move had a specific purpose. They, however, added that currently the niches of Buddhas are being protected, which is beneficial for promoting tourism.

“As an Islamic Emirate’s official in Bamiyan, I am trying my best to preserve these priceless and historical monuments of our province,” Ariana News cited Bamiyan’s Information and Culture Directorate head Mawlawi Saif-ul-Rahman Mohammadi as saying.

According to another member of the Taliban, the Buddhas were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001 because of their religious ideology.

“The Islamic Emirate did not make a hasty decision at that time [2001]. It was reviewed and researched based on Islamic laws and then they destroyed them,” Ariana News quoted him as saying.

Taliban officials had in the past said that more than 40 per cent of Afghan historical sites in Herat need immediate restoration to prevent further damage.

“Forty per cent of our historical monuments are in urgent need of restoration and preservation. But, so far, unfortunately, the country’s economy is not stable,” Director for Herat’s Information and Culture Department, Zalmay Safa, said.

Safa further stressed that the concerns would be taken into consideration once the governance issues were resolved.

Approximately 780 historical monuments can be found in Herat Province, including the Citadel, the Musalla complex, the Mausoleum of Gawhar Shad, and the Great Mosque.

National Museum to open Buddha galleries soon, arms gallery in 2 months

National Museum building on Janpath is among buildings proposed to be demolished as part of the Central Vista redevelopment project and the museum itself moved to North and South Block

The National Museum’s extensive collections are set to be displayed in new locations in the city, with galleries on Buddhist art expected to be opened within the next few weeks and work on museums of arms and armour, Freedom struggle and Jammu and Kashmir underway at the Red Fort.

The Buddhist galleries, located in the Archaeological Survey of India’s former offices next to the National Museum, were set to be opened within a week or two, a National Museum source said on Monday.

The National Museum building on Janpath is among the buildings proposed to be demolished as part of the Central Vista redevelopment project and the museum itself moved to the North and South Block. However, the plans for these projects and timelines have not been announced.

At the same time, parts of the National Museum’s collections are being moved to new galleries, including in renovated barracks at the Red Fort. The National Museum’s gallery on arms and armour of India would be shifted to the Red Fort within the next two months, the source said. In addition, the gallery on the Freedom struggle from 1857 onwards was being developed by the National Museum at the Red Fort and would take about four to five months to complete, the source noted. The Jammu and Kashmir museum was also being developed by the National Museum, the source added.

In a reply to the Lok Sabha in August, Culture Minister G. Kishan Reddy said the museum on Buddha was being “developed in a renovated century-old majestic building and spread over an area of about 15,000 square feet, surrounded by a lush green landscape”. He added it was a first-of-its-kind museum on Buddha and would include over 200 objects dating back to the 1st Century CE.

Mr. Reddy had further stated that the museum on the Freedom struggle would have an interactive approach and tell the stories of those who fought for Independence.

Cambodian Ministry seeking modifications to statues of Buddha

The Battambang provincial Department of Cults and Religions is seeking permission for sculptors to make modifications to the Buddha statues which are under construction on the face of Phnom Sampov Mountain after inaccuracies were discovered during a recent inspection.

Department director Kun Sambath Moniroth said on September 12 that the people sponsoring the construction had requested permission to build three statues showing Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and nirvana.

However, he said he had never seen the blueprint and only after a practical examination did he realise that there was a scriptural error in the statue of Buddha’s enlightenment.

“They requested a statue depicting the enlightenment, but when it was built it turned out to be a statue of Siddhartha [Buddha] triumphing over Mara,” he said.

He added that the construction should follow the book “Templates of Buddha Statues in Cambodia” released on September 1, 2014, by the religions ministry and recognised by the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts.

Constructing statues of Buddha that are markedly different from the designs approved by the religions ministry could lead the younger generations to misunderstanding the religion and could draw public criticism, he said.

“Firstly, the younger generations who do not have a deep knowledge of Buddhism will not know the exact style of Buddha being portrayed such as an image of his enlightenment. Secondly, the public will criticise the authorities or experts saying they are ignorant,” he said.

A Facebook user named Siv Jing who claimed to be the son of the sculptor said the statue of Buddha triumphing over Mara was commissioned by two Buddhist followers identified as Tang Meng Hun and Sreng Sen.

The duo could not be reached for comment.

Siv Jing said the statute of Buddha triumphing over Mara was meant to be a guardian of peace for the nation and to show that no enemy can persecute Cambodia. Furthermore, he said it was also meant as a symbolic protector of Cambodian children’s health from plagues like Covid-19.

Ancient artefacts including Buddha heads looted from Unesco site amid Afghan turmoil

The items were stolen from a storage facility belonging to a French archaeological team working to conserve the site

Excavated Buddha heads and other items have been looted from the storage facility of a French archaeological team involved in conserving and restoring the famous Bamiyan site in central Afghanistan, a Unesco World Heritage Site, it was reported on Monday.

It is believed that thieves took advantage of the confusion that followed the Taliban’s takeover of the area in the first half of August to steal the artefacts, according to local residents and Japanese archaeologists whose warehouse was also targeted.

In 2001, when the Islamists were previously in power, they blew up and destroyed the two 6th century Great Buddhas of Bamiyan, carved into cliffs, based on an extreme interpretation of Islam that forbids idolatry.

The warehouse of the French corps stored valuable excavations from the vicinity of the “Eastern Buddha.”

According to a local man, there was a phone call asking him to buy items such as Buddha heads, coins and scriptures that seemed to have been stolen. An image of a Buddha head sent to the smartphone had the reference number of the French team.

This man had cooperated with foreign experts and was involved in the restoration of the ruins.

People watch a three-dimensional projection of the Salsal Buddha at the site where the Buddhas of Bamiyan statues stood before being destroyed by the Taliban in March 2001. Photo: AFP People watch a three-dimensional projection of the Salsal Buddha at the site where the Buddhas of Bamiyan statues stood before being destroyed by the Taliban in March 2001. Photo: AFP
People watch a three-dimensional projection of the Salsal Buddha at the site where the Buddhas of Bamiyan statues stood before being destroyed by the Taliban in March 2001. Photo: AFP

Excavated Buddha heads and other items have been looted from the storage facility of a French archaeological team involved in conserving and restoring the famous Bamiyan site in central Afghanistan, a Unesco World Heritage Site, it was reported on Monday.

It is believed that thieves took advantage of the confusion that followed the Taliban’s takeover of the area in the first half of August to steal the artefacts, according to local residents and Japanese archaeologists whose warehouse was also targeted.

In 2001, when the Islamists were previously in power, they blew up and destroyed the two 6th century Great Buddhas of Bamiyan, carved into cliffs, based on an extreme interpretation of Islam that forbids idolatry.
A policeman patrols the site where the statues of Buddha stood in Bamiyan before being destroyed by the Taliban in March 2001. Photo: AFP
A policeman patrols the site where the statues of Buddha stood in Bamiyan before being destroyed by the Taliban in March 2001. Photo: AFP

The warehouse of the French corps stored valuable excavations from the vicinity of the “Eastern Buddha.”

According to a local man, there was a phone call asking him to buy items such as Buddha heads, coins and scriptures that seemed to have been stolen. An image of a Buddha head sent to the smartphone had the reference number of the French team.

This man had cooperated with foreign experts and was involved in the restoration of the ruins.

On the phone, a young woman’s voice proposed to sell a total of 25 relics for US$100,000 and said that if the offer was declined, they would be taken to neighbouring Pakistan.

According to Yoko Taniguchi, an associate professor at the University of Tsukuba who has worked on the restoration of archaeological sites, the Japanese team had stored coloured mural pieces and tools necessary for restoration.

A member of the French team contacted him earlier this month, explaining that the warehouse’s lock had been broken and boxes containing mural pieces had been overturned. There were also precious pieces of oil-painted murals.

The extent of damage and losses could not be confirmed.

According to the Japanese university, data from chemical analysis of the pigments from the 7th to 10th-century paintings indicates that these murals can be considered the world’s oldest oil paintings.

In 2003, the cultural landscape and archaeological remains of the Bamiyan Valley were inscribed simultaneously on Unesco’s World Heritage List and the List of World Heritage in Danger.

The Magnificent Borobudur Temple Of Indonesia

The Borobudur Temple Compounds is the world’s largest Buddhist monument, measuring roughly 63 acres. It is a Mahayana Buddhist temple located in Java, Indonesia, with many experts believing it was built during the rule of the Sailendra Dynasty (c. 650-1025 CE). UNESCO designated the Borobudur Temple Compounds as a World Heritage Site in 1991 due to its unique craftsmanship. The site remains the most visited tourist site in Indonesia and plays a significant role in Indonesian architecture and cultural identity.

The Borobudur Temple Compounds is located in Kedu Valley in central Java, approximately 26 miles northwest of Yogyakarta and over 50 miles west of Surakarta. The temple sits between two volcanoes — Mt. Sundoro-Sumbing and Mt. Merbabu-Merapi and two rivers — Progo and Elo. It is also situated close to two other Buddhist temples in the Kedu Plain: Pawon and Mendut. Borobudur sits on a bedrock that is located 869 feet above sea level.

History

The Borobudur Temple Compounds is one of the most significant Buddhist monuments in the world. The circumstances around the period in which the Javanese built Borobudur remain a mystery. No records exist regarding its construction or purpose. However, many believe it was built in the 8th and 9th centuries during the Sailendra Dynasty. Archaeological and scholarly experts agree that Borobudur’s construction ended around 800-825 CE, and many believe that King Samaratungga oversaw the temple’s construction.

There have been disagreements between modern historians about the political and cultural events that led to Borobudhur’s construction. Some historians suggest that the Sanjaya dynasty began constructing a Hindu temple in the area around 775 CE. However, they may have been driven from the site by the Sailendra dynasty and unable to finish the temple. Some Javanese historians believe the Sailendra and Sanjaya dynasties are the same family and that religious support changed due to personal beliefs.

The real cause for the abandonment of Borobudur is unclear, and the reasons for its abandonment remain unknown, but there are several theories. Some theorize that volcanic eruptions in the area caused the Mataram Kingdom to move its capital away from Borobudur in the 10th or 11th century, which may have decreased the temple’s religious significance. Furthermore, the arrival of Islam in the 9th and 10th centuries and the rapid conversion to the religion in the 15th century may have diminished Borobudur’s importance to the Javanese who converted to Islam. In addition, centuries of volcanic eruption and rainforest growth, among other natural events, may have caused the temple to become inaccessible.

For centuries, volcanic ash and overgrown vegetation covered the temple until the Englishman Thomas Stamford Raffles organized an expedition to rediscover it in 1814. After its rediscovery, the site became a hotspot for research and archaeological investigations.

There were several attempts to restore Borobudur. The first restoration took place from 1907 to 1911, and the second restoration was completed by 1983. In 1968, Indonesia and the United Nations worked to launch a campaign to restore Borobudur, and over the next 15 years, $20 million was raised to support the plan. After massive efforts to reclaim statues and return stones, Borobudur was cleaned, rebuilt, and reopened to the public.

Architecture
Borobudur temple stupas
Stupas at Borobudur Temple.

The Borobudur Temple Compounds was built with roughly 2 million cubic feet of gray volcanic stone. It was also made without using any cement or mortar and constructed by interlocking blocks. There are approximately 1.6 million blocks of volcanic rock used to create the temple compound. It resembles a stepped pyramid with three levels — a square base, a middle level, and an upper level. There are five square terraces on the middle level and three circular terraces on the upper level.

The Borobudur’s design is in Gupta architecture and reflects India’s influence on the region while also incorporating indigenous Indonesian elements. The monument has the largest number of Buddhist sculptures of any single site in the world. There are statues of the Buddha on 72 openwork stupas, which surround the circular platforms. Stupas are commemorative mounds in Buddhism that typically have holy relics.

The site consists of the Borobudur Temple and two smaller temples located east — the Mendut Temple and Pawon Temple. All three temples symbolize the path to attaining Nirvana, with the Mendut Temple containing a giant sculpture of Buddha surrounded by two bodhisattvas.
Spiritual Significance
Buddha statue at Borobudur
A Buddha statue at the Borobudur Temple Compound.

The Borobudur Temple Compounds resemble a lotus, which is the sacred flower of Buddha. A bodhisattva has to go through 10 stages before reaching Buddhahood. The 10 mounting terraces symbolize these stages. Borobudur was built to resemble a three-dimensional mandala, which is a diagram of the cosmos used for meditation, and a symbol of the universe.

Detailed relief sculptures convey a physical and spiritual journey to help guide people towards higher states of consciousness. These sculptures recount the Buddha’s teachings, his past lives, and stories from Buddhist scriptures. At the top of the temple lies a large central stupa, which symbolizes the enlightened mind.

Every level represents a stage towards enlightenment. To embark on this spiritual journey, an individual starts at the eastern stairways and walks clockwise around each of the monument’s nine levels before reaching the top, which in total equals a distance of three miles. Each level represents a higher plane of consciousness.
Kamadhatu (the realm of feeling)

The lowest level, which is partially hidden, is the structure’s base and contains hundreds of reliefs of earthly desires and the law of cause and effect. It showcases human behaviors such as robbing, torture, and killing. This level is the lowest realm of the Buddhist universe.
Rupadhatu (the realm of form)

The next level is five square terraces that contain a series of reliefs carved along four galleries that showcase the specific life events of the Buddha and scenes from his previous lives. On these levels, there are 328 Buddha statues and 1,212 decorative panels.
Arupadhatu (the realm of formlessness)

The upper level, which has three circular terraces leading to a central stupa, represents the detachment from the physical world and rising above the earth. It has very little decoration and is less ornate, signifying purity. There are 72 bell-shaped stupas lining the terraces, many of which contain a statue of the Buddha.
Threats
Borobudur tourists
The high traffic footfall is a threat to the World Heritage Site.

Today, Borobudur is a popular tourist destination and the site of Buddhist pilgrimage. However, environmental and security issues and the high volume of foot traffic due to tourism are threats to the site. The temple compound lacks any control of commercial activities and lacks an adequate tourism management strategy.

The plants that had covered Borobudur for years also protected it from extreme weather. The restoration cleared this vegetation and exposed Borobudur to Java’s harsh temperatures and weather conditions. As a result, Borobudur experienced more damage throughout most of the 19th century than the thousand years before. The building stone is deteriorating at a growing rate.

The Borobudur Temple Compounds is a UNESCO World Heritage Site of spiritual significance to the Buddhist religion and was designed as a three-dimensional path to enlightenment. Many experts believe it was built in the 8th and 9th centuries and abandoned for centuries before its rediscovery in 1814. It has experienced damage due to the elements, and the increase in tourism remains a significant threat to the monument.

ASI expert claims discovery of two lost vajrasanas in Bodhgaya

Different emperors and kings had down the centuries installed three so-called diamond thrones or enlightenment thrones under the famous Bodhi (peepal) tree

An Archaeological Survey of India expert has claimed to have discovered the two lost vajrasanas or “diamond thrones” of the Buddha in Bodhgaya, one lying broken and unnoticed in the Mahabodhi Temple compound and the other installed in a nearby Hindu shrine.

Different emperors and kings had down the centuries installed three so-called diamond thrones or enlightenment thrones — stone slabs with intricate engravings — under the famous Bodhi (peepal) tree in Bodhgaya to mark the Buddha’s attainment of enlightenment at the spot.

All three were treated as symbolic relics of the Buddha and together formed a focal point for prayers.

Currently, only the first of them — built by Emperor Ashoka around 260 BC — is installed there while the other two have been missing for over a century. The Kushanas are believed to have installed the second throne in the first or second century AD while there’s some dispute over who built the third, which was installed in the seventh century AD.

By the time Alexander Cunningham, the first director-general of the ASI, began excavations at the Mahabodhi Temple in 1880-81, all three had gone missing from under the Bodhi tree.

Cunningham found them underground during his excavations and reinstalled the one Ashoka had built under the Bodhi tree. What happened to the other two remained a mystery until Shanker Sharma, ASI assistant superintending archaeologist who is in charge of the archaeological museum at Bodh Gaya, claimed to have found them.

Sharma told The Telegraph he had stumbled on what he believes are the two missing thrones in February this year, but the second wave of the pandemic soon closed the temple and prevented verification by independent experts.

Following the reopening of the Mahabodhi Temple in end-August, Sharma has sent invites to archaeologists and historians specialising in Buddhist matters to come and see the two purported vajrasanas he has found.

He is also preparing a report for his ASI seniors and will be presenting his findings at the 20th annual conference of the Indian Society for Buddhist Studies, to be held from October 1 to October 3 in Nalanda.

“I was going through Cunningham’s excavation records. While he discovered all three vajrasanas and reinstalled the one that belonged to Ashoka’s time, the other two simply fell off the radar and were forgotten,” Sharma told this newspaper. “This got me thinking about their whereabouts.”

He consulted Cunningham’s excavation records, Buddhist texts and the travelogues of Chinese pilgrims Fa Hien or Faxian (AD 399-414) and Hiuen Tsang or Xuanzang (AD 637) for descriptions of the thrones and started scouting for them in and around the Mahabodhi Temple.

He says he found the Kushan-era throne “at the Vageshwari Devi (Saraswati) temple, located to the east of the Mahabodhi Temple”.

“It’s worshipped by the Hindus and matches the descriptions found in excavation records and travelogues,” Sharma said.

“It was carved out of grey stone and is largely intact with some signs of weathering and possible marks of vandalism. It’s circular, with a 173cm diameter and a thickness of 21cm.”

The third vajrasana too was made of grey stone. Sharma says he found it abandoned under a tree inside the Mahabodhi Temple complex, bearing signs of vandalism and exposed to the forces of nature that have obliterated the intricate designs on it.

“Nearly half of it is broken. The part that remains is 146cm long, 68cm wide and 16cm thick,” Sharma said.

The carvings on the second and third thrones included those of lotus petals, other flowers, creepers, vajra (thunderbolt), animals as well as geometrical shapes, dumbbells, concentric garlands, scrolls and pillars. All these have a tradition of being used in Buddhist art and architecture.

The Ashoka-installed throne is a rectangular one made of red sandstone and is engraved with geometrical

designs including diamond shapes. It is 7 feet and 6 inches long, and 4 feet and 10 inches wide.

“They are among the most sacred objects of worship in Buddhism. If they are stolen or damaged, it would be a big loss to the nation,” Sharma said, adding that they should be “immediately moved to safety”.

Mahabodhi Temple head priest Bhikku Chalinda said the Ashoka-built vajrasana predated the shrine and was the centre of attraction for pilgrims.

Asked about the discovery of the two other vajrasanas, Chalinda said: “Archaeologists are saying this. One of them is at a nearby temple, which is not under our authority. The other is under a tree inside our temple compound. We’ll decide in a few days what to do with it.”

He said there was no decision yet on retrieving the other throne from the Hindu temple.

“The discovery of the two vajrasanas is very important. Now that Shanker Sharma had brought them to light, there will be discussions and further research on them,” Anant Singh, a professor at the School of Buddhist Studies, Nalanda University, said.

1,600-year-old Buddha statue’s feet restored in NW China

The restoration of the feet of a 1,600-year-old stone Buddha in Tianti Mountain Grottoes has been completed.

The Buddha statue of the site’s No.13 grotto in northwest China’s Gansu Province was built on fragile red sandstone beside a reservoir. Years of water seepage and weathering damaged parts of the statue, including the feet.

The restoration project was launched in May 2020 by Dunhuang Academy, a national research institute established to protect the renowned UNESCO world heritage site of the Mogao Caves.

The most difficult part to repair was the feet, which had suffered severe water damage, Qiao Hai from the Dunhuang Academy said.

Workers drained water from the floor and rocks surrounding the stone Buddha, removed loose rock chunks, figured out the original size and features of the badly damaged feet, and brought it back to its former glory, according to Qiao.

The project can help protect the foundation of the historic statue and restore its overall integrity, Qiao said.

Some of China’s oldest, the Tianti Mountain Grottoes are often referred to as the “ancestor of grottoes” in the Chinese academic world. The grottoes were first built in the Eastern Jin Dynasty (317-420) and are under state-level protection.

Asian Art Museum in US explores Korean culture through portraits

1992.203.d

The Asian Art Museum in San Francisco is showcasing the first major exhibition of Korean portraits from past to present, exploring the identity and legacy of Korean history and culture.

Titled “Likeness and Legacy in Korean Portraiture,” the exhibition kicks off on Friday and runs through Nov. 29, featuring a variety of Korean portraitists from the Joseon era (1392-1910) to works reflecting today’s selfie culture.

“What makes Likeness and Legacy unique is that we move beyond a specific moment in time to pair the traditional draft paintings with a selection of finished portraits on silk as well as contemporary approaches to portraiture by Korean and Korean American artists,” said Hyonjeong Kim Han, associate curator of Korean art at the Asian Art Museum.

“This allows visitors to understand how the role of portraiture has evolved in establishing identity and legacy, and to see how portraits navigate the shifting boundaries between the individual and the collective, especially in the larger context of Korean culture and recent history,” she added.

The highlight of the exhibition is a series of portraits of “bunmu” — which refers to renowned military — from the Joseon era. The portraits were initially commissioned in 1728 by King Yeongjo as a reward for quelling an armed rebellion that threatened the young regime.

The set of eight drafts presented at the exhibition are the works of an additional series of portraits of the original sitters recommissioned in 1751. The portraits of bunmu officials still alive in 1751, which show them at a later stage in life, is in stark contrast with those of the officials who had already passed away, as they could only be drawn based on the initial portraits in 1728.

The portraits are valuable works in Korean art history as they show the astonishing level of precision of official Korean portraiture under the influence of Confucian ideals, capturing and reflecting the sitters’ personalities with individualized and incredibly detailed facial expressions.

Works by Korea’s renowned contemporary artists including Yun Suk-nam and Suh Do-ho are also part of the exhibition. Suh’s photographic prints “High School Uni – Face: Boy” and “High School Uni – Face: Girl” are layered composites of student portraits taken from yearbooks in the decade before strict dress codes were relaxed.

The two students in the photographic prints appear to be a standardized appearance of a typical student at the time. Suh aimed to express the pressures of conformity in Korea’s educational system.

Self-taught painter Yun Suk-nam has been a formative presence in Korea’s art scene since the 1980s, creating art that advocates women’s rights. Using her imagination, Yun painted portraits of female activists in Korean history who have long been neglected by historians and did not leave behind any official portraits.

Yun presented portraits of 16th-century female poets Heo Nanseolheon (1563–1589) and Yi Mae-chang (1573–1610) at the exhibition, creating intimate renderings that project the inner power of these no longer forgotten women.

The exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue published by the Asian Art Museum featuring original research and essays from Hyonjeong Kim Han, Soomi Lee, Kyungku Lee, and Robyn Asleson. The softcover catalogue can be ordered online through the museum’s online store.