I vividly remember balancing in a bitter wind on the head of the tallest standing Buddha in the world.
The 175-foot climb to the top of the stone Buddha was long and arduous, leading around the back and sometimes into the depths of the vast statue. Emerging at the top, I found myself standing on a platform the size of an average bedroom. Carved like a vertical mummy out of the rock of the 8,000 ft high valley of Bamiyan in Afghanistan, this Buddha was higher than the Statue of Liberty. Up there on the ushnisha, or top-knot, there was no protection from railings or viewing windows.
Though the drop was giddying, the sight of the distant snow-covered peaks of the Hindukush kept me steady. A little closer, the smooth silver-gray flanks of the Koh-i-Baba Mountains descended in tucks and folds resembling rows of giant elephants’ feet. In the pearly evening half-light, the scene stood out eerie and luminous as a photographic negative. Below, the fertile Bamiyan valley spread out in tender shades of pink and green.
This was a high point of my journey from England to India. It was also the strangest point:
A passage wound around the Buddha’s stately head, and one of the corridors inside the rock led out to the shoulder, where I leaned beneath a long, bell-shaped ear. This was more reassuring territory. Though there was no face–the Buddhas were mutilated during Muslim purges centuries ago–I had seen from below that the noble standing figure expressed a deep serenity and heroic steadfastness.
Not far away another Buddha, 120 feet high, stood carved out of the same expanse of sandstone, red-gold in the fitful sun that was emerging suddenly over the valley. These were acts of devotion in a culture where belief was still unchallenged, and long before the images of Brahman gods started to grow more popular in this part of the world.
Around the fifth century when these Buddhas were created, Bamiyan was a celebrated center of Buddhist culture. It also became a major trading point on the silk route, which seemed logical when I looked at the Hindu Kush, curving northwest towards the borders of Russia, China, and Kashmir. Now the valley looked almost deserted. Edging it and stretching far in each direction were hundreds of deserted caves, burrowing and honeycombing through the rocks. Peering down, I could make out several small Buddhas, the carved roof of a shrine, and the faint distinct colors of ancient frescoes. I had read that Hsuan-Tsang, a Chinese priest, came to Bamiyan in the year 632, the same year that Mohammad died at Medina. “There are more than 10 monasteries and more than a thousand priests,” he wrote in his book, Travels in Western Countries.More recent counts have estimated the caves at 20,000, far outnumbering the human population of Bamiyan today.
When I turned around, a few feet away from me in the sloping rock around the Buddha’s head, were the remains of more frescoes. Mutilated like the carvings, their remnants flaking with age and neglect, they were still magnificent. Painted predominantly in sienna, umber, vermilion and a faded lapis blue, they seemed as much a feat of engineering as of art. The physical difficulty of painting at this height and on a concave rock face brought to mind Michelangelo’s labors in the Sistine Chapel. That was a thousand years later.
The painters of the frescoes must have endured capricious weather too. As I stood transfixed, a sudden gust of wind pushed me viciously back towards the painted wall. Watching the frescoes fade, I realized I was alone on Buddha’s head, the sky growing rapidly darker and the wind stronger.
I peered down, trying to locate our little guesthouse. Two figures wearing pointed hats and fur coats, precariously balanced on bucking horses, shot out of the walls of the guesthouse compound like wasps shaken out of a ripe apple. Speeding up the sloping valley towards the stern wall of mountains, they quickly disappeared into the vastness. Their sudden rush made me aware of a terrible icy stillness where I stood. Mists were beginning to swirl into the valley, but I’d been so transfixed by what I saw, I hadn’t even realized my traveling companions, with whom I’d climbed up here, had disappeared. What’s worse, our guide had mislaid me.
As clouds closed over the velvet folds of the Koh-i-Baba, I felt a small rush of panic. The sky was blackening ominously as I shrank behind the great head and started to descend, fighting to keep my foothold while rapid gusts battered my face and body. Scurrying down the worn steps inside the great Buddha, I heard the dull tread of footsteps coming up. For a moment, I felt pure fear. But suddenly, our guide, who was also the clerk at the only bank for over 100 miles, appeared in front of me. I was never so grateful to see someone who was hardly more than a stranger. Grasping me firmly by the hand and elbow, with a look of sacrificial devotion on his face, he led me back down the Buddha.
The next morning, after a night of fitful sleep with little to distract but cockroaches scurrying from the light of the single, flickering light bulb, we were up at seven o’clock, preparing to depart. The weather was dour, and though the Buddhas were remarkable, they seemed forbidding. Aggressive icy gusts coming straight off the wall of mountains seemed designed to push us directly back to Kabul.
On the way, we passed again the dead red city of Zohak, where Genghis Khan was reputed to have murdered all the men, women, and children after his grandson had been killed laying siege to the fortress. On the plains, life started to appear, even people we recognized from the road up to Bamiyan–the remnants of a wedding, nomad girls with rosy cheeks and shiny black plaits, shinning up trees. The old man with withered hand stares at us with the same expression of astonishment, as if we were passing him minutes, not days, later. Children come rushing out of their threadbare tents to watch us pass again in the lurching Land Rover, though the suspicion is unchanged in the dark eyes of their mother as she cooks broodingly by the fire.
Kabul, dirty, deceptive, rowdy, was almost a relief. After that it was onward to the Khyber pass, Peshawar, and India.