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When Buddhism flourished in Afghanistan

by Dr. K.D.G. Wimalaratne, Retired Director of Archives

Bamiyan Buddha statue

The whole Buddhist world was shocked on February 27, 2001 when the news broke out that Taliban had ordered all Buddha statues to be destroyed. UNESCO and other world bodies failed to convince the importance of the Bamiyan on Cultural heritage to the Taliban rulers.

The invasion of Alexander the Great and the rule of Greco-Bactrians for two centuries, the advent of Buddhism and the development of this religion brought into contact different people with their various culture, philosophy and religion, all of which combined resulted in the Greco-Buddhist culture and civilization of Afghanistan. Thus, the Greco-Buddhist art originated in Afghanistan was developed south of Hindu Kush upto the Sind river.

The Gandhara school of sculpture had its centre at Hadda, where its most beautiful specimens have been discovered.

According to the famous French Orientatist, the late Rene Grousset, Afghanistan was the principal propagator of Buddhist art and literature throughout Chinese Turkistan and even into China itself.

The Chinese records show us that the Yin-chi missionaries crossing the oasis of Gobi desert, found communities at Lo-Yang or Crossing over the sea as far as Annam, we know that these were the monks coming from Bulkh, from Begram or from Jalalabad (Hadda).

The arrows show how Buddhsit Missionaries travelled and took Buddhism in Gandhara then to South West, North and North East China.

Accordingly, the Afghan valley had been a centre for the dispersion of ideas and aesthetics of the Indo European world on the march towards the Far East. The influence of the frescos of Bamiyan and Kakrak was felt from the 4th to the 9th centuries, right into the heart of Chinese Turkistan, as far as Japan.

There is one common event in the history of Afghanistan and Sri Lanka. Circa 259 B.C and eleven years after Asoka came into the throne, a great assembly of learned monks was held at Pataliputra.

This assembly, which was presided over by the great Moggaliputta Tissa, decided to send missionaries North, South East and West to propagate the faith of the Buddha. The edit No. 5 of Asoka in Prakrit language refers to Kashmira Gandahara Majjantika and Maharakkita were too famous Buddhist missionaries who went to the region of Gandahara, ie Eastern Afghanistan and the North Western Province.

When East Afghanistan accepted Buddhism, thousands of Afghan missionaries left for the south west of Gandara to the Modern Kandaher (South Afghanistan) and to the north by crossing high mountains and snow bound valleys and enduring great physical hardships. Kapisa and Bamiyan became large centers of Buddhism and Buddhist culture.

At the beginning of the Christian era, a large part of Afghanistan was Buddhist and Afghan missionaries sought distant fields and horizon to propagate the teaching of the Buddha. In this way they not only went to Bulkh (North Afghanistan) but also to Jukhar (north-east Afghanistan) and further to Sinkiang (Chinese Turkistan) and China.

Afghanistan became a citadel of Buddhist faith and pilgrims came pouring over there from countries as far away as China.

In the 6th and 7th centuries Buddhism in Afghanistan began to show a decline. The missionary spirit was dying out and piety and righteousness were being forsaken.

In the 9th century, the people of West Afghanistan who adopted the Muslim religion coming into contact with the Arabs about a century earlier, came to occupy Eastern Afghanistan. The new religion began to give fresh spiritual strength to the country. The Muslim were on the march everywhere, but they did not use force nor did they destroy Buddhist shrines, and sculpture in Afghanistan.

However, the Buddhist art and sculpture of Afghanistan suffered at the hands of Chengezkan in the 13th century when he invaded that country. With it perished some of the precious heritage of Buddhist Culture.


The centers of Buddhist Culture in Afghanistan attracted tourists. Bamyan, the biggest of Afghanistan's historic and archaeological sites is situated 150 miles north-west of Kabul, between the snow-covered ranges of Kohibaba and Hindu Kush.

Thanks to its beauty, both natural and artistic, it was a most popular spot for tourists, historians and archaeologists from all over the world. The two gigantic status of the Buddha, 172 feet and 113 feet high, have been carved 400 yards apart from each other in the cliff.

These two colossal status standing in their riches and overlooking the beautiful green valley of Bamiyan below, also give a picture of the life of the period in murals and frescoes, sections of which existed on the walls of the recesses.

At the sides of these two statues there are two groups of very important cases, which constitutes the remnant of ancient Buddhist temples. The caves closer to the smaller statues, have more frescoes while those closer to the bigger one are more decorated in relief work.

A long valley called Kakrak stretches out to the east of the great statues and over here there is another statue 18 feet high, which is also surrounded by a group of caves. Frescos removed from some of these caves have been exhibited at the Kabul museum. Kakrak itself is one of the beautiful valleys of Bamyan.

North west of Bamiyan there is yet another attractive valley called Foladi. This lies at the foot of Kohibaba and is also the name of a pass at one point there. Here a group of Buddhist Grottoes were discovered in this valley, the walls and specially the ceilings of which are covered with very beautiful frescoes.


Six miles south of the city off Jalalabad, is a locality called Hadda, where the remnants of stupas of the Buddhist period may be found. During the pre-Islamic period, Hadda was one of the most important centers of Buddhism and of Greco-Buddhist art. About 23,000 statues were found in 1923 in one of the great temples, and number of these statues were removed to Kabul museum.

Bulkh, Kunda, Baghlan and Albak (Samanzan) have important ruins and excavations which have given good results were Kabul, at Begram and Tappa Maranjan etc. A place near Kabul, called Minar of Chakri, is supposed to have contained a Dharma Chakra. In 1958 a stone was discovered near Kandhahar which contained two texts, in Greek Aramain languages.

The Greek text have been translated, which is an edict of Asoka, the first one found in Greek script. This edict of Asoka enjoins, respect for parents, love of children, loving kindness and the purification of the mind. Although Afghanistan became Muslim in the 9th Century, according to the teaching of their religion, they respect piety and righteousness of the people of other faiths.

They believe that the simplicity and piety of Buddhist teachings have helped greatly in the spread of Islam in Afghanistan. That is why they had a great respect for the Buddhist rule and for the Buddhist period of history of their country. Accordingly, culture of Afghanistan was a blend of Greco-Buddhist and Islamic culture.

The history of Afghanistan is crowded with incessant wars against the enemies. The only consolation was the unique contribution to art and architecture. History repeats itself. Many cultures, civilizations, which were born, spread and flourished have perished or withered away. The last remnants of the Buddhist era and its culture in Afghanistan met the same fate.

The world has lost not only a brilliant piece of Buddhist art and architecture, but also a religion which gave Afghanistan, in the past, peace and tolerance and a way of life for its brave but creative people.

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