DUSHANBE, Tajikistan – There are few more head-spinning experiences on the planet than being marooned in a remote Central Asian republic in the underbelly of the former USSR, waiting for a Russian military helicopter to take you to the “heart of Asia” (Afghanistan).
It is an exercise in patience and persistence not unlike the pilgrimage along the Silk Road – the mother of all trade routes – by the venerable monk Xuan Zhang, the foremost Chinese Buddhist of the 7th Century.
Xuan Zhang visited the land of the Tajiks almost 14 centuries ago. And also the land of the Afghans. He crossed the mighty river Oxus, deviated from the Samarkand-to-Balkh caravan route, crossed the Hindu Kush (the Snow Mountains), facing great hardship, and even saw the giant Buddhas sculpted on the rocks of Bamiyan in Afghanistan.
Islam at the time didn’t even exist. The valley of Kabul was pure India. The valley of Bamiyan had frescoes of Buddhas alongside Indian dancers – with their multilayered jewels and complex hand choreography. Faces evoked Persian paintings. The Buddhas posed like Apollonian statues. But Xuan Zhang couldn’t possibly know, at the time, that Bamiyan’s great Buddha (53 meters high), with his impeccable draperies, was basically an Hellenistic statue blown up to gigantic proportions. This was Greco-Buddhist art at its best – one of the most sublime historical fusions of East and West.
For monks like Xuan Zhang, the Silk Road was the Journey to the West – an odyssey as much as a moral fable. A pilgrimage, a quest, a rite of passage – the journey as revelation and salvation. Almost 14 centuries later, Balkh is in ruins, the Oxus (now the Amu Darya) is patrolled by Russian troops, the Bamiyan Buddhas have been blown up by the fanatical Taliban, and the only way to cross the Hindu Kush is by Russian helicopter. The helicopter was to come, eventually, after many close calls. Meanwhile, we had to do something. So we decided to look for the Buddha of Dushanbe.
Contrary to the words of the venerable Tang master Lin-chi (“In Buddhism there is no place for using effort”), to find the Buddha of Dushanbe we almost had to move a few sections of the Hindu Kush, with some of the Pamirs range thrown in for good measure. Most of the local citizens are indifferent to the fact that they now possess one of the most precious Buddhist relics of mankind. Fate – manifested through the Taliban’s barbarism – wanted that the destruction of the blind standing Buddhas of Bamiyan coincided with the “awakening” of their 5th Century contemporary, the sleeping Buddha of Dushanbe.
Actually, this reclining Buddha – now promoted to the status of the largest Buddha in Central Asia – was discovered by Soviet archeologists in 1966 in a monastery build under the kings of Kushan, now in southern Tajikistan, right on the legendary Silk Road. Xuan Zhang certainly saw the Buddha during his pilgrimage. But since 1966, it had been sleeping in the basement of a Dushanbe museum, dismembered into about 100 boxes. It was considered by the Soviets to be too big to be transported to its supposedly rightful place, the Hermitage in St Petersburg, the former Leningrad.
Credit for the restoration goes in great part to ACTED, a French NGO running many programs in Tajikistan and Afghanistan – from brick-making and shelter-building to road construction and wheat distribution. ACTED paid for an archeologist imported from the Hermitage, who spent three months in Dushanbe reassembling the Buddha.
All the action in Dushanbe takes place basically in one tree-lined boulevard, the Prospekt Rudaki (the Champs-Elysees it ain’t), where among some happy faces licking ice-cream it is possible to see the same old lady standing on the same spot, every day, all day long, contemplating the void and waiting for a handout of a fraction of somonis – the new currency. After a lot of walking about the Rudaki and a flurry of phone calls, we finally received help from a history major who guided us to the man who was theoretically responsible for the Buddha – Masov Rakhim Masovich, director of the Institute of History.
When we arrived at the institute, Masov was not there, and neither was the Buddha, it was at the soon-to-be inaugurated Museum of National Antiquities, where it will go on display in September. Nobody was able to locate the director of the Museum, Saidmurad Babamulloev.
When we arrived at the museum we were refused entry. After much misunderstanding we learned that Masov, by telephone, had a few minutes earlier forbidden the entrance of these “strangers,” even though we were duly accredited by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Tajikistan.
So it was back to the Institute of History, where we decided to wait and confront Masov – dubbed “Hitler” by his former students. A typical Soviet cement mind, the suspicious Masov finally deigned to say through an interpreter that the Buddha could not be shown to “foreigners” – it was a precious property of Tajikistan and all information about it would be released through “official channels.” Talk about an exclusive, Soviet-style. In his mind, Masov was the “owner” of a news item of worldwide interest, so nobody else had the right to see it or talk about it. Crouching Soviet, hidden Buddha.
In the end, we never saw the Buddha of Dushanbe – although we kept a mental image as consolation: the largest Buddha in Central Asia is reclining, with a smile, a few moments before his death and entering the hallowed state of nirvana. It is comforting to know that Xuan Zhang saw the statue, and was illuminated by it, as many of the millions of pilgrims along the Silk Road have.
Bamiyan was crucial to the dissemination of Buddhism through Central Asia and through China: when they destroyed the Bamiyan Buddhas, the Taliban may have destroyed one of the greatest cultural icons of pre-Islamic Central Asia – as the students at the Institute of History argue. But it is comforting to know that the Taliban will never be able to destroy the Buddha of Dushanbe.
Just a non-Buddhist afterthought, a question that a Western monkey-mind cannot help but pose – with “friends” such as Masov and his Soviet-style mind, does Tajikistan need enemies?