Monday, 23 September 2013

The Buddhas of Bamiyan

In 1939 Annemarie Schwarzenbach and Ella Maillart travelled in a Ford car across Europe and much of Asia, through Turkey, Iran, and the deserts and mountains of Afghanistan. Travel with someone is a true test of relationships, so it is said, and their partnership was certainly tested. They were both Swiss citizens (though their first languages were different) and were both people who deeply questioned life, its purposes and meanings, particularly in the times they were living then, with the rise of Fascism in Europe, which was on the brink of war. They shared a love of geographical exploration too, of adventure, travel and risk taking. And they were both writers. But in many ways their personalities could not have been more different.

Ella's adventurousness and risk taking was tempered with an instinct for survival. She had a clear goal in mind – to leave the practical hazards and the emotional upheavals of Europe at war behind, and to go to India to study spiritual philosophy and meditation with an Indian master and guide. Annemarie was looking for an emotional homeland 'the promised land', did not know where, either geographically or psychologically, she might find it. Her desire was so intense that she followed it, heedless of danger.

Caution or calculation were never her companions. The emotional topography she experienced had a wide range, from sublime exaltation to barren wastes of utter isolation. Language, the task of putting experience into words, was a necessity for her. (Wirklich, ich lebe nur, wenn ich schreibe; I only really live when I am writing).

Her output in her short life was incredibly prolific. In her books of travel writing and poetry she reveals her emotions and soul-searching, her challenges, her sense of quest, the pitfalls and the joys of life and landscape; her short stories and novels too, are often drawn from her own experience, dipped in that particular sense of the dépaysé experienced by all travellers, along with a mixture of melancholia and nostalgia that can arise in any unfamiliar place where you feel far from home and the solitary nature of existence presses round you like a border, complete with guards and uniformed officials, unyielding and defining.

But she was also a photographer and journalist and in her travels through Europe, USA and Africa, she wrote many articles for newspapers, journals and magazines, illustrated with her own photographs. In these descriptions of people and places, her imagination seems to merge with whatever she encounters, highlights details, and weaves them into a picture that carries the signature of her own personal vision.

I've translated extracts from the article The Face of the Great Buddha, first published in Thurgauer Zeitung 18 May 1940.

Bread seller in Herat Afghanistan by Annemarie Schwarzenbach (1939) in Bleu immortel

The Face of the great Buddha

This colossus cut into the rocky cliff face is fifty-three metres high. A few steps of his huge feet would trample whole fields, the folds of his Greek tunic would unleash devastating winds, his hand could place a mighty weight on this valley which in former times lived and prospered under his eternal gaze, turned towards an inner bliss. No fewer than ten thousand monks lived in these caves – masters of wisdom and believers come from India, disciples, adepts and converted brothers from neighbouring Turkestan. Even the peasants of the valley and the nomads returning each summer to their high pastures enjoyed his divine protection and a heavenly peace.

This valley of Bamiyan, nestled at two thousand five hundred metres above sea level among the ethereal panorama of the Hindu Kush – Afghanistan's most important mountain range – in the past served aims both earthly and divine which focused on the satisfaction of accomplishing the daily tasks. The diligence of hands, piety of prayer, religious fervour, joyous activity; in the evenings, smoke from the low huts rose in a pencil straight blue line towards the sky, accompanied by the jingling sound of returning flocks and the monks' chants.

The large and the small Buddhas of Bamiyan – for there are two – are the work of man; the smaller measures thirty-five metres, the larger fifty-three. The Greco-Sassanid art united with Indian piety to produce this wonder: to decorate the gigantic niches with precious frescoes, to cut out of the rock the folds of their clothing and the gestures of blessing, to anchor the feet in the valley, and to secure the enormous heads, foreheads, chins and ear lobes with wooden pins. However, the divine and silent face, as if liberated, floated in ethereal cloud vapour, yet even without seeing it one could not help but worship it. This is how the cliff dominating the valley of Bamiyan would appear to the pilgrims and travellers come from far-off India, on the famous north route leading from Bactriane and central Asia: this cliff perforated by a thousand caves, places of holy fervour, populated by monks, overlooked by the gigantic statue of the Most Compassionate One.

But we have arrived too late. More than a thousand years ago, …...they attacked the Buddha's noble face with hammer blows; now it is as empty as the face of the moon and abominably robbed of expression.....

Bamiyan Buddha by Annemarie Schwarzenbach (1939) in Bleu immortel

But this night too will pass and soon come to an end, a new day will dawn, flawless, all powerful, borne on wings. Look at the light on the pile of fallen rocks: a stream of gold! And the flocks beginning to stir, the nomad women coming out of the tents, copper pots on their heads and the fields rippling in the cool morning breeze..... Here, the malediction has lost its power, the emperor has lost his title, the face has lost its sight – here, divine peace reigns.

Annemarie Schwarzenbach - Le Visage du Grand Bouddha

Nowadays of course, even the remains of the Buddha that Ella and Annemarie saw, have been destroyed. There is nothing left of them at all.
Bamiyan valley is a UNESCO World Heritage Site

This replica near Poznan in Poland, in the garden of the museum of Arkady Fiedler, prolific writer and traveller, was created as a tribute to the original, and shows us what the Great Buddha would have once looked like.

Great Buddha replica in garden of Arkady Fiedler museum, Puszczykowo, Poland

I've written here about discovering Ella Maillart's book The Cruel Way which led me to Annemarie's writing.

And this post is also about Annemarie and Ella, with images of them on their journey to Afghanistan. The novel I mention that she wrote in Africa has since been published by Chronos Verlag, titled Das Wunder des Baums


Forest Dream Weaver said...

Wonderful,thank you....
Images are so important,they complete the picture.
Sorry I've taken so long to comment..... this is my second visit,I needed more time to read it!


dritanje said...

Not at all, it is quite a lot of text to read, I know. We're lucky to have Annemarie's photos as now of course, there is nothing at all left of the Buddhas. Mxx

three sea horses said...

really enjoyed this, and left another comment on your blog about Annemarie.
an important loss, i mean maybe important to have records of it. Tx

dritanje said...

Yes, I'm glad we have records of it and I do like the smaller replica. The recent destruction was sad, but it wasn't the first, just more thorough than the first.
Thanks for all your comments! Mxx