NEW YORK -- The world watched in horror when Taliban forces destroyed the monumental Buddha statues in Bamiyan, Afghanistan in 2001. Political and cultural leaders from around the globe condemned the attacks. Offers of help poured in. Everyone asked: will the world be ready next time? Alas, the answer is a resounding “no.”
In northwest Pakistan’s Swat valley armed Islamist militants recently attacked one of the oldest and most important sculptures of Buddhist art. Dating from around the beginning of the Christian era, and carved into a 130-foot-high rock, the seated image of the Buddha was second in importance in South Asia only to the Bamiyan Buddhas.
This, moreover, was the second attack in less than a month. Murtaza Razvi of Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper has pointed out that the image that was attacked was not in a remote area. In fact, it was next to the central road that runs through the valley.
Despite repeated requests by Pakistani archeologists to the local authorities to protect the seated Buddha and other sites, especially after the first attack, no action was taken. In fact, militants were able to carry out their work – drilling holes in the rock, filling them with explosives, and detonating them – in broad daylight.
They did this not once, but twice. The first time, the image escaped heavy damage because of the militants’ incompetence. The second time, they were more successful, destroying not only the sculpture’s face, but also its shoulders and feet. As if that were not enough, there are now reports of a third attack.
In 1995, I traveled through the Swat valley to study the area’s Buddhist treasures. Carved in the cliff side or protected in small beautiful museums, these remarkable objects were the pride and joy of local Muslims, followers of the faith for more than a millennium. As a non-Muslim, Indian woman, I was able to travel through the region without any fear and received warm support from local residents. People of all stripes welcomed me, and were often willing to take me to important Buddhist sites.
Today, little over a decade later, the atmosphere is so poisoned that neither local community leaders nor the local police came forward to protect these monuments or claim them as their own. Even sadder is that while Pakistani newspapers widely condemned these attacks and criticized local officials’ indifference, there has been almost no coverage in the international press.