Time check

Reconstructing the shared past that struggles to show itself in AfghanistanJyoti Atwal Delhi Sometime in March 2001, two giant Buddhas carved into a cliff centuries ago were destroyed at Bamiyan, Afghanistan. At 53 metres (175 feet) and 36 metres (120 feet), the statues were the tallest standing Buddhas in the world. Blasting them was no easy task, earning the Taliban the dubious distinction of being engaged in one of the most violent acts of repudiation of the past in contemporary times. The footage filmed by the Taliban was shown repeatedly around the world on TV sets by a shocked media. Though dramatic, it was by no means the first destruction of Afghanistan’s historical legacy. Before this incident, the anti-Soviet war and factional wars had destroyed much of the archaeological sites and monuments of Afghanistan’s Islamic and non-Islamic heritage. During the factional wars between 1992 and 1996, two rockets were accurately aimed at the Kabul Museum at Darulaman near Kabul that had been established in 1931. Much of its rich Central Asian collection, spanning over thousands of years, was damaged or irretrievably destroyed. Items such as ceramics, glass, gold and wines were shipped eastwards from Rome and Alexandria and in return there was a westward movement of ivories, spices and gems from India and silks from the Han dynasty. According to the curator of the museum, there must have been specialists showing the mujahidin what to rob. There were thousands of books in the museum library. Most of the mujahidin could not read; yet all the books with illustrations of the museum’s best pieces were looted. The museum also lost the precious Bagram treasure of the Kushan dynasty, which was unearthed by the French archaeologists in 1939. Lack of stability and the presence of the drug war lords in Eastern Afghanistan proved devastating for Hadda, near Jalalabad in the east. It had thousands of stone and stucco Buddhist stupas, which were all destroyed after the Russian bombing  the 1980s when they were hunting for mujahidin hiding there. Beyond repair, this damage has been done forever.The print media in and outside Afghanistan has been reflecting on the lack of a “national” consciousness amongst the Afghans, who are a collection of tribes. Notions of an Afghan identity are germinating in the religious-cultural domain rather than the political one. The Bamiyan incident projected Taliban’s systemic promotion of a monolithic view of history by eroding the non-Islamic symbols of Afghanistan’s past. The Persian, Sino-Siberian, Hellenistic, Roman, Indian, Turkish, Arab and Mongolian presence in this region makes Afghanistan’s past a shared past rather than just an Islamic one. At present, Afghan authorities in collaboration with foreign experts and agencies are making efforts to restore and reconstruct this shared historical legacy. There are many challenges to this restoration. Bamiyan in 2003 was declared as a World Heritage Site, the issue of rebuilding is being debated at present. The question of ensuring security of the restoration crew remains on the top. In 2002, at a conference in Kabul the Afghan authorities along with the UNESCO decided that rebuilding was not a priority and the task would involve US$ 30-50 million. The director of the Bibiotheca Afghanica museum in Switzerland has been arguing in favour of reconstruction. Nancy Dupree, an authority on cultural history of Afghanistan, has apprehensions that the Bamiyan Buddhas will become a “fun park” after reconstruction. Tourists flock into Bamiyan in any case. Besides the availability funds for reconstruction, the ethical debate is still on.    An interesting 2nd century AD Buddhist possession of Kabul Museum is a huge black marble bowl known as the “Buddha’s begging bowl”. It stands as a contradistinction to Taliban’s reading of history. It was found at the shrine of Sultan Mir Wais Baba in the old city of Kandahar in 1925. It has a lotus pattern carved on the underside. In the period between AD 1490 and 1500 two Islamic inscriptions were carved on this bowl. The first one says that the bowl was used for serving sherbet to Muslim pilgrims and the other one carried the lists of rules and regulation of Kandahar Madrassa. It is amazing to note that this bowl was not destroyed or insulted by its successive Muslim users, but kept reserved for sacred use. All this restored evidence is throwing up a challenge to an average Afghan to evolve a dialogue between the Islamic self and the shared past that will design the Afghan identity and nation.            Then there is the restoration of the Nuristan collection. Nuristan or the “land of light” has a partially densely wooded landscape in the north-east of Afghanistan bordering Pakistan to the east and the Panjshir valley to the west. This pre-Islamic civilisation in the Hindukush decayed only 108 years ago. It was known as Kafiristan (land of the kafirs or non-believers) before its conversion to Islam at the turn of the 19th century. In 2001, most of the figurative items in wood were chopped up by the Taliban. The Afghan Museum staff with help from Austrian-Afghan Society was able to restore these broken figures. The collection, however, continues to be addressed as “Kafir Culture Collection”.  One of the most important remains from the Kushan period in Afghanistan is Kanishka’s magnificent acropolis at Surkh Kotal, north of Hindukush. From the same place, some limestone inscriptions in Greek script have been unearthed dating to the 2nd century. In ancient Herat, towards western Afghanistan, no excavation had ever taken place before 2005. In 2005, the German Archaeological Institute and Delegation Archeologique en Afghanistan started an archaeological project to investigate pre-Timurid Herat. In the first 2.5m of deposits, levels from 19th to 15th centuries were uncovered. Kohandaz, a mounded area towards north of Heart, has revealed a large cemetery and fortification around two Timurid shrines. This dates back to the 12th and 13th centuries.Some of the restored paintings of the early 20th century in the National Art Gallery in Kabul represent Afghan women without the customary chadar or parda. These are paintings of some of the most important Afghan painters during the period of Doud. He had declared the parda invalid, with extremely limited success. Women have been central in the process of culturally- politically representing an Afghan identity throughout history. The Taliban, during its rule, tore off some of these paintings, particularly the ones with female representations. At present these torn pieces have been exhibited too. This has put on record the insensitivity and intolerance that accompanied the rewriting of Afghani cultural past by a particular group. Not surprisingly, the representation of and reforms for Afghan women remain the most crucial parameter of Afghan identity.  India is engaged in Afghanistan in projects on hydroelectricity, construction of bridges, roads, dams, generation of human resource. US$ 20,000 was donated for the repair of Imam Hazrat Ali in Mazar-e-Sharif, north of Kabul. Hazrat Ali was the cousin and son-in-law of Prophet Mohammad and the fourth orthodox Caliph of Islam. Genghis Khan destroyed the original shrine and the present one dates from the 15th century.                  Even though reconstruction of this shared past has begun, Afghan and foreign experts believe that most of the preservation is in the hands of the local Afghans themselves. With rampant smuggling of artefacts, it is easy to sell a Kushan Buddha sculpture for more than half a million US dollars. The instability of the Karzai government; its failure to deliver stability; the poppy warlords’ funding the militia in Jalalabad and Kandahar have all forced the reconstruction and restoration work to go cautiously slow. Given the complicated socio-political matrix of Afghanistan, the re-reading of its past will perhaps be contentious and will go through various transitory phases. _______________________________________________________________The author, assistant professor, Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, is just back from Afghanistan