From a journey in summer 1971. An excerpt from Veena’s book, A Vanished Road.
Kabul was nothing special except that there were a lot more western travellers to talk to and some quite decent restaurants. But our goal was not to hang out in the comparative civilisation of the town but to journey into the mountains north west of there to visit the small village of Bamiyan which we had heard a lot about. Another night journey in a much older, very dilapidated bus, jammed in between locals, goats, dogs, chickens and other paraphernalia gave us an unexpected glimpse of another facet of Afghanistan – the nomadic Kuchis.
Labouring up a narrow mountainous dirt road the bus pulled over and came to a stop. The stars were so bright that we could see a little of the road and hillside but the view through the window was suddenly obscured by what seemed to be a camel walking by. Then another followed. Experience dictated that any stop was a potential pee break and as a few of the other passengers started to get out of the bus, we followed.
Stepping down from the bus we immediately found ourselves in the middle of a convoy of camels, goats, sheep, donkeys and horses bearing huge loads of luggage – which we later found out were the tents and sundry goods and chattels belonging to the Kuchi nomads who constantly travelled the land. Some people were sitting on the camels but most seemed to be walking. They were, however dead silent except for the movement of the animals and I can’t begin to describe what an eerie surreal experience it was to watch these ghostly apparitions as they passed by, looking neither left nor right. It took almost half an hour for the convoy to pass. I had heard of these nomads and hoped dearly for another chance to see them more closely and in daylight.
As the sun rose the next morning the bus stopped at a tea shop which was no more than a big tent obviously made from animal hides and we stiffly descended and drank some of the hot tea, so strong it gave a welcome jolt to the system. Like most of the other tea places we had been to, the routine involved taking off your shoes and climbing onto a high platform covered with carpets in rich colours. This time the novelty was that there were two women serving and they wore different, almost gypsy-like, clothes with no burkas. There were a few women in the bus with us and at this stop they removed their burkas too. Perhaps so far from civilisation they had no fear of prosecution. I was happy to see their strong-featured faces revealed and immediately tried to greet them with my one Afghani word of ‘hello’.
In all my meetings with the Afghani people I was always struck by what I can only call ‘their nobleness’. They would look one straight in the eye with neither fear nor obsequiousness and give a grave acknowledgement of your presence without being overtly friendly. I loved this demeanour. The women serving tea were no different; they responded to my overtures with a kind of noble grace but kept their distance. Attempts to beg or gain from me were never made – so different to the ignoble Pakistanis and Indians I was later to meet.
We noticed a few men climbing on to the roof of the bus and thought this would be a great idea as we did not have much of a view of the country crammed inside. I felt a bit like I was riding on the prow of a ship as I sat up there with a now unrestricted view of the rugged terrain. After a few hours we started to descend into a valley and soon green trees and shrubs coloured the view. We knew we were approaching Bamiyan which was an important stop on the ancient silk route because of the presence of water.
Very soon we saw what we had come to see: the Bamiyan Buddhas, carved into the face of cliffs.
‘Until the 11th century, Bamiyan was part of the kingdom of Gandhara. It was the site of several Buddhist monasteries, and a thriving centre for religion, philosophy, and Indian art. It was a Buddhist religious site from the 2nd century up to the time of the Islamic invasion in the 9th century. Monks at the monasteries lived as hermits in small caves carved into the side of the Bamiyan cliffs. Many of these monks embellished their caves with religious statuary and elaborate, brightly-coloured frescoes.
“The two most prominent statues were the giant standing Buddhas Vairocana and Sakyamuni, identified by the different mudras performed, measuring 55 and 37 metres (180 and 121 feet) high respectively. Before being blown up in 2001 they were the largest examples of standing Buddha carvings in the world… The smaller of the statues was built between 544 and 595; the larger was built between 591 and 644. They are believed to have been built by the Kushans, with the guidance of local Buddhist monks, at the heyday of their empire.”
[…] The sight of those Buddhas was simply extraordinary. Their grandeur, their size, their position, their age and the history that they represented was almost too much to take in. We stood dumbfounded and humbled at such splendour and enormous antiquity.
The deliberate destruction by the Taliban of the statues in 2001 must count as one of the greatest cultural crimes in the history of humanity. The statues profoundly affected me so I was devastated when I heard of this horrendous act.
Bamiyan at that time saw only a few western hippies so there was no accommodation available except in the homes of private families. We had been told that once we arrived the locals would come up to us and offer rooms in their houses – and this was indeed the case. After only a few minutes of getting off the bus a man came up to us and said, ’Room?’ and grinned with pride at his English proficiency! When we nodded in agreement he took us to his house which was almost in the centre of the small settlement. Bamiyan at this time was just a large village, certainly not a town.
The man introduced himself as Sikkendoah (my spelling). Perhaps he was an important man in the village because he lived in a comparatively large compound consisting of a big house, built of mud and clay, with a walled garden. He was definitely the best-looking Afghani we had met – and most of them were very good-looking! His wife had a veil over the lower half of her face but her grey-green eyes were beautiful and the two young children were gorgeous. Prices were negotiated and we sat down to the inevitable cup of tea, pleased to be welcomed by genial people and housed in relative comfort. They didn’t seem to find it strange that we were two men and one woman in a room. I guess they had already accepted western hippie ways.
After tea, Sikkendoah took us outside to proudly show us his garden which must have been about forty by forty metres. It only took us only a few seconds to realise that his whole crop was hemp i.e. hashish or cannabis! We had to grin at his obvious delight at our surprise but I thought he was going to be disappointed in that he had unusually hosted some people who were not much into his carefully tended plants and its products. We indicated that later would be a better time to discuss this as our overriding desire was not to get stoned but to get closer to the Buddhas.
He helpfully guided us to the feet of the biggest Buddha, showed us an opening with some stairs on the side and started climbing. It was amazing! The stairs led up to different levels which were like landings with caves forming rooms leading off them. Only much later did I learn that Buddhist monks had lived here for centuries. Finally we came out onto a landing level with the shoulder of the Buddha. A plank reaching from the landing to the shoulder had been laid and Sikkendoah nimbly crossed it and held out his hand to help us. Within seconds we were standing on the shoulder of the Buddha, holding on to his ear, and surveying the whole valley and the mountains beyond.
After sitting silently there for about an hour we realised we were pretty tired and hungry and so returned to our new lodgings to have a nap. This room was also unfurnished so again our beds were our sleeping bags with the backpacks for pillows. After a walk in the evening, enjoying the views of the Buddhas and sitting next to a small lake which provided the water for the area as there was no river, we returned to the house where Sikkendoah was insistent that we partake of his garden wares. A few puffs were more than enough – the stuff was pure and therefore very strong – to send us into a very deep sleep.