A Visit to the Buddhist Sites of Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and Kalmykia

The following post is by Benoy Behl, a world renowned photographer and art historian, who has over 31 years extensively photographed  monuments, paintings and other aspects of cultural history, creating an archive of over 35,000 high quality photographs. He is especially well-known for his pioneering low-light photography of ancient paintings, capturing their true and luminous colors more clearly than ever done before. His special area of interest is in works of the Buddhist period and this article documents his impressions while visiting some of those sites recently.

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It gives me pleasure to share my experiences in the last documentation tour, across Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and the Buddhist Province of Kalmykia in European Russia.

It is quite wonderful to see the way Indian philosophy spread in ancient times, right across the continent of Asia. There was a time when there was no country in South and South-East Asia, East Asia and Central Asia, where Indic deities, the Buddha, Shiva, Vishnu and others, were not revered.

It is sad that much of this history has been forgotten in recent times. One of my projects in recent years has been to document Buddhist sites all over the world. I had till last year photographed the Buddhist sites in Siberia, Mongolia, China, Tibet, Japan, Vietnam, Lao PDR, Indonesia, Myanmar, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan and in India.

In July-August this year, I and my colleagues Sanghamitra Ghosh and Sujata Chatterji had the pleasure of travelling across Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and the Buddhist Province of Kalmykia in European Russia, to document their Buddhist sites and art. I might mention that Kalmykia is the only part of Europe which has a Buddhist tradition, they claim for the past four hundred years. I carried out this journey on a Fellowship of the Maulana Abul Kalam Azad Institute of Asian Studies.

It was sad to stand at the Bamiyan site, to see the niches, where once the 6th century Buddhas had stood. These were called Brhad Buddhas in the Indic tradition. Larger- than-life figures began in Indian spiritual expression in the 5th century, as seen in the caves of Maharashtra. The tradition was spread across the faiths of Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism and this was an expression of the grandeur of the spirit within us.

As we stood before the vast or brhad image of the deity, who represented a quality within ourselves, we were awed by its grandeur and magnificence.  Worldly cares and other thoughts were dispelled, as the spirit was far greater than our material bodies or concerns of the world. From the 5th century onwards, this tradition spread all over India, including Kashmir and Ladakh, as well as further North to Afghanistan, China and other places.

Going further on the Silk Route, Uzbekistan had great sites of stupas and art which showed that it had been a great centre of Buddhism. Kalmykia, on a Northern branch of the Silk Route, is a place where Buddhism has been revived after Soviet times. It is just wonderful to see Ladakhi lamas teaching the reverential people of European Kalmykia. It was also fascinating to see that the few senior lamas of Kalmykia have all studied Buddhism in India. From ancient times till today, India continues as a cradle, where some of the finest philosophical thoughts of humankind are nurtured and taught.

The photography which was carried out will contribute to an exhibition which I look forward to preparing, on the Buddhist sites of the world. This is one of India’s great contributions to the culture of humankind.

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