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COLUMN ONE

Seeking a Sleeping Giant

An archeologist returns to his native Afghanistan, hoping to find a Buddha statue even greater than two the Taliban destroyed.

August 25, 2004|Julie M. Bowles | Times Staff Writer

BAMIAN, Afghanistan — Archeologist Zemaryalai Tarzi can barely bring himself to look at the ravaged cliff face where two ancient Buddhas towered until the Taliban infamously blasted them to bits.

"For me, everything there is over," Tarzi says, pointing toward the heap of peach-colored dust and chunks of rock that used to be one of the massive statues. "It hurts my heart to go there and see what has been lost."

But the bespectacled scientist, who began his career in this sleepy valley in Afghanistan's central highlands more than 35 years ago, isn't letting the destruction get the best of him. He has turned his back on the cliff, stuck his trowel into the earth, and is on the hunt for a magnificent relic perhaps five times as large as the ones that incurred the Taliban's wrath: the long-lost sleeping Buddha of Bamian.

"We are digging," Tarzi says, "to find the greatest statue in the world."

It's hard to believe that the sculpture ever went missing. According to the writings of a Chinese pilgrim who reported seeing the reclining Buddha in AD 629, it stretched 1,000 feet.

Today, the pilgrim's brief, 1,375-year-old account remains the most detailed description of the sleeping Buddha. Probably constructed in the late 6th century, the statue hasn't been seen in hundreds of years. And even experts who believe the sculpture exists doubt it is -- or was -- more than three football fields long.

If Tarzi succeeds in locating it, the discovery will mean more than uncovering the largest known statue of Buddha. It could be a psychic balm and a financial boon for Afghanistan, easing a collective guilt over the Taliban's destructive acts and reviving Bamian's fortunes as the tourism capital of the nation.

Already, the town of about 40,000 has started picking up the pieces of its pulverized history and economy. Backpackers are trickling back to the grimy inns behind the newly constructed bazaar, built to replace one razed by the Taliban. Upscale foreign travelers are reserving $50-a-night yurts at the reopened state-run tourist hotel.

Japanese specialists have surveyed the area's famed cave artwork and are building an archeology research center. German experts have begun cataloging the massive chunks of the busted Buddhas as debate continues over whether and how to rebuild them. And ground will soon be broken on a museum.

But it is Tarzi's mission that perhaps has sparked the highest expectations.

"If the reclining Buddha is found," says Najaf Ali Ashana, general manager of the government-run Bamian Hotel, "Bamian will have its value again."

The quest for the reclining Buddha is unfolding in nine pits a few hundred yards east of where the smaller of the two cliff statues stood. Seventy local men, paid about $3 a day, are busy shoveling dirt into wheelbarrows, digging with hand tools and picking away at promising areas with brushes and small instruments that look borrowed from a dentist's office.

The excavation here began last summer and yielded several finds, the most significant being seven unbaked clay heads of Buddhist divinities, each about the size of a small melon. Tarzi believes that discovery confirms that he has found the so-called Eastern Monastery, where the pilgrim Xuanzang reported seeing the reclining Buddha.

The team has also found what seem to be several thick retaining walls. Though these could be for the monastery, Tarzi believes it is more likely that they belong to a huge covering that once shielded the sleeping Buddha.

"If you want to construct a wall that would support a massive structure, you would have to build it in this way," Tarzi says, calculating that if the statue was in fact 1,000 feet long -- the length of a 100-story building tipped on its side -- its dimensions would necessitate a covering at least 30 feet high.

Other large statues of Buddha in the parinirvana pose exist in Thailand, Sri Lanka and other countries, though none come close to 1,000 feet. Smaller ones have been found elsewhere in Afghanistan. The posture depicts Buddha at age 80, reclining on his deathbed on his right side with his head pointing north, and entering into a state of final transcendence.

Should a reclining Buddha be found in Bamian, it is likely to be in very poor condition. Even the standing Buddhas, which were protected from the elements by their niches in the cliff, were severely weathered. A reclining Buddha, which could have been made of clay bricks rather than a base of solid rock, would have been even more exposed to the elements once any protective covering was destroyed.

"It is likely to be extremely eroded," says Edmund Melzl, a German restorer working on conserving the pieces of the standing Buddhas. "Or people could have stolen the bricks and used them to build their houses."

Tarzi harbors no illusions that he will unearth a gleaming gold giant. "It will be very degraded if we find it," he says. "All I hope to find is perhaps the folds of garments, or other small parts. The extremities are almost certainly gone."

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