How important are the Bamiyan Buddhas?
There is nothing like these statues anywhere in the world. Bamiyan is located in a beautiful valley around 230 km north-west of Kabul. It was an important stop on the fabled Silk Road, and the two majestic Buddha statues were scooped out of the Hindu-Kush mountains in such a way that anyone -- merchants, soldiers, pilgrims -- moving along the highway could view them from afar and pay homage. The ceilings above the Buddhas had beautiful painted images of the bodhisattvas and the Sun God, representing the Buddha as the source of light. The iconography was a mixture of Greek and Indian, and the murals were very much like what we see in the Ajanta Caves at Aurangabad (in central India).
How did India get involved in the restoration of the Buddhas?
In the 1960s the Afghans were looking for help to restore the statues. So they approached India, since we had experience conserving the rock-cut caves at Ellora and Elephanta. I first went to Bamiyan in 1964, but the project was delayed because the promised funds didn't materialize from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Finally, when Indira Gandhi (the late Indian Prime Minister) visited Bamiyan, she decided to go ahead without UNESCO aid. So it became a joint Indo-Afghan project, and I went back there in 1969 along with a 15-member team of Indian engineers, architects, chemists and molders. Bamiyan was such a sleepy little village that there was no place for us to stay, so they converted the local jail, called it the Bamiyan Hotel, and put us up there.
What condition were the statues when you began restoring them?
They were in a very bad way. The Mongol invader Genghis Khan had burned the Buddhas' face and hands, which were fashioned out of wood, and the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb had also damaged their sandstone legs with cannon fire. Nature also played a part. There's little rainfall in Bamiyan, but when the snow melts in summer the water tends to erode the relatively soft sandstone. The area is also located in a seismic zone, and earthquakes have caused some damage. The right wall of the cavern containing the smaller Buddha developed a huge vertical crack and was about to give way when a French team buttressed it sometime in the 1940s. When we arrived in 1969, water seepage had again opened up the crack, which was large enough for a man to enter. We fixed it, but our main task was to stabilize the legs of both the statues to prevent them collapsing, and to restore the Buddhas' robes, which were made out of mud, hemp and lime plaster. Before we began the restoration, though, we had to demolish three-story mud buildings that had been constructed on the feet of the Buddhas. These building went up to the knees and were secured by stakes driven into the statues and were being used by locals to store grain. Of course, after the civil war began, the caves were also used as arsenals, and this also resulted in a lot of damage.
In the 7th century the Chinese traveler Huan-Tsang passed through Bamiyan and wrote that "the faces of the giant Buddha figures were covered with gold and decorated with precious gems that dazzled the eye." Some reports suggest that the taller Buddha's robes had been painted red; the other painted blue.
We couldn't find a single trace of any color from the statues so Huan-Tsang's account can't be confirmed. But he of course saw the Buddhas not long after they were made, so his account would be reliable. There has also been some controversy surrounding the faces of the two statues. Only the lower part of the faces appears to have been carved out of stone. The rest was fashioned out of a wooden frame fixed onto the rock, and was shaped with mud, hemp and lime plaster. The hands were constructed in a similar way. I managed to retrieve burnt pieces of wood from the hollows where the upper part of the face once was, which lends credence to the story that Genghis Khan had burned the face and hands.
Did the war in Afghanistan prevent you from completing the restoration?
No, our project was completed in 1977. In fact Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, who was foreign minister at the time, visited Bamiyan and formally handed the site back to the Afghans. But even before that, word had spread that the Buddhas were being restored, so tourists had started pouring into the valley from all over the world. The Afghan tourism department set up 120 tents to cope with the influx of people and several little hotels also sprang up in the village. I remember escorting the current Emperor of Japan, Akihito, who was at the time Crown Prince, and his wife to the Buddhas in 1973.
How do you feel about the destruction of the Buddhas?
Very sad. It's a great personal loss. I devoted nine, grueling years of my life to restore the statues. I feel like a sculptor who is told that the statue he created has been destroyed. Our work in Bamiyan was appreciated all over the world, and that's why we were later invited to Cambodia. (Sengupta led the Indian team that went to restore the Angkor Wat temple, but a heart attack forced him to withdraw.) The construction of the Bamiyan Buddhas was perfect: even from a distance one always felt as if they beckoned people to strive towards doing good and become perfect human beings. Now there is nothing left.
There was severe criticism of the restoration work by Indian archaeologists at Angkor Wat, wasn't there?
That's because the French saw Cambodia and Angkor Wat as their domain. So when the project was handed over to India, they didn't like it at all. That's why they went after the Indian team, and succeeded in ousting us from there.
The Indian restoration work at Angkor Wat is said to have wrecked part of the main temple because of the use of cement rather than the original rock. Was that the case?
Before the Indian team arrived, the French had themselves used cement. So the criticism doesn't stand. Angkor Wat was built using stone blocks fixed with iron clamps. We were compelled to use cement because in the 1980s, the quarries from which the original stone had come were all under the control of the Khmer Rouge. So if you can't get the original stone what do you do? You use cement concrete and fix it in place of the original stone blocks. It has the strength and it serves the purpose. The French did exactly the same thing with the pillars supporting a part of the roof of the main temple. Let me tell you something else: when we arrived there we found that an earlier French team had opened up the roof of the temple and had left stones lying around without proper markings. Our archaeologists were confronted with a jigsaw puzzle, but they succeeded in putting the roof back together.
The Kabul Museum had many valuable antiquities. Was that so and what happened to them?
The museum had a great collection of antiquities from the 2nd century onward. They had trays full of ivory carvings from the Kushan Dynasty -- what came to be known as the Bagram ivories. Some looked like they hadn't been cleaned for centuries, but they still looked beautiful. There were also several beautiful sculptures of the Buddha in the Gandhara style (a mixture of Greek and Indian]. Most of the museum was looted during the civil war, the building was bombed, and many objects were taken to Peshawar in Pakistan)s and sold. Whatever was left has now been destroyed by the Taleban.