Bamiyan: Buddhist Art

The Bamiyan Valley is a small town located between the mountains of the Hindu Kush in the center of Afghanistan. According to UNESCO cultural heritage website, it is known to be “the most monumental expression of Western Buddhism.” (UNESCO, 2003) Bamiyan took this description when, in the 5th century, Bamiyan was coming upon by Chinese Buddhist monks and travelers that inculcated Buddhism into the population of the Bamiyan Valley. For this reason, its commerce and Buddhism started to become more significant to this town’s culture. Although I’ve never been to Bamiyan myself, during the study of Asian Arts, I became more interested in its rich cultural and historical heritage, and in particular, Buddhist art.

It was interesting to know that Bamiyan was one of the roles for shaping Buddhism throughout Central Asia. One way it became a role for Buddhism was through its artworks since some reflect religious beliefs, artistic practices, and cultural traditions.

           The goal of this chapter is to introduce Bamiyan’s key works of Buddhist art such as the Sleeping Buddha, the Solsol (or Sun God) painting, the Buddha Mandala, the Seated Buddha, and the Two Giant Buddhas. Through the analysis of these artworks and their architectural, historical, and religious context, students will be able to gain detailed knowledge about Bamiyan’s religious traditions and an understanding of the unique artistic works which will lead to the thinking of several questions that inspired my work. These questions are, what can the artwork tell us about the history and culture of Bamiyan? And a general main question of “What is Asian Art?”.

           As mentioned before, the five key works of Buddhist art presented in this chapter are the Sleeping Buddha, the Buddha Mandala, the Seated Buddha, the Solsol painting, and the Two Gian Buddhas. These works show the significant artistic traditions of Bamiyan and provide religious and cultural contexts of this region. The Sleeping Buddha, which is a reclining statue, was found after the destruction of the two Giant Buddhas and has a height of 19 meters. The Buddha Mandala is considered a magic diagram and contains a Buddha in the center with a teaching gesture using his hands. The Solsol painting, also known as the Sun God painting, is on the ceiling of the Eastern Buddha, and it is intended to have a solar aspect of a Buddha. The Seated Buddha is made from sandstone and has his hands in a Dhyana Mudra meditation gesture. Finally, the two Giant Buddhas consist of the Easter Buddha with a height of 120 feet, and the Western Buddha with a height of 175 feet. Each of these arts is unique in its way and together they offer a rich background of Buddhist art and culture in Bamiyan.

           I have chosen these images because they represent an artistic diversity of styles and visual motifs that are characteristic of Buddhist art in Bamiyan. Each of these arts has a different perspective of Buddhist beliefs and practices. For example, the Sleeping Buddha reflects the peace and usual relaxing gesture, which is representative of Buddhism, while the Solsol painting shows a different perspective of Buddha since it is represented as a Sun “God” which uses colorful decorative motifs such as blue and yellow showing a representation of peace and heaven. On the other hand, the Buddha Mandala demonstrates the skill of teaching among Buddhas since it has a Dharmachakra hand gesture and has colorful colors such as red, while the two Giant Buddhas and Seated buddha demonstrate the monumental height and size of Bamiyan’s artistic traditions. By presenting these Buddhist arts, I hope to encourage students to compare their unique features and understand the diversity of artistic expressions found in this type of Asian art.

           Also, by comparing and contrasting these key works, students will be able to gain a deeper understating of the common themes, motifs, and artistic techniques that are characteristic of the region’s Buddhist art. For example, if we analyze the Sleeping Buddha and the Seated Buddha, we can notice that both share a similar expression of peacefulness and serenity. In addition, we can compare the motifs of the Solsol painting with the Buddha mandala, since both explore the different practices and beliefs of Buddhism. Also, the Two Giant Buddhas and the Seated Buddha are good examples of the different proportions and shapes that the Buddhist art of Bamiyan offered to its religious population. These similarities and differences are helpful to gain a deeper understanding of diverse artistic styles and techniques used in Buddhist art. Nevertheless, let’s now analyze some of these significant arts and their historical, religious, and cultural context

Figure 1: Title: Sleeping Buddha Creator: Unknown Date: 6th century Period: Kushan Culture: Gandharan Material: Sandstone Size: 19 meters Location: Bamiyan, Afghanistan Credit: Hazara International

According to the book “Buddhist Art: An Illustrated Introduction” by Charles F. Chicarelli, the Sleeping Buddha (Fig 1) is known as the “Reclining Buddha” since it relies on his right side in a resting position representing his physical detachment from the earth. Therefore, this type of pose represents the Buddha’s final moments before he passes to a heavenly place. Culturally, the Sleeping Buddha is an important symbol of the Buddhist belief of transcending life with inside peace. Since the photo of the Sleeping Buddha is a representation of the original destroyed statue, it is difficult to distinguish the facial expression. However, according to this reading, Sleeping Buddhas have peaceful and smiling facial expressions which gives an understanding of passing to heaven with a smile on their face. Also, this statue was created during the period Kushan reflecting the Gandharan culture. This culture influenced the styles of Greek, Roman, Indian, and Persian. All these mixtures resulted in a unique style of a Greco-Buddhist. For that reason, Bamiyan is not the only region that contains representations of Sleeping Buddhas since this type of art came originally from India around the 2nd century CE. Nevertheless, throughout this time, Sleeping Buddhas traveled to the culture of Bamiyan, usually on large scales, however, it is said that the one located in Bamiyan had a size of 19 meters. Visually, this sculpture has details of a sense of movement and texture in its robe, as well as the softness of the fabric. As mentioned before, the Buddha’s face shows the peacefulness and serenity of a sleeping figure. Also, it is in a look-like cave which suggests a connection between Buddhism and nature. Overall, the Sleeping Buddha of Bamiyan is a good example of Buddhist art and an inspiration for new and future Asian or religious artworks.

Figure 2: Title: Seated Buddha Creator: Unknown Size: unknown Material: Gray Schist (Stone) Date: 2nd century Period: Kushan Location: Bamiyan, Afghanistan Culture: Gandharan Credit: Pinterest/Royal Scottish Museum.

The Seated Buddha (fig 2) is another key work for the understanding of Buddhist art in Bamiyan. This sculpture is made from gray schist which is a local stone. It comes from the culture of Gandharan during the Kushan period. During this period, Buddhism became the major religion in the region since the Kushan Empire inculcated this belief all the time. As mentioned before, the Gandharan culture had blended styles from different regions. This stylistic culture can be noticed in the Buddha’s facial expressions, hairstyle, and classic robes since they usually have a Greek influence. This photo shows a cross-legged seated Buddha with a halo and dressed in a robe. Usually, Buddhas have a halo behind their heads as a sign of a person considered a deity. His hands rest in his lap and are gesturing a dhyana mudra which consists of a meditation position showing a relaxing and reflective moment of the Buddha. Also, he is seated on a low base that contains two lions in its corners. These lions have a small size to represent the significant size of the Buddha as an important religious figure. On the front of the base, there is a group consisting of another Buddha and a Bodhisattva with four worshippers. There are many ways to analyze this sculpture. However, if we see closely, this sculpture with other small important figures below it, could represent the followers of Buddhism connecting with the Seated Buddha through meditation and peace.

Figure 3: Title: Buddha Mandala Date: ca. 5th century A.D. Location: Kakrak temple, Bamiyan, Afghanistan Photographer: C. Krishna Gairola Date of Photograph: 1973 Collection: International Collections, University of Washington Order Number: INC0729

According to the book “The Art of Central Asia” by Benjamin Rowland, the Buddha Mandala (fig 3) belongs to the Gupta period. This period emerged from India around the 4th and 6th century CE and was spread out to Central Asia including Bamiyan. This mandala is located in the vault of the Rock, a Kakrak temple as a decoration for the dome. This mandala, it is shown a particular pattern of Buddhas around a central Buddha. This pattern represents the cosmic representation of Buddhism or a connection with the universe through teaching and meditation since the center Buddha has a Dharma Cakra mudra hand gesture. This represents the skill of teaching to interplay with the elements and forces of the universe. Visually, it has a color scheme of red, brown, ochres, and blues which could be inspired by the paintings or styles in Tibet and Nepal artworks. An interesting fact about the central Buddha, it’s the stylization of the Kakra Buddha since it has Spidey fingers, exaggerated arching brows, and bulky proportions of the bodies (we can see this in the Buddhas surrounding the center) which are aspects seen in the Buddhist art of India adopted also in the Buddhist art of Nepal and Tibet. Also, the Buddha has a traditional halo behind his head, and it is cross-legged as the usual position of meditation and focus.

Figure 4: Title: Solsol Painting Creator: Unknown Date: 6th-7th century Period: Kushan Location: Bamiyan, Afghanistan Culture: Gandhara Credit: AHI Slide Show 1 Bamiyan

In the book written by Benjamin Rowland, the Solsol painting (fig 4), or Sun God painting is also introduced in the text. According to the author, the Sun God painting is in the Eastern Giant Buddha of Bamiyan. This painting belongs to the 6th or 7th century during the Kushan period.  The Sun God painting depicts a sun deity in a halo surrounded by celestial attendants which reflects the nature of Buddhist art where elements of existing beliefs and deities are usually incorporated. This art served as a symbol of the Buddha’s power and divinity through a connection of the Axis Mundi since this painting is in the ceiling of one of the Guardians of the Bamiyan Valley. In other words, the Easter Buddha and the Solsol painting are a symbol of unification between earth and heaven making Buddhism a way to connect with the heavenly place through peace. Since this artwork represents the peace of heaven, it uses colorful color schemes such as blue, yellow, and tonalities of brown and white. Additionally, most of the celestial deities around the center are looking to the Sun God as a symbol of appreciation or idealization. Unfortunately, the SolSol painting was destroyed by the Taliban in 2001, leading to a loss of significant cultural heritage. 

Figure 5:Title: The Giant Buddhas Creators: Unknown Date: 6th century A.D. Material: Sandstone Dimensions: Buddha in the East is 120 ftl, Buddha in the West is 175 ft Period: Kushan Location: Bamiyan, Afghanistan Credit: Wikipedia

Finally, the last two important key works of Buddhist art are the Western Giant Buddha and the Easter Giant Buddha (fig 5) located on the Silk Road of Bamiyan Valley. These sculptures were constructed in the 6th century during the Kushan period. As mentioned before, these were created in the Bamiyan Valley which was the center of Buddhist culture. It is said that these statues were built by monks who wanted to create a symbol of their faith and wanted protection for the valley. For that reason, these Buddhas are considered religious guardians and also because they are placed far away from each other. However, during the 7th century, there was a Taliban conquest where Islam led to a decline of Buddhism. Unfortunately, for this reason, in 2001 these statues were destroyed by the Taliban as an expression of having a more powerful religion, Islam leading to another significant loss of the cultural heritage of Bamiyan. Visually, these Buddha statues are the main examples of the Gandharan art. Before their destruction and the passing of time, they were painted with vibrant colors such as red, blue, and orange but these faded away. Their faces were serene and peaceful with slight smiles. They wear robes and had elaborated details such as jewelry which showed the advanced skills of their unknown artists. Also, their height is a symbol of Buddhas’ idolization and power. Their aspect is a topic of discussion since it is said that their gender was mainly male due to the broad chest, wide waists, shoulders, and facial features and due to the period, which was male-focused. However, some analysts declare that one of the Giant Buddhas could be a representation of a female aspect. Nevertheless, there is no specific evidence of this fact which could be explained as a misinterpretation of the artwork. In essence, the Giant Buddhas of Bamiyan were not only great examples of artistic and cultural influences but also powerful symbols of spirituality and protection, making their destruction in 2001 a great loss for the world’s cultural history.           

In conclusion, the study of Bamiyan’s Buddhist art provides important background and knowledge of the history, religion, and culture of Central Asia. Some of the key works presented in this chapter, including the Sleeping Buddha, the Solsol painting, the Buddha Mandala, The Seated Buddha, and the Two Giant Buddhas, offer a diversity of styles and motifs that represent the diverse artistic traditions of Bamiyan’s region. Additionally, through the visual analysis of these works, we can appreciate their intrinsic qualities and architectural context, as well as their historical and religious significance. For this reason, by this analysis, we can see how Asian art is a complex and diverse category that includes a big range of artistic traditions that change, grow, and shape different regions throughout time including Bamiyan.

Reading List

Ali. “Archeologists’ Efforts to Discover 300 Meter Statue of Bamyan Recumbent/Asleep Buddah.” Hazara International, August 12, 2010.

Bell, Hamilton, Jayne Horace H F., and Langdon Warner. Eastern Art: A Quarterly. pg 108-116.. Pg 108-116. Philadelphia: College Art Association, 1928.

“Buddha Mandala from Kakrak Temple in Bamyan, Afghanistan, Ca. 5th Century A.D.”

“Buddhas of Bamiyan.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation,

Buddhist art along the Silk Road – Fontana Unified School District, n.d.

Chicarelli, Charles F. Buddhism and Buddhist art: An illustrated introduction. Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books, 2017.

AHI class presentation. “Bamiyan: Center of Asia” PowerPoint, January 31, 2023.

AHI class presentation. “Bamiyan: Center of Asia” PowerPoint, February 2, 2023.

Rowland, Benjamin. Ancient Art from Afghanistan: Treasures of the Kabul Museum. “Bamiyan”. The Asia Society, 1966.

Synovitz, Ron. “Archaeologists Find Giant ‘sleeping’ Buddha.” RadioFreeEurope/RadioLiberty, September 10, 2008. “World Heritage Site.” Encyclopedia Britannica. Encyclopedia Britannica, inc., April 3, 2023.

Author: Anahi Lopez Patino

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