Afghan archaeologists race to study Buddhist site before destruction

We all remember the Bamiyan statues, those giant stone Buddhas the Taliban blew up in 2001. One of the 1,500 year-old statues is pictured here. Pictures are all we have left of them.

Now another Buddhist site in Afghanistan is under threat of destruction. This time the danger isn’t the Taliban, but a Chinese mining company. The site of Mes Aynak in eastern Afghanistan was home to a thriving Buddhist monastery in the seventh century. It’s also right next to an abandoned Soviet mine that may have the world’s second-largest reserve of copper. A Chinese mining company has invested $3.5 billion to exploit the mine and Afghan officials are eager for work to get underway.

A team of Afghani archaeologists is busy excavating the site and has found an entire monastery complex with more than 150 statues. They were originally given three years, a woefully inadequate length of time for a team of barely forty people, and now they’re being pressured to finish by the end of this year. The archaeologists fear that once the miners move in, the monastery will get wrecked.

The mine will bring much-needed jobs and wealth to Afghanistan, which is also courting adventure tours, so the in the rush to yank copper out of their land they might want to think about preserving some of their past.

[Photo courtesy Marco Bonavoglia via Wikimedia Commons]

Buddha and Picasso at the British Museum

The Fall season has started at London’s British Museum with two excellent free exhibitions.

Images and sacred texts: Buddhism across Asia starts today. It covers Buddhist art and sacred literature from Sri Lanka to Japan and explains the core beliefs of what can be a difficult religion to understand. The artifacts are from the museum’s permanent collection–one of the biggest in the world–and include many items that have never been displayed before.

Picasso to Julie Mehretu: modern drawings from the British Museum collection started on October 7 and examines the interchange between artists over the past hundred years. It begins with Picasso, one of the most influential artists of the twentieth century, and ends with Julie Mehretu, an Ethiopian artist who is one of today’s most popular contemporary artists.

The British Museum is one of many free museums in London, including the Tate Modern, Tate Britain, National Gallery, and National Portrait Gallery. This helps cut the cost of a trip to what is otherwise a very expensive destination. The British Museum is deservedly high on every visitor’s list because of its giant collection of artifacts from every ancient culture, from Egyptian mummies to Viking swords. The ongoing series of free exhibits gives repeat visitors a chance to see something new with every trip.

Picasso to Julie Mehretu: modern drawings from the British Museum collection will run until 25 April 2011. Images and sacred texts: Buddhism across Asia runs until 3 April 2011.

Borobudur in Indonesia–a memory maker and other people’s photographs

This essay by Lisa Reed in the New York Times about her return to Borobudur with her nine-year old son reminded me of a couple of points. Mainly, I am reminded about how utterly spectacular this Buddhist temple complex is, and how fortunate I was to have lived in Singapore for three years so that places like this in Indonesia could be seen on a long weekend trip. I’m also reminded of picture-taking.

When I went to Borabudur, Yogyakarta, the city closest to it, was also part of the attraction. Friends recommended this city on the island of Java in Indonesia as a worthy jaunt for the history, the scenery, the food and the shopping. On all counts, my husband and I were pleased with our good fortune. I have great memories of buying an elaborate leather shadow puppet from the man who made it after visiting with him in his shop.

Borabudur was the centerpiece of a wonderful time and we were lucky enough to climb up its stairs early in the morning before the crowds came. We did not, however, get up before dawn to see the sun rise like Reed did.

However, like Reed, we did have the experience of people in Indonesia wanting us to be in their photographs. In Reed’s case, her son attracted attention. In our case, it was my husband.

In Asia he often looked like a toned down Gulliver in the land of Lilliputians, thus, he was the topic of many a conversation and a prized catch for a photo op. Maybe people thought he would bring them good luck, but whatever the reason, there he was on most vacation days in the middle of a group of Asians, smiling broadly, while they captured their image with him for their photo albums back home.

Borabudur, now a UNESCO World Heritage site, was built in the 8th and 9th centuries and is one of those places that is perfect for picture-taking with or without people. With its 72 rounded stone stupas and Buddha statues that mediate like calm sentries overlooking the valley that is edged by mountains, there is no end of an interesting angle.

Unfortunately, when I went to Borabudur, I was taking slides which are now stored in a box in one of our closets. One day I will go through them, but by reading Reed’s essay, I can see their angles. I seem to remember one with my husband in the middle of a group of Asians.

I’m wondering if the same people are looking at their albums from time to time asking themselves, “Who is this guy?”