Bactrian Inscription from Yakawlang sheds new light on history of
Buddhism in Afghanistan
By Dr. J.L.Lee, 2003.
|Tang-i Safedak stupa site where inscription was found.
||The province of Bamiyan is famous
for its Buddhist monuments, caves and, of course, the three
famous statues of the Buddha which were tragically blown up
by the Taliban. However, whilst there have been extensive surveys
in the Bamiyan valley, further west there has been far less
exploration for other Buddhist sites.
Now, new light has been thrown on the presence of Buddhism west
of Bamiyan as a result of a survey conducted in the Yakawlang
wulswali (district) in September 2002 which was funded
by the British Academy-funded, Society of South Asian Studies.
The reason for this area being chosen goes back several years
to a visit to the area by Brigitte Neubacher, at that time SPACH
secretary, in 1995. During her tour, Ms. Neubacher visited the
village of Tang-i Safedak about an hour's drive west of Yakawlang,
where she was shown a square chamber which had recently been
uncovered by local farmers. The following year, SPACH published
a brief description of the site, with a photograph. From the
architectural details visible in the photograph, it was clear
that the monument was Buddhist. Even more interesting was the
fact that the photograph also showed an inscription in the Bactrian
language in the outer wall of the chamber.
|In the spring of 1996, I was in Pakistan assisting
a Japanese TV crew from NHK TV, who planned to film the Bamiyan
Buddhas for a documentary on the spread of Buddhism. Having
heard of the discovery from SPACH, we made a brief visit to
the village and took video footage of the inscription, which
had been removed from the site and the chamber broken into.
As a result, a number of coins, a glass bottle and a 'book'
had also come to light. The inscription had been taken into
the care of a prominent member of the village community, Haji
Muktar Ahmadi. The other 'finds' had been removed to Bamiyan
for 'safe keeping'. Later on, our expedition was able to photograph
and view a number of artifacts from the site, including some
coins and a glass bottle. However, the 'book' (probably a pustaka
which contains a portion of the Buddhist scriptures) was reported
to have either disappeared or fallen apart, though we now know
this manuscript is still in Bamiyan.
Unfortunately the NHK footage of the inscription was never made
available to scholars in Japan or elsewhere and very little
of the inscription could be deciphered from the few poor-quality
photographs I had taken. A few months later, Bamiyan fell to
the Taliban and it was not possible to return.
It was not until 6 years later that it was secure enough to
return to Yakawlang. Funded by the British Academy-funded Society
for South Asian Studies and supported by letters from the Ministry
of Information and Culture, my wife and I flew to Yakawlang
where we made enquiries about the fate of the inscription. Initial
reports, however, were far from encouraging. Yakawlang and the
upper reaches of the Balkh Ab river had seen a series of bitter
battles between Taliban and Hisb-i Wahdat forces over the last
few years. Many of the villages and bazaars had been razed to
the ground, hundreds of people had been killed and many thousands
more fled to the mountains. The chances of the inscription surviving
such civil unrest was not high.
A visit to the village of Tang-i Safedak changed all this.
Haji Ahmadi was still alive and it was public knowledge to the
villagers that he had kept the inscription safe. Later we met
on the road and made plans to photograph it properly.
Unfortunately at this point local politics intervened and Haji
Ahmadi was eventually obliged by the district and regional governors
to surrender the inscription to them. Several days of
and discussion ensued, and on my return to Kabul the matter
was placed in the hands of the Minister of Information and Culture
and the Afghan government in general. Finally, after much
publicity, the inscription was officially handed over and
immediately placed in the care of the Kabul Museum, where I
was able to take a series of photographs of it.
On my return to England, Prof. Nicholas Sims-Williams of the
School of Oriental and African Studies made an initial reading
of the inscription, which dates it to probably early eight
century AD. The 'chamber' is actually a Buddhist stupa since
the inscription, commissioned by the ruler of 'Gazan'(?),
dedicates the stupa to the Buddha. Even more interesting,
the inscription mentions an 'Arab ruler' and a 'Turkish ruler'
of the area.
The inscription thus supports the belief that Buddhism was
still thriving in this part of central Afghanistan after the
arrival of the Arab Muslim armies. Indeed, it was still sufficiently
important for the son of a regional ruler to consider dedicating
a new stupa to the Buddha, perhaps in an attempt to solicit
the Buddha's help against the invaders. Further details of
the site, including the dating and reading of the inscription
as well as remarks on the coins and other artifacts recovered
from the site can be found in: Jonathan Lee & Nicholas
Sims-Williams, "The Antiquities and inscription of Tang-i
Safedak," Silk Road Art and Archaeology, Journal of
the Institute of Silk Road Studies, The Hirayama Ikuo Silk
Road Museum Foundation, vol. 9, 2003, pp. 159-184.
Unfortunately, despite many efforts by national and
international organisation, several of the 'finds' from the stupa
have still to be handed over to the Afghanistan government,
these include the pustaka and coins. Authoritative reports
locally state categorically that the pustaka has actually survived.
continue to reclaim these items for the National Museum so they
can be studied and eventually exhibited alongside the Tang-i
Safedak inscription. Efforts continue to persuade those who
have them to hand them over.
Other sites in the upper Balkh Ab watershed which we visited
support the belief that the Yakawlang valley once housed numerous
Buddhist monastic communities. A series of Buddhist caves
were recorded in Darra-yi Gauhargin, Darra-yi Ali and the
Kiligan area. In addition, we were fortunate enough to locate
what may prove to be a previously unrecorded, two storied,
Buddhist monastery with stupa. Hopefully, we can revisit
the area this year and continue our survey.
one of the gilt coin from the interior of the stupa
(cornice?) from exterior of stupa all photographs in this article
are copyright of Dr. J. L. Lee, 1996, 2003. All rights reserved.
|Obverse of one of the
gilt coins from interior of the stupa.
| 1. The SPACH article refers to the location as "Pan-i
Kera" but Tang-i Safedak (so named after the white coloured
hills which lie behind the village) is correct.
2. SPACH Newsletter, July 1997, p. 7.