Bactrian Inscription from Yakawlang sheds new light on history of Buddhism in Afghanistan

By Dr. J.L.Lee,

Tang-i Safedak stupa site where inscription was found. 2003
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 fruitless negotiation 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. Efforts 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.


Face of one of the gilt coin from the interior of the stupa

  Architectural feature (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.