A few days ago it was announced that Syrian government troops backed by Russian forces had recaptured the ancient city of Palmyra which had been invaded by ISIS earlier. They had destroyed a number of the monuments in this important archaeological site, which UNESCO had declared as a World Heritage Site. The destruction had aroused great consternation and sadness around the world. Following the recapture, the Syrian minister of culture has said that his country would proceed with the restoration of the monuments and the artefacts, many of which had fortunately been whisked away to safer locations when the ISIS forces were advancing.
Another World Heritage Site that suffered damage and destruction is the city of Timbuktu in Mali. This happened during the occupation of the city by jihadists in 2012-2013. According to a news report in the French magazine Le Point two days ago, in a first for the Hague-based International Criminal Court, Ahmad Al Faqi Al Mahdi, alias Abou Tourab will plead guilty to a single war crime charge for destroying shrines at the ancient city. The ICC judges ruled they would ‘commit’ Mahdi to trial for ‘the war crime of attacking buildings dedicated to religion and historic monuments’. This is a milestone for the ICC, as this is the first time a terrorist suspect is to appear before it and the first person to face a war crimes charge for an attack on a global historic and cultural monument.
Fortunately, by 2015 many of the destroyed shrines had already been restored by local artisans and masons using traditional materials and methods.
But the Buddhas of Bamiyan have not been as lucky. From Wikipedia, we learn that they were two 6th-century monumental statues of standing Buddha carved into the side of a cliff in the Bamyan valley in the Hazarajat region of central Afghanistan, 230 km northwest of Kabul at an altitude of 2,500 meters. They were famous for their beauty, craftsmanship and of course, size: the taller of the two Buddhas stood at more than 170 feet high, with the second statue at nearly 115 feet. In March 2001 Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar ordered the Buddhas destroyed. They were subsequently blown apart with dynamite and left in rubble. One of the workers, bike repairman Mirza Hussain told the BBC, ‘I regretted it at that time, I regret it now and I will always regret it. But I didn’t have a choice because they would have killed me.’
UNESCO considered that rebuilding the massive stone Buddhas of Bamiyan would be impossible. So they did the next best thing. Now, 3-D light projects on the empty cliff where the statues once stood. The device that controls the illumination was a gift from a Chinese couple to the Afghan people. And the illumination has brought relief to many of the locals who had been pressed into service by the Taliban in 2001 to destroy the Buddhas.
Thank goodness that there are still people like these locals who have an appreciation for such art. I was stunned about the reaction of a local artist who at that time said that people are dying of hunger and westerners are only concerned about stone statues. What a stark contrast indeed, and that too coming from an artist.
Practically all human beings at some stage of their lives ask themselves what is the meaning and purpose of life. Great sages in ancient times have pondered the question too, and have left us their answers whether in the form of religion or, even more deeply, provided us a spiritual viewpoint. In modern times, philosophers and scientists continue to debate the issue too, adding a rich diversity of perspectives. Which is good, indicating the great interest in finding answers to the fundamental questions that human beings pose. Which only humans do, so far as we know, because, as an article in Scientific American noted some years ago, while discussing what makes us human, ‘baboons do not make soufflés!’
Some animals do have mental processes and display characteristics of acting intelligently, but we humans are the only ones that ask such questions as the meaning of life. From a strictly biological point of view, life has no meaning. Which is not to say that it is not beautiful – in fact, more than that, it is a wonder and life’s processes are incomparably elegant despite their complexity which, in any case, is part of the elegance.
When it comes to meaning and purpose, however, it has the meaning that we as humans ascribe to it. Even ‘primitive’ humans left traces that they did more than just hunt and kill: rock carvings and cave paintings at many renowned sites around the world testify to their talent and glory, and we are both in awe and admiration as well as grateful to them for this legacy which belongs to all mankind and of which we must indeed be proud and strive to preserve. Only beasts and barbarians have no truck with this sublime dimension of existence.
The lowest meaning that that one can ascribe is to look upon something simply as an object; the highest meaning is to regard something as a symbol. As Juan Mascaro, a great scholar and Sanskritist wrote in the introduction to his book The Upanishads,
‘A flower can be an object of trade: something to buy and sell for money. This is the lowest value. It can also be an object of intellectual interest (e.g. by a scientist), but then it becomes an abstraction. But to the soul the flower is an object of joy, and to the poet it can be a thing of beauty and truth; a window from which we may look in wonder into the Beauty and Truth of the universe, and the Truth and Beauty in our own souls…
‘All things on earth, from a flower to a human being, can be an object of love or contemplation, an object of intellectual interest, and an object of possession. In the first case they give us the freedom of joy in the Infinite; in the second they give us that knowledge which is power; in the third they give us the chains that bind us to matter, drag us down to the darkness of death, to the miseries of competition for selfish power, instead of cooperation for unselfish joy.’
The Buddhas at Bamiyan, the shrines at Timbuktu, and the monuments at Palmyra are not mere objects in stone or earth or metal. They are symbols of man’s quest for Truth and Beauty. Those who do not or will not acknowledge that are less than human.
* Published in print edition on 1 April 2016