British Museum blog

A Buddha returns to Afghanistan

St John Simpson, Exhibition Curator

An outstanding sculpture of the Buddha which had been stolen from the National Museum of Afghanistan almost twenty years ago has been re-acquired for the museum in Kabul. The sculpture had made its way to Japan before coming to the attention of a private individual in London who has very generously purchased it on behalf of the National Museum. Prior to its return it has been placed on temporary display at the British Museum to allow visitors a rare opportunity to see this important object.

Sculpture of the Buddha © National Museum of Afghanistan/The British Museum

This sculpture depicts the Buddha’s response to a challenge from heretics that he could not perform miracles. Known as the miracle at Shravasti, flames issued from his shoulders and water poured from his feet. The result confounded his critics and helped demonstrate the pre-eminence of the Buddha. It dates to the second or third century AD when a naturalistic style of art known as Gandhara flourished in Afghanistan and Pakistan with sculptures typically carved from an attractive schist.

This famous sculpture was found near the village of Sarai Khuja, north of Kabul, in 1965 and placed soon afterwards on display in the National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul. It was published by UNESCO in the Catalogue of the National Museum of Afghanistan, 1931-1985 but was stolen during the civil war when the museum was occupied by the army from 1992 to 1994, and it vanished from public view. Its whereabouts were unknown until recently when it was purchased by an individual who wishes to present it in memory of the recently deceased Carla Grissmann (1928-2011), a founding member of the Society for the Preservation of Afghanistan’s Cultural Heritage who worked tirelessly in safeguarding and recording the contents of the museum in Kabul.

Carla Grissmann in Afghanistan in the 1970s

Carla sadly passed away in London before she had a chance to see either the exhibition Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World or this wonderful sculpture. She left behind a very loyal band of fans who are honouring her memory and we are very pleased to be able to play a small role in this by receiving her library of over seventy books on Afghanistan which has been presented to the British Museum for reference by anyone interested in the country.

The sculpture of the Buddha is on temporary display in Room 1 of the British Museum until 17 July 2011.

Filed under: Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World, Exhibitions

3 Responses - Comments are closed.

  1. Heulwen Renshaw says:

    Thank you.
    This is most interesting news of the sculpture of the Buddha being on display at the British Museum until 17th July. I shall look forward to this on my visit to London.

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  2. PRDH says:

    Wonderful. It’s stories like this which help re-affirm my faith in humanity.

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  3. hannah k says:

    I’m not sure the people of Afghanistan – on the whole – are ready to appreciate this yet, nor are the fortunes of the country stable enough. As I think of my Muslim friends there, most had no idea of the Buddhist past of the region. Buddhist sites like Samangan have had Islamic legends appropriated to them to explain the existence of a great stupa, for example.

    It is a beautiful gesture, and a great vote of confidence, to have this donor purchase the sculpture in honor of someone who loved Afghanistan, in order to return it to Afghanistan.

    It’s just that to read something like this, http://www.archaeology.org/online/features/afghan/index.html, Nancy Hatch Dupree’s analysis of the Kabul Museum shortly before the rise of the Taliban, makes me wonder that the uncertain future of Afghanistan could send such a sculpture back onto the black market.

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