Thursday, March 4, 2010

Large idols are carved

It is the bicentenary today of the birth of William Griffith, one of the most fanatical of 19th century botanical explorers. Although he died young, he described and collected an astonishingly large number of Asian species. He was also fanatical about recording every detail of his explorations: his diaries, though apparently rather dry, provide a hypnotic and fabulous insight into regions that even today retain an aura of being strange and unknown. As an example, I have chosen extracts from his diary for the first three days of September 1839, when Griffith is travelling through central Afghanistan into the Bamean Valley with its caves and statues of Buddha.

Griffith was born on 4 March 1810 - two centuries ago today - at Kingston-upon-Thames near London. He studied medicine at London University, but, under the guidance of Sir John Lindley (famous for his research on orchids) he also became a distinguished student of botany. In 1832, he sailed to Madras, India, to take up an appointment as assistant-surgeon for the East India Company; and in 1835, he was attached to the Bengal Presidency and sent with a group of experts to explore the so-called tea-forests of Assam. This was the first of many such expeditions for Griffith whose quest for botanical knowledge took him to every corner of the East India Company’s extra-peninsular possessions.

In 1841, he was appointed surgeon in Malacca, but the following year he was appointed as acting director of the Calcutta Botanical Gardens. That position lasted two years before, in 1844, he returned to his duties in Malacca. That same year he married Miss Henderson, the sister of his brother’s wife. Unfortunately, early the following year and while still in his mid-30s, he died from a liver disease. He bequeathed his collection to the East India Company, which was then sent to England, where it is still held by Kew Gardens. According to The Beauty of Orchids & Flowers website ‘no Botanist ever collected and described so many species like Griffith. His collection comprises about 12,000 plants.’

What Griffith also did in great detail is write about his travels, in letters and in diaries. Some of these were arranged by John M’Clelland in Journals of Travels in Assam, Burma, Bhootan, Afghanistan and The Neighbouring Countries and published in 1847 - the full text is available at Project Gutenberg. The basic text (more or less as provided by Project Gutenberg) was printed in paperback by Hard Press - see Amazon.com - quite recently.

Here are extracts from three days at the beginning of September 1839 when Griffith is travelling through central Afghanistan and into the Bamean Valley.

1 September 1839
‘After re-crossing Hajeeguk we continued our march to Sohkta, five and a half miles. The road continued along a considerable descent throughout, at first down the valley in which we had halted to the west, thence down the large Kulloo valley in a northerly direction; towards the mouth of first ravine or valley it is bad, passing across a land slip, then it crosses the bed of a huge torrent falling at a great rate, and obstructed with boulders; the right bank, a high almost precipitous mountain, the left a high aggregate of granitic and other boulders. Water abundant, divided into three streams or so: this torrent comes direct from the nearest portion of Kohi-Baba, which appears of easy descent, presenting beautiful peaks. The road then keeps along left bank, undulating over the ravines, down which water flows from the hills on the eastern side; some of these are very steep, and the road itself is infamous, as may be supposed, crowded with boulders, and impracticable for wheeled carriages: one precipitous ravine we passed through, the rocks consisted of blackish, curiously laminated, and metallic looking stone. On descending one steep ravine, we then came on the road leading up to the Kulloo mountain, where we halted.

A good many villages, with forts, as usual were passed; the cultivation more advanced than at our last halt, crops consisting chiefly of barley. One good fort was observed close to our halting place opposite the direction of the small Kulloo ravine; across the valley a well marked road is seen running up a part of Kulloo ridge, at a lower elevation than that which we crossed.

Poplars and willows occur in the large valley, particularly towards Sohkta, a small orchard of stunted mulberry trees. Cultivation consisting of peas; barley of fine grain, resembling wheat when freed from the husk.

The plants of the valley of Kulloo were badly observed, as I was greatly tired and fatigued. Polygonum fruticosum re-occurs, Silene, Clematis erecta, Tragogopon, Salvia but less common, a curious Cruciferous plant, Lactucacea purpurea of Cabul, Chenopodium villosum fæmin. Dianthus, Saponaria, Lychnis inflata, oats common in fields, the common thistle, Urtica, Caragana abundant along the bed of the river, Papaver. On rocks about camp, 2 Salsolæ, Glaucum, Umbelliferæ of the Yonutt ravine, Artemisiæ, Rosa Ribes! Scrophularia alia.

The valley is very narrow at camp, the river running between precipices, in some parts passable without wetting the feet.’

2 September 1839
‘From Sohkta Kullar-Rood to Topehee, eight and a half miles. The road lay in a northerly direction for a quarter of a mile, then turning up a steep ravine, with an ascent for 800 feet; then small descent, then levellish, until we came to a black cliff, over which another steeper but longer ascent extended, then it became levellish for some distance; two other moderate, extended, longish ascents, led us to the summit, which is 500 feet higher than that of Hajeeguk. The descent continued steep and most tedious on reaching the precipitous ravine of Topehee, the road wound over small spurs, until we came to a grove of willows near the village. The road although steep is not bad, the soil being soft, that of the upper parts and of the descent, even annoying from the sand, both might with little trouble be made easy, but especially the descent. . .

The camels all came up but one, though very slowly; to them as to us, the descent was more tiring than the ascent.

From the summit a fine view of Kohi-Baba was obtained, running to NW by N. To the NE, another high range, but not so marked as Kohi-Baba, was seen running in a similar direction; on this, two considerable peaks present themselves, but only visible when lower down.

A splendid view of the Bamean valley is here obtained [Google maps for a modern satellite view]. We have now obviously passed the highest ranges: to west where the country is low and flat; to the north, the mountains indistinctly visible, are beautifully varied, presenting rugged outlines 10,000 feet above Bamean, also a view of an unearthly looking mountain, most variedly sculptured, is obtained, with here and there rich ravines and columnar sided valleys, presenting tints very varied; in those of the lower ranges, rich rosy tints are predominant; also niches in which gigantic idols are plainly seen: also a view of Goolghoolla, looking as it is in reality, a ruined city: a fine gorge apparently beyond the Bamean river, and a large ravine due north, by which I expect the Bamean river reaches the Oxus; not a tree is to be seen, except a few about Bamean. The whole view is indescribably volcanic, barren yet rich, requiring much colouring to convey an idea of it.

To the top of the pass it is three and a half miles; the character of Kulloo mountain is different from that above described, it is rounded, and composed of a curious compact slate, towards the summit well covered with plants, large tufts of Statice, two or three kinds, two undescribed; immense quantities of Artemisia, coarse tufted grasses, Onosma, Carduacea herbacea of Hajeeguk, uncommon; Triticoides 998, not common; Alium fusco purpurea common. A few exposed rocks occur on the summit. The ravines are all dry, there being no water or very little in them, and no cultivation; thus the contrast visible on both sides of the Kulloo river which runs round the foot of the mountain, is remarkable. Vegetation being distinct on either side.

Yet the ravine of Topehee shows, that when exposed to the action of water, this rock becomes very precipitous, cliffy, easily dislocated: the latter part of the road winds over a portion of this. Chakor, Ptarmigan a fine bird, voice somewhat like that of a vulture, to which it is perhaps anologous.

About Sohkta or in ravines, Euphorbia linearifolia, Ephedra, Asteroides, Rosa Ribes, Composita dislocata, Artemisiæ, Aster pyramidalis, Chenopodium villosum fæm., Senecionoides [long list of plants]. . .

Not much change beyond 12,000 feet, at that height Glaucium in abundance, with a few Hyoscyamus parvus, Borago [list of plants]. . .

The same vegetation continues down to Topehee; on the red hills over its ravine, the plants are different. [List of plants]’

3 September 1839
‘We proceeded from Topehee to Bamean, a distance of twelve miles, for two and a half miles down Topehee ravine. The road is a decent descent, although steepish: from thence turning abruptly at the Bamean valley, we cross the river, which is of considerable size, but fordable, although rapid. The road then extends along the left bank, not in the valley which is occupied by cultivation, but winding over and round the bases of low hills and cliffs, forming a northern boundary; throughout this part the road is villainous, often impeded by huge blocks. After a distance of about ten miles it improves, the valley expanding into a cultivated plain.

Topehee valley narrows towards its mouth or exit, which is walled in by high, red, raviny cliffs; above, in its upper parts it is well cultivated with beans, barley, wheat, and oats, and contains two villages: it opens into the Bamean valley at a village also called Topehee, there the Bamean valley is well cultivated, with oats intermixed with barley or wheat, trefoil, etc., it then narrows, forming the bed of a ravine occupied by Hippophæ, Tamarisk, etc., then it widens again.

The structure of the hills is curious, and generally exhibiting the appearance of having been much acted on by water. They are often cliffy, composed either of limestone or a soil of red clay, with which salt occurs in abundance, conspicuous from the white appearance, or springs. Crystals of carbonate of lime are frequent, limestone, or coarse conglomerate with large rounded stones, occurs; together with a curious laminated clayey rock, with white and ochraceous layers intermixed. The tints most various, as well as the sculpture of the mountains: here ravines representing tracery occur: there, columnar curiously carved cliffs, exhibiting all sorts of fantastic forms: here, as it were, a hill thrown down with numberless blocks into the stream, scattered in every direction; and here, but this is rare, very red horizontal strata, colours various, generally rosy, especially the clayey cliffs: here and there the colour of the rock is ochraceous, at one place its structure is slaty. The curious intermixture of these colours owing to the weather, is striking.

From the head of two of the ravines by which considerable torrents flow into Bamean river, beautiful views are obtained of the Kohi-Baba, whose peaks according to native authority, stretch sixty miles to the westward of Bamean, without much diminution in height. The scenery, however, is less beautiful after emerging into the widened part of the valley, where the hills are less varied both in form and tints, than they are in lower parts: fine views however of Kohi-Baba are occasionally had.

Salsolæ are the prevailing plants of the rocky sides of the valley, Clematis erecta common, here and there a small Statice.

Caves occur throughout the wide portion of the valley, but chiefly on the northern side; they also extend a little way into the narrow portion, where they seem to be excavated into clayey-looking, red, earthy limestone, or more commonly conglomerate, of coarse grey, or reddish colour.

The caves are most common in two cliffs composed of conglomerate mixed with transverse strata of the same rock, 3,400 feet high, presenting a rugged outline; and between the two, which are 800 yards apart, large idols are carved. These cliffs in some places have suffered little from the action of the elements, as testified by the perfect nature of the opening of the caves, and the corners, etc. of the niches enclosing idols; in others they are furrowed by the action of water; in others again slips have taken place to such extent in some, as to cause the fall of all their caves, or of their greater portion, thus exposing the galleries, etc.

The base of the cliffs is irregular, formed of the same conglomerate and clay, but covered more or less by boulders, evidently brought down by the river; by these many caves are choked up, so that originally the cliff might have been perpendicular to the edge of the base, and if so, the caves in the cliffs, and the idols, are of later date than those of the rugged base. But more probably the cliffs, and the caves, are much as they were originally, the boulders having been a subsequent deposit.

The western corner of the cliff beyond the large idol, is much destroyed; on this, the force of the current would have acted: a breakwater occurring along the returning face.

The caves are very numerous, but are confined chiefly towards the base of the cliffs . . . These are of no size, finish, or elegance, and it is only their number, and the extreme obscurity of their history, that makes them interesting; the roofs are usually arched, and the walls are often supplied with niches, and covered with a coating of tar of some thickness, and intense blackness. The galleries are low, arched, and admit one person at a time, or a line of persons with ease; they often form the ascent to the upper caves now inhabited, but originally they were enclosed in the rock, they are defended in such cases by a parapet.

The largest caves are those about the idols, but I see none of any size. They are often domed, the spring of the dome is ornamented with a projecting frieze, some of these are parallelogramic, in one instance with an ornamented border thus.

Some of the caves are situated as high as, or even above the tops of the idols; all parts within the rock are lighted by small apertures.

Access to the large idol is destroyed; the smaller one is gained by a spiral staircase of rude construction, and by galleries. The floor of the galleries is rugged, the steps and the cement of the conglomerate having worn out from between the masses of rock. The images all occupy niches in the face of the hill: two are gigantic, the rest not very large. They are generally in the usual sitting posture, and rather high up, while the larger ones are erect, and reach the base of the cliffy portion of the rock. They are all male, and all obviously Boodhistical; witness the breadth, proportion, and shape of the head, and the drapery; both are damaged, but the smaller is the more perfect, the face of the large one being removed above the lower lip; the arms are broken off, showing they were occupied by galleries. The drapery is composed of plaster, and was fixed on by bolts which have fallen out, leaving the holes. The arms in the smaller one are supported by the falling drapery. The height of the large image in the niche is 135 feet.

The pictures are much damaged, the plaster on which they were painted being mostly very deficient, all the faces are damaged by bullets or other missiles: their execution is indifferent, not superior to modern Burmese paintings; the colours however are good, the figures are either grouped or single, and one is in the style of the time of Henry VIII, with a hat and plume, others represent groups flying - one a golden bird, another a man with a hemispherical helmet, all are much damaged. The hair in some is dressed as in the modern Burmese top-knot, often surrounded by a circle.

Otherwise the niches are not ornamented, except in one instance, as above alluded to; the head of the smaller figure was formerly covered by the roof, as evident from holes or troughs for timbers in the gallery. These holes are now inhabited by pigeons, and the lower ones by cows, donkeys, fowls, kids, dogs; some are filthy apertures blocked up by stone and mud walls; the doors irregular, and guarded between two giants.

An old tope occurs near some small figures, it is composed of stones very much disintegrated, with curious blocks of kucha work, and large Babylonish bricks; the smaller figures are much destroyed, some completely; all are in alto-relievo.

The plants about Topehee valley, are Cichorium, Centaurea lutea, [long list of plants] . . .’

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