Tuesday, February 14, 2012
The Republic of the Maldives consists of a string of twenty-six coral atolls in the Indian Ocean, roughly two thousand little islands spread over an immense area of 35,000 square miles, running roughly from north to south, starting not too far (approximately 250 miles) southwest of the southern tip of India. In the past week the country’s political troubles have been in the news, but what has not been widely reported until this morning is the destruction of a very large proportion of the country’s pre-Islamic archaeological heritage. Last Tuesday, a group of politically motivated vandals entered the National Museum in Male, the capital, and set to work systematically smashing dozens of objects that survive from the country’s distant Buddhist past. These included a remarkable five-faced coral stela inscribed with a Vajrayana Buddhist mantra in Nagari script that dates from the 9th–10th century A.D., the oldest such inscription in the Maldives; a hitherto well-preserved head of Buddha that dates from before the 11th century A.D., which was recovered from the Dagoba in Alifu Atoll Thoddoo; a finely crafted hard coral stupa from Nilandhoo; various other Buddhist stupas, limestone blocks, discs, and slabs; a decorated coral stone casket, and the figure of a lion―all either badly damaged, or smashed to pieces and entirely beyond repair. Those of us who work in art museums and care about the objects entrusted to our care can only feel sick to the stomach at what has been done by a bunch of ignorant thugs, apparently in the name of Islam. One can only imagine the feeling of helplessness and despair that our colleagues in that far-off institution must feel; according to the New York Times although several men were caught inside the museum that day no arrests have been made, nor charges laid. In a world in which life is so cheap, one might well place the destruction of cultural property on a rung of atrocity far lower than wholesale slaughter, or genocide. Yet following upon the destruction in March 2001 of the colossal Bamiyan buddhas in Afghanistan, the trend is horrifying. When before has cultural property been more vulnerable to the unimpeded rampages of zealots? Twenty or thirty years ago one would have said that such things only ever happened in the Dark Ages, or in the wars of Iconoclasm, or at the height of idol-smashing fervor, or some other benighted period in which the lamps of civilization began to be extinguished, one by one. To make matters worse, the Maldives are where very rich westerners go to sun themselves on pristine beaches, and to enjoy the privacy of desert islands. No harm in that, I suppose, but if something as profoundly destructive to its cultural identity can happen to a comparatively peaceful little country with a population of barely 300,000 people, then who is safe? Our past is part of ourselves; our built environments, our art, our cultural artifacts, are the mirror we hold up to our society, yet they are frighteningly easy to smash. We should not suppose that what has happened lately in the Republic of the Maldives could not or cannot in due course happen to us.