Buddhism and Kabul are not words that often go together. And as for 1800 year-old imitations of the US Capitol high in the Hindu Kush, what gives? But here (with thanks Google images and Colorado State), is what happens when you are Buddhist – as most people were in the areas – live north of Kabul in about the second century, and want to build a stupa, a reliquary mound. You dig deep into your deep bag of Hellenistic heritage (yes, it really spreads that far east), and come up with a big square base, ringed with Corinthian columns, followed by two drums also ringed with columns, and a dome. It’s basically a Greco-Roman mausoleum but rendered solid so it ceases to be a temple and becomes instead an emblem of Buddhahood. Or it’s basically the US Capitol, but without any rooms in it: big square base, Corinthian capitals, emphatic drum, dome.
So here’s an idea born in Greece and spreading several thousand miles east and west to become an emblem of early Buddhism and the fledgling US of A at the same time. The historical ironies don’t need elaborating.
But you only have to look a little closer at those blank arcades to see my favourite architectural connection of the moment: those arches aren’t Roman semicircular, they’re Indian caitya-headed, — to you, sir, ‘ogee’: and I’ve become quietly convinced that an arch-type invented by carpenters designing thatched roofs for the first Buddhist monasteries, somewhere in Madhya Pradesh in the third century BCE, inadvertently came up with a sinuous curve that spread from there around the world. First it was replicated on the facades of Buddhist cave temples, becoming a decorative motif in the process. Then it became ubiquitous on Hindu temples, where (now purely decorative) it is a way of badging a building as a sacred one throughout the Indian subcontinent. Meanwhile it spread, north to Gandhara – however Classical their detailing, central asian stupas invariably have caitya-arches — and down the Silk Route, and from Guldhara west with Islam. By the C12, cusped ogee arches are a commonplace in mosque architecture. And in European gothic by the C14. And in Japanese Zen temples by the C15. The ogee: a functionless, double-curved shape, born in Bihar, now brought to you in Kabul, Kyoto, Cairo and Canterbury.
As I work my way through the religions of the world, I keep coming up against what, for each, is their deepest mystery (or, depending on taste, their most ridiculously superstitious claim). The resurrection of Jesus; the Enlightenment of Buddha, the ability of Puja to bring a deity into a Hindu statues; the finality of Mohammed’s Prophethood. The significance of these events lies at the heart of daily life for millions: and what unites them all is that they happened at night. Buddha by the river, beneath the Bodhi tree; the Prophet transported to Jerusalem and back; the events that led to the Empty tomb; the spirit in which Visnu, Shiva and all are awakened. Someone’s telling us something here, it seems to me: something about the difference between ‘real’, as in cup-of-tea real, and ‘dream’, as in … something else. Perhaps that’s the point: we dream our deepest truths into being.