Nearly a week after vandals stormed into the National Museum here and destroyed almost 30 Buddhist statues — some dating to the sixth century — the broken glass has been swept away and the remnants have been locked up. But officials say the loss to this island nation’s archaeological legacy can never be made up, writes Vikas Bajaj for the New York Times.
Amid the recent political turmoil that has racked this tiny Indian Ocean nation of 1,200 islands, a half dozen men stormed into the museum last Tuesday and ransacked a collection of coral and lime figures, including a six-faced coral statue and a one-and-a-half-foot wide representation of the Buddha’s head. Officials said the men attacked the figures because they believed they were idols and illegal under Islamic and national laws.
There were contradictory reports about whether suspects had been arrested. Mr. Waheed said five men were caught at the museum but a spokesman for the police, Ahmed Shiyam, said on Monday that investigators were still collecting evidence and had not made arrests.
The attack is reminiscent of the Taliban’s demolition of the great Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan in early 2001, and has raised fears here that extremists are gaining ground in the Maldives, a Sunni Muslim country that is believed to have converted to Islam in the 12th century from Buddhism. The country has long incorporated elements of Islamic laws in its jurisprudence. Alcohol, pork products and idols cannot be brought into the country.
On the same day that the statues were destroyed last week, Mohamed Nasheed, who was elected president in 2008 in the country’s first democratic election, stepped down in what he said was a coup and what his opponents argue was a voluntary resignation. His resignation came after nearly a month-long protest by Islamic and other opposition political parties, some of whom criticized him for not cracking down on massage parlors that operated as brothels and for proposing that hotels on islands inhabited by Maldivians be allowed to serve alcohol. Currently, only hotels on islands where no Maldivians live or at the airport are allowed to serve alcohol.
Ali Waheed, the director of the National Museum, said on Monday that officials might be able to restore two or three of the statues but the rest were beyond repair. Mr. Waheed’s staff recently moved some palanquins, beds and jugs from the last 100 years into the gallery that previously housed the statues on the ground level of the museum, built by the Chinese as a gift to the Maldives.
“The collection was totally, totally smashed,” Mr. Waheed said. “The whole pre-Islamic history is gone.”
Naseema Mohamed, a historian who retired from the museum last year, said the loss was particularly devastating because many of the country’s ancient artifacts dispersed across the archipelago had been lost or destroyed over the years by locals and rulers. “There was very little left,” she said.