The two gigantic 6th century Buddhas, standing solid a quarter of a mile apart and towering 55m and 38m tall, would have appeared very differently to those early visitors, their plaster veneer resonating with red, blue and gold decorations haloed in yellow and white.
The main bodies had been hewn from rock, but the details and dress were enhanced with a mixture of mud, plaster, straw and horsehair coated with stucco. ‘Neither has any artistic value,’ sniffed travel writer Robert Byron 100 years ago, but their gaudy monumental mass, placid gaze and Gandhara-style draped robes could not have failed to impress.
Thousands of monks inhabited temple caves that surrounded the two huge figures, their alcoves now eerily empty, hollowed out of the soft stone over the whole height of the rock face and decorated with frescoes in bright hues. One story tells of a mother who took 12 years to recover her lost son, so extensive was the labyrinth of grotto dwellings carved into the compressed clay and gravel cliffs.