DUSHANBE, Tajikistan (AP) - While Taliban soldiers in Afghanistan destroyed two immense statues of Buddha, art historians in neighboring Tajikistan were meticulously restoring a huge reclining Buddha from the same era.
The terra cotta figure, found in the 1960s among the ruins of a temple in southern Tajikistan not far from the border with Afghanistan, depicts a supine Buddha, one hand resting on his hip, the other on a pile of pillows.
Called ``Buddha in Nirvana,'' it dates to the sixth or seventh century - a relic from a period of Buddhist dominance across the high mountains and deep valleys of Central Asia and Afghanistan before the arrival of Islam, experts say.
Like its Afghan cousins, Tajikistan's Buddha is huge: 42 feet long and nine feet high. Tajik authorities hope to complete the long and costly restoration this month.
The statue is now being housed in a hall that is a replica of the room in a Buddhist monastery where the Buddha was once kept, visited by worshippers who entered the room, passed by the statue and walked out.
For art lovers and historians, the statue's restoration is a fortunate development in Central Asia's troubled post-communist history, especially for Tajikistan, which endured civil war and political unrest during much of the 1990s.
It is also seen as a victory for secular governments in the region's five former Soviet republics, which are mainly Muslim and have faced challenges from militants seeking to create Islamic states in the impoverished area.
Tajik officials are striving to draw a sharp distinction between their country and Afghanistan, where the ruling Taliban militia has been shunned internationally for allegedly abetting terrorists, its treatment of women and destroying world-renowned antiquities.
Former Buddhist objects of reverence will be respected in Tajikistan, said Saidmurod Bobomoloyev, director of the National Museum of Antiquities in the Tajik capital Dushanbe.
The restored statue will go on display in September for the 10th anniversary of Tajikistan's declaration of independence from the Soviet Union.
``Buddhism was an important religion in an empire that stretched from India to Central Asia,'' said Bobomoloyev. ``Only a small part of the Buddhist monuments have been found so far.''
For more than 30 years following its discovery, the statue was kept in three separate pieces in the storage rooms of the Tajik museum of architecture and history because there was no money to restore it.
Following independence, Tajikistan invited restorers from Russia's Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg and solicited foreign grants. A French non-governmental organization, the Agency for Technological Cooperation and Development, is helping pay specialists involved in the restoration.
Serious work on restoring the Buddha began last year. Work remains to be done on the Buddha's left shoulder and right arm.
Soviet archaeologists discovered the Buddha in the temple at the ruins of Adjina-Tepa, on a wind-swept field 50 miles north of the Afghan border.
The figure, found in a central hall surrounded by frescos and small statues, depicts Buddha in nirvana, the state of perfect blessedness in the Buddhist faith when the soul is freed from the cycle of reincarnation.
Restorers gradually have returned the clay surface to its original graceful contours. The rough, yellowish glaze of the statue's skin is said to resemble the bark of a tree.
The Buddha's fate contrasts sharply with relics carved into a cliff face in Bamiyan in a Taliban-controlled region of Afghanistan. The soaring figures were carved from rock but also included terra cotta detail work.
The taller statue stood 170 feet high, and was believed to be the world's tallest standing Buddha. Taliban artillery reduced the works to rubble with artillery and explosives last month.
Copyright 2001 The Associated Press.