A Taste of the Silk Road

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

A Taste of the Silk Road: A Personal Journey

Amitav Acharya

During its heydays, when the Tang Dynasty ruled China, the Silk Road was an inhospitable and utterly dangerous place. It nearly cost the most famous pilgrim to travel the road, the 7th century Chinese Monk Xuanzang, his life. Sadly, despite the dramatic improvements in transport and communications, many parts of it are still difficult and unstable. There is Uyghur unrest in China’s Xinjiang province, the site of such major Silk Road stopovers as Hami and Turpan on the north and Khotan (Zeitan) in the south. Taliban menaces the old Silk Road route to India via Afghanistan and Pakistan (Swat Valley). Add Iran, Baghdad, and the Central Asian Republics, and you get the picture.

Yet it is possible to sample the Silk Road, especially the eastern part of of it, from Xi’an to Dunhuang, which is within Chinese territory and very much accessible. It is the next best alternative to going the full distance.

In Xi’an, one can still visit the place where the Silk Road caravan’s took their first steps in the long and hazardous journey. It is now a small park with stone and concrete horses, camels and traders as well as a detailed map of the Silk Road.

And the most famous site for those with a special interest in the life of Monk Xuanzang is the Big Wild Goose Pagoda, built by Emperor Gaozong in the 7th century where the monk stored the Buddhist documents he brought back from India. A huge standing statue of the monk greets the visitor at the entrance to the Pagoda. A new building, called Tripitaka Palace, has been added with a sitting statue of the monk, as well as illustrations and murals depicting his journey, including encounters with peoples and rulers of India.

Xuanzang travelled to India in 629AD, against the wishes of Tang emperor Taizong, and returned to capital Chang’an in 645 AD. He travelled across India, several years of which were spent at Nalanda, the Buddhist university of India. Upon his return, he devoted his life to translating the Buddhist scriptures brought back from India, and sought imperial recognition and patronage for Buddhism in China.

In the "Forest of Steles" at the Shaanxi Museum (Beilin) which contains the largest collection of ancient steles in China, one can see two different calligraphical renderings of Emperor Taizong’s preface to Xuanzang’s Record of the Western Regions, where he gave graphic accounts of his travels to India. Emperor Taizong wanted him to write this account for a strategic purpose - so that the Tang empire could gain a first-hand account of the lands to the west which posed a constant threat to China. In modern times, we might call it strategic intelligence. Another stele, a 14th century portrait of the venerable monk, is not for public display, but one can buy rubbings of it from the museum store.

The Silk Road not only brought Chinese goods to the world, as far as to the eastern Roman empire (both Rome and the Byzantine Constantinople), it also brought the world to China. During Tang, Chang’an with a population of I million was the largest city in the world. At the Shaanxi History Museum, one can find images of various foreign nationalities who came and lived and traded with China, especially during the Tang dynasty. These include images of Huns, a Javanese, Mongolians, and even black Africans. Terracotta figurines of the camels and horses that kept the Silk Road humming can be found here. And one could see actual Silk Road era silk fragments, green, yellow and white. A documentary film recreates the Silk Road caravans; in front of a huge three dimensional map of the Road with its major routes lighted.

A mural from the interior walls of the tomb Gaozong, the son of Wu Zeitan, the only female empress in China's history, captures the diplomacy of the Tang which used the Silk Road to pursue an unprecedented policy of commerical and cultural opennees to the outside world. It depicts three Tang officials conferring among themselves while three envoys, who were from the Eastern Roman empire (Byzantium), Korea and Mongolia respectively, await. This mural is yet to be publicly displayed (although pictures of its are available in Museum guides). We were shown it and other original tomb murals - including scenes of royal hunting, the city walls and buildings of Chang'an, and ceremonies featuring Tang noble women whose plumpness was regarded as a thing of beauty - as a spcial favour to academics by the director of the Museum who studied with of my one of my Chinese hosts- a professor from Lanzhou University.

But nothing gives one a better flavor of life in the Silk Road than Dunhuang. Located on the edge of the Gobi desert, the oasis of Dunhuang, or Blazing Beacon, was the point where the ancient Silk Road divided into northern and southern routes, and where devotee and pilgrims made donations to build Buddhist images and commission murals inside the Mogao grottos at Mingsha Mountains near the Dunhuang River.

Ordinary visitors to Dunhuang's Mogao Caves are allowed only 10 caves per ticket (which costs 200 yuan per foreigner), unless you pay extra (200 yuan per cave) to visit a selected number of special caves. I paid 600 yuan for 3 such special caves, although there were several which are strictly off limits to visitors.

The caves do provide a vivid sense of the beauty of the Buddhist images and murals and plenty of evidence of the diffusion of Indian art into China via the Silk Road.

During the early stages of its development, the Northern and Western Wei periods (386-556AD), statuary and murals at the Mogao Grottos were heavily influenced by Indian designs, especially the Indo-Greek Gandhara design. Many Central Asian kingdoms, including the famed kingdom of Kucha that Xuanzang visited on his way to India, were ruled by Indo-European kings in whose courts Sanskrit was spoken. But by the time of Tang, divided into early-, mid-, high and late periods, the Indian influence had graduated given way to Chinese patterns and concepts. It is not clear whether this was done at the behest of the Tang emperors in Chang’an or was a natural evolution as Buddhism became increasingly localized in China. But the signs of such a transition were unmistakable at the fablous Mogao Grottos at Dunhuang.

A visit to cave 285, one of the “special” caves to which we had to purchase access, tells it all. Done during the Western Wei (mid 6th century AD) dynasty, the murals of the cave include a Shiva and Ganesha, on one of the walls as well as an image of the Mother Goddess of Chinese mythology (Nuwa) on the ceiling. The Shiva can be identified by a partially blurred trident on one of his four hands, right next to the mural of Ganesha.

This fantastic image of the two father and son Hindu deities in a Buddhist grotto has not been written about, and was particularly exciting a discovery for me. I have not seen or read about other Hindu deities at Dunhuang. The Mother Goddess image is of special importance. Was it a precursor to Guan Yin, the everpresent Chinese female boddhisattva?

Dunhuang's Mingsha Mountains, a strech of enoromous sand dunes, was termed "rumbling sands" by Marco Polo during his travels through here. They are among the most striking dunes in the enitre Silk Road. The oasis-like Crescent Moon Lake at Mingsa, whose water never dries up and is believed to have medicinal value,is a mystical wonder of nature.

The Mingsha dunes are also a good place to get a sense of the challenges the Silk Road traders and pilgrims had to face from an inhospitable and unpredictable desert. Along with my Chinese friends, I climbed to the top of a hill, partly by camel and then partly by foot, while the sun shone brightly over our head at 6pm local time. As we reached the top, a howling wind started blowing, blurring the sun and blasting sand on our faces, making it difficult to breathe and almost knocking me off my feet and down the steep slopes of the dune. We made it back, sliding down the dunes, to be told by the locals that an unexpected sand storm had visited the area.A local legend has it that during the Han Dynasty, a Chinese army advancing to the western region was attacked by its enemy here, but the war drums attracted a howling wind, burying both armies. I almost believe in it.

Dunhuang Cave 285

Outer Wall Murals

Fruits and Food

Although Dunhuang today is a modern-looking town, with regular flights from Beijing and Shanghai (via Lanzhou), and comfortable accommodation like the Mogao Hotel where I stayed, it still offers plenty of evidence of a rugged, frontier past. Donkey meat and yellow noodles are a Dunhuang speciality. Mutton kebabs and oven-baked bread (similar to but a little tougher than the Indian Naan), are the staple of the Muslim people in the Western region, although it is equally popular with the Chinese. The very pleasant night market offers an abundance of dried and fresh fruits.

Xuanzang on India

“On examination, we find that the names of India (Tien-chu) are various and perplexing as to their authority. It was anciently called Shin-tu, also Hien-tau; but now, according to the right pronunciation, it is called In-tu. The people of In-tu call their country by different names according to their district. Each country has diverse customs. Aiming at a general name which is the best sounding, we will call the country In-tu. In Chinese, the name signifies the Moon. The moon has many names, of which this is one. For as it is said that all living things ceaselessly revolve in the wheel (of transmigration) through the long night of ignorance, without a guiding star, their case is like (the world), the sun gone down; as then the torch affords its connecting light, though there be the shining of the stars, how different from the bright (cool) moon; just so the bright connected light of holy men and sages, guiding the world as the shining of the moon, have made this country eminent, and so it is called In-tu.”

Xuanzang, Si Yu Ki (Buddhist Records of the Western World), Book II, Translated by Samuel Beal (first published in U.K. in 1884, reprint, New Delhi, Low Price Publications, 1995), p.69