A greater India

A greater India

The greatest travellers of the ancient world were arguably the Buddhist monks and sages who travelled the length and breadth of Asia to spread the Buddhadharma

Bibek Bhattacharya
December 04 , 2014
03 Min Read

Forging ties with the burgeoning trading classes within India as well as along the overland trade routes of Asia, since about the 4th century BCE, Buddhism travelled extensively and carried with it the philosophies and social mores of Indic culture. Sunita Dwivedi’s labour of love, Buddha in Central Asia, charts her own travels in the footsteps of the Dharma to the pockets of mini-Jambudwipa (as the subcontinent was known then) in Central Asia.

A truly intrepid traveller, full of enthusiasm and determina­tion, Dwivedi has always been interested in this part of the world (she’d written a previous book on the Silk Route). Here, she travels extensively to uncover the volu­minous traces left by Buddhism in the vast uplands, desert oases and plains of Afghanistan, Turkmeni­stan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.


Dwivedi’s modus operandi is simple. She sticks to the interna­tional highways of the ancient world, such as the one that con­nects the Silk Route to Balkh and thence via Kabul and Taxila to the uttarapatha that led to Pataliputra. Since Ashokan times, these were the trade routes that Buddhist missionaries travelled on, and later monks and artists from Central Asian kingdoms made their way to India on these same routes, sometimes as a part of mass migra­tions, as part of invading armies, or as solitary traders and travellers bringing with them the sensibili­ties of their nations.

Although one knows, theoreti­cally at least, of the great impact that Buddhism had in Central Asia, at least till the 8th-9th century and the advent of Islam, it’s still an eye-opener to have Dwivedi show you how traces of the Dharma runs through the arid region like a rich underground stream.

Nothing illustrates this better than the legend of Naubahar, a monastery (Persian ‘new spring’, from the Sanskrit ‘Nava Vihara’ or ‘new monastery’) in Balkh in western Afghanistan. Dwivedi mentions the testimony of Hiuen Tsang, who had travelled to the kingdom of Balkh in the 7th century on his way to India. He had found a thriving, splendid monastery here, along with a giant statue of the Buddha studded with precious jewels. Incidentally, Balkh isn’t far from the destroyed colossi of Bamyan. To look for it, Dwivedi travels to the ruins of Takht-e-Rus­tam in the hills near Balkh—a huge stupa cut out of a single cliff (much like the freestanding rock-cut temples of early medieval India). She also visits the nearby network of cave cells and galleries of Tope-e-Rustam. This site is full of fascinating architectural flourishes and artwork (mostly ruined). It could well have been the Naubahar whose monastic families served as viziers in Haroun al Rashid’s court in Baghdad; the monastery that lent its name to a tantric school of art in eastern Iran. Up to the late medieval era, Muslim poets fre­quently used the term ‘naubahar’ to describe great beauty.

Just like at Bamyan, Dwivedi records the interesting fact that colossal statues of the Buddha were de rigueur all over the region. Thus, there’s the ruined colossi of a reclining Buddha of Ajina Tepe in Tajikistan, or the giant Buddha head of Gyaur Kala in Turkmeni­stan. Maybe, she muses, one day the daddy of them all — the legend­ary 1,000-foot statue of the Buddha in parinirvana — will be found in the hills of Bamyan.

Apart from the fascinating sites themselves, Dwivedi’s rich portraits of the countries and their people remind us again and again that Central Asia has always been, and will continue to be, more than just a politically troubled corner of the world.

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