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Meditating my way along the Silk Route and Holy India.

Retracing history through travel and meditation in historical locales. 2008-2016......Ramdas A. Iyer

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I have attempted herein to combine my travels to historical places along the silk route along with my practice of meditation which melds seamlessly through wonderful places touched by Buddhism, Hinduism and nature. Without a historic perspective, these travels do not mean much. The great history behind these places increases their value as a destination and an appropriate location to meditate. Spanning a time frame from 500 BC to 2012 AD, I have within the percepts of 5000 words compressed 2500 years of history. Many empires are referenced and can be better understood with the time frame and maps provided.
I have been experimenting with meditation since 2007 ever since the paths of Mark Reisenberg and mine intersected at a gym in Short Hills, NJ. Generally feeling rather rushed, anxious ,short tempered with frequent outbursts at work and lack of patience at home, one day I became deeply aware of my short comings. I sought the counsel of Mark, who had trained under the great Mahesh Yogi. Mark and I had developed a friendship since he was drawn to my knowledge of the East and me to his deep interest in it. Most days Mark had a glow in his face and when questioned he would comment about the great meditation session he had had that day. In fact he has been having those great moments almost daily for the past 40 years. A walking prescription for that practice. He agreed to come to my house and give me an introductory lesson in Transcendental Meditation. I could immediately feel its impact and would feel "cleansed" and be more mindful of my actions. Being a busy entrepreneur, committing time for meditation without feeling rushed has been my only challenge. Despite having the knowledge that there is only upsides when time is dedicated to this practice, it has still been a work in progress having already tapped into the nectar of its abilities.
The structured practice of meditation( Dhyana) is thought to go back 5,000 years with its development in India, culminating in its initial development by Hindus as a means of discerning the true nature of Brahman (or God) and its later development by the Buddha (Siddhartha Gautama) who reached “enlightenment” by meditating under a Bodhi Tree (ficus religiosa), following years of disenchantment with established religious practices.
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I had promised to escort Mark and his daughter Kate to some of the great meditation centers of India someday when everyone was ready to do so.
As my travel regimen peaked during the last decade, I had traveled much of the Silk road and other Asian countries which coincidentally fell under the sway of Hinduism and Buddhism for over 2000 years. This gave me ample opportunities to not only explore the historical areas but also meditate in storied locations which has been a great personal joy thus far.
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Uzbekistan lies north west of current day Afghanistan & Pakistan and is the route through which Buddhism spread into China along the fabled silk road. Ancient India and old Persia had their border near current day Uzbekistan/ Turkmenistan. This border delineated the two great axial religions that were borne out of the migrating Aryans of the Central Asian Steppes: Hinduism and Zoarastrianism.Visiting the town of Termez in 2009, where Alexander the Great had crossed the Oxus (a major military feat) enroute to India, I realized that I had emerged from a time machine upon landing at the small airport. 2000 years of history lay at my feet .In a town called Fayez Tepe, about 40 km from Mazar-e-Sharif , Afghanistan,( another center of Buddhism during the Kushan Empire, not too far from Bamiyan where the great Buddha statues were decapitated by the Taliban)), I visited a small stupa and monastery erected by Kanishka I, the Great (AD 127-163), the fabled ruler of the Kushan Empire of Ancient India. Kanishka came to rule an empire in Bactria (Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Pakistan) extending from Turfan in the Tarim Basin ( Xinjiang Province of China) to Pataliputra ( near modern Patna, India)on the Gangetic plain. His conquests and patronage of Buddhism played an important role in the development of the Silk Road, and the transmission of Mahayana Buddhism from Gandhara ( modern Pakistan)across the Karakoram range to China. Kanishka 's father hailed from Xinjiang province and belonged to a tribe known as Tocharians and spoke an eastern Iranian language similar to Sanskrit, another one of the Indo European languages. The Aryan connection with India that started around 1500BC continued until the 4th century AD through migrations and conquests. So I followed Kanisha's conquests which incidentally lay the foundations of the fabled silk route.
While visiting Fayez Tepe, being the only traveler that day in this remote corner, I requested my guide for some free time to sit alone under the stupa and meditate for world peace; a fitting location given the double electrified border fence and minefields less than 500 metres away.*( Quiet the mind, and the soul will speak. ~Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati).

Later that evening my guide who also worked in the local museum, gave me a private post dinner tour of the amazing Bactrian and Gandharan artifacts excavated around Termez by Soviet archeologists of renown. Sotheby's would have drooled at such a treasure fairly well kept by the State Museum.
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On an earlier trip to China in 2008 while passing through the Tarim Basin, considered one of the hottest places on earth, I came upon many small towns that constituted the original silk road, but is today set away from the main highways connecting Xian to Kashgar for over 3000 miles. In these now Islamic towns inhabited by the Turkic Uygur people, one could see Buddhist caves scattered all over remote hill sides. I sat besides some of them and pondered the impact of Buddhism on these peoples who were all Buddhists prior to their conversions around 840 AD. during the rise of Islam. So I asked the locals about Buddhism and they had no clue what I was talking about. Communism and Islam had erased all spoken history, despite the area being Buddhist for nearly 600 years. I suspect that no European would ever admit to being a pagan at that time either.
Crossing the Tarim Basin from Kashgar to Urumqi along the silk road, home of several Uighur unrests, I could only begin to fathom the extreme conditions in which the silk road merchants traveled. After an adventure filled 36 hour train ride through the Gobi desert I arrived at the town of Dunhuang- famous for its world famous Magao Buddhist grottos and now a World Heritage site. Carved into the cliffs above the Dachuan River, the Mogao Caves south-east of the Dunhuang oasis, Gansu Province, comprise the largest, most richly endowed, and longest used treasure house of Buddhist art in the world. It was first constructed in 366AD and represents the great achievement of Buddhist art from the 4th to the 14th century. 492 caves are presently preserved, housing about 45,000 square meters of murals and more than 2,000 painted sculptures. The unique artistic style of Dunhuang art is not only the amalgamation of Han Chinese artistic tradition and styles assimilated from ancient Indian, Greco-Bactrian and Gandharan customs, but also an integration of the arts of the Turks, ancient Tibetans and other Chinese ethnic minorities. Many of these masterpieces are creations of an unparalleled aesthetic talent. The artifacts stolen from here by British and German archeologists began the rift between China and the west and well documented in the book" Foreign Devils on the Silk Road" by Peter Hopkirk. If I were to be on an adventure during Victorian times, this would have been it.
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The railhead being 2 hours from town, my guide and driver spent the night in a small lodging nearby. On arrival at 2:00 AM, there was no soul stirring in the station and I had to carry my heavy baggage up and over railway trestles to meet my people. It was cold, hard and riven with anxiety.
Later that morning driving along the Dachuan river, I could see the multitude of caves at different elevations on the hardened mud cliffs of the river valley. It was extremely cold near the caves with the temperature in single digits. After taking a private tour of some of the grottos I looked for a place to meditate. Out of a possible 200 well preserved caves one can only see 4 caves during each visit. This way they reduce the impact of tourism on the murals adorning the fragile walls of the caves. These amazing caves were decorated using gifts given to the monks by traders to build altars and grottos to thank Buddha for their successful missions. The Tang Emperors had built a beautiful pavilion near the grotto around 650 AD. This gave me a quiet place to meditate and appreciate the opportunity bestowed on me to be in such a place. *(Mind is a door that leads you outside in the world; meditation is the door that leads you to your interiority—to the very innermost shrine of your being. ~Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh)

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Again after another 24 hour train ride, I arrived in Xian and transferred to another train to Lou Yang, one of the greatest ancient cities of China. Not realizing that I had to break journey in Xian ( Ancient Chang An), I hired a porter who carried my belongings to a youth hostel nearby. After a quick breakfast, I hired one of the hustling taxi drivers to take me to the famous Xian mosque built in 742 by the Tang Emperors in classic Chinese style. The Tang Dynasty noted for its religious tolerance is still considered the Golden Age of China. There were even two Hindu temples with Brahmin priests in Chang' An in the 8th century. India and China historically had such a great connection that the damage done during the Communist Government will take more time to fully heal. I meditated at this mosque which to me was more Buddhist in element than Islam in presence.( *One hour of contemplation surpasses sixty years of worship. – Muhammad)
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Situated on the central plain of China, Luoyang is one of the cradles of Chinese civilization, and is one of the Four Great Ancient Capitals of China. For several centuries, Luoyang was the focal point of China. In AD 68, the White Horse Temple, the first Buddhist temple in China, was founded in Luoyang. The temple still exists, though the architecture is of later origin, mainly from the 16th century. The history of this city is so rich that it asks to be investigated outside the scope of this article. My coming here was to visit two great sites; the White Horse Temple and the Longmen Grottos.
On the instruction of the Chinese Emperor Ming Di, two of his emissaries departed to India around AD 67 during the Kushan period (2nd century BC to 3rd century AD), in search for Buddhist scriptures .They encountered two Indian Buddhist monks in Gandhara and persuaded them to join them and return to China, bringing their book of Buddhist scriptures, relics and statues of Buddha with them on two white horses. At the behest of the emperor, the two monks named Kasyapa Matanga and Gobharana translated the Buddhist classics at the Baimai Temple at LuoYang, which was then the nation’s capital. The most notable of the classics, the Sutra of Forty-two Chapters was translated by Matanga. This was the first Buddhist sutra in Chinese and has the pride of place in the history of Chinese Buddhism. The temple then increased in importance as Buddhism grew within China and spread to Korea, Japan and Vietnam. The introduction of Buddhism in China was a significant influence on Chinese morals, thought and ethics. Pleased with their arrival in China, the king built a temple in their honor and named it the White Horse Temple as an appreciation of the white horses that had carried the monks. The horses are buried here and a statue has been erected there. The Buddhist religion prospered from here and with the arrival of Bodhidarma ( from Kanchipuram in South India), another monk from India in the 5th century, Chinese Buddhism evolved, spreading to other countries.
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. The two monks are buried there under earthen mounds typical of Chinese burials of that period. One cannot imagine a better place for an amazing meditation session. I found a quiet corner next to Kashyapa Matanga's mound and had one of my greatest meditation sessions there. (*Meditation is not a way of making your mind quiet. It’s a way of entering into the quiet that’s already there – buried under the 50,000 thoughts the average person thinks every day. – Deepak Chopra.)
One of the most spectacular Buddhist sites is the Longmen Grottos- located on both sides of the Yi River to the south of the ancient capital of Luoyang, Henan province ( Near modern Zhengzhou). It comprises of more than 2,300 caves and niches carved into the steep limestone cliffs over a 1km long stretch. These contain almost 110,000 Buddhist stone statues, more than 60 stupas and 2,800 inscriptions carved on steles. Well, one would think that it must be the ultimate place for meditation, but unfortunately the place got run over by tourists since it is a World heritage Site. While the location has nothing of great historical connection with Buddhism itself it encapsulates the high cultural level and sophisticated society of Tang Dynasty China(5th-7th Century AD).
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On the next leg of my travel in China, I finally came upon the famous Shaolin Temple, home to Chinese martial arts, Kung Fu. Shaolin Temple was established in 495A.D. at the western foot of Songshan Mountain, 13 kilometers northwest to Dengfeng City, Henan Province. The then Emperor Xiaowen of the Northern Wei dynasty (386-557) had the temple built to accommodate the Indian master Batuo (Buddhabhadra). Shaolin Temple literally means “temple in the thick forests of Shaoshi Mountain”.

As the first Shaolin abbot, Batuo (Buddhabhadra) devoted himself to translating Buddhist scriptures and preaching doctrines to hundreds of his followers. Later, another Indian monk Bodhidharma arrived at the Shaolin Temple, after crossing the Yangtze River from Canton. He spent nine years meditating in a cave and initiated the Chinese Chan tradition( Zen Buddhism) at Shaolin Temple. Thereafter, Bodhidharma was honored as the first Patriarch of Chan Buddhism. As Chinese Kung fu also originated from Shaolin Temple, it has been recognized as the origin of Chan Buddhism and the cradle of Kung fu; both attributed to Boddhidharma.
I must elaborate on this great Buddhist, Bodhidharma, since he hailed from Kanchipuram a town 35Km from where I grew up in Madras, India. Shaolin tradition mentions Bodhidharma (ca. 470-532) as that the 'first Zen patriarch'. The son of a South Indian ruler, a king of Kanchipuram, and that he appeared one day at the southern Chinese port city of Canton around 520 A.D is written into history by scholars, whence he traveled to see Emperor Wu of the Liang dynasty. This tradition points to Bodhidharma as a member of the ruling class of the South Indian dynasty of the Pallavas, the contemporary of Skandavarman IV or Nandivarman I.
It is well known that Kanchipuram, the Pallava capital, was one of the most important strongholds of Indian Buddhism at that time. Bodhidharma, (like me) was a Tamil-speaking South Indian who trained the monks of Shaolin Temple, Kalaripayat, a local form of martial arts still practiced in the Kerala region today. This training of monks became necessary due to regular raids from the forested areas on the monastery. Until this day Shaolin is the home to Kung Fu ( too commercialized within the city today) and Bodhidharma is recognized as the undisputed master of Zen philosophy and Kung Fu. He is worshiped as Damma in Japan where Chan Buddhism is called Zen Buddhism.
What better place to do meditation where the great Bodhidharma himself meditated. It was a quiet, cool afternoon as I found a place under a statue of the master and meditated deeply.( *As long as you look for a Buddha somewhere else, you'll never see that your own mind is the Buddha. -Bodhidharma)

From Uzbekistan to interior China I had travelled on three different trips to complete this circuit ever so closely connected with Buddhism and meditation. Now it is time for me to return to India and connect the dots where great Hindi philosophers and Buddha himself began these traditions.
In 2010 , my sister, her husband and my cousin did a road trip through Garwhal Himalayas. We were heading to Badrinath one of the holiest places of Hinduism in India. Enroute, we stayed in the hill town of Jyothirmatt. This was where one of India's greatest Hindu philosopher meditated and started a monastic order. He was Shankara. The great Adi Shankara in early 8th century was a philosopher and theologian who consolidated the doctrine of Advaita Vedanta. He is credited with unifying and establishing the main currents of thought in Hinduism philosophy which expounds that God resides inside our own soul. This is the branch of philosophy my community and family have practiced over millennia.
Shankara travelled across the Indian subcontinent to propagate his philosophy through discourses and debates with other thinkers. He established the importance of monastic life as sanctioned in the great Hindu works of Upanishads and Brahma Sutra, in a time when the existing Mīmāṃsā school established strict ritualism and ridiculed monasticism. He is reputed to have founded four mathas ("monasteries"), which helped in the historical development, revival and spread of Advaita Vedanta of which he is known as the greatest revivalist. At a time when Buddhism was a populist religion that attracted the masses, he through doctrines and brilliant discourses restored Hinduism in India. In its aftermath Buddhism and Jainism became diminished religions within its borders for better or worse.
Just imagine meditating in the cave were the great Shankara himself immersed himself inwards. This along with my time under the Bodhi tree marked moments of great internal bliss for me.*( “If the mind falls asleep, awaken it. Then if it starts wandering, make it quiet. If you reach the state where there is neither sleep nor movement of mind, stay still in that, the natural (real) state.” ― Ramana Maharshi)
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There is little doubt among those who appreciate Indian philosophy that the foothills of the Himalayas was a Petri dish for great thinkers. The Hindu Rishis subjected themselves to great feats of body & breathe control and would survive in very cold climes with very little outerwear. Through those extreme moments, they focused their mind into deep meditation. The Buddhists were even more severe in their penance and rigor during meditation. While my wife Pushpa and I were at the Mt. Everest Base Camp in Tibet in 2012, we visited the Rongbuk Monastery (17600 ft altitude). Rongbuk Monastery was founded in 1902 by the Nyingmapa Lama Ngawang Tenzin Norbuin in an area of meditation huts and caves that had been in use by communities of nuns since the 18th century. Hermitage meditation caves dot the cliff walls all around the monastery complex and up and down the valley. Mani stone walls, carved with sacred syllables and prayers, line the paths. These are areas where temperatures never climb above freezing point.
The founding Rongbuk Lama, also known as Zatul Rinpoche, was much respected by the Tibetans. Even though the Rongbuk Lama viewed the early climbers at the Base Camp as "heretics," he gave them his protection and supplied them with meat and tea while also praying for their conversion. It was the Rongbuk Lama who gave Namgyal Wangdi the name Ngawang Tenzin Norbu, or Tenzing Norgay, as a young child.
On a very cold but windless day with crystal clear skies and on a ground with ice over several inches thick, I found a spot facing the great Choma Lama-Mt. Everest and got into deep mediation with the peaks staring down at me. This was a memorable place and moment in my life. I could see the glaciers below and wisps of snow blow from the peak and imagine a visit to its pinnacle through an inward journey.*( Sitting like a mountain let your mind rise, fly and soar. – Sogyal Rinpoche)
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So travel can be combined with many personal hobbies or practices. One can do yoga in spectacular places, meditate in meaningful places, exercise in unique locales, paint as my friend cerebral Suresh does alongside nature and yet be tourist and traveler.
Finally 2016 came around and the trip I promised my guru a decade ago kicked into being. In February of 2016 Mark, Kate and I embarked on a two week journey to North India. The ultimate destination, The Bodhi Tree in Bodh Gaya was true to our expectations.
I must give a small primer about Buddha for some of my western readers. Born as prince Gautama and living the trappings of luxury, he became exposed to the ultimate reality of life: sorrow. Gautama abandoned his court life and family took on the life of a wandering monk, accepting food as it was offered to him. He pursued his spiritual quest and studied under the well-known teachers of his day. He learned deep meditation and followed the yogic practices, but in the end discovered that he reached a point where the teachers could offer him no more. He wanted to find the truth of life through severe penance and meditation.
For six years, Sakyamuni starved and punished his body and lived the most austere life imaginable. He sat under a Bodhi tree at a place called Bodh Gaya and determined not to move until he had found the answers he sought. His meditation was deep, and, on the night of the full moon in May of 523 BC, complete Enlightenment came to him. His mind became calm and clear and he understood the cycle of birth, death and the wheel of life. He understood his true nature and that of all living beings. This was the end of his spiritual journey, and at that moment he became "the Buddha". His simple message was a lot more appealing than the complex ritual and caste based Hinduism, that a religious revolution that took root in ancient India.

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Waking up early we visited the grounds which was thronging with Buddhist pilgrims from all over the World. The chant of the Tibetans, the songs of the Sri Lankans, the quiet worship of the Japanese and Thai, along with a smattering of westerners who were deeply rooted in meditation. The Mahabodhi Temple Complex, UNESCO Heritage Site, is one of the four holy sites related to the life of the Lord Buddha, and particularly to the attainment of Enlightenment. The first temple was built by Emperor Asoka in the 3rd century B.C., and the present temple dates from the 5th or 6th centuries. It is one of the earliest Buddhist temples built entirely in brick, still standing in India, from the late Gupta period.
After walking around the complex with throngs of monks and lay people performing worship both in a private and personal manner in every nook and cranny of the grounds, was truly inspirational. As a Hindu, the lack of major ceremonies or grand rituals in Buddhism became quite evident here. Mark had always maintained that the power of group meditation was synergistic. Mark, Kate and I searched for a spot under the huge branches of the Bodhi tree and the three of us mediated amongst the faint backdrop of chanting and singing. It was an invigorating experience, something I could have done sitting there all morning.*( Peace comes from within. Do not seek it without............... Buddha)
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We returned to the complex again in the evening and again the following morning with each visit providing immense satisfaction and internal joy. On the last morning while Mark and I were meditating before sunrise, a monk came and sat next to us. In the midst of meditation he placed a fruit in each of our hands. Upon waking up we realized that he had gone. Within a matter of minutes, two monks came to us with a begging bowl and all we had with us were the fruits in our hands to offer. It was a remarkable event and seemed to be surreal moment that either of us can explain in words.
Another important place that marks the life of the Buddha. He arrived in Sarnath after wandering along the Ganges river and spent days meditating in a grove with wandering deers. Word soon got out that a great monk was dispensing great words that even ordinary people could understand. Here he preached his message of the middle way to nirvana after he achieved enlightenment at Bodhgaya and gave his famous first sermon here. In the 3rd century BC, emperor Ashoka had magnificent stupas and monasteries erected here as well as an engraved pillar. When Chinese traveler Xuan Zang dropped by in AD 640, Sarnath boasted a 100m-high stupa and 1500 monks living in large monasteries. However, soon after, Buddhism went into decline and, when Muslim invaders sacked the city in the late 12th century, Sarnath disappeared altogether. It was ‘rediscovered’ by British archaeologists in 1835.Today it’s one of the four key sites on the Buddhist circuit.
In a suitable spot, Kate, Mark and I had a tremendous group meditation session. My personal awakening here is simply indescribable.*( Half an hour's meditation each day is essential, except when you are busy. Then a full hour is needed. -Saint Francis de Sales)
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Our spiritual travels also took us to Rishikesh, the ashram of Mahesh Yogi and famous for the Beatles in residence in the 60s. Since ancient times, Rishikesh has been an important pilgrimage spot for the saints and Hindu devotees. However, it is during the initial medieval period in India that the place started to gain more popularity. During 8th century Adi Shankaracharya, mentioned earlier, built several temples and ashrams in the region. Unfortunately, most of the temples and ashrams were destroyed because of several earthquakes and floods that have affected the region over the centuries; however, some temples still stand tall and are reminiscent of the rich cultural heritage of the place.

While Rishikesh has a rich religious history that makes it an important place among Indians, but the event that really put Rishikesh on world’s map was the visit by The Beatles in 1968. The band arrived in India in the search of answers to life’s larger questions. During their stay of several weeks, at Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s ashram, they learnt transcendental meditation to understand the deeper meaning behind human existence. It is in Rishikesh, that they wrote most of the songs of their most famous album, The White Album. Since their visit, millions of people from across the globe have thronged the place, either to seek answers to their own questions or to witness the remains of that historic event.
While John Lennon and Ringo went about practicing songs for the White Album, George and Paul really got into some serious meditation. It is said that Paul still supports the Transintendal Meditation organization until this day. Mark and I had a small meditation session there to follow the footsteps of his guru and the Beatles.* ("Meditate and enjoy."
"TM in the am and the pm."
"Water the root to enjoy the fruit."
"20 minutes in the bank, all day in the market place." .........Maharishi Mahesh Yogi)
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Mark and I meditated at the famous Sivananda Ashram in front of the samadhi of the great Hindu spiritual teacher and a proponent of Yoga and Vedanta. Swami Sivananda is the last of India's great sages and I would ask my readers to sample his works available in the web. A few miles downriver in Hardwar, we had the opportunity to witness the Ardh Kumbh Mela where over 80 million pilgrims wash away their sins in the river over a 45 day period. The Kumbh Mela is a very ancient event referred to in the Indian epics Ramayana and Mahabharata dating to 1500 BC. First written evidence of the Kumbha Mela can be found in the accounts of Chinese traveler, Huan Tsang or Xuanzang (602 - 664 A.D.) who visited India in 629 -645 CE, during the reign of King Harshavardhana.

  • ( "Regular meditation opens the avenues of

intuitional knowledge,
makes the mind calm and steady,
awakens an ecstatic feeling,
and brings the practitioner in contact
with the source of his/her very being."
...............Swami Sivananda"_

While staying at the elegant Hari Ganga Haveli in Haridwar we took a plunge in the icy waters around 5:00 AM. We followed that dip by a meditation session in our room and the energy of the place and the meditation carried us through for a couple of days. Kate unfortunately took ill in Hardwar and was bed ridden for three days with a virus. The local doctor was very efficient and kind and the in room treatment including medicines for three days cost less than $20. Haridwar was an amazing place where one could see poor peasants and rich land lords dip next to each other competing for space to wash away their sins. The deep faith shown by the masses, the orderliness, the excellent security arrangements provided by the government and our ability to meander amongst millions of people, with a camera pointed, was quite exceptional. As a traveler and photographer such an access to humanity ever willing to grace themselves in a photograph cannot be found anywhere else on earth.
Varanasi has been a cultural centre of North India for several thousand years, and is closely associated with the Ganges. Hindus believe that death in the city will bring salvation, making it a major centre for pilgrimage. The city is known worldwide for its many Ghats, embankments made in steps of stone slabs along the river bank where pilgrims perform ritual ablutions. In Varanasi, we walked the alleyways, sailed the river passing bathers, worshipers and the cremation Ghats which has witnessed the burning Hindu remains for over two millennia, 24/7 365 days a year. Our meditation sessions took place in the terrace of our haveli, overlooking the river, that once belonged to the King of Nepal. On these banks the great Buddha gave his sermons, where saints like Kabir and Tulsi Das called home. *(“Be quiet in your mind, quiet in your senses, and also quiet in your body. Then, when all these are quiet, don't do anything. In that state truth will reveal itself to you.”...................Kabir)
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With Mark, Kate and brother Vijay in attendance, I also used this great opportunity to bring the cremated remains of my dear father who passed away in 2015 in New Jersey and immersed it in the river after Hindu rituals lead by a chief priest. Here he joined my forebears who watch and guide me through my daily meditation and machinations of life.
Mixing and meeting amazing people, meditating in historic sites, eating great food, I offered my friend and his family a glimpse into Hindu India. I will try to devote some other amazing mediation moments while traveling through South east Asia in another article. I must stop now. It is time for meditation. Aum. ( riyerr@aol.com)
The End

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Posted by Ramdas Iyer 15:16 Archived in China Tagged temple buddhism meditation white xian buddha varanasi road horse monastery tang empire silk rishikesh shaolin longmen sarnath rongbuk bishkek swami sivananda bodh gaya ramdas iyer kushan adi empire. advaita shankara hardwar magao grottos boddhidharma damma kanishka Comments (2)

Kashgar, Crossroads of the Silk Road, Xinjiang, China

Pictorial essay and record of a historic City slated for destruction..........Ramdas Iyer

sunny 34 °F

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The joy of a traveler looking for historic sites is the reward of seeing wonderful monuments and learning interesting stories of a bygone history. With an internal revolt on hand the Chinese Government has kept a tight rein on Kashgar, the spiritual home of the Islamic Turkic-Mongol Uighur people who populate Xinjiang Province of Northwestern China. In 2006 when I made this trip it was clear that the Chinese were intent on destroying the ancient city and slowly moving its population to concrete communist style dwellings. The problems for Kashgar were further excercebated when the Chinese refused to give it a UNESCO World heritage status. They believed that the dismantling of Kashgar would break the spirit of the Uyghur. So I went to see and photograph Kashgar. Here I wish to offer the reader a comprehensive history and visual record of a place condemned to the abyss of Silk Road history.
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The Silk Road has always held an allure in my heart. The more I read about its history the more I felt the desire to travel it. You may have read from my previous blogs about sections of my travels through this fabled route in Central Asia and China. Kashgar however is very special. For two millenniums or more, Kashgar was the greatest market city on one of the major trade routes of ancient times. Caravans of a thousand camels each traveled along it, transporting silk, spices, gold and gemstones between Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey) and the central Chinese city of Xian, then the capital. Kashgar—where the bone-dry Taklimakan Desert meets the Tian Shan Mountains was a key city along the Silk Road, the 7,000-mile trade route that connected cultures of the China’s Yellow River Valley with India and the Mediterranean. In the ninth century, Uighur forebears, traders traveling from Mongolia in camel caravans, settled in oasis towns around the desert. Originally Buddhists, they began converting to Islam about 300 years later. For the past 1,000 years, Kashgar has thrived, languished—and been ruthlessly suppressed by occupiers. The Italian adventurer Marco Polo reported passing through around 1273, about 70 years after it was seized by Genghis Khan. He called it “the largest and most important” city in “a province of many towns and castles.” Tamerlane the Great, the despot from what is now Uzbekistan, sacked the city in 1390. Three imperial Chinese dynasties conquered and reconquered Kashgar and its environs.Still, its mosques and madrassahs drew scholars from all over Central Asia. Its caravansaries, or inns, provided refuge to traders bearing glass, gold, silver, spices and gems from the West along with silks and porcelain from the East. Its labyrinthine alleys teemed with blacksmiths, cotton-spinners, book-binders and other craftsmen.

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In the mid-19th century, Kashgar again became prominent when Britain and Russia struggled for influence over Central Asia in the intrigues and espionage known as the "Great Game”. (A book written in the same name by Peter Hopkirk has been my inspiration for these travels). Peter Hopkirk in a related book “Foreign Devils on the Silk Road” writes at length about the visitors to the Russian consulate in Kashgar which then regularly hosted British adversaries as fellow European diplomats in a both climatically and politically hostile area of Central Asia, then know as the Sinkiang Province of China. At that time the Peking based Qing Dynasty had a very loose grip on this area allowing Britain and Russia to meddle in the affairs of this area.
This once famous Russian consulate now became my home during my three days stay in the area. Today it is a hotel, considered the best, yet somewhere between a two star and three star rated hotel. I was perhaps the only guest at the hotel in December, 2006 when very few travelers reach Xinjiang Province. During my first night there prostitutes drummed on my door almost every 10 minutes seeking patronage. It was scary, given the location of my room in a remote corner of this dark hotel which turns off all lights in the absence of guests and I had no way of communicating with the Chinese speaking desk clerk of my travails, while trapped inside my room. Upon the intervention of my guide the following day everything settled down.

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Today, Kashgar -- now officially called Kashi -- has less the texture of Chinese cities like Shanghai than of old Central Asian cities like Samarkand, Uzbekistan, or even of Arab cities like Fez, Morocco. Almost 80 percent of Kashgar's population of 300,000 is non-Chinese, the overwhelming majority constituted by Islamic Turkic Uighar. Its closest borders are with the former Soviet republics of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, and it also has close links with nearby Pakistan. But for its entire Arabian Nights atmosphere, Kashgar also contains such 20th-century Chinese Communist emblems as gray socialist concrete buildings and a 55-foot-high statue of Chairman Mao.
Surrounded by the Tian Shan Mountains, the Pamir range and the vast Taklimakan Desert, Kashgar has never been easy to get to. Kashgar was the northerly route for traders headed to Xian from Kabul while skirting the Taklimakan. Other daring merchants took the shorter but dangerous southern route through Hotan to Urumqi further east of Kashgar where the two routes converge to form another fabled city. From Beijing, I flew to Urumqi (6hrs), the capital of Xinjiang, the "autonomous region" and another 1.5 hours to Kashgar.

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Expressions like "Silk Road" suggest luxury and comfort, so it's important to remember that the route could just as well have been called the Pothole Road. Kashgar today has few luxuries to offer visitors, for taxis are mostly donkey carts, restaurants are longer on grime than service, and none of the hotels comes close to meeting international standards. Hot water occasionally emerges from the taps, but so do cockroaches, and the interesting pattern on the wallpaper turns out, on closer examination, to be the result of accumulated stains.
Yet what a magical place it is! The city is an oasis, and water gushes through canals that run along the main streets and nourish the trees that provide a pleasant canopy. Even in the broiling summer heat, the lakes and canals keep Kashgar relatively green and cool. Delightful alleys wind between mud-walled houses, little boys fish in tree-lined lakes, and traffic on main boulevards is slowed by herdsmen driving flocks of fat-tailed sheep in the canals as the donkey carts rolled by.
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The population of Kashgar consists 80% of Turkic-Mongolian Uyghur. They are being diluted by a huge influx of Han Chinese similar to that of Tibet to quell frequent bursts of violence while demanding independence from China.The Uyghur’s have experienced tastes of independence. In 1933, they declared the East Turkestan Republic, from the Tian Shan Mountains south to the Kunlun Mountains, which lasted until a Chinese warlord came to power the next year. Then, in 1944, as the nationalist Chinese government neared collapse during World War II, the Uyghur established the Second East Turkestan Republic, which ended in 1949, after Mao Zedong took over China. Six years after Mao’s victory, China created the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, similar to a province but with greater local control; the Uighur Muslims are its largest ethnic group.
It was early morning and I was exploring the back streets of Kashgar, with my guide who was a young Muslim from the neighboring province of Qinghai which lies east of the Tibetan plateau.
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The two of us followed narrow passageways bathed in sunlight or obscured by shadows. We encountered faces that testified to Kashgar’s role as a crossroads of Central Asia on the route linking China, India and the Mediterranean. Narrow-eyed, white-bearded elders wearing embroidered skullcaps chatted in front of a 500-year-old mosque. We passed pale-complexioned men in black felt hats; broad-faced, olive-skinned men who could have passed for Bengalis; green-eyed women draped in head scarves and chadors; and the occasional burqa-clad figure who might have come straight from Afghanistan. It was a scene witnessed in the early 1900s by Catherine Theodora Macartney, wife of the British consul in Kashgar when it was a listening post in the Great Game, the strategic Russia-Britain conflict for control of Central Asia. “One could hardly say what the real Kashgar type was,” she wrote in a 1931 memoir, An English Lady in Chinese Turkestan, “for it has become so mixed by the invasion of other people in the past.”
We walked deep into the alleys of this historical mud built city, now repaired in places. Many wealthy families have bigger homes in town but yet keep their tradition by coming back to the smaller ancestral homes on weekends. The alleys were bustling with economic activity similar to that seen in small villages. Vendors manufacturing and hawking small tools, roadside butcheries, vegetable sellers, hat makers to name a few. I took particular joy in eating the oven baked “samosa” filled with lamb meat and melon. Sumptuous meat dumplings available for less than a dollar more than sufficed for lunch. The locals were very pleasant and welcoming. The kids were playing in the streets inside the old quarter without worrying about safety or traffic. The hamam method of communal bathing was very much evident inside the old town.

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In some corners of the town young men were playing billiards under trees while a washing machine repair stall doubled as a game parlor. Taxis inside the town were nonexistent but the roads outside the old town were bustling with buses, cars, motorcycles and motorbike drawn taxis. Horse carts were not uncommon which until the 80s were the main source of local transportation.
The Aidkah Mosque dominates the central square. Originally built in 1442 but renovated many times since then, the mosque is as much a public garden as a place to pray. A yellow-tiled building with square lines that give way to a dome, the mosque contains an area the size of a large city block -- filled with trees, ponds and walking paths. I was told that the entire area outside the mosque was a large city park with beautiful poplar trees which the Chinese cleared for “security reasons” leaving behind a cobblestoned plaza which can still accommodate 20000 worshipers. I saw a similar clearing of space in front of the great Jhokang Temple (617-650 CE) in Lhasa complete with police in riot gear. Since my visit to Kashgar a lot of major uprisings have happened in Urumqi and Kashgar. I recommend reading “ Resentment and Rebellion Fester on the Silk Road, by Terry MacCarthy for Time Inc.(http://content.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,2054438,00.html)

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There were plenty of handcrafted souvenirs surrounding the mosque. Of particular interest to me were the finely handcrafted Yingsar daggers with bejeweled handles. This purchase would have been in jeopardy had I not known about the serious security checks one encounters in Xinjiang Railway stations since I intended to back track the 4000 km distance from Kashgar to Beijing by rail. Intending to stop in several Silk Road towns along the way, a pair of daggers in my possession was a serious concern. The merchant put my concern at ease by shutting down his shop and giving me a ride in his motorbike to the Post office. It was a very efficient operation; there was a packaging counter that would wrap items for a small fee and international mailing facilities which for under $10 shipped my daggers to the USA. It arrived still neatly packed after 60 days complete with beautiful postage stamps.
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Another famous site, the Mausoleum of Abak Hoja, 5 km from Kashgar is perhaps the finest example of Islamic architecture in Xinjiang. A large dome of 56 ft is at the center surrounded by four corner minarets with stripes and arabesque floral patterns. The tomb contains the remains of Abak Hoja, a 17th-century ruler of Kashgar and a Naksbandhi Sufi saint. 72 relatives of Abak Hoja are interred in the burial ground adjacent to the mosque. The locals visit these tombs on a regular basis which is typical of Sufi saint worship. The Chinese have been threatening to move the cemetery to a different part of town claiming eminent domain, to build a road.
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There are more than 20 large scale bazaars in Kashgar, of which the one located at the East Gate of Kashgar City is the largest. This bazaar also named 'International Trade Market of Central and Western Asia' is the largest international trade market in Northwest China, It is the largest garden aggregate market of Kashgar City and in Xinjiang Province, taking up an area of 41 acres composed of 21 specialized markets including over 4,000 fixed booths and a food street. It was noted as 'the Largest Fair in Asia' in ancient times. As early as in 128 BC, when Zhang Qian ( Huang tseng , as we learnt in school,before the 1949 PIinyin transliteration methodology)was dispatched to the Western Regions by Emperor Wudi of the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220), he was surprised to see the prosperous market here, full of dazzling goods and merchants coming from different countries. Unfortunately due to my winter travel schedule, I could only see it in a much reduced size.

There were merchants selling live snakes as health remedies complete with a booklet on how to utilize different parts, house cat skins stitched together to make shawls, apothecaries stuffed with dried snakes, lizards, turtles and a variety of herbs along with an attending physician. Uyghur medicine was alive and well! There was a plethora of dried fruits and nuts vendors, mountains of sweet pomegranates, carpet shops, and jewelers. One can also buy various things including general merchandise, handicrafts, livestock, local specialties, vegetables, coat, and second hand items as well as many other kinds of things from cattle and horses to needle and thread. Street barbers were busy attending to clients a scene that has not changed much since the invention of the chair. It had all the elements and characters befitting the experience of travelers on the ancient Silk road; not too dissimilar to travels on the the Grand Trunk Road from Dacca to Peshawar, both during the Raj and until the 1970s in India
The Karakoram highway, built by the Chinese from Xinjiang to Islamabad, Pakistan in the 1970s passes outside Kashgar. This road was built as a possible route for an Indian invasion by the People Liberation Army. I rode this beautiful highway cutting through the Karakoram ranges reaching the Khunjerab pass at 15000 ft altitude in the Pakistan border. Since the Khunjerab Pass was opened, a large number of foreign merchants have come with a great deal of goods. Thus, arts and crafts of Pakistan, scarves of Turkey, dry fruits of Saudi Arabia all can be bought at a reasonable price here. The Kashgar markets are loaded with Pakistani goods often with the faces of Bollywood actresses. I saw a 5 liter can of vegetable oil with the Indian starlet Aishwarya Rai adorned in Islamic outfit straight from the Arabian Nights. The prevalence of prostitution that I had mentioned earlier is primarily because of the international truck drivers and the Chinese officials who come to visit the area who are attracted to the Eurasian features of this Turkic people. Brothels advertise their trade as “Foot washing Stations”.
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In the 1990s, the Chinese government built a railway to Kashgar and made cheap land available to Han Chinese, the nation’s majority. Between one million and two million Han settled in Xinjiang during the past two decades, though Kashgar and other towns on the southern edge of the Taklimakan Desert are still predominately Uighur. “Xinjiang has always been a source of anxiety for the central power in Beijing, as is Tibet and Taiwan,” Nicholas Bequelin, a Hong Kong-based Uighur expert at Human Rights Watch told me. “Historically the response to that is to assimilate the territory, particularly through the immigration of Han Chinese.” The Han influx stirs resentment. “All construction and factory jobs around Kashgar have been taken by Han Chinese,” says British journalist Christian Tyler, author of “Wild West China: The Taming of Xinjiang.” “The people in charge are Han, and they recruit Han. Natural resources—oil and gases, precious metals—are being siphoned off for benefit of the Han.”
Now the Chinese government is doing to Kashgar’s Old City what a succession of conquerors failed to accomplish: leveling it. Early in 2009 the Chinese government announced a $500 million “Kashgar Dangerous House Reform” program: over the next several years, China plans to knock down mosques, markets and centuries-old houses—85 percent of the Old City. The 2007 movie “Kite Runner” based on a story in Kabul was actually shot in Kashgar, drawing parallels to two legendary Silk Road Towns.
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Residents will be compensated, then moved—some temporarily, others permanently—to new cookie-cutter, concrete-block buildings now rising elsewhere in the city. In place of the ancient mud-brick houses will come modern apartment blocks and office complexes, some adorned with Islamic-style domes, arches and other flourishes meant to conjure up Kashgar’s glory days. The government plans to keep a small section of the Old City intact, to preserve “a museumized version of a living culture.
The destruction, some say, is business-as-usual for a government that values development over preservation of traditional architecture and culture.
In writing this piece, I have utilized several lines from an excellent early article, “Kashgar, on the Silk Road” written by Nicholas Kristof in The New York Times (1994) and by a detailed article” Demolishing Kashgar’s History” in the Smithsonian Magazine by Joshua Hammer in 2010. Their observations in 1994 and 2010 , laced with my comments from 2006 offers the reader a timeline of the destructive path that the city is undergoing.
The End

emailme @ ( riyerr@aol.com)

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Posted by Ramdas Iyer 15:25 Archived in China Tagged china highway road silk xinjiang uighur karakoram uyghur sinkiang Comments (1)

Along the Taklimakan Desert to the Turpan Oasis

A Silk Road Travel segment in Xinjiang Province, China

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I started my Chinese silk route travel west of Kashgar near the Pakistan border and headed east passing the ancient Uyghur towns of Kashgar and Urumqi. Turpan, a key stop on the Silk Road, was easily accessible from Urumqi by road, driving alongside the “Flaming Mountains” so named for its baked reddish orange appearance. Turpan was once one of the crossroads of central Asia. Historically, it was a strategic stop on the overland trade route linking China with India, Persia, and Rome.
My visit was primarily to observe and understand the cultural changes brought about by the Silk Road in a distant land by Buddhism and to visualize its spread and later that of Islam
Turpan lies in the second deepest inland depression in the world, with more than 4,000 sq. kilometers of land situated below sea level( 153 mts). Anciently called, 'Land of Fire,' it has recorded some of the hottest summer days in China, with temperatures as high as 130 degrees F. The basin surrounding Turpan has been the long-time haunt of the Uyghur’s (a mixed Turkic-Mongol ethnic group that is the majority in Xinjiang Provence). The Turpan area is also historically significant because nearby Gaochang City (World Heritage Site)) was once the Uyghur capital and an important staging area on the Silk Road. It was destroyed in the 14th century by the hordes of Timor Lane (see Photo) after surviving 1600 years.

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Culture and religion also moved along the Silk Road. Before Islam established a firm grip on central Asia, the Uyghur’s practiced Buddhism, Manichaeism, Nestorian Christianity, and other religions. Buddhism came north from India across the Karakoram Range. Extraordinary examples of this culture were found in caves at Bezeklik, near modern-day Turpan (see Photo. All three cultures were extinguished from central Asia by the tidal wave of Islam, with Tamerlane driving the final nail in their coffin in the 14th century.
One of the major obstacles along the Silk Road was the Taklimakan Desert, which has one of the world's most inhospitable climates. Caravans skirted this oval-shaped impediment by going around either the northern or southern edges. Turpan was located on the northern route. My journey skirted the northern route along the Taklimakan and enroute I could not help but admire the massive Wind Turbine farm, the largest in the world, near Turpan. Its output capacity of 2 million KW is a good comparison with the 1million KW output by the Three Mile Island nuclear reactors in the USA.

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Turpan's greenery owes its existence to the underground channels called ‘karezes’. The Silk Route was dependent for both its existence and survival upon a line of strategically situated oases which hugged the perimeter of the Taklimakan Desert. In turn, these oases depended for their survival upon the glacier-fed rivers flowing down from the vast mountain ranges which form a horse-shoe around three sides of the great desert. As the Silk Road traffic increased, these oases began to rank as important trading centers in their own right and no longer merely staging and refueling posts for the caravans passing through them.
Approaching the city I was surprised to see an explosion of verdant farms all around in the midst of a very harsh land. Mile after mile there were melon farms and grape vineyards everywhere punctuated with unique towers to dry the grapes using the harsh mid day heat as an oven. (see photo)
It is said that over 80 varieties of raisins are grown here. My guide and I visited several farms and enjoyed the hospitality of the locals. In at least two instances we were invited inside their homes and seated on a huge pedestal that was well cushioned with carpets and served as their living space and bedroom. Plates of grapes and tea were served and in one case some oven baked meat turnovers. The Islamic cultures are in general known for hospitality to strangers and the Uyghur’s of Xinjiang were no exception, I felt that warm hospitality everywhere. After some small talk and the customary group photo with me, which they all relished despite the fact that they were never going to see it always intrigued me, I was shown the farms, the drying towers and storehouses with tons of raisins.
I also had the good fortune to visit the regional Karez museum to understand how the system works. Akin to a high school project several clay models explained how the system worked. Visitors to the museum can actually visit one of these underground “mother Canals” in order to really understand this fascinating technology. These underground tunnels rate as one Asia's more intriguing and historic public works activities Uyghur and Chinese versions of karez technology date back over 2,000 years ago. The Karez underground canal is a manifold that conveys water from aquifers in the alluvial slopes of the mountains (ancient glacier water) to lower elevation farmlands. Each farm digs a well to tap into the canal every 500 mts or so. The farmers are responsible to keep the underground canal from clogging by entering the well and manually cleaning out fallen muck. Such cooperative farming was a necessity in the harsh corner of the Taklimakan desert.
The world is discovering this area and visiting backpackers can now stay in a farm and sleep under the grape vines and get treated daily to some wholesome Uyghur cuisine.
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Mildred Cable and Francesca French, two intrepid missionaries who spent many months in the region during the 1920s and '30s, describe the oasis vividly in their book The Gobi Desert (1942) “ Turfan lies like a green island in a sandy wilderness, its shores lapped by grit and gravel instead of ocean waters, for the division between arid desert and fertile land is as definite as that between shore and ocean. Its fertility is amazing, and the effect on the traveler, when he steps from the sterility and desiccation into the luxuriance of Turfan is overwhelming.”
Personally, I was attracted to this area after reading Peter Hopkirk’s “Foreign Devils on the Silk Road. The Search for the Lost Treasures of Central Asia”. It was such a fascinating read and soon thereafter I set off to Xinjiang with the same passion as the treasure hunters of yore. The Amazon excerpt of the book reads ” The Silk Road, which linked imperial Rome and distant China, was once the greatest thoroughfare on earth. Along it travelled precious cargoes of silk, gold and ivory, as well as revolutionary new ideas. Its oasis towns blossomed into thriving centers of Buddhist art and learning. In time it began to decline. The traffic slowed, the merchants left and finally its towns vanished beneath the desert sands to be forgotten for many centuries. But legends grew up of lost cities filled with treasures and guarded by demons. In the early years of the last century foreign explorers began to investigate these legends, and very soon an international race began for the art treasures of the Silk Road. Huge wall paintings, sculptures and priceless manuscripts were carried away, literally by the ton, and are today scattered through the museums of a dozen countries. Peter Hopkirk tells the story of the intrepid men who, at great personal risk, led these long-range archaeological raids, incurring the undying wrath of the Chinese.

After visiting the fascinating oases I set about to visit the spectacular World Heritage site of ‘Bezeklik Caves” which was the victim of two German archeologists, as described by Hopkirk. In 1900 these state-sponsored treasure hunters not only removed the scrolls and paintings but stripped the wall murals painted on an earthen base by cutting them into nice squares with German precision to eventually transfer them to The Museum of Indian Art in Berlin where they are now displayed. I visited the site to see a few of the 77 cave galleries now open to the public. Paintings from the time when Buddhism entered Chinese Turkistan in the 1st century AD until the end of the Tang Dynasty in the 8th Century AD were simply removed and whisked away . The distant Chinese government in Beijing never really had a strong control over this are during the Qing dynasty and the province itself( Sinkiang) was under the watchful eyes of British India and Tsarist Russia waiting for an opportunity to relieve China of this land.
With so much history in this area to discuss about, I will leave it for the reader to follow up on the Bezeklik caves, the Karez irrigation system and the Gaochang, the ancient capital of the Uighars.
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Posted by Ramdas Iyer 15:55 Archived in China Tagged desert buddhism road silk xinjiang turpan uyghur taklimakan Comments (3)

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