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Burial& Exhumation customs of the Malagasy people,Madagascar

Famadihana : Turning and washing of the Bones , Madagascar....................................................Ramdas A. Iyer, New Jersey

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Introduction:

From the embalmed body in a funeral home in modern day America to an early Neanderthal burial site like La Chapelle-aux-Saints, France from 50,000 years ago, humans have always taken care of their departed in unique ways. As world travelers, some of us are fascinated by Egyptian pyramids, Roman catacombs and the magnificent tombs built for Ming emperors in China; sometimes not necessarily for the beauty of the edifices but for the cultural practices of such burials that led to such monuments.

While traveling to distant lands and visiting old cultures, which hang precariously from the onslaught of modernity, I have observed many strange funeral customs. These customs stem from ancient religions that allows people to know about and communicate with supernatural beings—such as animal spirits, gods, and spirits of the dead. Religion often serves to help people cope with the death of relatives and friends, and it figures prominently in most funeral ceremonies
My previous articles on the funeral practices of the Dogon of Mali, the Taroja of Sulawesi, Zoarastrians of Iran and those along the Ganges river in India have been well received by my readers. Having returned recently from Madagascar I wanted to share some interesting customs and practices that have their origins in Indonesia, from where the original populating members arrived from around 1000 AD. These practices along with those of the African Bantu who arrived much later define the cultural landscape of Madagascar.

A firm belief in the existence of close ties between the living and the dead constitutes the most basic of all traditional beliefs and the foundation for Malagasy religious and social values. All the Malagasy peoples have traditionally accepted the existence of a supreme God, known commonly as Zanahary (Creator) or Andriamanitra (Sweet, or Fragrant, Lord). The dead have been conceived as playing the role of intermediary between this supreme God and humankind and are viewed as having the power to affect the fortunes of the living for good or evil. The dead are sometimes described as "gods on earth," who are considered the most important and authoritative members of the family, intimately involved in the daily life of the living members. At the same time, the razana (best defined as "ancestors") are the sources from which the life force flows and the creators of Malagasy customs and ways of life. The living are merely temporary extensions of the dead. Great hardship or trouble can result if the dead are offended or neglected.
The burial tomb, a prominent part of the island landscape in all regions, is the primary link between the living and the dead among the Malagasy. It is built with great care and expense, reflecting the privileged position of the dead, and is often more costly and substantial than the houses of the living. The land upon which a family tomb is situated--tanindrazana (land of the ancestors)--is inalienable, and social and economic practices are designed to guarantee that tomb lands are kept within the family.
Unlike cultural anthropologists who visit places like Madagascar armed with knowledge of unique burial practices there, I in turn simply stumbled upon these fascinating practices despite the main purpose of my visit being that of observing wildlife and natural history. As a result, my attention was constantly diverted towards observing the different ethnic groups as I traveled; the Merina and Betselio of the central highlands, the coastal Betsimaraka and Vezo people and the south western Sakalava and Mahafaly tribes. In this article I will attempt to share the different funeral customs of the six tribes mentioned above along with photographs that will help the reader appreciate these ancient customs.

The Six Tribes that I met & their Customs:

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Of the 18 distinct groups, the Merina originally came from Indonesia, which is still reflected by their facial features. This tribe, which is numerically the largest, lives in and round the highlands of the capital Antananarivo. Historically, Merina dominated the country until it was declared French colony in 1882 ( until 1958). They were mainly involved in slave trade in the early 19th century. What remained from their long history is the splitting of their society in three classes: The Andriana (nobles), Hova (free men) and Andevo (slaves). Anthropologists have described the Merina as living, in effect, in two localities: the place where one happens to work and keep one's household, and the tanindrazana, a locality of much deeper sentimental significance, the spiritual center where the family tomb is located. The two are usually separated by a considerable distance. Among some groups, whether one decides to be buried in the tombs of the father's or mother's family determines individual descent-group allegiance. The tombs of the various peoples around the island differ somewhat in form. Merina tombs tend to be solid, stone structures, built partially underground, with a chamber in which the bodies of ancestors are kept on shelves, wrapped in silk shrouds.
The traditional tombs of the Mahafaly of the southwest desert region were built of stone but surmounted by intricately carved wooden posts depicting human and animal figures. More recent Mahafaly tombs, particularly those built by rich families, are often made of concrete, with glass windows, brightly painted designs and often remarkable depictions of airplanes, taxicabs, or other modern paraphernalia mounted on the roof. The graves are decorated with innumerable zebu horns and small wood carvings. Many families go in debt to be able to build a pompous grave for their relatives.
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The Sakalava descend from the African Bantu and therefore very different from the other Asiatic tribes. The Sakalava were the dominating tribe for a long time ( until Merina dominance began in the 1820s )who sold slaves to Europe in exchange for weapons and other articles of value. Even today they are the second biggest tribe of Madagascar. Every seven years, Sakalava families celebrate male circumcision ceremonies similar to Bantu traditions. What is unusual is that grandfathers to eat their grandson’s cut foreskin after the event. They typically inter their dead in rock caves or rock caves, which are used to store the remains of dead Sakalava kings. Periodically, the Sakalava bring the mortal remains into the living’s circle during a ceremony called Fitampoha. They wash the remains in the river and return them into Doany thereafter. Even today Sakalava still use Trombas ( mediums): Trombas are persons, who get into some kind of trance and thereby experience the ghost of an ancestor, who speaks through them to the others. Not too long ago, it was the custom of the Sakalava people living around the Morondava River on the west coast to decorate their tombs with carvings showing explicit sexual activity. These were meant to illustrate the life-giving force, or fertility, of the ancestors.

Since the Sakalava tribes control the areas around World heritage site of Tsingy Bemaraha, they still will not allow Merina highlanders, their traditional enemies from visiting the Tsingy for the fear of displeasing their ancestors who fought them. I was told that special permission had to be received from the departed spirits through magic and mediums to obtain such a permission. I remember when I was in the highlands of Flores, Indonesia visiting a remote mountain settlement, Wae Reabo, the village head had to do a prayer to his ancestors in order receive me into the village.

Betsimisaraka people live along the east coast, most of them make their living from fishing in the Indian ocean and Canal des Pangalanes (The Canal des Pangalanes is one of the quiet wonders of Madagascar, a collection of natural and artificial waterways that stretches over 645km along the east coast, built by the French colonists) . They’re one of the biggest tribes of Madagascar and consist of many different smaller sub-groups (similar to Sakalava).
If Betsimisaraka die, they use pirogues as coffins ( like Viking nobles) and place those not far from the beach under small roofs. Zebu sacrifices play another important role in Betsimisaraka life. Fisokonas – wooden stakes, embellished with carved patterns and cattle horns are planted on the ground and sprinkled with sacrificed Zebu blood. They then call the ancestors through the fisokana and beg for succor or counsel.
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The Bara people who dominate another large area are an important tribe of cattle farmers around the city of Ihosy, South Madagascar. They descend from African Bantu people. Their most famous tradition is that boys who want to marry will have to steal a Zebu beforehand to prove to the girl’s parents their courage and pay the cattle as dowry for their future wife. This nowadays leads to several conflicts between the people of the South – and often leads to the death of the cattle thieves.
When Bara die, they are buried in natural caves and covered with a stone cairn of neatly arranged granite. The bereaved cut their hair to express their mourning. Bara see the spirits of dead people as danger, so it can happen that a whole village moves to a new locality to save their lives.

The Vezo originally came from East Africa across the Mozambique channel. They are half nomadic fishermen in Southern Madagascar, in the areas between Toliara Intampolo, Morondava and Mahajanga. With their self-made small mangrove wood pirogues they ride the angry sea swells of the west coast to catch fish and other sea food. Even today they hunt with nets, spears and traps, because they don’t have money for modern equipment. Funerals of Vezo people take place in courtyards inside the forests, far away from their villages.
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The Betsileo people are specialists in terraced rice field farming and are well known for their traditional exhumation of their dead, which is called Famadihana. This tradition is also practiced by the Merina living in the highlands who are closely related to the Betsileo people. ( I noticed that the Betseleo are a slightly mixed people of the Asiatic Merina and the Bara people of African extraction). Among the Merina and Betsileo the custom of famadihana ("placing" or the "turning" of the dead) reaffirms the link between the living and the dead. This ceremony occurs either because a person's remains are taken from a temporary to a permanent tomb or simply to remove the remains from a tomb in order to re.wrap the remains in new silken shrouds. These ceremonies incur immense expenses of providing food & shelter for a large number of relatives and guests. It is considered a serious transgression not to hold a famadihana when one is financially able to do so. The ceremony is presided over by an astrologer, but the chief participants are the close relatives of those persons whose remains are being moved or re wrapped. In this regard, the famadihana resembles in spirit a family reunion or the more austere ancestral ceremonies of China and Korea, where the spirits of ancestors are invited to a feast given by members of a family or lineage, rather than the funerals of the West, which are "final endings."
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The Famadihana or "Turning of the Bones:" ceremony

The Malagasy people have built a way of life around death – during the dry winter months, famadihana ceremonies, known as “the turning of the bones”, take place around various towns and villages to commemorate the deceased.
Once every two to seven years, each family holds a huge celebration at their ancestral crypt where the remains of the dead are exhumed, wrapped in fine silk, sprayed with wine or perfume, and brought out for community festivities. In the Malagasy culture, the turning of the bones is a vital element in maintaining links with revered ancestors, who still play a very real role in daily life.
The famadihana custom appears to be an adaptation of pre modern double funeral customs from Southeast Asia as seen in Bali, Sulawesi, Sumba and other islands.. The custom is based upon a belief that the spirits of the dead finally join the world of the ancestors after the body's complete decomposition and appropriate ceremonies, which may take many years. In Madagascar this became a regular ritual usually once every seven years, and the custom brings together extended families in celebrations of kinship, sometimes even those with troubled relations.
The practice of famadihana is on the decline due to the expense of silk shrouds and belief by some Malagasy that the practice is outdated. Early missionaries discouraged the practice and Evangelical Christian Malagasy have abandoned the practice in increasing numbers. The Catholic Church, however, no longer objects to the practice because it regards famadihana as purely cultural rather than religious. As one Malagasy man explained to the BBC, "It's important because it's our way of respecting the dead. It is also a chance for the whole family, from across the country, to come together.
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April Holloway in her blog in Ancient-origins says the ceremony is an evocation of being together again, so that the dead can experience once more the joys of life. But most importantly, she says, famadihana is an act of love.
As one foreigner who witnessed the ceremony described, “I came expecting the most macabre of ceremonies but instead found an extreme form of adoration for loved ones that will forever change how I view life and death. Death is not a sad occasion for many Malagash, but a time for celebrating. It is believed that the ancestors, like everyone, appreciate a really good party, especially one held in their honor.

Family members come from far and wide to attend the famadihana, sometimes traveling entire days on foot to attend the two-day festivities. When everyone has gathered, the corpses are delicately pulled from the tomb or crypt and wrapped in straw floor mats. Groups of people heave the corpses above their heads and carry them off, before laying them side-by-side on the ground to be cleaned and dressed. Their dried burial garments are delicately pulled from their corpses and the bodies are dressed in fresh silk garments. Women who are having trouble conceiving will take fragments of an ancestor's old shroud and place them under their mattresses (or even eat them) to induce pregnancy. Following the dressing of the deceased, a great party is held with music, dancing, and a huge feast among the villagers. As a band plays at the lively event, family members dance with the bodies. For some, it’s a chance to pass family news to the deceased and ask for their blessings — for others, it’s a time to remember and tell stories of the dead.
When the festival ends, the bodies must be returned to the tomb as the sun slowly retires beyond the horizon. They are re-buried alongside gifts of money and alcohol and placed upside-down to close the cycle of life and death. After a final ritual cleaning, the tomb is immediately closed - a powerful and emotional moment, embodying all the spiritual richness of the previous days' celebrations.
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Brad Bernard writes an interesting first hand essay in the New York Times about a famahadina he attends :

"The village elder smiles at me curiously, his leathery hands nudge a plastic mouthwash bottle of homemade rum toward me. I cringe as the amber liquid burns my throat and the fumes fill my nasal cavity, temporarily numbing my anxiety about what comes next. The weathered shovel I hold creaks with my tightening grip. I wonder what I have gotten myself into. From here, I go with the village down the lonely path to dig up his family’s corpses from the cemetery, some still ‘wet,’ and parade them around town. When I first heard about this seemingly macabre ceremony in the highlands of Madagascar, I was immediately intrigued. I’m not sure what dark fascination I have with a ceremony called Famadihana, or Turning of the Bones, where local villagers exhume the skeletons of their elders to dance with. I search unsuccessfully for a justifiable motive. Perhaps I was seeking a simple thrill or maybe voyeurism fuels my morbid fixation on this phenomenon.
Earlier that morning, on our way to the ceremony, Njara, my college-educated driver, tells me, “They have never allowed a white person to attend this ceremony and emotions are high for this event. We will need to be very delicate in our approach so we don’t incite hostilities.” The look of concern in his eyes stirs my inner doubt. “…they say that the dead can sometimes cross back over into the living world. And during this ceremony, the souls of their ancestors can rejoin the living to indulge once again in worldly desires. It is so taboo for people our age, who prefer to avoid black magic, so the practice is dying out.” He says. “Anyways, this ceremony only occurs every seven years and is restricted to the immediate family so they may not let us attend.” We buy homemade “Rhum” to give them as a token of appreciation in the hopes they’ll let us attend.

We pull off the road at a tiny village. The whole town, all related in some way, is assembled outside the largest of the two-story mud-brick shacks, chanting in anticipation of the procession from the city. Njara announces that the elders have asked to meet me. My heart beats wildly as I focus intently on portraying respectfulness; my hands shake noticeably as I humbly offer the gifts. The elders look me over and the debate quickly becomes heated. The patriarch of the village, an old man with distinguished wrinkles and clouded eyes, darts toward me, snaps up the rum from my hands and slips into the dark entry of the house. I’m in. The family members slowly overcome their curiosity and introduce themselves.
We march down the pitted cattle path away from town.. We await the sign from the astrologer that the fabric between both worlds is thin enough that the exhumation can begin. A growing curiosity swells around me as more and more villagers seek out Njara to ask him questions about me. The old man approaches me showing deep concern. He tells Njara that I appear remorseful which is sending the wrong signals and arousing suspicion. He tells me I should act happy and joyous; that this is a celebratory event and I look like I am attending a funeral. I fear my uninformed presence is a mockery to the family The crowd dances tirelessly to the clumsy yet hypnotic melody of the band, a ragtag group of eight men swaggering around in matching uniforms. Their dented and tarnished brass instruments are reminiscent of the faded splendor of the long abandoned French ‘culturalization’ of natives on this island. A vendor has wheeled her wooden cart and tattered umbrella from far away to sell sodas and cigarettes.

The crowd goes silent. Suddenly, trumpets sound an impending climax. The old man leaps on top of the family tomb and announces the digging will begin. The crowd ignites, encircling the tomb, chanting rhythmically. The men shovel furiously. The old man pushes his relatives aside and hands me a shovel, insisting I participate.Digging up corpses from the cemetery in Madagascar
Once the hole is big enough, the door to the underworld is smashed and collapses into pieces. The crowd gasps collectively. I back away gingerly. The old man soon finds me, grabbing my hand and insisting I go inside with him. I glance at Njara, seeking permission. He nods suspiciously but issues me grave warning, “Whatever you do, don’t touch the bodies.” We crawl on hands and knees through the tiny opening of the catacomb to a small room and find mummies on stone benches with their caramelized bones poking through holes in their garments. Flickering candlelight illuminates the yellow stains from seeping body fluids. A sour, earthy smell of decay permeates the tiny room. The old man introduces me to each of his ancestors by name as he pats the dust from their corpses. He insists I feel the decaying body of his mother on my right who has just died a few weeks ago. I place my hand on her chest and close my eyes as he begins to chant. The hair on my neck stands up as a strange feeling engulfs me, dizzy and scared; I lunge toward the fresh air to avoid fainting.
One by one, the corpses are delicately pulled from the tomb and wrapped in straw floor mats like burritos. With several pushes, a group heaves a corpse above their heads and carries it off. They are laid side-by-side on the flat ground to be cleaned and dressed, the names are written in faded black marker to tell them apart. Their dried burial garments are delicately pulled from their corpses like crispy skin from chicken wings to avoid taking too much flesh. The bodies are dressed in fresh silk garments and individually whisked off by awaiting family members. The corpses are cleaned and dressed in fresh silk garments
The same corpse I touched in the crypt is now in her granddaughter’s arms, dancing in circles. She holds her grandmother delicately, crying tears of happiness and talking about her progress in school. In that moment, I heard a voice answer the granddaughter’s call that I still cannot explain. To this day, I dream of that moment. That voice is hard to forget. My heart sinks as I realize how real this is to her. She passes the mummy to the hands of an awaiting woman who begins to cry with happiness. The young girl refocuses her attention on a game her friends are playing and is soon laughing and joking again.
As the sun slowly retires beyond the horizon, the bodies are once again laid to rest but upside-down to close the cycle of life and death. The young always return home to honor their origins here at this earthen hill that embodies their ancestry. I feel a deep connection with this family now that only comes from sharing the most intimate experiences. I am eternally grateful to them for opening their doors and my eyes to such a beautiful practice. It is the most amazing way of respecting the dead that I have ever experienced. I came expecting the most macabre of ceremonies but instead found an extreme form of adoration for loved ones that will forever change how I view life and death. My enlightenment feels bittersweet as I realize my own aversions still prevent me from wanting to visit my loved ones at their graves and the void this creates in my life. I don’t have the stomach for facing death. I stubbornly prefer to bury and forget; somehow thinking this will satisfy desire to remember the way they were. I’ve found more happiness in death than I could have ever imagined."


Other societies that wash their ancestor's bones

While doing my research on this subject, I was quite amazed at how these practices are common in many countries in Asia and South America.


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Campeche, Mexico

:During Hanal Pixan in Pomuch, Mexico, decedents honor the dead through the annual ritual of “washing” or brushing the bones of dead loved ones with a piece of cloth or small brush. The local custom is for family members to exhume the skeletons of the deceased after they have been buried for three years, when the flesh has turned to dust, and carefully clean the bones. Once they have been cleaned, the bones are placed in an open wooden box that has been lined with embroidered or painted linens. These boxes are then displayed in small cement niches in the graveyard. Every year, families return to the graveyard to re-wash the bones of their relatives, change the linens, and leave offerings of fresh flowers and lit candles. Although perpetuating an unusual practice, the people of Pomuch take much pride in caring for and presenting the bones of their ancestors. Pomuch is the only town in Mexico to still honor this tradition.

Sulawesi , Indonesia

Prior to the Dutch colonization of this area in the 20th century, the Toraja people lived in remote villages without roads connecting one to the other. Due to the difficulty of treading terrain in this mountainous region, people were terrified to journey too far in fears that their body could not be returned to their birthplace in the event of their demise. The Toraja’s beliefs state that if the body is not returned to the corpse’s village of birth, the soul will never reach Puya and will forever wander around in limbo, confused by their unfamiliar surroundings. In order to aid in transporting corpses, Shamans would be called upon to temporarily raise the dead so that they could walk back to their birthplace on their own in order to attend their funeral and begin their journey to Puya. Every August, a ritual known as Ma’nene or “The Ceremony of Cleaning Corpses” takes place. Corpse cleaning, grooming and redressing during Ma’nene. During this time, families exhume the bodies of deceased relatives in order to wash them, groom them, change their clothes and repair their coffins. The bodies are taken to the place of their death, then back to their grave in the village of origin. Often the deceased are paraded around the village in straight lines during the journey in order to observe the living.
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This is done out of respect to the ‘Hyang’, unseen spiritual entities with supernatural powers who reside in mountains, hills and volcanoes and may ==only move in straight lines.
Luzon, Philippines:== Bogwa” is the practice of exhuming the bones of the dead, cleaning, rewrapping and returning them to the grave or “lubuk. The Ifugao is one of the ethnic groups in the Cordillera region of the Philippines that practice this tradition of exhuming their dead usually after a year or more depending on the desire and necessity. The Ifugaos traditionally see it as a family responsibility towards the deceased loved one and a necessity for those left behind in order to prosper and live at peace with the spirits of their departed. With all the animals offered to appease the spirits of the dead, the bogwa is one of the most expensive native rituals next to a wedding. Three days of feasting rather than mourning is expected and an open invitation is extended to everyone within or outside the community. Performing bogwa shows not only the love and care to a family member even though he died several years ago but also the concern, love, care and hope for prosperous years for the living ones.

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Changmai, Thailand:

Songkran is a time when people are expected to return to their villages to pay respect to their elders. It is a time of family reunions, family parties, celebrations with friends, and religious merit making to go along with merriment in general. Songkran here in Thailand is like the combining of Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years, and the Super Bowl into one grand celebration. Songkran also has a more somber and sober side. It is during Songkran that Theravada Buddhist families will remove the bones of ancestors to wash them and then return them to their resting places inside of the family Tat.
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Contact: Riyerr@aol.com

Some information extracted from different sources.
credits:
Area handbook-US Army on Madagascar
New York Times: Brad Bernard 2010 article
Huffington post: Campeche photos: Janelle Pietrzak A world traveling documentary and fine art photographer.
Photos other than by Ramdas Iyer are taken from Web sources.
This is a not for profit blog

PHOTO GALLERY:

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Posted by Ramdas Iyer 16:19 Archived in Madagascar Tagged madagascar burial silk antananarivo merina bara rhum betseleo betsimaraka vezo mahafaly famadihana malagasy shrouds bantu Comments (2)

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)

Searching for Oriental carpets along the Silk Routes of Iran

Visiting ancient bazaars on a journey across Iran.........Ramdas Iyer ( 2014)

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I asked the owner of Kashmir Emporium in Madras, India, the home of my youth, about Kashan and the origin of the design of my very first oriental carpet bought from him. This was in 1986, when Kashmir was one of India's leading producer of fine carpets, honed from the traditions of Safavid era Persia and improved upon by the artisans of the Mughal court. As a young man living in the United States heaven was listening to Crosby, Stills and Nash with a cold beer at hand. As refinements entered life it lead to sipping wine while perched around an oriental carpet, but with the music remaining the same.

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The Kashan carpet, a silk and woolen gem still ranks amongst one of my finest acquisitions. But Kashan has always been on my mind. I read up on oriental carpets, their classifications including Persian, Turkic, Turkoman, and Caucasian masterpieces: kelims, carpets, weaves, knots, warps and all. After nearly 30 years of falling in love with carpets, I finally stood in the desert light of Kashan, Iran. A silk route gem, it was one of the leisure spots of the Safavi kings, Shah Abbas I who created the Bagh-e-fin, a World heritage garden reminiscent of the classical Persian version of paradise. There was production of Persian carpets at Royal workshops in the 17th and early 18th century. The Persian carpet workshops ceased production in about 1722 after the Afghan invasion. But its designs endure and are made in other parts of Iran and the Khoresan region encompassing north east Iran near Mashad and parts of Turkmenistan.

I scoured the city that is visited by less than a thousand tourists a year these days, only to find a handful of large shops where the merchants were so indifferent to commerce and the carpets so large that I suspected that only the mullahs could afford and fit them inside one of the many new mosques being built all over Iran since the revolution. Disappointed, I went to visit the Sialk Teppe, one of the oldest Zigguarts in the world with a history from 5500 BC . It is possible that they too wove carpets, but the fragile nature of the materials used could not last the test of time.

Another interesting legend in Kashan was that of the origin of the three wise men who followed the star that guided them to Bethlehem to witness the nativity of Jesus, as recounted in the Bible. Whatever the historical validity of this story, the attribution of Kashan as their original home testifies to the city's prestige at the time the story was set down. The small tomb/mosque of the Three Wise Men, covered with fine carpets from Kashan, was also another highlight of my time spent there.
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From being simple articles of need, floor and entrance coverings to protect the nomadic tribesmen from the cold and damp, the increasing beauty of the carpets found them new owners. - kings and noblemen, art lovers and energetic immigrants like myself, who looked upon them as signs of wealth, prestige and a thing of beauty with distinction.

Historical evidence points to carpet weaving being prevalent during the reign of Cyrus the Great in 529 B.C. They were made in villages for personal use with designs and weavings identifiable of the specific village or tribe. The artistic design and quality of Persian rugs reached its pinnacle during the Safavid Dynasty (1499-1722), because the reigns of Shah Tahmasp and Shah Abbas created a weaving industry that focused on "large-scale artistic and commercial enterprise revolving around highly skilled and organized weaving workshops." During this time, trade was established with Europe with Persian rugs as one of the threads that spurred economic exchange, and Persia reached its golden age.
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The word Oriental carpet is bestowed on carpets from Persia, Turkey, Turkestan and the Caucasian regions of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. While the splendor of carpets is normally attributed to Islamic artistry, it also thrived in the Christian Caucasian regions mentioned above. While on a trip to the Hermitage Museum, Leningrad in 1989, during the final years of the Soviet empire, I was drawn to a small ragged display of a carpet . Russian archaeologists Rudenko and Griaznov in 1949 discovered the oldest known "knotted" carpet in the Pazyryk valley, about 5000 feet up on the Altai Mountains in Siberia. Dating back to the fifth century BCE . The Pazyryk carpet is of rare beauty and woven with great technical skill. It was found preserved in the frozen tombs of Scythian chiefs, which were 2400 to 2500 years old.

My arrival in Teheran during the Iranian spring of 2014 was not without excitement and wonderment , but along with a strange discomfort caused by three decades of isolation from the western worlds. It is a land once ruled by the Persians of Fars province ( Shiraz) but now contains a republic of many tribal and ethnic groups. Representing 35% of the population they include Azeris(Turks), Baluchis(western Afghan and Pakistan), Kurds and Turkmen. I spent two days of visiting the major sites, including the US Embassy building ravaged by students of the Khomeini led Islamic revolution of 1979. Late evenings were spent in the many carpet shops near hotels to get a flavor of what I expected to see over the next three weeks. The prospect of a carpet hunt after seeing the variety and workmanship energized me for the rest of my wonderful travels from Kerman Province in the South East to the Azerbaijan province in the North west. All the legendary silk road cities and carpet weaving centers lie near the mountainous deserts of this ancient land.The Zagros mountains run across the country while the Alburus mountains form a northern chain.

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Leaving Teheran, I landed in Shiraz; capital of Fars province, home of the legendary Cyrus and Darius founders of the Persian Empire and a city of refinement and culture .The bazaar of Shiraz ranks as one of the greatest in Iran second only to the World heritage bazaar of Tabriz, in the Azerbaijan province. While in Teheran I had only visited air-conditioned shops, here I finally arrived in a real bazaar. In fact I had no time to visit the great carpet bazaar of Teheran.The vaulted ceilings and the many carpet shops with almost no customers was one big rug paradise of wool and silk in resplendent colors and classic motifs. After a couple of hours of walking around I focused on one shop who had a couple of small woolen rugs that caught my attention. I fell in love with both of them but was quite shocked by prices which still are only a third of that sold in the famous ABC Carpet shops in New York City.

It was a small carpet slightly bigger than a prayer rug but had all the qualities of a silk rug with very intricate non repeating patterns, displaying a menagerie of animal motifs possibly making it a one of a kind masterpiece for my collection. It was a Qashqai Nomadic carpet also known as Shirazi. The Qashqai nomads are a conglomeration of clans of different ethnic origins, mostly Turkic, but also Arab, Kurdish, and Luri. Majority of Qashqai people were originally nomadic pastoralists and some remain so today. The traditional nomadic Qashqai travelled with their flocks each year from the summer highland pastures north of Shiraz roughly 480 km or 300 miles south to the winter pastures on lower (and warmer) lands near the Persian Gulf, to the southwest of Shiraz. They are referred as "Shirazi" because Shiraz was the major marketplace for them in the past. The wool produced in the mountains and valleys near Shiraz is exceptionally soft and beautiful and takes a deeper color than wool from other parts of Iran.

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"No wool in all Persia takes such a rich and deep color as the Shiraz wool. The deep blue and the dark ruby red are equally extraordinary, and that is due to the brilliancy of the wool, which is firmer and, so to say, more transparent than silk, and makes one think of translucent enamel".(Hawley, Walter A. (1913) Oriental Rugs Antique & Modern)]

Qashqai carpets have been said to be "probably the most famous of all Persian tribal weavings".( Bennett, Ian (1978) "Later Persian Weaving." In: Rugs & Carpets of the World, edited by Ian Bennett.

Prices were agreed upon but I had no clue as to the transportation of the rug to the United States. The Baazari merchant had no international experience and was at a loss to assist me. I left town for a couple of days to visit Persepolis and other sites before returning to my new love that I had left hanging at the front of his shop. Other neighboring shop keepers offered help including one of them calling a relative in Los Angeles ( place with the largest Iranian diaspora in the US) for help with the credit card transaction. Alas the shopkeeper found a courier to hand carry it to Dubai, usually by Arab Dhow, that plies the waters of the Straits of Hormuz near Bandar Abbas to Dubai, a distance of only 300 miles. These waters are the life blood of Iranian commerce that enables the smuggling of western merchandise into Iran.
I immediately contacted my brother in law in Dubai who was glad to pay cash for the merchandise and hold on to my Qashqai treasure until it was safe to bring it into the USA. The Shirazi Baazari trusted me to act in good faith and concluded his perhaps first international transaction since the embargo.

Leaving Shiraz for Kerman, the road was carved out of the Dasht-e-Lut Desert, one of the 10 hottest places on earth. Being spring time, patches of small green sprouts were quickly devoured by the Qashqai black Tibetan sheep, renowned for fine carpet quality wool and succulent meats. Groups of nomads could be seen herding the animals as far as the desert horizon.
While I did not have the time nor opportunity to visit their traditional homes, I was able to photograph some of them on the range.
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The city of Kerman today has a pleasant atmosphere with mosques, blocks with bazaars and tea houses. The carpet manufacturing has long been an important industry and carpets from Kerman are easily recognized. The ground color is often red, and the pattern is dominated by a centrally placed medallion together with a wide border filled with flowers. When Nadir Shah finally wrested control of Persians from the Afghans around1746, whose insurgency cost Kashan its place as a royal workshop, Kerman became the recipient of royal patronage. However for modern consumption these carpets are not very popular and found mainly in mosques and Islamic assembly halls. I could not locate a single shop in Kerman Bazaar since perhaps like the rest of Iran, carpet making has moved from their traditional homes to concentrated workshops in Esfahan and Meshad.

From Kerman I went further south to the famous Bam citadel, which was destroyed by an earthquake, much to the sorrow of adobe architecture lovers. The road from Bam to Baluchistan province of Pakistan is less than 100 miles from Bam and is rampant in banditry. However near Bam one can find many dark skinned Baluch nomads and merchants who straddle both sides of the border. I stopped to photograph a Baluch nomad on a donkey. He spoke fluent Hindi and had tended sheep near the Indian border a few years beforehand. Before my experience of buying a Baluch nomadic carpet, I wish to give some history of the production of non Persian rugs that form the family of Oriental carpets.
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Great oriental carpets, I must reiterate do not belong to Persians alone. In 1219 Genghis Khan went to war against the Khwarezm (Khoresan)Empire ( Aryan-Persian rulers) in present-day Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan and Iran. The sultan there had agreed to a trade treaty, but when the first caravan arrived its goods were stolen and its merchants were killed. The sultan then murdered some of Genghis Khan’s ambassadors. Despite once again being outnumbered, the Mongol horde swept through one Khwarezm city after another, including Bukhara, Samarkand and Urgench. Skilled workers such as carpenters and jewelers were usually saved, while aristocrats and resisting soldiers were killed. As the Mongols ruled a predominantly Turkic population in central Asia a cultural synthesis( Turco-Mongol era) that arose. During the early 1300s among the ruling elites of Mongol Empire successor states such as the Chagatai Khanate and Golden Horde were notable. These elites adopted Turkic languages and local religions such as Islam and Buddhism, while retaining Mongol political and legal institutions. Many later Central Asian states drew heavily on this tradition, including the Timurid dynasty, the Khanate of Kazan, the Nogai Khanate, the Crimean Khanate, and the Mughal Empire.

I bring up this important history because this conquest gave rise to the fine tradition of carpet making in non Persian areas ;Afghanistan-notably Herat, Samarkand, Bokhara, Anatolia and the caucuses regions. Baluchistan being a neighbor of Iran has produced some amazing tribal tugs. While in Esfahan, I purchased a relatively inexpensive Boluch Yakub khani rug( see photograph). The story of Yacub Kahni rugs is as rich as the history of carpet making itself and falls outside the focus of this article.


Turning back and heading north towards Esfahan, I had the opportunity to stop in the storied silk route city of Nain. Close to the western edge of the great desert Dasht-e-Kavir, it has one of the oldest Islamic mosques in Iran built in the 9th century soon after Islamic incursions from Arabia. The semi adobe architecture with classic Persian and Arab elements was a unique site.
Outside the mosque I happened to make eye contact with a person who introduced himself as the Director of the Museum of Ethnology which was housed in a classical Qajar era house from the 18th century. After my brief tour, the gentleman inquired if I would be interested in seeing a Nain carpet woven by his family members. Carpets from the city have a high reputation and were very popular. The material in the more exclusive carpets consists of wool on a silk warp or silk in the warp as well as in the weft and pile.( The terms warp and weft are used in reference to textiles that are woven. They are the technical terms for the two types of thread used to create a finished woven product. The warp is the tightly stretched lengthwise core of a fabric, while the weft is woven between the warp threads to create various patterns.). I had him display the rug next to my car but did not find it visually appealing despite the very attractive price quoted.
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I finally arrived in Esfahan (Isfahan), the magnificent capital city of the Safavids and a city over 2500 years old. Such is Esfahan’s grandeur that it is easy to agree with the famous 16th-century half-rhyme ‘Esfahan nesf-e jahan’ (Esfahan is half the world). Robert Byron, author of the 1937 travelogue The Road to Oxiana, was slightly more geographically specific when he ranked ‘Isfahan among those rarer places, like Athens or Rome, which are the common refreshment of humanity’.
The architecture, history and the classic elements of Persian society were on display for the world to consume. Despite the severe embargo, the shops were filled with handicrafts, foods and fabric of a superior quality. It has become both the production and trade center for carpets representing the diversity of designs from the entire country. Carpets from Isfahan have high class especially when it comes to the composition of the patterns, materials and designs. They are characterized by thin, often carpets with extremely high knot density (Senneh knots) that sometimes are made on silk warp. The motifs often consists of medallions with palmettes and arabesques (Shah Abbas pattern), but figural motifs also occur.
I spent perhaps the most amount of money on any purchase ever other than buying a car, in Isfahan. After dedicating an entire afternoon to studying the various offerings I settled on a store where the buyers seemed to have an eye for rugs that suited mine. I purchased a fine Qashqai Nomad silk carpet( see photograph) with animal motifs, a Qom made silk Bakhtiari carpet( see photographs); a timeless classic and the Baluch Yakub khani mentioned above.

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All the carpets were shipped to Dubai or India for safe keeping until the embargo with Iran is lifted. Many Bakhtiari rugs, especially the one I purchased, are in fact tribal pieces that rely upon a repertoire of abstract geometric and animal motives. But Bakhtiari weavers are also acclaimed for their ability to produce sophisticated medallion all over, and garden designs of classical Persian inspiration, with an added vitality and boldness.
As with any mighty dynasty the decline of the Isfahan based Safavid dynasty happened around 1722, due to neglect by rulers who failed to share the wisdom of their forebears. The Mughal court of India which maintained great relations with the Safavid court became a natural choice for mass migration of talent to India as the Safavid era faded. Its great poets, architects, weavers and statesmen found employment in India. Sufi Islam, monument building, carpet weaving and other handicrafts flourished in Mughal India. Oriental carpets reached international standards first in Kashmir, the winter retreat of the Mughal emperors and also in Agra, capital city of the Mughal king Shah Jahan, famous for being the builder of Taj Mahal( with an architect from Shiraz). With today Kashmir in severe religious turmoil this industry has moved to Jaipur. The Indian woolen carpets are inspired by the classical Persian motifs transformed to the most contemporary style. Bright glowing colors, hand-knotting technique allowing high number of knots per square inch and exquisite design sense have made Indian hand-knotted woolen carpets, cherished products in home decor. The Iranians need to wake up to this fact.
My own collections from India include the silk and cotton Kashan from Kashmir, a large Isfahan in robust colors from Jaipur (purchased at ABC carpets, New York), and an antique Turkoman Tekke carpet ( from Agra).

The Esfahan experience left me elated about my new acquisitions and yet was a nagging source of concern for their eventual transportation to the USA. Leaving Esfahan and traveling to many ancient centers including Hamadan, Kermanshah and Qazvin, another capital of the Safavids, I reached the legendary carpet city of Tabriz. Tabriz has been a place of cultural exchange since antiquity. Its historic bazaar complex is one of the most important commercial centers on the Silk Road. Tabriz was a gateway to the West, since it lay on one of the principal trade routes from Iran to Anatolia and then onwards to Europe. The city of Tabriz was also the terminus of the Silk Route from China. The most prosperous time of Tabriz and its bazaar was in the 16th century when the town became the capital city of the Safavid kingdom. The inhabitants are primarily Azeris from nearby Azerbaijan which was a Persian province until the Ottoman Empire carved out most of it from Persia. One can see many Turkish and Kurdish inhabitants in this town. I have never seen so many carpets in one place in my life. The style of the carpets are predominantly of Ardebil and Tabriz designs; "Tabriz", "Heris", "Lachak-turanj", "Afshan", "Agajaly", "Dord Fasil", "Sardorud". Ardabil", "Sheikh Safi", "Sarabi", "Shah Abbasi" and "Mir".

The carpet section of the bazaar with must have at least 300 stores each stacked with large carpets ranging from 12 X 16ft to 36 x 48 ft. There were very few customers and most of the shop keepers were quietly reading the morning papers or chatting over tea with the neighbors. None of them were interested in selling anything. Unlike in Turkey or Morocco where touts will constantly harass one to visit their shop, this was a pleasant surprise. I understood that their main customers were Arabs especially from Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. The Tabriz designs though very likeable, belonged in another era. The prices of large woolen carpets of similar quality were half the prize of those Isfahan. If one is keen on Ardabil carpets, Tabriz is the place to acquire. I was burnt out both financially and emotionally for any further carpet buying expeditions.
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I finally flew back to Teheran from Tabriz on a very old DC-8 aircraft wishing that I could have done better on a flying carpet. Back in Teheran and reunited with my wonderful guide, I visited the famous Carpet Museum of Iran, built under the patronage of Shahbanu Farrah, the wife of the Late Shah of Iran, in an architecturally amazing building. Staring dumbfounded at the quality, designs, colors and intricacy of those carpets, made me realize that the art of carpet weaving ranks amongst one of the greatest expressions of art; both tribal and royal.
Inspired by this museum visit, I returned to the original carpet store in Teheran to look at my early selections. One more time I was floored by the tribal motifs of the Qashqai and purchased a woolen carpet with cotton waft produced in the great carpet making area of Mashad. That too found its way to Dubai.

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The Iranians were among the pioneer carpet weavers of the ancient civilizations, having achieved a superlative degree of perfection through centuries of creativity and ingenuity. The skill of carpet weaving has been handed down by fathers to their sons, who built upon those skills and in turn handed them down to their offspring as a closely guarded family secret. To trace the history of Persian carpet is to follow a path of cultural growth of one of the greatest civilizations the world has ever seen.

Having covered the silk route from Luoyang in China though Xinjiang, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenstan,parts of Khazakhstan, Iran and to Azerbaijan and Anatolia, my other great oriental carpet shopping experiences were in Samarkand, Bokhara and Khiva/Urgench in the remote Khoresm region. While in Shanghai I came across a lot of carpet making facilities and are producing quality silk carpets using fine Chinese silk yarn, synthetic dyes with old designs from Persia. The Kerman design silk carpet that I purchased there more than a dozen years ago has all the qualities of a fine oriental carpet in my living room. The classic Turkmen Yomut and Tekke designs purchased in Bukhara and Samarkhand are also some of my favorites.The Koneh and Anatolian carpets purchased in Istanbul add a different dimension to that of the Persian ones in my home.

It is sad to see Iran losing its place as a premier carpet producer. Before the 1987 embargo, the total wholesale value of Oriental hand-knotted rugs imported to the United States was about $750 million in current dollars. Iran had the biggest share of that market, 28 percent, followed by China and India. Today they are probably place fourth or fifth -- about where they have been all along during the embargo. Both now and in the long term, industry experts agree, Iran faces tough competition. Iranian weavers will have to adjust their designs and colors for a share of the American market. India, Pakistan, China and Turkey may not be easy to push to the background again.

Carpet dealers in Iran have also had to improvise. Their products have been getting to the lucrative American market via Pakistan, or Mexico, where they are mixed with shipments of local carpets. Money is channeled to Iran via middlemen in the Gulf. Some of the bazaar’s larger dealers have contacts in Dubai who help with bank accounts and offer chip-and-pin services for foreign buyers and tourists, whose cards are otherwise, owing to sanctions, useless in Iran. “We have to trust the middlemen with thousands of dollars,” explains a dealer, who says he pays up to 3% on transactions to get paid from abroad. “Many of us have been cheated. The weak have left the business. Only the strong dealers with good foreign connections have survived.”
Iran has an amazing history of rug production and I sincerely hope that the past 3 decades of embargo has not permanently damaged the industry. Of the 2 million weavers in the 1980s only half of them are in the trade. The weavers are very poor and need advance cash and materials to start a new rug. Youngsters find other professions that are less difficult, such as selling clothing in the bazaars more appealing. Carpet making is in the Iranian DNA and I am eagerly awaiting its chance to dominate the oriental carpet industry.

In conclusion, I just gathered that the most expensive carpet ever sold was a Kerman carpet that was auctioned by Southeby's of London for $43.5 million dollar in 2013!
While I still have a lot of room in me for oriental carpets, I have literally run out of space.

emailme @ ( riyerr@aol.com)

References:
A brief history of Persian Carpet and its patterns-Iran Chamber of Commerce, June 28, 2015
The Economist Iran’s carpet trade-A magic comeback? Oct 2013
New York Times- No More 'Pssst!' For Iranian Rugs, But Who Cares? March 23, 2000
Wikipedia- a wide variety of information
Lonely Planet-Esfahan

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=====ADDITIONAL PHOTOGRAPHS FOLLOW=====
THE MAKING OF A NOMADIC CARPET

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CARPET MAKING

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NOMADIC LIFE

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BAZAAR AT TABRIZ

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CARPET MUSEUM OF IRAN, TEHRAN

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Posted by Ramdas Iyer 17:51 Archived in Iran Tagged route iran kerman persia azerbaijan oriental nomad kashmir silk tehran mashad kashan qom carpet safavid carpets tabriz baluchistan ramdas iyer nain hamadan qashqai qahqai ardebil Comments (0)

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

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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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