The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Jun 29, 2008

Silk Road Stories

It has been said by various great people (such as, ahem, myself) that India's history is not so much written record as archaeological artefact. There is not a lot of written material of Indian origin that has survived the ages for several reasons - climate-induced destruction, a cyclical belief in life and renewal that led to a wholesale purge of archives when a new dynasty came to power, and a lack of sense of history unlike the Arabs and Chinese. On the other hand, we have much to be grateful to these same Arabs and Chinese. They kept superb records, many of which have survived to this day. Among the finest are those from Dunhuang on the old Silk Route, presently in Gansu Province in China, but in its heyday, under the nominal suzerainty of Tibet at one time, China in another, Uighur warlords at a third.

In a deep cave system in this wondrous town of magic and mystery were found delightful paintings and subtle art. Even more startlingly, there were also almost 40,000 manuscripts dating from 200 BC, scrolls of every type, Manichaean prayers, Sogdian letters, model epistles by officials in the Etiquette Bureau, loan contracts, poems, educational primers, legal suits, medical prescriptions, bawdy tales, imperial decrees. 1

Originally discovered in 1900 (eight centuries after they were, for some reason, sealed up) by the time Sir Aurel Stein got to them seven years later, they had been steadily pillaged by local officials, sold by the cartload to anyone who was willing to pay a small coin. Luckily for posterity, Stein managed to collect the majority of them; in an age of archaeological piracy, he was notably circumspect and methodical, indicating precisely in what condition and where he had found any artefacts. An antique by itself is of little use - its location in relation to its surroundings is what provides context and information. This was something Stein recognised and strove to provide even when he was despoiling ruins and ancient archives.

While the major trunks of the Silk road went East to West, from China to Araby, there was notable traffic to and from India as well. Not only spices and precious stones, but also science and faith spread out of the subcontinent into the steppes and deserts of Serindia. In Aurel Stein's words

The geographical limits ... comprise practically the whole of that vast drainageless belt between the Pamirs in the west and the Pacific watershed in the east, which for close on a thousand years, formed the special meeting ground of Chinese civilisation, introduced by trade and political penetration, and of Indian culture, propagated by Buddhism.

What were the aspects of Indian civilisation that went north? Well, there was classical dance and musical drama, co-opted and embellished by the damsels of Kucha. There were fineries of art, jewellery, ivory, aphrodisiacs and incense. There was startling medical technology, such as cataract surgery. Arcane philosophy and mathematics and astronomy wound its way up into the rooftop of the world via Taxila. The famed twelve-year cycle of the almanac of animals, popular today throughout the Orient, was an Indian device. The kharoshti script, first used to write Sanskrit and Prakrit and Gandharan, was here adapted for Central Asian tongues. But the jewel of culture that had the greatest influence on the lives and fortunes of the northern peoples was, of course, Buddhism.

Dance and Drama

Kucha, a Chinese garrison town north of the Taklamakan, was ruled by a king who lived in a palace of gold from the Tienshan and jade from Khotan. As a Buddhist, he ensured that monks had a pride of place in his realm. The brotherhood ruled the markets, selling everything spiritual and temporal. For a consideration, one might obtain the finest prayers, the subtlest cures, and the most potent charms.

But Kucha was not so much known for its trade as for its glamour. Its courtesans, said the traders in the know on the Silk Road, were as good as those of fabled Samarkand. Music and art was sold along the trade route much like gold and silk. And the best place to see it all was in the traditional quarter of the courtesans in the Eastern Market of Kucha.

Kuchean dance was, like its Indian ancestor, a dance of expression and eye-movement, gesture and guile. It also absorbed the whirls of the Sogdians that were performed both by men and women. But the Kuchean danseuse was also an accomplished musician. She played the four-stringed lute with a bent neck, mostly solo, but often accompanied by an orchestra of percussion, strings, oboe and flute. Three-part compositions in the 28-mode Chinese style were part of the repertoire. But the dances danced, tales told and dramas presented were of Indian origin.

The titles of some of the dramas are evocative: Watching the Moon in Brahman Land, and South India. Many of these were retellings of old Hindu tales of gods and traditional legends. Shiva featured in many of them. These were embellished as they moved up the Silk Road, and reached China, from where they were transmitted to Korea and Japan - where some are performed to this day.

The Animal Almanac

The Chinese calendar was the vogue along the Silk Road, but as with all else, influences from India and Arabia amalgamated into the almanacs of the time. In 877 AD, a particularly glorious example of the astronomical arts made popular manifested itself in Dunhuang. Besides the Chinese doctrines of yin-yang, the makers of the almanac added numerology, colours and elements, and sophisticated conversions from solar to lunar to mixed-mode calendars.

While only court-approved astronomers were allowed to create official calendars, unofficial almanacs were distributed widely across the imperium ([violating] the principle that the calendar is the gift of His Imperial Majesty, as said in a memorial of 835 AD.) These unauthorized almanacs were being mass-produced on a recent invention of the Chinese - block printing. Despite the imperial ban on the production of private copies of the official calendars (the samizdat copies were a massive drain on the income of the Tang dynasty), family firms of printers in the capital churned them out right under the imperial nose.

The almanacs provided useful information on what activities were safe to carry out on which day. They listed day-names and were place-holders of harmony across Heaven and Earth. In keeping with Chinese tradition, they were derived from heavenly stems and earthly branches and the five elements. The Indian contribution was the twelve-year cycle and the characteristics and functions of the animals that governed each year. In the 877 almanac, there were tiny illustrations of the animals and nuptial advice for those born in each year. There were charms to bring order to the household, and fengshui diagrams offered advice on the placement of houses and graves. For those who couldn't read or decipher the dense information dotting the device, the almanac itself served as a talisman.


1. Susan Whitfield, Life Along The Silk Road, John Murray, London 1999.


Sirensongs said...

Fascinating stuff! Imagine, stories of Shiva and dance dramas being told as far away as China.

Fëanor said...

@sirensongs: Indeed! What puzzles me, though, is that there's so little of Chinese influence in India. Why was it unidirectional? (Or was it?)

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