13 August, 2022


Antiquity’s Lesson For Lanka: Lawfulness And The Fabled Silk Road

By Kumar David

Prof Kumar David

It was the longest, oldest, and greatest trade and cultural route of the ancient world, stretching 6,500 km from Chang’an (modern Xian) to the Mediterranean ports of the Levant, Antioch and Tyre, then by sea to Rome and Byzantium, and later, medieval Venice. It transited magnificent places with breathtaking names,Samarkand, Bukara and Babylon(near Baghdad). The camel-train caravans of 50, 100 and sometimes several hundred animals, carried silk, jade, lacquer, porcelain, cardamoms, ginger and medical herbs of the exotic orient to Persia, the Near East and Rome, and brought back gold and silver from Rome, almonds, nuts, myrrh and frankincense from Persia, and richly worked cotton and religious scrolls from India. Though Alexander had opened Central Asia up to modern Tajikistan by 329 BC, it was during the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD) that a continuous route was established. Trans-continental caravans plied, initially in sectors, from Chang’an to the Levant, from at least 130 BC during the reign of Emperor Wu; that is a thousand years before the arrival of Ma Ge Bo Luo (dull Venetians called him Marco Polo).

Conquest of the Hexi Corridor by the Han pacified a difficult section in China’s remote west and brought lawfulness, orderliness and predictability, without which a complex journey bearing great treasure in long caravan trails would not have been possible. Here I believe is a lesson that Lanka in this day and age, two millennia later, has to learn. Respect for law, especially by the state, is the sine qua non of commerce and economy and underpins prosperity and cultural exchange. Trade, new products and ideas, culture, philosophy and religion, all travel together because man is an omni-sided creature. The demise of narrow xenophobia and imagined sovereignty commenced at the very birth of civilisation though the death rattle is long protracted and the last echoes still resound in this fair Isle.

Back to the Hexi Corridor; a neck, 1000km long, whose fertile portion, at its narrowest, is less than 30km wide and connected the Chinese Empire in the east, to old Sinkiang, now Xingjian,China’s westernmost province. The Corridor is bordered on the north by the forbidding Gobi Dessert stretching far into Mongolia, and on the south by the towering mountain ranges skirting the Tibetan Plateau, inaccessible to camels. The Corridor was critical for travel from the land of the Son of Heaven to those far away places lusting for silk and the exotic produce of the Orient. The Chinese took control of the Corridor and garrisoned castles along the way, but that per se was less crucial than orderliness, lawfulness and reliability, which reassured merchants and travellers from distant lands. Thus are civilisations built; Genghis, for this reason, was a soda bottle leaving little imprint on posterity in comparison to the other two mighty conquerors and his peers in warfare, Alexander and Caesar. Craft and culture, not conquest, determine longevity.

What is true of the great is truer of the small; it is not merely that Lanka’s leaders abjure the lessons of the past or are too smitten with greed for power and loot; it is that they lack the aptitude to reflect historically. No leader, wanting in an understanding of his role against the backdrop his times will achieve anything of lasting value. (However, that alone is inadequate, as with the drafters of the 1972 Republican Constitution). Disrespect for justice, and forsaking decency with the dissoluteness of an alley cat, is now paving the way for a sick society in Lanka.

Ambling up the Hexi Corridor to Xingjian

I had to first regurgitate these reflections which took possession of me when a fortnight ago I spent 10 days wandering up the Chinese part of the Silk Road with a lovable whisky-sipping Mongolian comrade. We drifted up the Corridor to Xingjian, from whose westernmost ancient city, Kashgar, the route links to Central Asia. Two things remind one how insignificant an individual is; gazing at the night sky, marvelling at the stars and the infiniteness of the universe, or standing on a pathway in history pondering what mankind has accomplished over the ages. When traversing the Silk Road this mindfulness soaks the intellect though the dessert night sky is awesome too.

There are excellent websites and travel guides, so better I talk about what will interest Lankan readers; lawfulness and stability which I have touched on, the integrity of Buddhism in the cultural exchange facilitated by the Silk Route, and third, ethnic volatility in today’s western China which I must reserve for a later date. I will say nothing about natural marvels, but entreat you to do some spare time reading. I also recommend a 12-part Japanese-Chinese NHK-CCTV video on Youtube;

It is said in justification of the prevailing ethos of unbridled corruption of UPFA leaders and their cronies that robber barons figure naturally in the rise of capitalism. This is a travesty of infant capitalism in parts of Germany. It is completely untrue of capitalism’s first shoots in Italy and Holland and the mature animal in England where jettisoning human and moral values took a different form; enclosure of the common lands, eviction of the peasantry, slave trade, and colonialism. State immunised robbery by the UPFA is not a natural staging post on the road to robust capitalism; it is a pseudo-theory concocted by intellectual quacks. The quackery flies in the face of the Silk Road story.

Central Asia in ancient times

In ancient times, Central Asia, in chronological order of importance for trade on the Silk Route, meant: Bactria and Scythia, the easterly and westerly portions, respectively, of the stretch from the Chinese border to the Caspian Sea, which dominated the route from the Sixth Century BC up to Alexander. Further to the west was the Archaemenid Empire (Persia550-330 BC). Then arrived Alexander, who conquered all he saw, but after the power of his generals (heirs and satraps) declined, the Parthian Empire rose inPersia. Later and further east, the Kushan Empire (30-300 AD) unified Afghanistan, modern Pakistan and Turkmenistan, parts of north western India and old Bactria. Centuries later, the Middle East and this region, loosely called greater Turkistan, whose heirs are modern Turkmenistan,Uzbekistan,Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, was overrun by Islam.

What is significant is that though for a thousand years kingdoms and satrapies rose and fell, constancy and consistency of trade and lawfulness held up the Silk Road. Initially, clusters of traders travelled part of the way, Chang’an to the Chinese border, or through Bactria and Scythia to Persia, or hence to the ports on the Levant, or finally by sea to Rome. The greatest traders of the day were the Sogdians, a lose collection of Bactrian tribes living around the cities of Samarkand and Bukara, who were the first to travel the whole distance of the land route, which was studded with inns providing lodging, food, strong drink, and to which women from nearby localities gravitated for entertainment.

Buddhism on the Silk Road

Buddhism was introduced to China not by sea nor overland viaTibet, but much earlier on the Silk Road as a string of ancient pagodas, sculptures and art depicts. There are reports that Asoka, in his wisdom, sent missionaries (Massim Sthavira is named) carrying the Buddha’s teaching toChina, but this is unverified. Later, routes from Central Asia and western China through the Karakorum Range,Kabul and Srinagar, linked the Silk Route, itself not a single corridor but a network of trails, to Taxila and Indraparastha (Delhi?) of the Mahabaratha. Scholars and scholar-monks made their way from China and returned with treasure troves of scrolls which they spent a lifetime translating and teaching. This first missionary deluge in world religious history was this retinue of monks and laymen.


“This way to Rome, skirting the Taklamakan Dessert”

I have space for only two names, the probably mythical Kumarajiva and the famous Xuan-tsang who made a 17-year journey to India. Xuan-tsang visited Taxila and Nalanda, studied under famed teachers and returned with 22 horses laden with 650 Sanskrit texts, relics and statues. He spent the remaining years of his life translating and popularising the teachings. He dealt with all the major Buddhist concepts such as karma, rebirth, right understanding and right action. This was in China’s glorious Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD). I visited the monastery where the emperor had provided Xuan-tsang with succour and apprentices for translation and teaching.

The Buddhism that reached China was all Mahayana (not to be confused with present day mongrel practices in Chinaand Hong Kong much mixed with Taoism and other influences) and its leitmotif was the Bodhisattva, as distinct from the primacy that Theravada accords the Arahath. The Bodhisattva, I was given to understand, gladly reincarnates to help and to teach others. The dispute is that the Arahath, in the Mahayana view, is selfish in his single minded determination to attain solitary Nirvana. (Don’t shoot me if this grates; I am merely a blithe transmitter).

The glorious Magao caves are all Mahayana. Magao is a complex of 452 caves carved into a gravel-conglomerate cliff. I have not been to Ajantha but it looks similar from the outside. The small caves are the size of a decent sized bedroom, the big ones three or four times larger. They contain 2400 clay statues built on wooden frames, wall murals, paintings and frescos. There are two giant statues whose core is stone; a reclining Buddha and a 30m seated Buddha whose head is nearly lost in the high recesses of the cave. I visited eight caves including the two containing giant statues. These caves were the highlight of all the manmade objects on my Silk Road travels.

There is a cave, the Library Cave, where 50,000 manuscripts were found. All along the Silk Road manuscripts, murals and statues have been looted, not by treasure hunters but by intellectual vandals. American, German, French, Russian and Japanese archaeologists and “scholars” looted artefacts in the first decades of the Twentieth Century when China was too weak and disorganised to resist. The Flaming Mountain and the associated Museum about 50 km away in the Turpan Depression is the hottest spot in China where ground-sand surface temperature can reach 70 deg C (160 degrees F); I could hardly bear it inside the air-conditioned Museum. Statues and profiles of these blackguards and bland statements of the bare facts are depicted in the Museum.

I could go on interminably, but let me sign off with another sobering observation. I am not religious, but have just enough residual common sense to appreciate the profundity of the Buddha’s message. But what do we have on the streets of Sri Lanka? Political-Buddhism of rank impurity!

The Silk Road: The Hexi Corridor is from Lanchou to Tun-huang

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Latest comments

  • 0

    ‘All along the Silk Road manuscripts, murals and statues have been looted, not by treasure hunters but by INTELLECTUALS VANDALS (my capitalization). American, German, French, Russian and Japanese archaeologists and “scholars” looted artefacts…’

    Dr David, I have somewhere a passage I copied out relating Aurel Stein’s exchange of precious manuscripts or images for gaudy gilded baubles. Many years ago Manel Tampoe & I started to work on a book about the theft of antiquities & I was ‘looking into’ Chinese caves along the Silk Route, including Dun Huang
    where Anil de Silva, sister of architect Minette, led an adventurous expedition of women incl. Romila Thapar, & French photographer Dominique Dabois, around 1965 to study & photograph the caves. De Silva’s book was published in 1967 by Methuen)

    For what it is worth I will copy the passage here for you if & when I find my notes. It may not be of great interest for u of course.

    In 1974 with 3 friends of differing beliefs (Agnostic, Buddhist, Hindu & Muslim) I stood at the very top of the great Bamiyan Buddha, having driven 100 miles over roads, from which small stones were thrown up constantly hitting the undercarriage. Terrible, headache-making, but truly a journey to remember. What an amazing place; what an amazing long long view.

    • 0

      Sorry, I think I shd say Professor David!

    • 0

      Trust me! I’ve forgotten what I set out to say, prompted by your last words & the ref. to the Buddhas of Bamiyan: Whatever happened to them in 2001? 2002? – they WERE preserved all those centuries in a Muslim environment, thought at some time the faces had been hacked away. When we visited them an indian team was working on their conservaiton, at the request of the Afghan government. Sadly, pushed into making a grand gesture of defiance, the present day Taliban, cut off, well, not exactly their noses to spite their face (little of which remained), but those whole wonderful presences, to cock a snook at the world, while depriving themselves of something precious they & their forbears had lived under the awe-inspiring shadow of for centuries.

  • 0

    The female Buddhist order was introduced to China by us Islanders
    The great mariner was called Nandi
    The ship was the biggest recorded to have docked in that ancient port

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