A journey through Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and Kalmykia in Russia, along the Silk Route, where Buddhism spread in ancient times.
From: Frontline by Benoy K. Behl
The range of hills out of which the ancient Bamiyan site is carved, in Afghanistan.
It was a wonderful experience to travel across Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and the Kalmykia province in Russia and photograph Buddhist and other cultural sites. With me were my colleagues Sanghamitra Ghosh and Sujata Chatterji.
The way Indian philosophy spread across the continent of Asia in ancient times is amazing. There was a time when there was no country in South and South-East Asia, East Asia and Central Asia where Indic deities, the Buddha, Siva, Vishnu and others, were not revered.
Much of this history has been forgotten. One of my projects in recent years has been to document Buddhist sites all over the world. I had until last year photographed the Buddhist sites in Siberia, Mongolia, China, Tibet, Japan, Vietnam, Lao PDR, Indonesia, Myanmar, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan and India.
Afghan women in the courtyard of the Blue Mosque in Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan.
In July-August this year, my colleagues and I travelled across Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and the Buddhist province of Kalmykia in European Russia to document Buddhist sites and art there. Kalmykia is the only part of Europe which has a Buddhist tradition: it dates back to 400 years.
In Afghanistan, a war zone, it was terrible to see the effect of man's inhumanity towards man. All the trappings of modernity have collapsed. There is tension, violence and hatred everywhere, and insecurity reigns supreme. It is time we learnt some lessons from the spiritual traditions of the past.
Afghanistan is situated around the midpoint of Asia. It is at a crossroad on the famous Silk Route. Owing to its geographical position, Afghanistan was the meeting point of different people and civilisations, including Aryan, Achaemenian, Greek, Kushan and Buddhist.
Buddha from Fayaz-Tepe, 1st-2nd century. Collection, Tashkent National Museum.
Greek culture found its path into Bactrian art in the fourth century B.C., when the country was a part of the vast Macedonian empire. In the third century B.C., during the reign of Emperor Asoka of India, Buddhism found its way into Afghanistan. It was in Afghanistan that Greek realism in art intermingled with Indian mysticism, giving birth to a new school of art now known as the Gandhara School. In Afghanistan, Buddhist worship focussed on the “Manushi” Buddhas. Their images became the focus of worship and veneration.
The Jatakas, or stories of the previous lives of the Buddha in the form of different men and animals, were the subject matter of earlier art. These were based on the Indic philosophic view, which saw the unity of all creation and the cycle of births in the world of forms. The population of the Gandhara region was not deeply versed in this philosophy and would have found it simpler to relate to the life of the individual Gautama Buddha.
Here, the emphasis became more on the drama of life in the ephemeral world. Human life, personified in the Buddha before and after his enlightenment, became the vehicle of the message. Depictions in the Gandharan region significantly dramatised the events of the Buddha's life and presented them with charged emotions.
Fayaz-Tepe, stupa near Termez, Uzbekistan. It is wonderful to recall the time when stupas dotted the landscape from Central Asia to South-East Asia.
In the second century A.D., during the time of the Kushana king Kanishka, Afghanistan became a seat of Buddhist learning. It was from this pivotal centre that Buddhism reached Xinjiang, other parts of China, and Mongolia.
The Chinese pilgrim monk Xuanzang visited Afghanistan in the seventh century. He writes that there were many monasteries and Buddha images in Bamiyan. Bamiyan was on the route linking India and Balkh through which spices, pearls, ivory and raw cotton were traded.
The Bamiyan valley is cradled between the mountain ranges of the Hindu Kush and the Koh-i-Baba. The town is the cultural centre of the Hazara ethnic group of Afghanistan. Bamiyan is 233 kilometres north of Kabul on a motorable road. However, the road is unsafe because it is occupied by Taliban militants. Little is left of the ancient city, but what is left is enough to evoke the images of a glorious past. There was a time when people from several Asian countries rubbed shoulders with Europeans here.
Siva, 7th century, Farghana Valley, Tashkent National Museum. As this was found at a Buddhist site, it carries the label "Buddha" in the museum. Now the world seems to have forgotten the fact that there were no lines dividing the adoration of different Indic deities.
On a cliff face next to Bamiyan town, three colossal statues were carved 1,200 metres apart. One of them, 52.5 metres high, was the world's tallest standing statue of the Buddha. It was carved in the sixth century. Once upon a time, nearly 2,000 monks might have meditated in the caves here among the sandstone cliffs.
The caves were a big tourist attraction before the long series of wars in Afghanistan. The world's earliest oil paintings have now been discovered in the caves behind the place where the destroyed statues once stood. The statues were destroyed by the Taliban in March 2001 on the grounds that they were an affront to Islam. It was unnerving to stand at the Bamiyan site and look at the niches that held the sixth century Buddhas. These were called Brhad Buddhas in the Indic tradition.
Larger-than-life figures, as seen in the caves of Maharashtra, began to be expressed in the Indian spiritual tradition in the fifth century. The tradition spread across the faiths of Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism, and this was seen as an expression of the grandeur of the spirit within.
Shah Jehan Mosque, Bagh-e Babur, Kabul, Afghanistan. The emperor Shah Jehan built this mosque in the 17th century. Kabul was a favourite visiting place for the Mughals owing to its climate.
As we stood before the vast, or brhad, image of the deity which represented a quality within ourselves, we were awed by its grandeur and magnificence. Worldly cares and other thoughts were dispelled as the spirit was far greater than our material bodies or concerns of the world.
From the fifth century onwards, this tradition spread all over India, including Kashmir and Ladakh, as well as further north, to Afghanistan, China and other places.
The earliest example I can think of about using guns to ruin statues of Indic deities is when Portuguese cannons disfigured and destroyed stone figures in the caves of Elephanta in India. How grand and wonderful would the sixth century Buddhas have been when they stood at Bamiyan!
Recently excavated Buddha from the Mes Aynak site in Afghanistan. In the past, spiritual thoughts deeply pervaded the lives of the people who were touched by Indic culture. There must be many sculptures of the Buddha still lying buried in Afghanistan.
New Buddhist sites are excavated in Afghanistan even today, including the site at Mes Aynak, where beautiful Buddha figures have been found. Amidst a world of violence, these peaceful figures have an inward look, which reminds us that all that is important is to be found within us.
The Buddha figures at Bamiyan are gone, but there are considerable remains of the old Bamiyan and the many rows of shops that were once there.
Sher-Dor-Madrassa, Registan, Samarkand, Uzbekistan. It was built in the 17th century. Registan, literally meaning desert, was in the heart of ancient Samarkand.
Bamiyan was at the crossroads of culture. This was a place which saw the influence of the great Zoroastrian tradition and the great Persian empire as well as the impact of the Greek and Roman civilisations. It is Indic philosophy that finally prevailed, and the people here built many caves and monasteries (literally hundreds of them) to honour the Buddhahood, which is deep inside everyone.
It feels wonderful for an Indian to visit the tomb of Babur in Kabul. The history of Afghanistan is very closely linked with that of India. From Kabul, we travelled to Mazar-i-Sharif. The Blue Mosque there turned out to be one of the finest Islamic monuments anywhere in the world. Besides India, the most beautiful Islamic architecture I have seen is at Esfahan in Iran, Samarkand in Uzbekistan and Mazar-i-Sharif in Afghanistan.
Mural, The Buddha, from Fayaz-Tepe, 1st-2nd century, Tashkent National Museum. There was a wonderful tradition of Buddhist mural paintings, with its roots seen at Ajanta, from the 2nd century B.C. onwards, which spread across Central Asia and China.
From there we went to Balkh, once a very important place on the Silk Route. Here was a marvellous, though ruined, structure of an ancient Zoroastrian temple. Further on the Silk Route, we travelled through Uzbekistan. The people of that country are amongst the most friendly, warm and hospitable people I have found. Nobody we met there seemed to speak English, so we managed mainly with sign language. Fortunately, a few people we came across knew German, which Sujata is familiar with.
The trade routes that ran from north-western India to northern China not only took Buddhism to Central Asia but also nourished the faith and its culture for many centuries. Indic faiths never had a missionary movement. Nor were they spread by the sword. However, Buddhism spread far and wide on the Indian subcontinent and from there throughout Asia. In every new land it reached, Buddhist ideas were modified to fit the local culture without compromising the essential philosophical points of wisdom and compassion.
Shai-I-Zinda, Samarkand. This complex has many mausoleums, mainly of the 9th to the 14th centuries. It was in Uzbekistan that the dramatic use of coloured tiles reached its zenith.
It seems that wherever a few Indian traders settled, the local people began to take a deep interest in their philosophy. Such a process occurred in the lands along the Silk Road in Central Asia during the two centuries before and after the time of Christ. As local rulers and their people learned more about this Indian faith, they invited monks from the merchants' native regions as advisers or teachers. The Buddhist faith spread in this manner and was accepted with open arms.
Stupas in Termez
Al Khakim At-Termizi Complex, Termez. This is the mausoleum of Al Khakim, a great Islamic scholar and Sufi of the 8th/9th century.
Buddhism in the south of Uzbekistan came from north-western India. Some researchers trace the initial period of Buddhism in Uzbekistan to the time of Kanishka. Others date the beginnings of Buddhism here to an earlier period. Greek coins of the second century B.C. found in this region have Indic deities and motifs.
The Buddhist stupas in Termez have a great significance in the history of Buddhism in the south of Uzbekistan. From the early stupas of this area begin the study of Buddhist monuments in Central Asia.
Golden Abode of Buddha Shakyamuni, Kalmykia. This recently built temple has become a great symbol of the Buddhist traditions of the constituent republic of the Russian Federation.
The town of Termez, just across the border from Afghanistan, has the sites of two very major stupas, Kara-Tepe and Fayaz-Tepe, dated between the first and third centuries A.D. The ruins show that both would have been major monastic centres. Kara-Tepe has vast and extensive ruins and must have housed a large number of monks. This was about the same time as the journey of the great Indian pandit Kumarayana on the Silk Route from Kashmir via Termez to Xinjiang, where he married Princess Jiva of Kucha. Their son Kumarajiva went on to become one of the greatest names in Buddhism in China.
Travelling through Uzbekistan reminded us of the great exchange of philosophic and aesthetic ideas in ancient times. The mosques and tombs of Samarkand are among the most beautiful in the world. It is said that Timur, when he came to India, was struck by the beauty of the historical cities here. In Malfujaate Taimoori, his autobiography, he says that he took many artisans from India to be employed in the construction of the Jami Masjid at Samarkand. In times gone by, there was a most wonderful cultural exchange, which is still evident on the Silk Route.
Buddhist Stupa at Zurmala, Termez. The stupas at Termez are among the earliest surviving after those in India.
There is a fine Siva head, a few Buddhas and some remains of mural paintings at the National Museum in Tashkent, which preserve memories of the culture of ancient Uzbekistan as well as its links with India.
Buddhism in Russia
Kalmykia, in European Russia, on a northern branch of the Silk Route, is a place where Buddhism was revived after the Soviet times. It is just wonderful to see Ladakhi lamas teaching the people of European Kalmykia. Interestingly, the few senior lamas of Kalmykia studied Buddhism in India. From ancient times to date, India is where some of the finest philosophical thoughts of mankind have been nurtured and taught.
Pagoda with prayer wheel, Elista, Kalmykia. The blend of European culture and the Indic culture of Buddhism here is quite fascinating.
A great new Buddhist temple called the ‘Golden Abode of Buddha Shakyamuni' was built in Elista, the capital of Kalmykia. It has today become a symbol of the identity of the people of Kalmykia. It is crowded every day with worshippers. Around the temple are seated statues of 17 acharyas of the Nalanda University who developed the philosophical traditions of Buddhism. It was at the Nalanda and Vikramshila universities (in what is present-day Bihar) that the Vajrayana form of Buddhism practised in Kalmykia was formed and developed. The best known among these great acharyas are Nagarjuna, Asanga, Aryadeva, Gunuprabha and Atisa. Atisa is one of the great teachers who visited Tibet and established a tradition of Buddhism that continues to date.
Two Kalmyks posing in front of the image of an acharya from Nalanda.
Benoy K. Behl is a film-maker, art historian and photographer. Over the past 32 years, he has taken over 35,000 photographs of monuments and works of art that are part of Asia's heritage, and made a hundred documentaries on art history. His exhibitions have been warmly received in 24 countries. Behl has been invited to lecture by several universities and museums around the world that have departments of Asian art. Exhibitions of his photographs on Buddhist monuments and art heritage have been held at more than 150 major cultural institutions around the world.
Behl's journey to Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and Kalmykia was on a fellowship of the Maulana Abul Kalam Azad Institute of Asian Studies.