Buddha in Central Asia by Sunita Dwivedi
The author of Buddha in Central Asia Sunita Dwivedi was born in Kushinagar. The city where Buddha attained Mahaparinirvana. She goes to central Asia in search of Buddhist imprints. She travels through Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan & Kazakhstan. Covering almost all of central Asia. She is in search of Buddhist Monasteries. Remains of Buddhist idols and statues. Manuscripts, inscriptions and any signs of that culture that may still be living in the land.
Sunita Dwivedi follows the ancient silk route, the merchants, and traders used the route since ages. She takes small detours on this ancient highway that I learned has been existent since the Mauryan times. Uttarpath was the name of the highway. Though we know it more from the little more recent times. She visits innumerable museums looking for famous pieces of Buddhist art. Sunita climbs mountains to reach the upper caves where the Buddhist monks lived and meditated. She searches the empty niches at Bamyan.
Her eyes yearn to spot the reclining Buddha that is 1000 feet long. And when she reaches in the vicinity of the area where it should be, she wonders if she may be walking on top of it. She looks at the paintings and tries to re-create them with her words for her readers. As an average reader with interest in ancient art, all the countries author visits were mere names that she brought alive. The travel blogger in me jumps to plan a trip which I know is easier said than done.
I learned a lot from this book Buddha in Central Asia about the antiquities of Indian origin or Indian influence in central Asia. Besides all the Buddhist monasteries that Sunita Dwivedi takes the reader to, she also discovers remnants of Hindu culture there. She finds roots of Shiva and Shakti worshippers and including Sri Devi who was the ruling deity of cities. She talks of the portrayal of Shiva & Parvati and Durga on lion’s back as she saw at museums at Penjikent, Tashkent & Dushanbe. Sunita finds Nisa as the city of Shiva worshippers where she finds even a Madustan or a winery.
She talks about the Sanskrit & Brahmi texts that were found in these regions and how Sanskrit was a recommended language for everyone. She looked at the motifs of snakes. Snakes are meant as protective spirits. At Merv, she finds signs of Vedic rituals like Haoma or Havan as we know it. There are parallel signs of fire worshippers that she attributes to Zoroastrians but also claims that Buddhist too worshiped fire and quotes quite a few depictions of Buddha with fire.
I learned that name Bukhara comes from Buddhist word Vihara. Similarly, Naubahar in Balkh is derived from Nav-Vihara. And Sunita tells that Huan Tsang referred to Balkh as mini Rajgriha or Rajgir in modern Bihar. I learned the ancient name of Tashkent is Chach. As a continued living culture she talks about the practice of tree worship that is still prevalent many parts of central Asia. She finds signs of Indian workmen in ivory carvings – the tusks for which must have come from India. She reads various Jataka tales carved in stone or painted along with scenes from various other stories around Buddha.
As a travelogue, Sunita Dwivedi’s book Buddha in Central Asia takes you through the highways, hotels, homes, mehmankhanas and most importantly Choykhanas of central Asia. The author has written the book over multiple trips she took over several years. So you hear about her flights, her taxi rides, and her walks. She talks about food a lot and on a lighter note, you see her drinking tea all the time throughout the book.
In the beginning and towards the end of the book Sunita Dwivedi mentions she is a strict vegetarian. But somewhere in between, we see her relishing all kinds of non-veg food. And even participating in rituals where she had to eat a goat’s tongue. Not that it matters, but as a reader, these consistencies take away a bit of trust, for everything else in the book is absolutely new to me. And I don’t know if what she is telling me is all true or not. This minor aberration probably caught my eye because I am a strict vegetarian.
Overall Sunita Dwivedi creates a beautiful sketch of pre-Islamic central Asia for us that was dominated by Buddhist monks, traders, merchants, fire worshippers, Shiva & Devi worshippers, idol worshippers and Sanskrit speakers.
Buddha in Central Asia is a highly recommended read.