Looking Back at Sino-Indian Silk Road Cultural Linkages to Look Forward
Brig Vinod Anand, Senior Fellow, VIF

“Two great civilizations ---India and China --- have been in mutual dialogue for centuries. Both the dialogue as also the distinctiveness have been inspired in no small measure through the spread of Buddhism.Pilgrims from each country have visited the other. The pilgrimage and trade routes provided opportunity for the flowering of creative energies in both the countries. The paintings and sculpture of the Dunhuang caves represent this cultural synergism as do the Ajanta caves of India."

- Prime Minister Narsimha Rao, November 1991

One of the important facets of the unfolding Silk Road strategy of China has been to strengthen people to people exchanges. The National Development Reforms Commission (NDRC) of China in its White Paper titled “Vision and Actions on Jointly Building Silk Road Economic Belt and 21st- Century Maritime Silk Road” published in March 2015 emphasizes on enhancing people to people bonds and promoting cultural exchanges. According to the White paper, “People-to-people bond provides the public support for implementing the Initiative. We should carry forward the spirit of friendly cooperation of the Silk Road by promoting extensive cultural and academic exchanges, personnel exchanges and cooperation so as to win public support for deepening bilateral and multilateral cooperation”.

It was with the above perspective that China organized an international conference on ‘Role of Dunhuang in China’s Interaction with the Outside World’ in August 2015. Dunhuang city was an important junction of the Silk Road in ancient times that traversed from India to Afghanistan, Central Asia, Xinjiang, Dunhuang , Lanzhou (capital city of Gansu province) and beyond to Xian and other places in China. Because of its crucial geographical location Dunhuang became a centre for exchanges between Indian, Eurasian and Chinese civilizations. Indian culture and Buddhist beliefs were transmitted across the Silk Road via Afghanistan and Central Asia which is reflected in a series of Buddhist caves with murals and statues in Dunhuang and other places in present day Gansu province and other parts of China. Between fourth and fourteenth centuries when the Silk Road interactions flourished many such caves were built all over China with cultural linkages originating from India. The Silk Road started losing its salience in the fifteenth century as the maritime routes started gaining ascendancy. As of now Dunhuang is a UN approved World heritage site and an important destination on Buddhist circuit and for historical and cultural experts and research scholars.

With the above as background it is necessary to delve into broad impressions and some of the salient points that emerged from the conference. While over 90 percent of the topics were about Buddhism and its roots and linkages with India the Indian representation of scholars and experts was very minimal (two persons only) though there was a fair sprinkling of scholars from the western and other Asian countries. Most of the presentations made by a large contingent of Chinese scholars relied on western sources for their presentations rather than using Indian or Asian references. When asked about this incongruity the answer was that Indian resources were not easily accessible or Indian publications were not available abroad. Though whatever was stated by the scholars might have been true but there was general impression that China could be promoting its own cultural narrative without paying the required emphasis on the Indian contribution to the development of Buddhist cultural and religious linkages with China. Largely, the narrative revolved around how China absorbed outside influences and created its own unique cultural heritage.

There was mention of Zoroastrian and other non-Indian cultural linkages that came from Iran, Middle East Asia, Europe and elsewhere. Also the interaction of Buddhist and other foreign influences with Taoism and Confucianism was also dwelt upon briefly during the conference. It is quite evident that Buddhist thought processes during those times occupied the centre stage and was patronized by the then rulers in China.

One of the notable omissions was the fact that while there had been interaction between the Dunhuang Academy and India’s Cultural institutions in mid 1990s on the question of preserving cultural relics and exchange of scholars and experts the same was not brought out during the two day conference till pointed out by the author during the review meeting after the end of conference. Indian cultural establishment had been strengthening such cultural bonds when way back in November 1991 an international conference on Dunhuang caves and Sino-Indian cultural linkages was organized in New Delhi. And later on in December 1991 to February 1992, an exhibition Dunhuang Cave Arts was organized in New Delhi. Incidentally, a troupe from Gansu province of China was in New Delhi in last week of September performing an opera based on culture depicted in Dunhuang Buddhist grottos.

Another oddity was that one of the scholars from Hong Kong who wanted to learn the correct incantation of Sanskrit mantras stated that he had to go to Taiwan to understand the Sanskrit pronunciation. Without doubt, the correct place to learn the right way of chanting Sanskrit shlokas was to come to India where the language originated and where its use is still prevalent but somehow this did not dawn upon the said scholar or possibly there were some other factors in play.

Also what is not well known or possibly what has not been appropriately propagated is that Great Wall of China has Sanskrit inscriptions written on it to invoke the divine for its defence. The Chu Yung Kuan pass which is one of the nine important gateways to China along the Great wall has an Imperial arch constructed in 133 AD that has 36 feet long inscription in Sanskrit for protection of Beijing from marauders of North. Chinese emperors used bowls, cups and saucers sanctified by Sanskrit mantras. Sanskrit sutras for national defence were used in ancient times; Hsuan Tsang, the famous Chinese pilgrim, was known to have carried six hundred scrolls of Sanskrit texts for state protection. Sanskrit is called Fan-yu meaning language of Brahmans’ that contributed to the culture and civilization of China.


(Inscriptions in Sanskrit and in other languages invoking protection on Great Wall of China)


(Gayatri Mnatra in Chinese from Prof. Raghu Vira archives)

India and China are linked through culture, religion and civilizationally; while the predominant course in the current global environment is that of geo-politics and hard power the geo-civilizational discourse and soft power has its own idiom. Such linkages work to remove the negative stereotypes and perceptions of each other and go long way in in improving people to people relationships.

There is a need to coordinate and monitor the joint efforts to strengthen cultural cooperation between India and China. A Joint Cultural-Cooperation-Committee (JCCC) could be officially set up to look into developing a framework of extensive and intensive cultural cooperation with a long term objective in mind. The respective Ministries of Culture should be tasked to take this forward. Eminent personalities from the field of culture, academia and media besides many other fields could be members of this Committee. A systematic programme for collaboration between leading cultural organisations on either side needs to be drawn up. Festivals of China in India and vice versa can be planned more frequently with increased scope. The Indian Council of Cultural Relations (ICCR) is doing something in this regard but this need to be further enhanced and diversified. Popularisation of Chinese culture in India and Indian culture in China should be the principal objective of this exercise. Leading Indian institutions can develop a series of collaborative efforts in various areas of research on Chinese and Indian societal evolution.

While the geo-political aspects of China’s new Silk Road strategy are under scrutiny the geo-cultural aspects have positive connotations and cooperative efforts that are mutually reinforcing and beneficial need to be stepped up.


Published Date: 28th September 2015, Image Source: http://www.xinhuanet.com
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Vivekananda International Foundation)

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