THE BOOK IS A UNIQUE ACCOUNT OF
A journey undertaken by the writer along the oldest and the greatest international route, the famous
Silk Road that connected the continents of Asia and Europe, from China Sea to the
The contact between the East and the West catalysed the co-existence of various
religions on the Silk Road and the earliest to make its presence felt was Buddhism. Around the first
century AD it had travelled from India to several parts of Central Asia and China spreading the
words of the Buddha.
The book covering a vast region of China takes the reader through the dreadful deserts
of the Gobi and the Taklamakan, over the snowy ranges of the Pamir, meandering through
innumerable oases dotting the foot of the Tienshan and Kunlun ranges and traces beautiful river
valleys. It takes a peep into the splendid grottoes and cliff theatres of the Silk Road where the Great
Buddha still lives and breathes. The book offers an unforgettable train of awe-inspiring stupas,
monasteries, paintings and sculptures even as it traves the complex and curious past of an immense
The exciting journey along the ancient route begins from Xian, the eastern terminus of the
Silk Road and traverses the provinces of Gansu, Xinjiang, Sichuan and Tibet and traces, through
maps, the several branch roads that were a conduit for trade, commerce, art and religion between
the two Asian giants-India and China.
About the Author
Sunita Dwivedi belongs to Kushinagar, a sleepy town in eastern Uttar Pradesh. An intrepid
traveler and amateur photographer, she set out to explore the Silk Road with the ardour of a
self-guided researcher and a pilgrim. Inspired by the Dying Buddha, she has travelled thousands of
miles - from Kushinagar to Kashgar, from Xian to Dunhuang, from Termez to Almaty and along the
holy rivers of Tibet. Her tryst with Buddha still never seems to end. The result is this unique account
of travels along the great Asian Highway.
Her earlier book The Buddhist Heritage Sites of India covered the entire Dhammayatra
of the Buddhist circuit in India and Nepal.
She is a post-graduate in English from Lucknow University and has a Masters in
Education from Allahabad University. An author and freelance journalist she has earlier worked for
several dailies including The Times of India, Hindustan Times, Pioneer, and Northern India Patrika.
She left a full time job to pursue her passion for travelling. During the last decade she has travelled
widely across Asia and Europe tracing the legacy of the Silk Road.
Buddha is surely one of the three most influential persons in world history, the others being Jesus
Christ and the Prophet Mohammad. Between them they continue to influence around half the
population of the entire planet, and their presence is by no means confined to the country of their
birth but has spread to the four corners of the world. The journey of Buddhism from the plains of
Central India all the way to the nations of South and South East Asia is a fascinating story. There
were two routes for this, the land route which is known as the Silk Route, and the ocean route. It is
also important to remember that along with Buddhism, Hinduism also travelled to South and South
Asia, the most dramatic example of which is the fabulous Angkor Wat temple in Cambodia, the
largest place of worship in the world.
The journey of the Silk Route is one of the most fascinating in human history, and has been the
subject of a large number of memoirs and books by Indian, Chinese and European scholars. The
present book with its learned Foreword by the eminent Buddhist scholar Dr. Lokesh Chandra
represents yet another significant addition to literature in this area. Sunita Dwivedi has researched the
whole field extensively and has produced a volume which combines historical narrative with a
contemporary travelogue. The illustrations are well chosen and give the reader a graphic picture of
the varied cultural background of the countries to which Buddhism has spread.
In an age still torn with conflict, war and tension, the message of the Buddha remains even more
significant than it was when he first delivered it 2-1/2 millennia ago. As it moved from India to
different cultures and regions, Buddhism developed special forms and qualities so that where on the
one hand we have somewhat rigid Hinayana tradition in Sri Lanka, in Japan thousands of miles away
Buddhism has flourished in the form of Zen which itself is based on the Sanskrit word Dhyan.
Similarly, the great mountain monasteries of Ladakh and Tibet have their own distinctive architecture
compared with the magnificent Borobodour in Indonesia, based on the Sanskrit Bhadra Vihar. The
whole area is full of fascinating cultural, linguistic, architectural and social facets, and I am sure this
book will be of interest to students of Buddhism and of Asian culture around the world. I warmly
commend the author for the energy and scholarship that she has put into the creation of this
The free-flowing vademecum of a journey across the mindscape of the Tathagata in the heartland of
the Han, in Central Asia and in Tibet emanates from the quartets of the life, spirituality, wanderlust,
and writing genius of Sunita Dwivedi. Her temporal solidarity and loyalty with her birthplace of
Kushinagara flows in a continuous stream in this delightful narrative. Kushinagara is one of the four
most sacred places associated with the Buddha, the others being the place of his birth, of his
enlightenment and of his first sermon. It was the capital of the Mallas. Malla means a hero, Like them
the heroic author has undertaken the arduous trail where once trod scholars, generals, merchants,
and envoys. The living sancta and weeping ruins can be visualised in the majestic radiance of the
Crossing the Hiranyavati, or the Golden River, Lord Buddha had entered Kushinagara. This
narrative too is golden like the Hiranyavati where the glory and majesty of Buddha’s message burst
into bloom. She opens up a time capsule that has preserved a marvellous slice of art and thought
across two millennia, and continues to illumine the way for millions today.
The author commences her journey with a visit to the Famen monastery hallowed by Lord Buddha’s
relic and in tune with her intentions appropriately termed Gateway (mea) to Dharma (fa). The
octagonal pagoda represents the eight directions of space and the eight petals of the frail cup of a
lotus. The mind is the eight-petalled lotus where blossoms the fire of the Spirit. Like the Vedic seers,
she seeks the Agni born in an eight-petalled lotus. The frail lotus and the fiery luminosity of the mind
are the powerful coordinates of the deep silence of the octagonal stupa.
The author speaks of the blue sky covering the Wild Goose Pagoda of Xuanzang. Blue is the colour
of meditation in Buddhism or thought luminous by nature. What a strange coincidence that she should
be fascinated by the blue sky before visiting the stupa dedicated to the great yogin Xuanzang. Wild
Goose (or Great Goose) is a misunderstanding of the Sanskrit pamma-hamsa who is an ascetic of
the highest order and has attained the fourth or the supreme stage in abstract meditation. Xuanzang
was accorded this honour by his teachers in India. Hamsa is swan and not goose. It is time that the
nomenclature of the stupa to one of the greatest masters of Chinese Buddhism is corrected and its
meditative symbolism restored. The author gives an absorbing account of the cultural relics that
Xuanzang brought to China.
The author describes in vivid terms the mausoleum of the Chinese emperor Qin Shihuangdi (22l-8
BC). As early as his reign, Yueh-chi Buddhist monks brought a number of Sutras to his court, but he
did not accept the Dharma. These monks Sanskritised his dynastic name Qin (pronounced Chin) to
Cheena, which travelled from India to South-east Asia, from Malay to European languages and now
it is the international name. China is a Sanskrit name given to the Middle Kingdom by the Yueh-chih.
Emperor Qin Shihuangdi had all the Confucian classics burnt all over China, and so Chinese scholars
have professed a thorough contempt for the Qin dynasty. They freely call themselves ‘Han people,
after the Han dynasty which collected the Confucian classics and made them the central philosophy
of Chinese life. The Qin emperor joined the different sections of the Great Wall of China and gave
rise to Sinocentrism with China as the Central Kingdom and barbarians around to be conquered.
The inner certitude of China arises in this rapture of their psychosphere to this day, The billboard at
the entrance of Jichuan, the Space City of China, has enormous Chinese characters in scarlet, and
interestingly enough their translation in English: (Without Haste. Without Fear. We conquer the
What a sensitive choice of the author, namely the city of Xian, to commence her pilgrimage to
China’s living and extinct symbols of glory and transcendence. It was the metropolis of the golden
period of Chinese history under the Tang dynasty. The supreme power of the Tang was represented
by the Thousand-armed Avalokitesvara who was painted by an Indian monk as early as 618-26. As
recently as 8 August 2008, the World Olympic Games commenced with a dance of the
Thousand-armed Avalokitesvara with a thousand girls dancing and singing his Sanskrit hymn in
Chinese pronunciation. It was the Buddhist heritage of China followed by a recitation of the
Confucian Classics by three thousand young men from ‘bamboo books° used in the days of
Confucius. The resounding resonance, the profound depth of time and the numbing number of
thousands were to remind the visiting ‘barbarians’ of the might of the Confucian Land.
Away from the neolithic village of Banpo, the author speaks of Lady Yang Kweifei whose beauty
mesmerized the emperor Xuanzong (r. 712•56). She became the heroine of his countless
stage-plays, as well as the misfortune that marked the end of his reign. When An Lushan captured
Chang-an in 756, the emperor fled and Lady Yang had to be offered for hanging. The emperor’s
fascination for her led to the neglect of the Central Asian states when they sought help from China. In
751, the Arabs gained victory over the Chinese in the Talas Valley and the Buddhist kingdoms of
Central Asia were gradually taken over by the Islamic armies. It was not only an emperor’s grief,
however, the grief of the (second blossoming of T’ang culture) and of a millenarian Buddhist culture.
The author’s description of the Maijishan Caves arising out of the earth like a gigantic stupa and its
environs is so vivid that we are there in its scenic charm and seclusion. The mountain derives its name
maiji from its shape which resembles sheaves of grain. It recalls the great Indian monastery of
Dhanya-kataka ‘heap of grain’, mentioned in the Manjusri-mula-kalpa. Dhanya-kataka
‘shaped like a heap of grain’ is one of the six conventional shapes of stupas in Sri Lanka. Maijishan
was a holy site as early as the beginning of the fifth century. The works in the Cave of the Seven
Buddhas are a transitional style between the early art of Yun-kang and Lung-men and the full
Sui-Tang styles. The stiff hieratical style is replaced by naturalistic representations. The human foot is
carved in the round with a shapely ankle and natural toes. The faces undergo a re-humanising
process. Sexless deities become modest maidens, with a frank and worldly look, the archaic smile
ends in dimples. The Four Guardians of Directions breathe martial vigour. Elegant flowing drapery
surrounds mature goddesses, like an enjewelled prima donna with the ‘majestic indolence of a
sultana’ (Grousset). The monumental Sung figures in the Maijishan caves come close to portraiture.
The apostle Kasyapa in Cave 90 represents an Indian monk, and though imaginary, it carries
naturalism in sculpture to a degree unknown in earlier times. These caves opened a completely new
approach to sculpture.
As the author delineates the murals on the ceilings, the images of Buddhas and bodhisattvas, Arhats/
Lohan or apostles of Lord Buddha, or the kalavinka bird, in the long cave galleries, she takes the
readers into the caves themselves by her evocative diction. She draws us into these splendid caverns
to stir the eye and the spirit to their depths. They are symbolic tangents of what took place in the
secret of human hearts for a millennium. Here time falls into the timeless, in the silence and solitude of
The author in her gripping life-like narrative is on a speedboat to the Binglingsi caves dominated by a
twenty-seven metre high Maitreya or Future Buddha. The sculptures in these caves show a direct
impact of Indian art as the expression of sophisticated worldly life when the bodies become more
delicate and lithe. The sculptors give their deities relaxed and natural rhythms. A new elegance and
sensitivity appears in these figures with an imposing majesty. The Indian style is acting directly and is
being assimilated to serve the humanising tendencies in Buddhist sculpture, contradistinguished from
the immobile and heavy figures of the Han dynasty, which resurfaced in the Ming period. The lovely
sculpture of Amitabha accompanied by two Bodhisattvas and two Guardian kings in niche 51 of
Binglingsi shows restyling in the graceful and dignified Indian mode, with the comparative slimness of
the hips which Chinese sculptors felt to be a profane feature of Indian prototypes. The Bodhisattva
on the left is Avalokitesvara who stands in an emphatic tribhanga. The sculpture displays all the
vernal freshness and animation of pose, as distinct a rooted Chinese immobility of posture. Another
stone image of Avalokitesvara in niche 50 stands in marked tribhanga, with the dhoti closely
moulded to the body.
The author reaches the Labrang Monastery the first Tibetan monastery in her itinerary. It has been
preserved in its original glory and its courses in Buddhist philosophy are in full depth of traditional
On her way to Dafosi, the author saw the stupa of Kumarajiva who was the son of Kumarayana of
Kashmir and Princess Jiva of Kucha. His translation of the Lotus Sutra is the major scripture of East
Asia which is enjoying a vibrant renaissance in the Soka Gakkai movement of creating values. It is
the first enunciation of the Peace, Harmony and Bliss of humanity. Kumarajiva is the only Indian
whose Chinese diction has been hailed over the centuries by Chinese men of letters. He was
self-sacrificing and humane, strikingly handsome, intellectually brilliant and hardworking. Emperor
Yao Xing was highly impressed by him. The emperor felt that the extraordinary brilliance of
Kumarajiva must be transmitted to future generations. He assigned ten girls to live with him.
Kumarajiva adapted himself to the circumstances and complied with the wishes of the emperor.
During his preaching, he warned his listeners to take only the lotus that grew Out of the mud and to
leave the mud alone. The sons and grandsons of Kumarajiva failed to live up to the high hopes of this
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