Kindred Spirits

Outlook Traveller | February 01, 2020
I always knew that one of my books in the Bharat Series was going to be about the flow of knowledge and ideas between China and India. As is my usual pattern, I invested almost a year in my research: reading books, articles and papers that would enable me to build the historical narrative around this ancient relationship. But once I was done, I knew that the final part of my research would be to visit the key places that figured in my story. I had never been to China before and I requested my wife and son to consider joining me. Frankly, I was relieved when they agreed to come.

The first leg of our the journey was on an Air China flight from Mumbai to Beijing. After spending three nights here, we took a high-speed train to Xi’an, China’s ancient capital. From there, another Hexie Hao gliding along at 350 km/hr took us to Luoyang. Our last stop in mainland China was Shanghai from where we proceeded to Hong Kong and then back to Mumbai. The itinerary sounded strange to those who had already visited China. Most people usually do the Beijing-Shanghai circuit and supplement it with Suzhou, Hangzhou, Chengdu or Zhangjiajie. Others go to Huangshan, Guilin, Yunnan, Tibet or Xiamen. However, my itinerary was not determined by tourist cities but by specific locations that were part of my book’s narrative.

Much like India, China is a box of assorted chocolates. You could keep going because there is so much to see; and even after seeing much of it you would realize that there is a massive gap in what you’ve covered. So I divided my list of places into ‘must-see’ and ‘nice-to-see’. The must-see list, included the Terracotta Army, the Wild Goose Pagoda, the White Horse Temple and the Shaolin Temple. These were places that were key to the narrative of my novel, The Vault of Vishnu. The nice-to-see list included the Great Wall, the Ming Tomb, Tian'anmen Square, the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven, the Summer Summer Palace, the Longmen Grottoes and the Shanghai Bund. These were places that were only incidental to my story.

Thus the first stop on my critical list was the Terracotta Army in Shaanxi province. These are around 8,500 lifesize clay figures of soldiers, chariots and horses that were buried along with the first emperor of unified China, Qin Shi Huang more than two millennia ago. This stunning work remained hidden until it was accidentally discovered in 1974.

The Terracotta Army turned out to be even more magnificent than the pictures I had seen of it. One could easily spend an entire day here because each figure had been fabricated in realistic detail with subtle variations in facial and physical attributes. Emperor Qin Shi Huang had been obsessed with living forever. Having conquered all six warring states in China, he was undoubtedly the most powerful emperor the land had seen, but could he also be immortal? When his quest for an elixir that would give him eternal life was unsuccessful, he began consuming cinnabar, or mercury sulphide, in the belief that it would make him immortal. Instead it poisoned him to an early death by the age of thirty-nine. The Terracotta Army that has survived twenty-two centuries after him is a stark reminder of the impermanence of life.

My next must-see stop was the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda in Xi’an. Of course, when it had been built, Xi’an would have been known as Chang’an, which was the ancient capital of more than ten Chinese dynasties and occupied an area six times that of Rome. Even in ancient times it was a city of over a million people. The city was laid out in a rectangular grid with wide tree-lined avenues and drainage systems. It even had a network of canals to facilitate the movement of goods across the city’s waterways. It boasted of a substantial foreign resident population from northern India and central Asia. Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, Nestorian Christianity, Zoroastrianism and Manichaeism were parallel cultures jostling for space in this magnificent city.

The Giant Wild Goose Pagoda had been originally built in the year 652 during the Tang dynasty and originally had five floors. The pagoda was rebuilt as ten storeys 150 years later during the reign of Empress Wu Zetian. But the connection of this pagoda to India is immense. One of the building’s many purposes is to store the sutras and figurines of Gautama Buddha that were brought to China from India by the seventh-century Buddhist monk, Xuanzang. Walking through its gardens and halls, I was transported back in time. I could almost feel the arduous journey of eighteen years that had been undertaken by Xuanzang to bring the original sutras of the Buddha from Nalanda to China.

Related to the Wild Goose Pagoda was yet another temple on my must-see list. This was the White Horse Temple in Luoyang. As the tale goes, Emperor Mingdi of the Han dynasty had a vivid dream in which he saw a spirit that had a body of gold and a head that emitted rays of light. The emperor’s wise men identified the spirit from the emperor’s dream as the Buddha. The emperor then commanded that a delegation go west looking for the Buddha’s teachings. The envoys eventually brought back two monks from India—Kasyapa Matanga and Dharmaratna—who carried along with them on a white horse various sutras for translation and transmission. Their arrival marked the first time that Buddhism had made an appearance in China. The two monks had remained busy for many years translating sutras in the temple along with a team to assist them.

A feeling of tremendous peace washed through me as I walked through the immense and tranquil grounds. A light breeze wafted through the trees. To the east and west of the gate lie the tombs of She Moteng and Zhu Falan, the Chinese names given to the two Indian monks. From there, I crossed into the Hall of Heavenly Kings, the Hall of the Great Buddha, the Hall of Mahavira and, finally, the Hall of Guidance. I felt strangely connected to that grand osmosis of knowledge and ideas that had taken place between India and China.

The final stop on my must-see list was the Shaolin Temple. Shaolin derives its name from the Shaoshi Mountain, one of the seven peaks of the Song range. The origins of Shaolin can be traced back to a monk who arrived in the court of Emperor Xiaowen in the year 495. He was provided a grant of land to build a temple, which resulted in the establishment of Shaolin. But thirty years later, another monk reached the temple from India and asked for admission. He claimed to have deep insights in yogic concentration, a practice that would centuries later be known around the world as Zen Buddhism. The abbot of Shaolin denied him admission. The monk tried every trick in the book to gain admission, but to no avail. The rebuffed yet stubborn monk retreated into a cave near the temple. He sat inside it in meditation for the next nine years, not emerging even once for light or fresh air. Finally, the abbot was left with no alternative but to grant the adamant monk admission into Shaolin. But during his nine-year-long meditation, the monk had developed an exercise routine to keep his limbs, joints and blood circulation in top condition. The aim of his workouts was to neutralise the prolonged physical inactivity during his spells of intense meditation. He combined these physical workouts with combat moves that he had brought with him from his homeland. Once he was accepted into the Shaolin brotherhood, these exercises became common practice at the temple and evolved into kung fu, the martial art that Shaolin eventually became famous for.

In the early fifteenth century, Chinese Emperor Yongle had commissioned the construction of 3,500 ships. Some of these were the largest ships the world had ever known. If subsequent Chinese emperors had kept the maritime tradition alive, the Chinese would have been the greatest seafaring nation of the world. Instead China turned inwards. Even today, China is not an easy destination. Sure, the pace of development and modernization is breathtaking but language and cuisine can be challenging. But there is so much history, myth, culture, tradition, religion and philosophy that connects India and China. And that is precisely why more Indians need to visit. To simply understand that there is more that unites than divides us.