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India and Central Asia—how the Silk route threaded Buddhist-Sufi osmosis

Buddhism was brought to Central Asia by two Buddhist merchants: Courtesy William Dalrymple on Twitter

Both the geographic boundaries of India and Central Asia have worked together over the ages to enrich the culture, way of life, and religion across the Great Himalayan terrain. Both regions have a rich history that is interwoven in many different ways. Due to India’s (especially North India’s) geographical proximity with Central Asia from the ancient times till the British occupation of India there was cross-regional and social interaction which led to forging of highly significant linkages.

These interdependent influences span a wide range of fields and are multidimensional and extensive. A few examples include governance, architecture, art, trade and commerce, social customs, language, dress, lifestyle, philosophy, astrology, science, music, and a few other areas that are readily apparent from the prehistoric to modern periods. Without a section on Central Asia, Indian history cannot be fully understood. However, the deeper layers of Central Asia have also absorbed the aroma of India and carry the signs of borrowings from India even today.

History, Arrival of Aryans & Sufis

Noted scholars like Harold Baailey, Bongard Levin, Litvinsky, Arnold Toynbee, Ravindra Nath Tagore, Prabodh Chandra Bagchi, James Tod, MN Roy, Raja Mahendra Pratap, and Rahul Sankrityayan have done immense research on the Central Asia and its connection with India. Numerous early religious writings supported this interdependence and advanced the idea that the forebears of these two “histories” were one and the same. The Iranian, Turanian, and Indian forefathers were three of Tratoria’s sons, identified in the Zend-Avesta, The Persian Holy Book, as Tura, Sairimia, and Arya.

Geographical evidence supports Toynbee’s historical study between the Oxus and Jumna and shows that the Oxus Jaxartes plains were the Aryans’ original habitat. As a result, the Aryans arrived in India from Central Asia. They arrived in India via external migration. It established that widely used Sanskrit words have been derived from Dravidian; they were duly recorded by historians.

Historian Mahmoud Kerim Ferishta provides a very fascinating explanation of the ancestry of India and Central Asia. In his book Tarikh-e-Munaji-e-Bukhara, Fazil Khan also delves deeply into exchanges of culture, cuisines, poetry, architecture and statecraft between India and Central Asia. Sufism’s introduction to India from Central Asia is a well-known fact. The Sufi saints’ center was in great Central Asian towns like Bukhara and Samarkand. It is famously said that monks carried Buddhism from India to Central Asia and Sufis brought the contemporary culture from Central Asia to India.

The great Bhakti movement in India was started by Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu in Bengal and it has been established historically that the Sufi movement in Islam simultaneously began in Iran.

The first madrasa in Central Asia is believed to have been established under the influence of Buddhist Vihara.

Poets like Nasim, Masafi, Maharam, Mushrib and Shaukat popularised Indian poetry in Central Asia. From Khwarism, great thinkers like Abdul Rajjak Samarkandi and Albaruni came to India.


Silk Route of Wisdom & Religion

From the 2nd century BC onwards, India maintained commercial connections with China, Central Asia, West Asia and the Roman Empire. Central Asia is a landmass bounded by China, Russia, Tibet, India and Afghanistan. Traders to and from China regularly crossed the region despite hardships. The route that was opened by them later became famous as the Silk Route.

The road acted as a fantastic conduit for the dissemination of the then-known world’s cultures. Indian culture travelled widely and has a significant influence on Central Asia. Ancient kingdom of Kucha a very significant and thriving center of Indian culture and all the Central Asian kings of the time aspired to attain its grandeur.

The history of toponyms for modern Kucha remains somewhat problematic; however, it is clear that Kucha, Kuchar (in Turkic languages) and Kuché (modern Chinese), correspond to the Kushan of Indic scripts from late antiquity.

Kucha has also possibly been inducted into Urdu language and has been famous, most particularly in Delhi and North India, to denote a popular locality both in public and poetic parlance.

There are two Silk Roads: one in the north and one in the south. Samarkand, Kashgar, Tumshuk, Aksu, Karashahr, Turfan, and Hami are on the northern route, whereas Yarkand, Khotan, Keriya, Cherchen, and Miran are on the southern route. These roads were used by Chinese and Indian intellectuals who ventured there in pursuit of knowledge and to spread the Buddhist ideology. Ancient stupas, temples, monasteries, pictures, and paintings found in all of these nations are evidence of cultural contacts that took place between India and the countries of Central Asia. Numerous Sanskrit manuscripts, translations, and transcriptions of Buddhist writings written in the ancient language were uncovered in the sand-buried monasteries there in recent years.

Numerous locations in Central Asia have paintings and idols of Hindu deities such as Narayana, Shiva, Ganesha, Kartikeya, Mahakala, Digpals, and Krishna.

Vedic customary funeral rights were in use in Sogdiana, in west Central Asia. In Sogdiana, they worshipped Brahma as Ravan, Indra as Adbad, and Shiva as Vishparkar. There, Durga has also been worshipped, but in a brand-new form with four arms. The worship of the water deities “Gandharvas” and Vishwakarma was also prevalent.

It is also mentioned in historical writings that the first Guru of Sikhs, Nanak Dev, visited Oxus Valley many times, leading to strong religious exchanges between India and Central Asia.

Links of Language

During the pre-Islamic and early-Islamic periods, Iran exerted a dominant influence over Central Asia, where Sogdians, Choramians, Scythians, Alans, and Bactrians made up the majority of the population. They were all of Iranian descent and spoke Iranian. With time, the territory came into Turkic influence and became the homeland of Turkic people while Kazakh, Uzbeks, Turkmen, Kyrgyz, and Uyghurs had been indigenous to the land. Due to this effect Central Asia is now termed as Turkistan. Due to long connections and interactions between Central Asia and India, the language has also got influenced mutually which is confirmed by the phonetic similarities.

Several Central Asian terms, such as Ratna, Guru, and Mani, which are also common in Mongolia and Tibet, were borrowed from the Indian language. In western Turkistan, Bokhara is descended from Vihara or Bihara, and Sartha is descended from Sart. The people who created terms like Ganga, Anga, Vanga, and Kalinga were Pre-Aryans who lived in Inner Asia. The Tibetan word “Gling,” which subsequently became “Ganga” through Indianisation, is whence the term “Linga” originated. The fact that the Sanskrit term “Gang ri mo” or “Gang mo” is the source of the English word “Ganga” adds another resemblance — ‘Daughter of Snow’ is what this phrase signifies.

According to Central Asia experts, Lord Buddha was fluent in the Yu-Chi language of Kanishka. The Sanskrit term for “Turk” is “Turushka,” and the suffix “Kanishka,” which is found with the same syllable as “Shka,” means “youngest son” in Sanskrit. The name Turkistan, which derives from the Sanskrit word “Sthan,” was once used to refer to Central Asia.

Due to the contacts between Central Asian and Indian populations throughout the Middle Ages, the Urdu language originated and thrived. The Turkish Army’s camp is what the name “Urdu” literally means. Originally known as Hindustani or Hindavi, this language subsequently changed its name to Dakhani or Dehalavi after passing through several Sufi and Hindu mystics and absorbing many diverse regional influences. Numerous Turkic terms, such as Chaku (knife), Kainchi (scissors), Biwi (wife), Bahadur, Qabu (in control), Chammach (spoon), Topachi (gunner), Barud, Chechak (smallpox), Sarai (inn), and Bawarchi (chef), were also incorporated into the Hindi language.

Rabindranath Tagore, the first Asian Nobel Laureate in Literature, used and ultimately introduced thousands of words from Persian, Arabic and Central Asian languages. These words are now part of everyday Bengali today. Tagore thus even fathered modern Bengali language in West Bengal and Bangladesh. Until then Bengali was almost like Sanskrit.

As India is promulgating its new ‘Connect Central Asia’ Policy, ancient cultural roots will help it build new routes of connections between two great geographies.

Also Read: The first India-Central Asia Summit: A decisive push to revive regional linkages