Ruminations along the Silk Route

On the map of India, my hometown Bangalore sits in the southern projection of the Indian peninsula, equidistant from the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal, at the edge of the Deccan Plateau. We are landlocked, far from the sea, sailing ships and ports of adventure. Even the monsoon winds, which helped the Egyptian pilot Hippalus discover the direct sea route to south India from the Red Sea over the Indian Ocean two thousand years ago, thus bringing a windfall to traders in Rome and India, are spent by the time they reach us, their largesse given to the coast – we are almost in the rain shadow. But then, my city is famous for its silks.

I imagine that much before its present twenty-first century avatar as the information technology capital of India, a metropolis which now puts out a pin-up of a skyline with high-rise office towers, even before it began its life as a city encompassed by a mud fort in the sixteenth century, it was part of the hinterland that sent goods to the sea ports from which trade was carried out on the coasts of south India. For there are intriguing accounts of ships setting sail to Phoenician, Assyrian, and Babylonian shores, from sea ports along the south Indian coast, laden with the most exotic wares, from as far back as the 10th century BC. Gold, silver, precious stones, ivory, silk and cotton cloth, herbs and spices seem commonplace: it is the animals that are arresting. Apes and peacocks went to Tyre – present-day Lebanon, and to Assyria on the banks of the Tigris went Indian elephants, along with apes! Roman circuses were enlivened by animals from India, which included, apart from the ubiquitous apes, tigers, elephants, rhinoceros, hunting dogs and serpents. Malabathrum and spikenard, exotic as they sound, were plant extracts favoured in Rome for spicing their wine. The eternally fragrant sandalwood, so precious that now its cultivation is controlled completely by the state and private owners are forbidden from cutting off even a branch of the tree in their gardens, was another Roman favourite, as also muslins as ‘thin as the slough of the snake’ … ‘a cloud of steam’ as described in the Tamil poems.

The compulsions of trade often lead to other connections and spillovers, hard to trace but stubborn in their residue. Such as the linguistic affinities between the Hebrew ‘tukki’ for peacock and the Tamil ‘tokkai’, ‘koph’ for monkey and the Sanskrit ‘kapi’; the Greek ‘oryza’ for rice and the Tamil ‘arsi’, ‘ziggiberos’ and ‘injiber’ – the Greek and Tamil words for ginger.

We get glimpses of places, mentioned in passing in accounts of the time, or described in poetry. Intrigued by the names, pronounced in ways that our languages seem to have forgotten, we imagine them through the poet’s eye. A mysterious document, ‘The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea’, dating from the 1st century AD and attributed to an anonymous sailor, names the ports of south India – the names roll off the tongue tantalisingly – more so since very few still remain or their present avatars bear so little resemblance to what The Periplus evokes. Naura, Tyndis and Nelcynda, now untraceable, have a nice alveolar ring to them, and the stern-sounding Muziris was an important port of the silk route.

The Camara of the Periplus is the Puhar of poetry, invoked in all its grandeur, a bustling port city, today a quiet town by the sea. From ‘Pattinapalai’, a poem from an anthology of Tamil Sangam Poetry of the 2nd century AD, we learn of fine ships ‘like tuskers huge which shake the pegs to which they are tied’, moored in the harbour. To this port came ‘swift, prancing steeds by sea in ships’ as also pepper, gems, gold, sandalwood, pearls and red coral from Ceylon and ‘manufactures rare’ from Burma. These riches lay ‘close and thickly piled, confused along the spacious streets’. In Puhar were ‘people speaking in diverse tongues, that come from great and foreign homes’ who ‘mix free in friendly terms with those who occupy this glorious town’.

Puhar is seen again in the 5th century classic Silappadikaram, through the bedazzled eyes of its hero Kovalan  a rich, prodigally abundant city, reaching down from the marketplace to its harbours, where ‘had all the world’s inhabitants been assembled within the city walls, the stocks would have lasted for many years’. The merchandise is stored in a place with no doors – there is no need for doors since it is guarded by an invisible genie who strikes all thieves blind; a miraculous health-restoring pond heals the lame, the mute, the deaf, and the leprous, and a polished monolith, which if circumambulated can cure men driven mad by drugs or possessed by ghosts. A fierce genie inhabits the cross roads shouting loud imprecations at the dishonest and the false, and in the square is a statue that sheds tears every time the monarch fails in his duties.

At a more prosaic level, the city is well laid-out, and in its centre are ‘wide royal streets, the street of temple cars, the bazaar, the main street where rich merchants had their mansions with high towers’ – the same towers no doubt with ‘loopholes like the eyes of deer’. There were streets and quarters for all crafts and trades and professions, including the homes of the wealthy Greeks, grain merchants, smiths who worked with different metals, priests, doctors and astrologers, as also for bards, dancers, astronomers, clowns and prostitutes. From the market, the haggling of buyers and sellers could be heard all day long.

There are lights on the shore leading up to the harbour, and on the sea, the tiny lights of the fishing boats. Lighthouses show ships the way to the harbour. Lamps burn through the night on the sea shore, giving ‘such abundant light that one could have found a single mustard seed had it fallen on the clean sand, spread evenly like fine flour’.

Merchants were considered heroes and the major inland market towns or trade emporia which they frequented were called ‘erivirapattinam’ or places ‘where the heroes of the road conduct trade’. 

If the sea readily conjures up the spirit of adventure, terra firma has its own, if muted, appeal. The romance of the overland caravans of the Silk Route was brought home by Hiuen Tsang (Xuanzang), the Chinese monk who travelled to India in the 7th century, to see for himself the birthplace of the Buddha. One imagines Hiuen Tsang leading a small, determined band of travellers, a speck in the vast windblown central Asian Steppes, persevering across the Tien Shan mountains and the Taklamakan desert, despite being beset by thieves and storms, labouring on till he reached India, not in pursuit of silk or gold or the other riches of India, but to see for himself the birthplace of the Buddha and to study the Buddhist sutras. He travelled for fifteen years in India recounting the many places he visited, including the Bodhi Tree in Bodh Gaya where the Buddha is said to have received enlightenment. A fanciful reconstruction of Hiuen Tsang’s journey can be found in works as varied as the 16th century Chinese classic of anonymous authorship, Journey to the West, and its abridged English version, Monkey by Arthur Waley, published in 1942. And quite by chance I encountered them all again – the monkey and the pig who accompany a bumbling monk to India in search of the Buddhist sutras, in a 21st century attempt to retrace Hiuen Tsang’s journey to India. In her book Ten Thousand Miles without a Cloud, Su Shuyun makes the same journey, step by step, braving new dangers, and some very similar to the ones faced by her guru fifteen hundred years ago, as she travels through the land of the Uighurs, through Kryghystan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, facing afresh the perils of mountain, desert, land, and man before finding her moment of peace at Bodh Gaya.

How could I not, then, journey on the Silk Route myself? I would go to the city at the heart of the Silk Route – imagined already by the hopeless longing and desire the city evoked in the Mughal emperor Babur – I would see Samarkand through Babur’s eyes. So my journey to Samarkand after reading the Babur Nama was much like seeing Prometheus after Alien – watching the prequel after the sequel.

The city of Samarkand evokes two names in Indian history – Timur the Lame or Timur-e-Lang, marauder, who sacked the city of Delhi in 1398, and his successor Zahiruddin Babur, from whose hands Samarkand slipped out not once but twice and who, reluctantly, pushed towards Hindustan, and more than a hundred years after Timur, founded the mighty Mughal empire. ‘Few towns in the whole habitable world are as pleasant as Samarkand.’ Babur pines for the city he lost to the Uzbeks, describing it in his meticulously detailed journal, the Babur Nama. And in nearby Shakhri Sabz, stands the towering statue of Emir Timur, far removed from Timur the Lame of the textbooks, striding like a colossus in this his birthplace, where residents smile kindly at you when they hear you are from India – Ah Baboor, they acknowledge the Emir’s distant relative.

Emir Timur in Shakhri Sabz

As we approach Samarkand, not in a caravan but in an SUV, we see through Babur’s eyes the flat brown countryside and the tall tossing poplars, the Zarafshan river into whose welcoming waters he and his men rode, ‘man and horse in armour’, fleeing from Shaibani Khan Uzbek, to whom he lost Samarkand. In Samarkand, Timur’s capital, in the grand proportions, the majestic arches and domes of the mosques and tombs, in the blaze of blue and green majolica, we track the ‘many fine buildings’ that the Babur Nama attributes to Timur and his family – the Bibi Khanum Mosque on which worked ‘many stone-cutters brought specially from Hindustan’; the Gur-e-Amir mausoleum which houses the tomb of Timur himself – while one would like to imagine that the Taj Mahal is unique and without precedent, at first glance one can see its forerunner in the dome of the Gur-e-Amir and its minarets. The Babur Nama speaks of the buildings built by the illustrious Ulugh Beg, Timur’s grandson – a college, a monastery, an observatory and ‘an excellent hot bath house known as the Mirza’s Bath’ – the college or medressa and the observatory still remain and are usually crowded with tourists.

Dome of the Bibi Khanum mosque, Samarkand

Detail from the Bibi Khanum mosque, Samarkand

‘Samarkand is a wonderfully beautiful town’, Babur says, as if he cannot help repeating himself. He extols its meadows and gardens and fruits – melons, pomegranates, grapes and apples – and laments that he cannot banish from his mind their excellent flavours. He found the flat Indo-Gangetic plain without charm and commented that ‘it nowhere had running water’. The variety of melon that he found in Hindustan was the bitter colocynth, and was placated only by the mango, which he thought best when half-ripe and preserved in honey. Of the animals in his new home, he is impressed by the immense and sagacious elephant, and his curiosity is aroused by the rhinoceros and the monkey.

Not quite Babur’s melons, but picture perfect tomatoes on the Silk Route …

Pomegranates on the Silk Route…

The horse, in many ways, is the hero of the Babur Nama, next only to man, and it is everywhere in this region. Driving away from Shakhri Sabz, from the looming massive walls – the only remnants of Timur’s Ak Saray Palace – which still retain bits of their original blue majolica, on the highway along the town of Oqdahana, we find on the roadside a large arresting statue of a horse, painted gold. It immediately brings to mind the large, brightly painted terracotta statues of horses and sword-bearing warriors left out in the fields along the highway in south India, supposedly the protectors of the village who are in liege to the local gods. The Oqdahana horse and its south Indian counterpart dominate the countryside and lend character to it, and one can only speculate on their connection.

Driving across the Kyzyl Kum desert, in the delta of the Amu Darya, in the province of Khorezem, we arrive at Khiva, another historic stop on the old Silk Route. The citadel is girded by the brown walls of the Ichon Qala and wandering through its maze of lanes and monuments, we come across the pavilion of Pahalwan Mahmud – another hero with an India connection, not as deadly as Timur’s or as long-lasting as Babur’s but a gentler, more modest reach that extended across the desert. The story, as recounted on the walls of the mausoleum, is that ‘Pahalwan’ – Wrestler — Mahmud, also a poet and philosopher, went to India and acquitted himself very bravely in a hunt, saving the local raja’s life. In return he asked that the raja free all the men from Khorezem who were held prisoner there. The raja made a deal – he would free only as many prisoners as would fit into an ox hide. So Pahalwan Mahmood cleverly made a rope of the ox hide and stretched it enough to fit all the men from Khorezem.

Dome of the pavilion of Pahalwan Mahmud
(Image Source)

In this exquisite pavilion, completely covered with shades of blue majolica, with the most intricate inlays of white and blue, I spotted the mango or paisley design found often in Indian art, and a very common motif woven into sari borders. In its restful courtyard, famed for its wooden pillars, is the well whose waters supposedly grant immortality, and one can sip of its waters from the thoughtfully provided piyola.
The Uzbeki ‘piyola’ translates so easily to the Hindi ‘pyala’ – pyala, cup. Throughout my journey I am chased by thoughts of home, sparked off by connections of startling familiarity. In Samarkand, we gravitated naturally to the Choykhanas – teashops – in the alleys outside the bazar for ‘choy’ and ‘somsa’ – the chai and samosas of home. ‘Non’ bread we know as ‘naan’, though the Uzbeki version was much larger and circular; to go with the non the vegetable on offer was ‘baklajan’ – which was easy – ‘baingan’ in Hindi, and aubergine to the rest of the world.

In Samarkand, our home stay was in a ‘hovli’, a traditional house with a large deep courtyard fringed with mulberry trees and a grape trellis, and rooms built around the courtyard. A wooden staircase led up to the rooms on the top floor, the balcony outside the rooms supported by pillars, carved very much in the style of the pillars in Samarkand’s monuments. The rooms had high ceilings, carved and painted. The walls of the courtyard were whitewashed and painted over with floral and geometrical motifs, the predominant colour being blue and the paisley-mango again in evidence. Lunch was ‘plov’, the Uzbeki cousin of the ‘pulao’, heaped in small mountains on blue and white ceramic plates, served on the takths or raised wooden platforms in the courtyard of the hovli. This hovli could well have been transplanted to Rajasthan in India as a ‘haveli’ or traditional home – many of which have been converted to similar guest houses. It could well be the haveli I recall in Bundi, Rajasthan – right down to the open courtyard, the wooden staircase leading to rooms with high carved wooden ceilings, the geometrical designs on the carpets covering the wooden floors of the corridors, the paintings of motifs from local monuments on the walls and the bric a brac in the rooms. The similarity extends not only to the physical spaces but to the ambience and the feeling the places evoke, of life and times gone by.

Hovli in Samarkand -- 1

Hovli in Samarkand -- 2

Hovli in Samarkand -- 3

Hovli in Bukhara

Haveli in Bundi, Rajasthan -- 1

Haveli in Bundi, Rajasthan -- 2

Haveli in Bundi, Rajasthan -- 3

Haveli in Bundi, Rajasthan -- 4

Carpets in the Ferghana Valley

A durrie from Gujarat, India

On the road from Samarkand to Shakhri Sabz, on the flat brown steppes, a sparse covering of green in the foreground and the Zarafshan Mountains in the distance, the only ‘vehicle’ we encountered after any length of time was a donkey with a young boy commanding it, but what immediately caught my eye was the dusty bag the boy was carrying, with the purest ‘phulkari’ embroidery, in dazzling silk threads, a style that I thought was confined to the Indian Punjab.

In the bazars of Samarkand, among the shops selling souvenirs, in the ‘suzani’ or embroidery on display, in the chain stitch on the pillow covers and coverlets, the cut work on the bedspreads, I continued to see the thread work motifs and textures that travel straight across the Pamir mountains into the Thar desert of Rajasthan and the salt flats of Gujarat in India; and from ‘suzani’ it does not take much to reach ‘sui’ in Hindi and ‘suji’, the word for needle in my local language, Kannada, so far in the south. But my most inspired flash was spotting a Dorixana while looking for a chemist’s, extrapolating it to Dava Khana or medicine shop in Hindi and shouting ‘Stop!’ before our SUV sped off on the highway towards Shakhri Sabz.
The final word on the Silk Route has to be – what else, but silk. A little while before leaving home I had gifted my mother a silk sari with an ikkat weave distinctive of Pochampally, renowned for its ikkats in south India. A blouse to go with the sari still remained to be bought and I was searching for a design that would offset the sari. On the last day of my journey, in an emporium in Tashkent, I saw before me bales and bales of silk, in the unmistakable tie-dyed warp and weft of the ikkat weave, and like two birds coming home to rest at the same time, I knew that the metre of soft Samarkand silk that the salesman was measuring out would form the perfect blouse for my mother’s silk sari.

There could not be a better homecoming gift, a better way to end my journey on the Silk Route.

Ikkat silk, Pochampally, India

Ikkat silk from Tashkent

Quotations from ‘Pattinapalai’ from ‘Pattupattu Ten Tamil Idylls’, 1962, The South India Saiva Siddhanta Works Publishing Society, Madras; quotations from ‘Silappadikaram’ from ‘The Collected Essays of A.K. Ramanujan, 2004, Oxford India Paperbacks; quotations from ‘Babur Nama Journal of Emperor Babur’, 2006, Penguin Books India