India and the Goose Pagoda

S Raghavan transports us to the ancient city of Xi’an in China and a few centuries back in time, when relations between India and China were marked by mutual respect and a great give and take in technology and philosophy.

S Raghavan transports us to the ancient city of Xi’an in China and a few centuries back in time, when relations between India and China were marked by mutual respect and a great give and take in technology and philosophy.

I disembarked from the two-hour flight from Shanghai to Xi’an with a lot of expectation. Xi’an is present capital of Shaanxi province of China. But centuries back it had a much higher stature. It is one of the oldest cities in Chinese history. Xi’an is one of the Four Great Ancient Capitals of China and that too the capital of some of the most illustrious dynasties in Chinese history such as the Zhou, Qin, Han, Sui and Tang dynasties.

Xi’an is a tourist paradise. Even an energetic tourist needs at least two weeks to visit all the locations that are considered a must for any decent tourist and I had only three days to discover this paradise. So, I decided to concentrate on the ancient part of the city rather than the modern. I had heard that the city had more than 3100 years of history. The first place in the itinerary of a history enthusiast is the Terracotta Army inside the Qin Shi Huang Mausoleum, belonging to the 3rd century BCE. The tourist guide who spoke fairly comprehensible English made sure we understood that we were gazing at the eighth wonder in the world, nothing less.

Our next stop was the Bell Tower and the Drum Tower which get thousands of visitors every day. Another place of historical interest was the city wall and a moat around it, constructed in 1370 during the Ming Dynasty, which remain intact till date. With just a few evenings to spare, I had to pull myself away from the Chinese Valentine’s day celebrations that were keeping revelers and tourists engaged and entertained with a lot of kite flying. Instead I focused more on the historical relations the city had with India.

And in this aspect my visit to Xi’an was a real revelation. The close connections that India and China had in the past have always been a topic of curiosity for me. Relations between China and India have improved tremendously over the past few years-so much so that China is the largest trading partner of India today. But one doesn’t come across many Indians on Chinese roads and tourist spots as one would in London or the Niagara Falls. Indications are that this will soon change as ties improve between the two great countries with a glorious past. Nevertheless, the fact is that many centuries back the Silk Road must have been the most beaten track for traders and intellectuals alike in the world.

What fascinated me most was the majestic spire of the Great Goose Pagoda. The Pagoda was built under the supervision of Xuanzang (known to us as Huen Tsang), who returned to China in 645 CE after 16 years of travel across India and central Asia (see for more information).

At that time Xi’an was the eastern terminus of the Silk Road through India. The Shaanxi Provincial History Museum and Famen temple have enough evidence of this flourishing trade along the Silk Route.

In the seventh century Yi Jing, who visited India after Xuanzang, asked, "Is there anyone in any part of India who does not admire China?" This may be a bit of exaggerated rhetoric then but not today. And the feeling of admiration is mutual I would say. In my one week trip to China I could easily sense a feeling of growing admiration for the achievements of the Indian people everywhere.

Yi Jing spent 10 years at the institute of higher learning, Nalanda. He studied medicine, in particular Ayurveda, in addition to Buddhist philosophy and practice. He was one of the many Chinese scholars who visited India in the first millennium. In the other direction hundreds of Indian scholars went to China and worked there between the first and eleventh centuries. They were engaged in not only translating Sanskrit documents into Chinese but also in mathematics and science. Several Indian mathematicians and astronomers held high positions in China’s scientific institutions. The high point of this exchange must have been when an Indian scientist called Gautama Siddhartha became the president of the official Board of Astronomy in China in the eighth century.

Besides Yi Jing I would like to mention two other illustrious visitors from China just to give more depth to the close relations that the two countries had at that time. The first Chinese scholar to make a serious attempt to document Indian life was Faxian (known to us as Fahien), a Buddhist scholar from western China. He visited India between 399 CE and 412 CE in India. He came via Khotan and after 10 long years in India returned by sea, from Hooghly via Sri Lanka and Java.

The most famous visitor from China, however, was Xuanzang, the supervisor of the Great Goose Pagoda. He arrived in India in the seventh century when the Tang Dynasty was ruling China. He was a formidable scholar. He collected a lot of Sanskrit texts for translation. He traveled throughout India for 16 years, including his collegiate years in Nalanda. There he studied medicine, philosophy, logic, mathematics, astronomy and grammar, and of course Buddhism. He is believed to have met Emperor Harsha and discussed Sino-Indian relations. One of the pagoda’s many functions was to hold sutras and figurines of the Buddha that were brought to China from India by Xuanzang.

The Big Wild Goose Pagoda is located within the Da Ci’en Temple. As I entered the temple I could see the two big landmarks of Xi’an – the Bell Tower in the east and the Drum Tower in the west. What I had not bargained for was the Hall of Mahavira, right along the central axis of the Temple, and very near the Pagoda itself! The carved statues of the Sakyamuni, the 18 arhats, who were spiritual practitioners in the sramanic tradition of Buddhism and Jainism, as well as Xuanzang himself, were imposing.

The constant stream of traders and intellectuals on the Silk Route many centuries back signaled the material and spiritual domination of the two great countries in the world of the first millennium. These links are hardly remembered today. They get noticed only through religious symbols such as the Great Goose Pagoda, though the relations spanned the entire knowledge spectrum. There is definitely a need for a broader understanding of the reach of Sino-Indian relations in the past so that it serves as a firm foundation for the growing relevance of contemporary Sino-Indian relations.

I hope in my next visit to China I get more time to further unravel the mysteries of the Silk Route for myself.

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