Dialogue  October-December, 2004, Volume 6  No. 2

India and Central Asia: Cultural Relations in Middle Ages

Dr. Evgeni Kablukov

First of all I would like to mention that during last four-five years I am not a scientist, I work in the Kyrgyz diplomatic service. But my background allows me to say some words on the topic. Taking this into account I would like to focus mainly on the problems which, as I see it, face the contemporary researchers in the field.

Central Asia is a vast region. World researches include in this region Tibet and Xinjiang (also known as Chinese Turkistan) of East Central Asia (now autonomous regions of People’s Republic of China), West Central Asia with five former Soviet, and now independent, states of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tazikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, Buddhist regions of Russia (Buriatia and Tuva) and Mongolia. But in this presentation I shall focus on West Central Asia with five former Soviet, and now independent states and the term “Central Asia” will be attributed to this region.

Due to India‘s (especially Northern 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. For many centuries Central Asia was an immense reservoir of human energy and skills where many conquerors and many religions left their still unextinguished marks. Many great and world religions were present, and some still are present, in the region: Zoroastrism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam and others.

Vast treasure of art materials, temples and manuscripts were explored by expeditions and individuals. Valuable and a lot of materials have also come to light in the excavations at Penjikent, Varaksha and

*Dr. Evgeni Kablokov, Chief of the Chair of Oriental History, Bishkek, Kyrgyz Republic.

Adzhina Tepe of the Western Central Asia by the Russian and Central Asian archeologists. All this allowed to see that Indian dialects Parya, Kavol, Jugi, Chistoni and Sagutarosh-hisori were present in Central Asia. The writings of Russian and other scholars reveal influence of Indian culture in folklore, geographical names, moral-ethical code and other spheres of everyday life and ritual in Central Asia. There is vast material providing information on Central Asia and its links with India in Russian, Chinese and Tibetan documents. The Chinese pilgrims have also left vast treasure of literature.

Indian links with Central Asia and vice versa have not been completely continues, for some centuries they were interrupted, some times very intense, as in the case of Kushana period, some times feeble, and two way. Zia ul-Din Nakhshabi, the author of “Tuti-name” (“Book of Parrot”) was born in central Asia. Al-Beruni came here, learnt Sanskrit and wrote Tarikh-I- Hind (The History of India). Abdurazzak Samarkandi also came here. Ibn Sina and Al-Khorezmi were acquainted with Indian scientific works. Two-way movements for trade and culture continued during Mughal rule and after that also. Alexander Burnes, the British agent, wrote that turbans of Punjabi white cloth were used by “whole of the natives of Bokhara and Toorkistan” during 1830s. There were about eight thousand Indian settlers in 19th and early 20th century in Central Asia. Every market and village had Hindu moneylender in Turkestan in1860s according to an observer. Indians had monopoly of book trade there.

The Silk Route, which connected China, Europe and India, passed through Central Asia. A lot of cities were established along the Silk Route. In those cities Indians settled and lived their own life; they had their own social and political organizations, language, scripts, literature, art, architecture and religion. Remains of hundreds of Buddhist shrines, stupas and monasteries of designs inspired by India; numerous Buddhist texts in Sanskrit, Prakrit or local languages, largely in the Indian scripts, Brahmi and Kharosthi; Sanskrit dramas and texts on medicine, astronomy and astrology written in Brahmi, hundreds of documents of administrative, commercial, legal and miscellaneous kinds, draft in Sanskrit, Prakrit or Central Asian dialects written in Indian scripts and tablets of Complete Brahmi script have been discovered from Central Asian sites. 764 Kharosthi documents in Prakrit language on wooden tablets, leather pieces and silk fragments, throw much light on the social, religious and political conditions of the Central Asia during early centuries of the Christian era. Aurel Stein’s collection from Xingziang also included Central Asian art objects including paintings from ‘Thousand Buddha Temple in Tun-Huang. 

India‘s relations with Central Asia in early Medieval times corresponds with the spread of Buddhist teaching and worship. This initiated the one of the greatest cultural movements in history – the passage of Buddhist thought and philosophical ideas from one civilization to another and also the movement of Buddhist missionaries.(1) Researches of Central Asian scholars reveal that Central Asia knew different schools of Buddhis. For example, Kyrgyz researches say that Kyrgyzs knew Tibetan version of Buddhism – Lamaism. Lamaist terminology may be found in “Manas” epic. And nowadays a part of Kyrgyzs in China confess Lamaism.(2)

With introduction of Islam Buddhism as religion dissapeared from Central Asia. Now there is vast amount of literature in Russian and local Central Asian languages on Buddhist monuments in Central Asia. But there is still a great field for research on the theme – what legacy Buddhism left on Central Asian people thinking and local philosophical and moral thinking, how much of this legacy have been included into Islamic thought in Central Asia. From Soviet time researches we know that in Tibetan culture Jatakas occupied very important role. They were not preserved in mummified form but were used as basic material by local writers and poets for illustrations of Lamaist dogmatics understandable to local people.(3) The same case was also in the whole Central Asia. With removal of Buddhism from the scene its ideas and thinking could not dissappear from the minds of the people. The I.Moldobaev‘s paper is only beginning in this field. May be Buddhist ideas and thoughts may be found in Central Asian epics, folklore and even fairy tales.

Another splash in relations between India and Central Asia was during Mahmood Gaznevi reign and Delhi Sultanate times. At that times Persian language and literature were introduced to India. And mostly it has been done through Central Asia.(4) Central Asia was not conquered by Islam by military means but they were Islamic missionaries mostly from Persia who introduced Islam in Central Asia. It is at that time when many Sufi scholars, poets and saints came from Central Asia and settled in Delhi, Kashmir and elsewhere in India. In many cases this was return of many Buddhist thoughts and ideas back to India.

Another possible theme for research is connected with another world religion – Chiristianity, to be precise with early Christianity. A legend says that Jesus did not die and was not took up by His Farther to Heaven. Instead, he set forth to India accompanied by Maria Magdalena. Their way went through Central Asia. There is a grave in Chinese Xinjiang belived to be a grave of Maria Magdalena. And there is a Jesus‘s grave in Kashmir called “Takht-e Suleiman” by local people.(5) In southern part of Kyrgyzsrtan in Osh city we have a place called “Takht-e-Suleiman”. It is a hill regarded to be a sacred place for local Muslim population. In Kyrgyzstan we have remnants of many early Christian monasteries belonged to Nestorians

We may mention two way road of cultural exchange between India and Central Asia. It is connected with Temurlang and his successors. But there was difference between Temurlang and his successors. Temur brought to Delhi great disaster: many buildings were burnt and looted, thousand of people were killed, except craftsmen and masons. Temur came to India to conquer and get enormous wealth. He took with him back to Samarquand Indian masons where they should learn also Persian art of building. It is believed that they constructed world famous architectural treasure of Samarquand – Gur-Emir mausoleum and other monuments in Samarquand and Bukhara.

But his successors better known in history as the Great Moghuls have returned their enriched skills back to India and these masons combined these two traditions and invented the higher skill that now is widely world known as Indian-Islamic architecture. Temur came to India for some time, his successors came forever and presented to the world the epoch of the greatest splendor. Their royal court was filled with scientists, writers, musicians and poets.

And still there are about 250 manuscripts on history and literature of Central Asia, mostly in Arabic and Persian in the museums and libraries of India. Khuda Bakhsh Library, Patna is very rich in this matter. Baburnama and a book got compiled by Akbar has a lot of material on India and Central Asia. This is a great source for researches on Central Asian-Indian relations in medieval period.

And, in the end I would like to make a proposal. We may think and establish some kind of scientific panel to study and make researches on the wide theme – “Relations between Central Asia and India: from ancient to contemporary times”. May be you know that the year 2003 was for our republic “Year of the Kyrgyz Statehood”. Our scientists visited China and Iran in search of manuscripts, which may add something to our historical knowledge. Now they work on this material. Our scientists have a list of manuscripts which are kept in Indian libraries and archives. We should not leave any stone unturned in search and research of our historical legacy.

Central Asian scientists still make discoveries that firmly confirm deep roots of ties between India and Central Asia. Quite recently in Turkmenistan a treasure of 1515 coins of Vasudeva, Kushan king (III-IV a.d.), have been found. These coins will be kept in Turkmenistan National Museum and add valuable information and food for thought to our historians. At Issyk-Kul lake in Kyrgyzstan every year archeologists find images of Indian gods which also adds a lot for understanding interaction on the Great Silk Route.

At present time the problem of material and cultural exchange between India and Central Asia is a matter of interest for researchers and scientists of Central Asia. A large conference “Buddhism and Christianity in Cultural Legacy of Central Asia” was held on October 3-5, 2002 in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. I believe that this was, may be, the first but not the last conference of this type in contemporary Central Asia.

List of literature

          1.   Radha Raina. Glimpses of the Past. New Delhi, 2002. P. 14.

          2.   I.Moldobaev. Religious beliefs of the Kyrgyzs throughout the history. // Central Asia and Culture of Peace.Bishkek, No. 1-2 (12-13), 2002. P.140.

          3.   Buddism i literaturno-hudozhestvennoe tvorchestvo narodov Tsentralnoi Azii. Novosibirsk, 1985. (Buddhism and literary and artistic activity of people of Central Asia. Novosibirsk, 1985)

          4.   Zia ul-Din Nakhshabi. Tuti-name. Moscow. 1982. P. 4.

          5.   Kersten, Holger. Jesus lived in India. Pinguin books. 2001.

Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)

Astha Bharati