travel Reviews

‘Buddha in Gandhara’ review: Journeys on the Silk Road

In a welcome addition to the studies on India’s ancient international relationships, Sunita Dwivedi journeys through the erstwhile Buddhist domains known as Gandhara, looking for traces of Indian philosophical influence in what are now the patently Islamic states of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

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Despite the obliteration of monuments in recent times — most notably the shelling of the Bamiyan colossuses, but also once majestic stupas of which only bases are in evidence — Dwivedi goes about her self-imposed task doggedly enough to spot broken sculptures in museums and even a begging bowl that allegedly belonged to the Buddha himself, but which more recently adorned an out-of-the-way Muslim shrine. The landscapes she traverses are dotted with dheris, mounds that indicate long-forgotten monastic settlements now obscured by fields; these ‘have been spewing out objects of Buddhist art’ whenever archaeologists, or treasure hunters, tuck their shovels in and she believes that ‘a thousand more Buddhas are waiting to be rediscovered from the sleeping dheris’.

Dwivedi outlines an ancient cultural give-and-take that’s resulted in the toga-like garment that Buddha sculptures sport (‘its execution was Greek while its inspiration was Buddhistic’) and multilingual Ashokan rock edicts in remote towns that earlier were dynamic Silk Road trading hubs. The Greeks took interest in Buddhism: Dwivedi notes votive offerings by donors with Hellenistic names such as Theodorus, whose Sanskrit inscription speaks of ‘the revered god Sakyamuni’, while others took Sanskritised titles like Yona Dhammadhaya — signifying that the person’s origin was Ionian (i.e. born on an Aegean island) but with more than a fleeting interest in the dhamma.

It is this borderland between civilisations that Dwivedi sets about to investigate as she boards a bus from Old Delhi to Lahore, taking readers with her to the famed Taxila and beyond, to Balkh, Kapisa (where a treasure contained Silk Road wares sourced from China, India and the Mediterranean) and eventually Kandahar, a city founded by Alexander the Great.

Kapoor haveli

One of the finest moments comes about midway as she reaches Peshawar that has plenty to show for its illustrious past — there are caravanserais and wood-screened balakhana guesthouses perched atop bazaar shops. Qissa Khwani Bazaar is known for its storytellers of Silk Road sagas. Dwivedi finds herself in a heritage neighbourhood, Mohalla Sethian, where grand homes of Hindu merchants stand forlorn since the 1947 partition, though one such haveli has recently been opened to tourists — while others like the Kapoor and Khanna havelis, ancestral homes of Bollywood stars, are apportioned between multiple tenants.

However, the real value of Buddha in Gandhara lies in how she combines her survey with onsite inspections of Buddhaland. Dwivedi has in her previous peregrinations explored Buddhist sites in India, China and Central Asia, making her a knowledgeable traveller. So her new book is part travelogue — it would actually have been interesting to read more about an Indian lady’s experiences in those countries — and part encyclopaedic survey of remains.

The latter does make this a fairly dense read, but is useful for anybody interested in knowing about extant sights and the state of Buddhist antiquities in inaccessible Gandharan locations, as she provides 32 colour photographs, a good map, plenty of footnotes and a useful index.

This book will come in handy for travellers to archaeological sites and at the same time open avenues for future studies.

Buddha in Gandhara; Sunita Dwivedi, Rupa, 795.

The travel writer lives to eat strange things and poke his nose in antique potholes.

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Printable version | Jun 17, 2021 1:02:33 AM |

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