Hewn out of solid rock in the middle of the bone-dry Gobi desert, there exist hundreds of caves, whose intricately painted walls and magnificent statues have become markers in describing the epic journey of Buddhism.
The torrent of spiritual energy, which, in turn, has fueled mature art, has not evolved in isolation. On the contrary, the grottoes of Dunhuang are an emblem of an exceptionally powerful cultural cross-current that had, for centuries, threaded the Indian and Chinese civilizations.
Geography, and specifically the ancient Silk Road, had indeed played a foundational role in bringing about the India-China confluence of the past.
Dunhuang was a major point of intersection along the Silk Road, one of whose branch lines headed towards India.
From this oasis town, the Silk Road which had started from the not so distant Xian, and after having passed through the Gansu corridor, stood at a prominent junction. After making way through the famous Jade Gate on the edge of Dunhuang, the Silk Road bifurcated along two lines. Both the trails, eventually re-converged at Kashgar — another equally important junction along the Silk Road, on the edge of Central Asia.
Out of the two, the northern route, after passing through the Gobi desert, headed to Hami. Then gripping the northern rim of the treacherous Taklamakan desert, the “road” passed through a string of oasis towns—Turfan, Karashahr, Kucha, and Aksu. These settlements are all on the foothills of the “celestial” Tien Shan mountains, on the way to Kashgar.
But this proved crucial
It is, however, the back-and-forth among people and goods along a branch of the southern route, which proved critical in channeling a masterly artistic fusion that is evident at Dunhuang’s magnificent Mogao caves.
Along the southern route, which passes through the other oasis settlements of Miran, Endere, Niya, Keriya and Khotan, Yarkand in China’s Xinjiang province has long been recognised for its key role in the permeation of Buddhist influence from India.
From Yarkand, a major artery headed through the lofty Karakoram pass, leading to vibrant markets of Leh and Srinagar. The passage finally descended through the plains towards India’s western coast.
Credit to monks, scholars, travelers
While the mercantile class prospered, notwithstanding harassment by brigands and obstacles posed frequent natural hazards, it was the monks, scholars and travelers frequenting the Silk Road, who brought the essential message of Buddha to China.
In terms of art, it was the Graeco-Buddhist Gandhara School, known for depicting Buddha in human form, that finally reached China, heavily influencing the emergence of
what became known as Serendian art, embodying a powerful Chinese artistic tradition as well.
Among Chinese officials in Dunhuang, the impulse for a cautious revival of India-China cultural ties, rooted in a common Buddhist heritage, is now palpable.
India is at the root of it all
“India is the root of Buddhist culture here. That is why we are willing to establish a long term stable relationship [with India]. This is the starting stage and there is long way to go, but there is a huge potential,” says Xudon Wang, Director of the Dunhuang Academy. He points out that once the ongoing process of digitising the artworks in Mogao caves is completed, the Chinese and the Indian sides should be ready to work together to hold joint exhibitions.
Culture as the unifying strand
Dr. Xudon stresses that academic visits should add another layer to this phased revival of cultural ties.
Deputy Mayor of Dunhuang, Wu Guang Lin points to an agreement between India and China, following Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to China, to establish a sister-city relationship between Dunhuang and Aurangabad. He says that the arrangement is a statement of intent by the two countries to leverage culture as a major strand for building Sino-Indian ties.