'The Chinese know India through Buddha and Bollywood'

'The Chinese know India through Buddha and Bollywood'

 From various places in India to Central Asia, China, Japan and south-east Asia, she has visited almost every place associated with Buddha or Buddhism. She even left her journalistic career to follow her passion for exploring all Buddhism-related sites along the historic Silk Road. Her extensive travels is the focus of ‘In Quest of the Buddha: A Journey on The Silk Road’ (Rupa & Co), a voluminous book adorned with beautiful photographs and written in a part-travelogue, part-historical format. Dwivedi spoke to Utpal Borpujari of Deccan Herald. Excerpts:

What did you experience during your travels that resulted in this book?

The travels brought in great surprises for me. I did not know that the Mauryan emperor Asoka ever set up a temple in Xian in China, but history boards at the Famen temple informed that he himself had enshrined the Buddha’s relics there. It is called the Asokan Temple and has thousands of worshippers daily. It was amazing to find a close similarity of the Buddha and Bodhisattvas with Indian gods. A fascinating experience was the Lama dance at the Labrang monastery in Xiahe. But the most beautiful moments were spent on the banks of the Yarlong Tsangpo or the Brahmaputra near Nyingschi on the Tibet- Sichuan highway.

Do you believe the Silk Road should be explored by Indian tourists in general?

The Silk Road has many aspects. It is a study in history, geography, commerce, religion, culture, art, food, fashion and also exciting travel and tourism. Anyone having interest in any of these will love to be on the Silk Road. It should be of particular interest to the Indian tourist who will be amazed at the beauty of the sites in China, the affinity and fusion of art styles, cultures and cuisine with India. At every corner they will find India and become aware of the closeness that India and China shared since ancient times.

How do you see the fact that India and China have not yet promoted the Silk Road as a common tourist circuit?

Although both the countries were exchanging travellers on a gigantic scale since ancient times on the Silk Road and its other trading branches like the Spice Road, Jade Road, Tea Road, Salt Road, Musk and the Horse Road, in modern times the two countries are yet to promote the Silk Road as a common circuit. The border issue is the main reason for this.
While opening of the Silk Road circuit may take some time, it is bound to open as India and China — the closest neighbours and the fastest growing economies of the world — can reach number one position only if they complement each other and do not treat each other as rivals.

During your travel did you see any particular knowledge and interest among the common people about ontemporary India?

There is a lot of interest in China about India’s important role in the regional and world affairs. I found that the Chinese people in general are interested in the early revival of the Kunming-Kolkata Road (Ledo Road) for trade and tourism. It’s really amazing how the Chinese people know India through Buddha and Bollywood. In Xinjiang people know ‘Hindustan’ and Shah Rukh Khan. At the Gillan Bazaar in Khotan, where I stopped to have sheesh kababs, a huge crowd collected as word spread that I was from India. They asked me if I knew ‘Shahru Han’ (SRK). I joked with them that he was my close friend. Many surged forward to shake hands and pleaded with me to organise an SRK show. In a remote Kuqa village in Xinjiang province, where I stopped for a short lunch at an eatery, the owner along with his workers was watching a Hindi film starring Preity Zinta, dubbed in their native Uighur language.

If you compare the regions in India and China which were part of the Silk Road earlier, what differences do you notice in terms of development?

China has gone all out to build six lane international highways on the ancient Silk Route and is using them for trade and tourism with neighbouring countries. It has developed the ancient cities as heritage sites. Even the remote villages on the ancient trade routes have provisions of water, power and communications network whether in the desert or high mountain areas. Railway lines have been built on glaciers to reach Tibet. The Silk Road sites are connected by air, road and rail. Besides, it is comfortable and safe to travel. India, with all its manpower, superb technology, high expertise in almost every field has still to go a long way. A case in point is the neglect of North-East India which has a history of being an important part of the Silk Road. One is amazed at the government’s lack of interest in developing and promoting tourism there.