Tuesday, October 23, 2018 - 01:00
Today China is promoting a New Silk Route, a route we have to think of as the path to the most advantageous means of bringing peace and harmony among the countries of Asia and then around the globe. There is so much we can learn from the ancient Silk Route. Back then, it was not just a trade route. It was a major path for philosophical and cultural sharing and exchange. Almost all the trade goods traded along the Silk Route would have disappeared or decayed in a few decades or centuries, but the intangible exchanges continued to be with us to date.
Traders, philosophers, priests, and even common people with an urge to travel, were free to go anywhere they wished, to live for a while or to settle down on any nook or cranny along the Silk Route. This led to human migration far and wide with no hindrance or obstacles except for the geographical or climate barriers. There was no need for passports or visa to leave or enter a country. Often the boundaries were only geographical and there were no border security. There were also no labels of race, creed or caste. There was no concept of a nation state.
Beliefs and practices
It is through the Silk Route that Buddhism spread around the world, first through traders, and later by monks. Tapassu (Trapusa/Tapusa) and Bhalluka (Ballika/Vallika), the two traders from Kalinga Desa (present day Odisha) in North East India were historical personages who first introduced Buddha to Sri Lanka and perhaps to Afghanistan, Myanmar, Cambodia and even China. Paranavithane quotes from Mahavagga and Nidanakatha that the two merchants came from Ukkala (in Odisha) and the stupa was built in their own country. Hieun Tsang, on his journey from Balkh to Bamian in Gandhara noticed the remains of two stupas built over these Hair Relics. The Burmese Buddhists firmly believe that the two merchants enshrined these precious relics in their own Shwe Dagon at Rangoon. These facts about Tapassu and Bhalluka give us an idea of how beliefs and practices of one culture spread from one country to another through this spectacular route connecting the east with the west.
The Silk Route enabled the unique situation in the world, where a people went in search of a philosophy from another country, to the country of origin. With all other religions, even with Buddhism, it has always been the missionaries and the monks who spread the teachings, sometimes even by force, when it comes to some of the revealed religions. It is only in China that we find monks and scholars travelling to India and Sri Lanka, along the Silk Route, probably with the traders, in search of Buddha Dhamma, the Buddhist teachings and literature. And they did not settle down in the countries they travelled to, but went back to their home country again on the Silk Route, to spread the teaching among their own people.
In the same manner the monks from China were welcomed and hosted in South Asia, the monks from South Asia could travel and were welcomed in the Far East and the Near East, and perhaps in East Europe. Some of them settled down in those countries, the way many traders settled down in the countries where they went in for trade. In most instances the traders married women from these countries, from the native groups and settled down. They were accepted by the native people and lived in total peace and harmony. That is how the Muslim traders settled down in Asian countries, from South Asia, India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Myanmar, Thailand and even China.
It is time for us to try to bring back to our world the harmony and respect known in the ancient days and clearly visible along the Silk Route. The Silk Route could be used for such convenient travel and exchange of ideas and cultural practices. The frequent travel could create an interest in the various languages used in each country, and it could help to bring down the language barrier, as people pick up these languages. The familiarization and study of the different religions or the different sects of each religion, could help us all to understand each other and the practices and rituals, leading to mutual respect and acceptance of all views. Thus we could reduce the religious and sometimes ethnic conflicts among the people around the world through the new Silk Route.
To ensure such global harmony, the migrants should integrate with the natives, instead of forming little colonies of their own in the host country, because that creates tension and conflict, ethnic, cultural, religious and even economic.
In Sri Lanka we find this cohabitation even with the Chinese people who have been arriving on the Silk Route for the past two millennia or more. One of the major influence of the Chinese has been on our food culture. Chinese food, which was once a luxury is now available in any remote village in Sri Lanka, prepared and consumed by the natives. The Chinese restaurants not only in India, but even in Sri Lanka, are ready to serve Jain vegetarian meals, and there are restaurants even in China serving Islamic Halal food. This kind of cultural integration we find almost everywhere in the world, where the Chinese migrated and settled down travelling as they did along the Silk Route.
When we talk of culinary culture, the universal beverage which we all consume regularly, and sometimes get addicted to, is tea. Camellia sinensis, according to legend was first known in China as far back as 2737 BCE. Tea is a real cultural bond we all have with China. We could perhaps call the ancient trade route as the Tea Route, rather than the silk route, because tea came to us through the Silk Route and would have been a more popular and more common commodity than Silk.
One of the professions that came to us through the Silk Route is Chinese dentistry. Even today my dental surgeon is a Chinese whose ancestors had arrived in Sri Lanka a few centuries ago. Not surprisingly, we still have a municipal ward called China Garden, very close to the Galle port. When we were young we wondered how the name came about, because the only Chinese we saw in the China Garden were two families - one owned a Chinese restaurant, the other was a Chinese dentist. But today we know back when the Silk Route was in use there probably would have been many Chinese traders who settled down in this part of the Galle town giving it the name, China Garden.
In addition, thanks to the Silk Route Chinese trade goods became a part of our cultural tradition. We find references to Chinese silk as ‘sina pata’ in graffiti written in the 8th Century on the mirror like wall at Sigiriya. There is a trilingual inscription in the southern town of Galle, written in Chinese, Tamil and Persian, erected in 1411, to commemorate the second visit to Sri Lanka by admiral Zheng He, who commanded seven voyages through the South China seas and the Indian Ocean between 1405 and 1433. The Chinese inscription is in praise of the Buddha, in Tamil to pay homage to god Shiva, and the Persian inscription is in praise to Allah. Of special significance is that admiral Zheng He was of the Islamic faith. There is a huge statue of Zheng He in the Marine Museum in Galle, along with a replica of the inscription.
To reiterate my point I repeat that it is time for us to try to bring back to our world the ancient harmony and respect known in ancient times. I believe that all the countries should join hands with the UNESCO Silk Roads Online Platform “to foster a mutual understanding of the diverse and often inter-related cultures that have sprung up among them”. We may not be able to dismantle the political barriers, country borders, or the official labels branding us by race or nationality. But we can bring down the other man-made barriers very easily, like the language barrier, by learning each others’ languages. We can bring down the religious barriers, if we begin to practice our religion in our personal space, without trying to flaunt it by loud and often noisy public festivals, disturbing the other communities, and by not openly trying to convert people. Our motherland should be Mother Earth, not a minute portion of the surface of the earth.
Along the Silk Route we from South Asia gave the world something for the mind, Buddhism, while China gave the whole world something for the stomach, Tea and Chinese food. That is real human integration, with no discrimination by race, creed or caste.
So, let us celebrate this New Silk Route by sharing a cup of tea, with anyone, irrespective of their nationality, race, creed or caste, even if we cannot speak in the same tongue. For, this golden liquid which can be called a universal equalizer came to us along the Silk Route.