We invite you to read our weekly Cultural Selection articles, which adhere to preselected themes. Knowledge and appreciation of these subjects help to preserve, disseminate, and promote elements of our common heritage of the Silk Roads.
Over centuries, both the maritime and terrestrial Silk Roads have played an essential role in the active exchange of goods, ideas, and expertise by pilgrims, merchants, and adventurers. They were also a significant factor in the spread of religions throughout Asia, the Near East, and Europe. Although Buddhist pilgrims are thought to have reached the Far East between the 1st- 2ndcenturies CE, this new religion, which originated in the Indian sub-continent, was not initially accepted. It was only during the end of the Han Dynasty that Buddhism began to be fully embraced. The turbulent years following the collapse of the Han Dynasty resulted in the halting of relationships with the Indian sub-continent. As a result, those living in isolation in the Far East feared straying from the true path of Buddhist beliefs. In response to these uncertainties, Fa Xian embarked on a pilgrimage to the Indian sub-continent in the 4thcentury in order to verify if this were the case. Known as the man from “Land of Han” to those who received him, his perilous journey provides one of the only documented accounts available of the eastern portion of the Silk Roads during this period.
Nearly two centuries later, sacred Buddhists books, thought to have been mistranslated from the original texts, resulted in an inability to practice the religion in its truest form. Thus, Xuan-Zang, another pilgrim from the Far East, embarked on a similar, exploratory journey. Travelling through Samarkand and Bactria, he sought out the Buddhist holy books originating from the Indian sub-continent. These detailed accounts provided evidence of intercultural exchanges, the agrarian lifestyle of the Sogdians, and active trade amongst diverse populations. These documents also revealed that the Huns had destroyed precious monuments and artefacts throughout the Indian sub-continent during the 5thcentury. This was due to a rejection of Buddhism, and a subsequent return to Hinduism in the northern in central regions.
Although Buddhism was forsaken in some parts of the Indian sub-continent, it continued to flourish in the eastern portion. It was from here that holy books were collected and transmitted back to the Far East where the sacred texts were eventually translated. These Buddhist pilgrimages have provided various literary, architectural, and artistic imprints on the cultures, people, and regions involved in the reciprocity of information worldwide. For example, during the Tang Dynasty, which welcomed Buddhist literature brought back from the Indian sub-continent, the Far East had again entered into a golden age. This was due to free-flowing trade, technological innovations, and artistic creations.