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Silk Route

Admin January 31, 2021

Knowledge among people on the silk roads also increased when Emperor Ashoka of the Maurya dynasty (268-239 BCE) converted to Buddhism and raised the religion to official status in his northern Indian empire.  — Vinod Johri

 

The Silk Route was a historic trade route that dated from the second century B.C. until the 14th century A.D. It stretched from Asia to the Mediterranean, traversing China, India, Persia, Arabia & Greece. It was dubbed the Silk Route because of the heavy silk trading that took place during that period.

Originating at Xi’an (Sian), the 4,000 mile (6,400 km) road, actually a caravan tract, followed the Great Wall of China to the northwest, bypassed the Takla Makan Desert, climbed the Pamirs (mountains), crossed Afghanistan, and went on to the Levant; from there the merchandise was shipped across the Mediterranean Sea. Few persons traveled the entire route, and goods were handled in a staggered progression by middlemen.

There are over 40 countries today alongside the historic Land and Maritime Silk Roads, all still bearing witness to the impact of these routes in their culture, traditions and customs.

The Silk Road’s eastern end is in present-day China, and its main western end is Antioch, the Greek City on eastern side of Orontes River, founded near 4th Century BC by Selecus 1 Nicator, one of the Alexander’ General.  

It expanded China’s foreign economic trade and made the world know China.  In addition, silk also brought about the progress of the world.

The Silk Road derives its name from the lucrative trade in silk carried out along its length, beginning in the Han dynasty in China (207 BCE–220 CE). The Han dynasty expanded the Central Asian section of the trade routes around 114 BCE through the missions and explorations of the Chinese imperial envoy Zhang Qian, as well as several military conquests.  

Silk Road sites in India are sites that were important for trade on the ancient Silk Road. There are 12 such places in India. These are spread across seven states in India (Bihar, Jammu and Kashmir, Maharashtra, Puducherry, Punjab, Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh).

Part of the Silk Road still exists, in the form of a paved highway connecting Pakistan and the Uygur Autonomous Region of Xinjiang, China. 

History of Silk Route

The Silk Roads were a “complex network of trade routes” that gave people the chance to exchange goods and culture. A maritime Silk Route opened up between Chinese-controlled Giao ChÉ (centred in modern Vietnam, near Hanoi), probably by the 1st century. It extended, via ports on the coasts of India and Sri Lanka, all the way to Roman-controlled ports in Roman Egypt and the Nabataean (ancient Arabian people who around 312 BC, formed kingdom with capital at Petra, now in Jordan. It was allied to Roman Empire) territories on the northeastern coast of the Red Sea. The earliest Roman glassware bowl found in China was unearthed from a Western Han tomb in Guangzhou, dated to the early 1st century BCE, indicating that Roman commercial items were being imported through the South China Sea. According to Chinese dynastic histories, it is from this region that the Roman embassies arrived in China, beginning in 166 CE during the reigns of Marcus Aurelius and Emperor Huan of Han.  

The unification of Central Asia and Northern India within the Kushan Empire in the 1st to 3rd centuries reinforced the role of the powerful merchants from Bactria (an ancient region in Central Asia, Bactria was centre of Iranian resistance against the Macedonian invaders after fall of the Achaemenid Empire in the 4th century BC, but eventually fell to Alexander)  and Taxila (Taxila is situated about 32 km (20 mi) north-west of Islamabad and Rawalpindi, along the historic Grand Trunk Road, near the important Sikh pilgrimage centre of Hasan Abdal, and the Mughal-era Wah Gardens. Ancient Taxila was historically referred to as Takshashila in Sanskrit, and Takkasila in Pali). They fostered multi-cultural interaction as indicated by their 2nd century treasure hoards filled with products from the Greco-Roman world, China, and India, such as in the archeological site of Begram.

The sacks of merchants were filled with ivory, rhino horns, turtle shells, spices, ceramic and iron items, glaze and cinnamon, ginger, bronze weapons and mirrors. India was famous for its fabrics, spices and semi-precious stones, dyes, and ivory.    

The main maritime route started at Guangzhou, passed through Southeast Asia, the Indian Ocean, the Red Sea and then reached Alexandria.

The Kushana dynasty ruled over central Asia and north-west India about 2000 years ago. They had the best control over the ancient silk route compared to any other  ruler of that time. Their two major centres of power were Peshawar and Mathura. The great silk-route to the Indians was opened by Kaniskha. Cultural and religious exchanges began to meander along the route, acting as a connection for a global network where East and West ideologies met. Additionally Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism (a dualistic religious system with Christian, Gnostic, and pagan elements, founded in Persia in the 3rd century by Manes c. 216– c. 276)  and Nestorianism (the Christian doctrine that there were two separate persons, one human and one divine, in the incarnate Christ. It is named after Nestorius, patriarch of Constantinople (428–31), and was maintained by some ancient Churches of the Middle East.) were all introduced to China and parts of India because of the Silk Roads influence. 

Transmission of Buddhism

The transmission of Buddhism to China via the Silk Road began in the 1st century CE, according to a semi-legendary account of an ambassador sent to the west by the Chinese Emperor Ming (58–75). During this period Buddhism began to spread throughout Southeast, East, and Central Asia. Mahayana, Theravada, and Tibetan Buddhism are the three primary forms of Buddhism that spread across Asia via the Silk Road. 

The Buddhist movement was the first large-scale missionary movement in the history of world religions. Chinese missionaries were able to assimilate Buddhism, to an extent, to native Chinese Daoists (Taoism also known as Daoism, is a Chinese philosophy attributed to Lao Tzu). These people moved through India and beyond to spread the ideas of Buddha.  Extensive contacts started in the 2nd century, probably as a consequence of the expansion of the Kushan empire into the Chinese territory of the Tarim Basin (endorheic basin in Northwest China occupying an area of about 1,020,000 sq. km. Located in China’s Xinjiang region), due to the missionary efforts of a great number of Buddhist monks to Chinese lands. 

One result of the spread of Buddhism along the Silk Road was displacement and conflict. The Greek Seleucids were exiled to Iran and Central Asia because of a new Iranian dynasty called the Parthians at the beginning of the 2nd century BCE, and as a result the Parthians became the new middle men for trade in a period when the Romans were major customers for silk. Parthian scholars were involved in one of the first ever Buddhist text translations into the Chinese language. Its main trade centre on the Silk Road, the city of Merv, in due course and with the coming of age of Buddhism in China, became a major Buddhist centre by the middle of the 2nd century. Knowledge among people on the silk roads also increased when Emperor Ashoka of the Maurya dynasty (268–239 BCE) converted to Buddhism and raised the religion to official status in his northern Indian empire. 

From the 4th century CE onward, Chinese pilgrims also started to travel on the Silk Road to India to get improved access to the original Buddhist scriptures, with Fa-hsien’s pilgrimage to India (395–414), and later Xuanzang (629–644) and Hyecho, who traveled from Korea to India.  

This movement of Buddhism first gained influence in the Khotan region. Some Mahayana scripts were found in northern Pakistan, but the main texts are still believed to have been composed in Central Asia along the Silk Road.  

The merchants supported Buddhist monasteries along the Silk Road, and in return the Buddhists gave the merchants somewhere to stay as they traveled from city to city. As a result, merchants spread Buddhism to foreign encounters as they traveled.  Thus these communities became centers of literacy and culture with well-organized marketplaces, lodging, and storage. The voluntary conversion of Chinese ruling elites helped the spread of Buddhism in East Asia and led Buddhism to become widespread in Chinese society. The Silk Road transmission of Buddhism essentially ended around the 7th century with the rise of Islam in Central Asia.

Expansion of the arts

Many artistic influences were transmitted via the Silk Road, particularly through Central Asia, where Hellenistic, Iranian, Indian and Chinese influences could intermix. Greco-Buddhist art represents one of the most vivid examples of this interaction. Silk was also a representation of art, serving as a religious symbol. Most importantly, silk was used as currency for trade along the silk road. 

The mixture of Greek and Indian elements can be found in later Buddhist art in China and throughout countries on the Silk Road. 

The production of art consisted of many different items that were traded along the Silk Roads from the East to the West. 

Decline and disintegration

With the gradual loss of Roman territory in Asia and the rise of Arabian power in the Levant, the Silk Road became increasingly unsafe and untraveled. After the Silk Road’s temporary decline during the Mongol Empire, Tiemeur, a descendant of Genghis Khan established the Tiemeur Empire in 1368, the Silk Road became prevalent in trade once more. However, when the Tiemeur Empire collapsed in 1404, the Silk Road ultimately decayed and finally fell into disuse. At that time the Venetian Marco Polo used it to travel to Cathay (China).  

The fragmentation of the Mongol Empire loosened the political, cultural, and economic unity of the Silk Road. Turkmeni marching lords seized land around the western part of the Silk Road from the decaying Byzantine Empire. After the fall of the Mongol Empire, the great political powers along the Silk Road became economically and culturally separated.

The author is retired as Additional Commissioner from Income Tax Department, Delhi.

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