Perpetual pilgrim: A writer’s quest to see Buddhist sites around the world. Growing up in Kushinagar, Uttar Pradesh, where the Buddha is said to have acquired mahaparinirvana or to relinquish his earthly status, Sunita Dwivedi was fascinated by Buddhist history from an early age. He quit his job as a journalist in 1997 to travel through Asia and Europe, exploring the ruins of hundreds of Buddhist centers along the Silk Road. Since then he has written four travelogues, published by Rupa – Buddhist Heritage Sites of India (2006); In the search for the Buddha: The Silk Road Journey (2009); Buddhism in Central Asia. His works have been published in Indian and Chinese cultural newspapers. Excerpt from the interview:
He has traveled extensively through Afghanistan, where he has set up a stone-throwing tower in the eastern villages of Bamiyan. What was actually going on there a few years back ?
In Afghanistan, a global effort to preserve and rehabilitate has opened up. There are projects to reclaim the great Bamiyan Buddhas by reassembling cracked rocks and adding new materials to fill the gaps. The driveway now passes in front of the caves and passes through the villages of Bamiyan and the neighboring villages of Kakrak and Foladi to aid tourism and rehabilitation efforts.
Meanwhile, well-known archaeologist Zemaryalai Tarzi has been searching since 2003 to find a Buddha lying 1,000 feet [1,000 m] high in Bamiyan, not far from where the Taliban destroyed huge Buddha statues 20 years ago. Monuments to the journey of Chinese traveler Hiuen Tsang are mentioned, and Tarzi is convinced that they are still there. If he finds it, he will find the longest sleeping Buddha in the world.
A few years ago, Pakistan unveiled the remains of the 1,700-year-old Sleeping Buddha, 48 feet [48 m] long at the Sleeping Buddha in Haripur, probably the oldest of its kind. Recent archaeological excavations have revealed the Buddhist artifacts of the 2nd and 3rd centuries BCE, placing cities on a world map.
Globally, in addition to the restoration of sites and new discovery projects, local museums are being established and there are strict rules for illegal mining and archeology.
Which countries and regions in India have you seen doing a good job of preserving and documenting Buddhist relics?
Buddhist monuments everywhere are treated as symbols of world heritage. China leads in restoring and preserving ancient sites. Some of these are like museums in open caves.
In India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh, which are the richest repositories of Buddhist images, art, and manuscripts, little is shown. To see the fascination found in South Asia, visit museums in Mahasthangarh, Varendra, Comilla and Dhaka in Bangladesh; Lahore, Taxila and Peshawar in Pakistan; Kabul in Afghanistan; and Kolkata, Delhi and Mathur area.
How do the new archeological discoveries helps us to understand the spread of Buddhism from India and then to different parts of Asia?
Parts of the continent including present-day Pakistan and Afghanistan have been part of a major trade route. It is surprising to note that the first fossils of fossils were not built in India but in Afghanistan by two traders from Balkh. The first image of the Buddha of fasting is believed to have been inscribed on a stone at Sikri, a small village in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan.
Communication occurs in unexpected ways. Walking on the Grand Trunk Road from Lahore to Peshawar and Mardan in Pakistan and passing through Kabul, Bamiyan, Mazar-i-Sharif and Samangan in Afghanistan, I found the remains of a large number of monks. They had beautiful stupas, places of worship, meeting halls, seating, stupa courts and baths. It shows that the Buddhist rulers not only protected the Buddhist temples, but also set up monasteries and chairs and hired decorating experts.
It was at these centers that monks continued missionary work to China, where they translated Buddhist canonical literature into Chinese by about the fourth century CE We haven’t joined all the dots yet.