Premium - Gist of The Hindu: September 2013
REIMAGINING THE SILK ROUTE
In 1877, German explorer Baron Ferdinand von Richtofen used
the name of a treasured cloth as a seductive metaphor to coin the term Silk
Route for a conjunction of ancient, though not smooth, caravan routes scattered
over Eurasia along the Far East, Central Asia, South Asia, reaching up to
Africa. Probably inspired by wily tales of secrecy linked to the making and
trade of silk— an ‘invention’ romantically ascribed to a Chinese princess
fishing out a fibrous cocoon found floating in her tea cup — the route was
active, offering a lot more.
The tangible and the intangible The first millennium BC
through the middle of the second millennium AD witnessed seminal give and take
in the areas traversed by the Silk Route. Buddhism and Islam became world
religions. Sufis and poets provided enlightenment, spices pickled foods.
Pottery, glass, gold, tea, indigo, jade and textiles made merchants rich and
crafts people prospered. The vocabularies of music, architecture, dance, drama
and design morphed. Values became more universal as world views expanded. The
flux was intense, effecting a profound movement, deeply impacting our thought,
actions and deeds. The impact on both tangible and intangible heritage was
The Silk Route in fact became humanity’s first global
exchange — a precursor to the Internet — not just opening multiple ways but
offering a web of choices, instrumental to great innovations that have directly
impacted culture, science and commerce of today.
As a conduit of transmission of knowledge and wisdom and as a
perennial source of adventure, discovery and power, its deep resonance still
evokes fresh perspectives which are perhaps just as vital now for the future of
our world: a world fast shrinking…Hollywood celebrities working with Asian teams
and themes, IT with its cyber web of interdependencies, culinary arts tickling
changing palates, material goods and games catering to emerging life styles,
medicines and wellness industries integrating the ancient with the modern. New
Routes? How does South Asia reach out to ride the waves?
The peripheries of our subcontinent can once again become
vital links as dynamic and lucrative gateways to the rest of Asia. With
strategic interventions to ease political tensions, fragile Kashmir, once a
vital junction on a great crossroads and the troubled seven sisters along the
volatile North Eastern Himalayas, could well have an indispensible stake in such
a plan. Connectivity of areas that have become conflictaffected would symbolise
relative prosperity for the whole region, stimulate migrations and exchange,
stabilise fast disappearing skills and livelihoods, re-define securities and
modernity with a purpose.
The efforts to re-establish ancient routes are tied up with
the pragmatic needs of new nation states along the routes, such as in the former
Soviet Union, for modern infrastructure and this millennium’s goals for
Today, Unesco is perhaps less persuasive than the realpolitik of Uncad, UNDP,
Unescap and ADB pooling their might to develop Trans Asian Highways and Trans
continental Railways. Talking about revival of Silk and spice Routes for
intellectual or ideological cross fertilization of ancient culture will continue
but if commercial, social and geopolitical justifications are found, a lot else
follows without much ado.
In 2004 India became signatory with 30 countries for joint
projects on Trans Asian transportation networks. China’s role was to promote a
single axis linking Europe-Central Asia with its mainland. Bypassing most of
South Asia with exception of a small opening into north-east Pakistan, China
carries on with much else for purposes other than trade.
India, though, has done little, neglecting great economic and
geopolitical dividends for north-west or north-east India. More than four
decades ago, I crossed the picturesque Mughal route running through Rajouri,
Poonch and Thanamandi on mule back. Lately revived for tourism, other areas such
as Ladakh and northeast, remain barely accessible. The government’s new road
building programmes are somewhat limited, focusing on mainland connectivity,
giving negligible attention to border States. India’s unpreparedness to reach
out to Central and East Asia has resulted in it confining itself to a
South-South Asia box.
Independent cross cultural exchange within an emerging
region, particularly for Kashmir will revive the State’s historic role as a
veritable and dynamic crucible of major transformations witnessed over
centuries. This rare alchemy between Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh has for too long
remained static and uninspired. Hinged as the region is to the problematic
borders of Pakistan and China, it is losing its critical role in a unique
network of cross cutting identities.
What passed through this region went through a transformative
rite of passage. Not even an institution like religion emerged untouched. As an
important transit emporium in the trade between India and Central Asia, Jammu,
Kashmir and Ladakh represent an unusual coexistence of three great faiths
tempered by living traditions of Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam. The ‘ Trika ’ of
the three continues to influence peoples’ lives, giving the call to human
conscience in an increasingly polarised region. Kashmir embodies ‘Kashmiriyat’ —
a quality the young holding guns can barely understand.