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Chinese Buddhist Travelers: Faxian, Xuanzang, and Yijing  

Max Deeg

When Buddhism started to become part of religious life in China from the 1st century ce onward, the Chinese were confronted with several peculiar aspects of the first major foreign religion that took root in their century-old culture. They had to come to terms with the fact that the religion had been founded by an individual in distant India as clearly expressed in the different versions of the Buddha biography, but also with the constant and sometimes confusingly contradictory and apparently incomplete stream of Buddhist texts from India that were translated into Chinese. While Indian and Central Asian monks arrived in China very early and transmitted Buddhist texts and practices, Chinese monks from the 3rd century onward started to actively search for Buddhist texts, new teachings in the “Western Regions,” the ancient Chinese name for all regions lying west of the cultural or political boundaries of the Chinese Empire, which also included India. Some of them also wanted to visit and see the sacred places in the homeland of their religion in India in order to gain religious merit or to study Buddhist doctrine and practice in the monastic centers of learning in the “Middle Region” or Magadha, the heartland of Buddhism in the Gangetic plain. Although it is not clear, due to the lack of historical sources, how many of these Chinese monks, much less frequently Buddhist laymen, took the risk of the perilous journey through the deserts and across high mountain passes of Central Asia or across the ocean, there must have been hundreds of them between the 4th and 11th centuries. A number of these died during their journey while others decided to stay in India, the “Holy Land” of Buddhism. Some of those who returned to China left records about their travels or of the information they had gathered about the “Western Regions.” The most famous of these monks are Faxian (trav. 319–413), Xuanzang (trav. 629–645), and Yijing (trav. 671–695). The three monks represent the different routes taken by Chinese travelers to South Asia: Faxian went via the land route (Silk Road) and returned by sea, Xuanzang made both trips by the overland route, and Yijing traveled by the sea route via Southeast Asia. While Faxian’s and Xuanzang’s records are a kind of documentary description of the different regions they traveled through or heard about, mainly reporting on the situation of Buddhism, Yijing’s two reports comprise an anthology of Buddhist monks who had traveled to India in the second half of the 7th century and a record of Buddhism as practiced in India and on the Southeast Asian archipelago. The records and their translations had a strong influence on the emerging fields of South and Central Asian history and archaeology in the 19th century when most of the translations of the relevant texts were made.

Article

The Early History of Delhi  

Upinder Singh

Delhi’s past begins in the stone age; this is evident from the stone tools found as surface finds at many places and the excavated site of Anangpur. Remains of the protohistoric period have been unearthed at Bhorgarh and Mandoli. Ashoka’s Minor Rock Edict I indicates that Maurya influence extended into this area. Sites such as the Purana Qila reveal a cultural sequence extending from the early historic to the medieval period. The medieval remains of the Qutb complex include a Gupta-period pillar, many aspects of which remain enigmatic. Remains of the Rajput and early Sultanate phase have been found at Lal Kot. Although the details provided by the textual, archaeological, epigraphic and numismatic evidence are sparse, they help outline the history of rural and urban settlements in the Delhi area long before it became an important political center.

Article

Early Medieval Bengal  

Ryosuke Furui

In the early medieval period (6th–12th centuries), diverse terrains of South Asia experienced the rise of regional political powers and the socioeconomic development that would later culminate in the formation of regions. Bengal was no exception and saw the plural strands of historical changes and developments, intertwined with each other. In terms of political process, the first phase of the strand consisted of the rise of subregional kingships after the collapse of Gupta rule in the mid-6th century and the growth of subordinate rulers under them in the subsequent centuries. It was followed by the emergence of regional kingships of the Pālas and the Candras traversing several subregions and the enhancement of their powers in relation to subordinate rulers in the period between the mid-8th century and the mid-12th century. The last phase was the integration of almost all the subregions under the Senas, with stronger control over subordinate rulers and rural society in the second half of the 12th century. In terms of social change, the emphasis was on the hierarchization of land relations from the cultivation of moderate plots by the family labor of peasant householders to the management of large landholdings with layers of overlapping land rights, of which the bottom consisted of actual cultivation by agrarian laborers. Social change also came about through the organization of hereditary occupational groups and the systematization of their mutual relations toward a jāti order. The growth of brahmins as a group—by establishing a clearer identity and imposing their authority in social reorganization—constituted another pillar of the historical process. Political and social processes conditioned, as well as were conditioned, by the economic processes of agrarian expansion and the commercialization of rural economy, which proceeded in the subregions of Bengal in different forms and paces.

Article

Elephant Management in the Brahmaputra Uplands and Beyond: An Historical Approach  

Nicolas Lainé

Drawing on the history of human–elephant relationships in Brahmaputra uplands in precolonial, colonial, and contemporary periods, this article highlights at least long-standing two elephant management systems: the dominant power of each period with its corresponding war, imperialist, or conservation purposes and that of the local populations for whom elephants represent an essential part of their daily life and a source of livelihood, even though they simultaneously remain at the service of the dominant power. Through the ages, the local inhabitants’ relationship with elephants has evolved, and the presence of these animals alongside human societies has shaped the culture, identity, and ecology of the region. In the six centuries of the Ahom kingdom, and the two centuries of British rule, local knowledge of elephants has always played a role in state policy, often by force. However, after independence, international norms of conservation have tended to remove human settlements from elephant habitats and exclude consideration of local knowledge of elephants, to the detriment of all parties. The interests and knowledge of local people need to be engaged if elephant populations are to survive. At the same time, exploring the extensive literature on the connection between humans and elephants could provides fresh perspectives on the region’s history, social structures, and geopolitical significance between South and Southeast Asia.

Article

Glass Beads and Trade in the Western Indian Ocean  

Marilee Wood

The glass beads found at archaeological sites up and down the eastern coast of Africa between the 7th and 17th centuries ce bear witness to the trade that connected communities from all reaches of the Indian Ocean and beyond. Glass beads are small, relatively inexpensive to produce, and easy to transport as well as being colorful, often beautiful, and very durable. They were thus ideal trade items, especially when glass was a rare commodity that was produced in a limited number of places. Careful study of the glass beads traded into eastern Africa illuminate trade connections and patterns in the Western Indian Ocean that are not seen through a study of ceramics or glass vessels. In the earliest period, from the 7th to the mid-10th century, the East Coast (Kenya and Tanzania) first received beads made from a mineral soda glass from Sri Lanka (or possibly South India). The next to arrive were all made of a type of plant-ash glass that was probably produced in Iraq, but, because raw glass was widely traded, the beads were made in different places: perhaps the Persian Gulf/Iraq/Iran and even Thailand. In southern Africa in this period all beads were made of this same plant-ash glass but the beads—cut from drawn tubes—may have been finished locally. Similar beads of this glass have been found around the Old World including South and Southeast Asia, both East and West Africa, the Mediterranean, and as far north as Scandinavia—all date from the 8th into the mid-10th century. From the mid-10th to mid-13th century mineral soda beads from India were found in both the southern and northern regions of Africa’s east coast, but many of them appear to be from different areas of India and would likely have arrived by different routes. In the mid-13th to mid-15th century period, during which the gold trade out of southern Africa was at its peak, southern Africa turned away from Indian beads and accepted only ones from a region that has yet to be identified, while East Africa continued mainly with ones from South Asia. However, early in the 15th century a small number of Chinese beads appeared on the East Coast that might have arrived on ships from the fleet of the Chinese general Zheng He. The final period, the mid-15th to late 17th century, saw the two ends of the coast receiving the same beads for the first time, reflecting the growing dominance of European traders in the Indian Ocean. Although from their first arrival Europeans had attempted to trade their own beads in eastern Africa, populations there refused to accept them, forcing the outsiders to purchase beads in India, for which they were obliged to pay—often in silver.

Article

The Mughal Empire  

Michael H. Fisher

Founded in 1526, the Mughal Empire expanded during the late 16th and 17th centuries across almost the entire Indian subcontinent (except for the southern peninsular tip). At its peak, the empire contained roughly 1.24 million square miles and about 150 million people (half of western Europe in size but double its population). The imperial dynasty was originally Turco-Mongol. But, especially under Emperor Akbar (r. 1556–1605), the dynasty established the Mughal Empire by incorporating Hindu and other Indian cultures and mobilizing India’s human and natural resources more effectively than any previous state there. Nonetheless, emperors almost constantly faced rebellions and revolts by rival members of the dynasty, imperial administrators, army commanders, regional rulers, and popular movements. By the early 18th century, the empire fragmented into successor states, but the dynasty remained on the throne until 1858 when the British Empire finally displaced it. Throughout, the imperial court patronized extensive histories and literature (in Persian and a range of Indian languages) and works of architecture and representational arts. The imperial administration compiled detailed records, including about the court, army, and the lands it ruled. Historians, from the time of the empire onward, have used these diverse source materials in their own analyses.

Article

Objects and Material Cultures in Afghanistan, c. 100–1500 CE  

Alka Patel

During the first 1.5 millennia of the Common Era (c. 100–1500 ce), the multiple cultural geographies constituting the contemporary nation-state of Afghanistan were collectively a place of significant and enduring encounters among traditions and lifeways from across Eurasia. Just as migrating and settling populations contributed new ways of believing and making to Afghanistan’s already rich socio-religious tapestry, objects that arrived through trade and pilgrimage also acted as conveyors of ideas originating elsewhere, often combining with existing traditions and resulting in innovative iconographies (visual content) and styles (methods of depiction, visual languages). An examination of Afghanistan through its objects and their material cultures during these centuries is especially rewarding, as this approach illustrates the multidirectional connections between Afghanistan and its Eurasian neighbors near and far. In turn, these transregional connections came to shape religions, languages, political systems, and other cultural aspects not only of Afghanistan but also of other contiguous areas throughout the first 2 millennia ce.

Article

The Persian Cosmopolis  

Richard Eaton

The Persian cosmopolis refers to the vast territory between the Balkans and Bengal in which, for 1000 years, an integrated sense of moral, social, political, and aesthetic order was informed by the circulation of normative Persian texts. Several centuries after the Arab conquest of the Iranian plateau, a spoken form of a hybridized Middle Persian and Arabic emerged in written form, using a modified Arabic script. What had begun as a regional vernacular swiftly became a transregional, literary medium as regional courts in Khurasan and Central Asia patronized Persian literature and used that language in their bureaucracies, building on a tradition of professional writers that had served Persian empires for centuries. The technology of paper-making, recently introduced from China, facilitated the rapid movement of Persian texts across space, while Firdausi’s epic poem the Shah-nama (1010) celebrated Iranian mythology and pre-Islamic history in ways that connected widely scattered peoples of different ethnicities. Territorial conquests by Persianized Turks, followed by Mongol invasions that drove peoples of Central Asia and Khurasan into new lands, also served to expand the geographical extent of the Persian cosmopolis. By the 14th and 15th centuries, the political, aesthetic, and moral order elaborated in a growing Persian canon—for example, the principle of justice—had become associated with a prestigious, cosmopolitan style that was emulated and absorbed by widely scattered peoples of diverse ethnicities and religions. Persianate architecture, attire, urban design, music, cuisine, and numismatic traditions were also assimilated by such peoples. With the translation of a rich store of romance literature into vernacular tongues, the Persian cosmopolis became as much a subjective phenomenon, inhabiting people’s collective imagination, as it was an objective, mappable zone in which popular, discursive, and normative texts circulated along networks that connected royal courts, provincial notables, Sufi lodges, merchant communities, and schools.

Article

Sufi Dynastic Families in Pre-Mughal India  

Sushmita Banerjee

In South Asia the proliferation of Muslim settlements between the 13th and the 15th centuries was accompanied by the expansion of sufi fraternities. Sufis were revered as venerable figures due to their status as the possessors of spiritual grace and intuitive knowledge. Many sufis cultivated a comportment that was endearing, avuncular, and charismatic. They also gained renown for their textual productions, some more than others. Conventional historiography classifies sufis according to their affiliation to sufi silsilahs (spiritual order): Chishti, Suhrawardi, Firdausi, Qadiri, and several others. The linear perception of a silsilah as a chain of transmission of authority from a sufi pīr (spiritual master) to his murīds (disciple) and k̲h̲alīfās (spiritual successor), and the fixed notions about precepts and praxis have conflated the heterogeneous spiritual paths of individual sufis. Most of the spiritual orders did not expand in a unilateral manner. The classification of sufi silsilahs by similitude and differences precludes the complex, multistranded evolution of sufi praxis. The perception of a homogeneous silsilah is premised on the textualization of the genealogy of sufis in the taz̠kirāt (biographical dictionary).The perception that a hegemonic spiritual order is based on a linear and exclusionary chain of transmission of authority as evident in the taz̠kirāt can be challenged by taking recourse to the discourses of individual Sufis in the malfūz̤āt (utterances). The malfūz̤āt represent the spiritual path of charismatic sufi preceptors who relied on select historical personages from an “omnipresent past” to define their praxis rather than on a linear history of sufi preceptors. By contextualizing sufi texts in their contexts, the negotiation and competition among the lineal and spiritual descendants can be traced. In the 14th century neo-eponymous sufis effortlessly transited from one sufi affiliation to another (Nizamiyya to Chishti, for instance), but in the 16th century sufi texts highlighted the simultaneous, multiple affiliations of sufis, thereby complicating the history of the sufi silsilahs.