When Bactria was Buddhist

Surkhondarya, Uzbekistan
July 29, 2019

My questions about sites I wanted to see around Termez, met with bafflement immediately followed by a string of excuses. Either unknown or too far or not accessible or not permitted. I could only go to the ones firmly on the tourist radar. Given time, I suppose I could have figured out ways to do it, but I have a deadline to meet. I need to cross into Turkmenistan on the date specified in the visa. So, grudgingly accepting the inevitable I set off for the three sites within easy reach of Termez. Most of the ruins date from the Kushan era when this area reached its apogee. Buddhism flourished and stupas and monasteries dotted the landscape.

Zurmala

On the outskirts of old Termez is a huge misshapen, roughly cylindrical tower. It stands tall amid flat fields that are cultivated intensively. Furrows near the tower show fields once reached right up to it but not anymore. A path laid out around it clearly demarcates the no-sow area. Uzbek government takes the promotion of tourism seriously.

In keeping with burgeoning tourist industry, information is plentiful on the old sites. Mostly in the form of tourist brochures of travel agencies, they are rife with colorful tales of the origin of this stupa. Cults and clans feature among the stories, much like the Throne of Rustam in Samangan  that I was told about in Afghanistan. But this was no watchtower, nor was it for defense.

The oldest standing structure in this area, it was once a stupa, whose domed shape has eroded into a rough cylinder now. It was clearly a reliquary once, with more than one doorway leading into the interior. The vault must have once contained caskets of ashes and bones. Given the importance of Kushan dynasty, it might have been of the Buddha himself. The multiple layers of brickwork made the walls thick and sturdy; it is little wonder that it has stood for almost a couple of millennia.

Fayaz Tepe

Slightly further afield are the ruins of a couple of monasteries. Fayaz tepe has been renovated to within an inch of its life. It looks more like the set of some B grade film, but it is still interesting to see the sprawling complex. The architecture of Buddhist monasteries are unchanged in two and half millennia.

I recognize the large central prayer hall. There are the bases of the many pillars that once held up the roof. A corridor runs around the central hall, with rooms leading off from it. On either side of the central rectangular complex are two other complexes, these mostly of rooms, likely cells for monks. Small niches in the walls once held images or books; there would have certainly been a library at a monastery of this size. There would have been multiple stupas, but the only one now standing is the one immediately outside the complex.

The original stupa is now protected by a dome built over it with a narrow path around it. Space for pilgrims of today to do their kora perhaps. I see a few patches of gold foil on the stupa.

Today’s pilgrims must come from Myanmar or Thailand, practicing what they do at home. I smile at the thought of continued tradition, some two and half millennia later.

Kara Tepe

A kilometer or so away from Fayaz Tepe is the ruins of another monastery, called Kara tepe. Instead of being built atop the ground, this one was dug out of a small hill, the roofline following the contours of the hill. A large stupa mostly eroded now, is protected by a metal roof and sits on one side. The broken outline of a doorway indicates this too was an important reliquary. There are other stupas here as well. For some only the square multi-layered base remains while a couple are protected by newly shored-up walls.

The large central prayer hall is littered with broken pillars and bases. It sits at the center of the complex and around it runs a wide corridor with cells leading off it. Each cell has a single doorway and alcoves and niches are carved into the walls. Yet another concentric layer wraps around this with yet another layer of rooms.

This was a large complex and in the nearby hill I can see more dugouts. In the distance, barely a couple of kilometers away, the blue waters of Amu Darya glints in the sunshine. The district of Balkh in Afghanistan is just a stone’s throw away. Once it would have been a simple matter to hop across to the other bank in a boat, but those days are long gone.

Peopled since the earliest times, this area is literally riddled with ruins. The museum had items recovered from Djarkutan, Airyatam, Sapallitepe, Djoyilma, Tillabulak, Kuchuktepe, Zartepe, Kampyrtepe, Khosiyatepe are names of just a few sites in a list that goes on and on. One day, I promise myself, I will be back without time constraints and find a way to see them.

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