Cultural and historic fabric of the New Silk Route

The Cultural fabric of the new Silk Route

Roopen Roy

(Views are personal)

The Look East policy was a good starting point to steer our attention and focus. It is time, however, to connect. The idea of rebuilding the new Silk Route has arrived. The Bangladesh/Myanmar/India/China (BIMC) economic region must leverage its full potential through re-connecting and re-engaging if it has to bring the fruits of development to its people.

It is well known that Western China and Eastern and North-Eastern India have a per capita income far below that of the national averages. The people who live in the countries that exist in the neighbourhood Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan and Myanmar need accelerated growth and development. The critical piece of the puzzle is the connectivity and trade between the two economic giants in the region : China and India.

More than 1,600 years ago, an ageing Chinese Buddhist monk named Fa Xian (Fa-Hien) travelled by foot from China to India. He visited many sacred Buddhist sites from what are now Xinjiang in China to Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka between 399 and 412 A.D. to acquire Buddhist scriptures. The route along which he travelled later came to be known as the Silk Route. The path he chose to go back to China via the Indian Ocean was named the Maritime Silk Route. One fork of the Silk Route went into Central Asia and connected to Europe.

The Silk Route in essence symbolizes the vision, determination, openness and stubbornness of spirit for exchange of ideas, goods and services for the mutual benefit of all stakeholders. The Silk Route was above all an enabler of connectivity and exchange between people. As long back as in April 1937, Rabindranath Tagore established the Cheena Bhavana (The Hall of Chinese Studies) as part of Visva-Bharati -the university that he had founded. Tagore inaugurated the Hall of Chinese Studies with the following words “Our friends are here from China with their gift of friendship and co-operation. The Hall which is to be opened today will serve both as the nucleus and as a symbol of that larger understanding that is to grow with time. Here students and scholars will come from China and live as part of ourselves, sharing our life and letting us share theirs, and by offering their labours in a common cause, help in slowly re-building that great course of fruitful contact between our peoples, that has been interrupted for ten centuries.”

There is an interesting story about Tagore that has been recorded by Tan Yun Shan. Tan Saheb ,as he is widely known in Santiniketan, hailed from the Hunan province of China. He went to the same school as Mao Zedong and was the founding Director of Cheena Bhavana. He was an ardent follower of Lord Buddha. He met Rabindranath for the first time in 1927, was inspired by his vision and dreams and came to Santiniketan at a meagre salary.

Tan writes that when Tagore visited China he was conferred a Chinese name called "Chu Chen-Tan". "Chu Chen-Tan", with three characters joined together, has a double significance. It literally means the "Thunder voice of the Rising Sun of India"; but it also means the "Symbol of Unity and Combination of India and China".

One of the central policies of President Xi Jin Ping of China is to build the New Silk Road (NSR) on land and in the maritime routes beginning from the historic city of Xian. In order to build those links and route, infrastructure will be critical and vital but not enough. The cultural and people-to-people links ought to be renewed and enriched.

The two countries must review their visa policies and promote tourism on both sides. Exchange programs should begin between schools and institutions of higher learning. In Kolkata St.Xavier’s School started in 2011 a very successful exchange program with a well-known school in Kunming, Yunnan called Shida Fuzhong. Already hundreds of students go to China to study medicine.

While inaugurating Che­ena Bhavana, Tagore said, “The most memorable fact of hu­man history is that of a path-opening, not for the clearing of a passage for machines or machine guns, but for helping the realisation by races of their affinity of minds, their mutual obligation of a common humanity. The two leading races of that age met, not as rivals on the battlefield, each claiming the right to be the sole tyrant on earth, but as noble friends, glorying in their exchange of gifts. Then came a slow relapse into isolation, covering up the path with its accumulated dust of indifference. Today, our old friends have beckoned to us again, generously helping us to retrace that ancient path obliterated by the inertia of forgetful centuries, and we rejoice.”