Buddha in China, from ‘Indu’

by ASHIS CHAKRABARTI, The Telegraph, Dec 30, 2008

Sanchi stupa replica promised by India nears completion

Luoyang, China -- Border and other disputes still make them estranged neighbours. But India and China will have something to celebrate together sometime early next year: yet another coming of the Indian Buddha to the Middle Kingdom.

<< The Buddha in the stupa in Luoyang

China’s very own Sanchi stupa is nearly complete and ready to be opened for pilgrims soon, thanks to former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s promise of a “gift” from the Indian government during his visit to China in June 2003.

The two sides are looking for a suitable date for its opening that important delegations from the two countries will attend, according to an official in the Indian embassy in Beijing.

The construction costs have been borne by New Delhi, while the Chinese paid for part of the transportation costs of materials from India.

The circular-domed structure is a close replica of the famous first stupa at Sanchi in Madhya Pradesh. Made of pink Dholpur stone transported from Rajasthan, it stands next to the Baima Si (White Horse Temple), the oldest Buddhist monastery on Chinese soil at Luoyang in central China’s Henan province built in the first century AD.

Inside the main prayer hall, there is yet another import from India — a replica of the seated statue at Sarnath. The construction started in 2006 and the project has been conceived and monitored by a committee headed by Kapila Vatsayan.

And this first Chinese Buddhist monastery is believed to owe its origin to Indian connections. Legend has it that a Han emperor dreamt of a “strange god” from another land and was told by his ministers that it could only have been the Buddha of India.

Some officials of the Chinese court, sent out to look for Indian Buddhist monks, met two of them in present-day Afghanistan.

The Chinese persuaded the monks to accompany them back to China. The monks rode two white horses on which they carried some Buddhist texts. Hence the name of the temple, which was built soon after.

The original structure, though, does not exist and the present temple complex was built during the Ming and the Qing dynasties between the 14th and the 19th centuries.

The temple is only 16km away from the more famous Buddhist site in Luoyang, which was once the capital of 13 Chinese dynasties.

Most of the visitors who went round the Buddhist grottoes in the Longmen Caves last week had little idea that a short distance away, another Buddhist icon had travelled again all the way from India. The Buddhist caves at Luoyang are one of the three such grottoes in China, the other two being at Datong and the ancient Silk Road desert town of Dunhuang.

But Luoyang’s Buddhas, hundreds of them all hewn from the rock faces, were less lucky than the ones at Datong and Dunhuang, having suffered decapitation and damage at the hands of western cave raiders in the last century. The coming of the Sanchi stupa to Luoyang “contrasts this other, sad history”, as a Chinese monk at Baima Si told me during my visit there last week.

He was so enthused by unexpectedly meeting an Indian visitor that he shrugged away the language barrier and escorted me to meet two others from “Indu” staying there.

The two Indians I was taken to meet were workers employed by a Delhi-based construction firm to work on the project. They had little sympathy for the history of the place and cared nothing about the historic importance of their work.

“You can’t take their food. Their language is so strange. Living here is so very difficult, especially now in this bitter winter,” they told me over cups of “desi” coffee. Already eight months into this “wilderness”, they were counting the days to return home.

Back in Beijing, I was told the Sanchi structure will be part of the overall Indian presence at Luoyang, which will include an exhibition depicting the full story of the Buddha’s journey from India to China.

Also, the Chinese government wants to develop Luoyang as an important centre of Buddhist pilgrimage in China with typical Buddhist structures from different countries. Another one from Thailand has already come up here.