China- Visiting The Past

Friday, July 25, 2008

Imagine visiting the Taj Mahal by day, and in the evening going to a theatre-cum-restaurant in Agra, where someone dressed like Mian Tansen sings Mian ki Malhar while you tuck into kakori kabab and chicken shahjahani! In Xi’an, in the Shaanxi province of China, you can do something similar. First, visit the beautiful Huaqing hot spring, 30 km away at the foot of the Lishan mountains, the favourite site of kings since the 11th century BC. It acquired fame during the reign of Tang dynasty emperor Xuanzong (685-762). Xuanzong built a lavish palace for his concubine Yang Guifei, reputed to be one of the four most beautiful women in ancient China. Then, come back for dinner at the Tang Dynasty Cultural Theatre and Restaurant in Xi’an. While you eat and drink, artists in Tang period costumes play ancient musical instruments, sing and dance. That China is an ‘old’ civilisation is well known. The exact import of the word old sinks into people like me while visiting the past in archaeological sites around Xi’an. The mausoleum of the First Emperor Qinshihuang (259-210 BC), located 36 km east of Xi’an, has an outer wall covering over 2 sq km. More than 2,000 years ago, it was reportedly built over three decades by more than half a million labourers. It is famous for its approximately 8,000 life-size terracotta warriors and horses, arranged in battle formations to guard the tomb. The main tomb, under a man-made hill for protection against plunder, is still unexcavated. The artistic quality, distinctive style and striking posture of each terracotta soldier, and their sheer strength in numbers fill us with a great sense of awe and curiosity about what lies buried deep in the tomb. One gets this same feeling of being overwhelmed by history at the Wild Goose Pagoda in Xi’an itself, or at the Huaqing hot spring. The Wild Goose Pagoda, built in 652, is famous for its association with the monk, Xuanzang, also known as Hsuan-tsang. He undertook a 17-year overland trip to India and back, and is famous for bringing about interaction between China and India. Inside the Da ci’en temple complex, he built a pagoda to translate the Sanskrit sutras and store them. The seven-storey mud and brick pagoda, tapering at the top, shows distinct signs of Indian temple architectural influence. Looking at the pagoda you marvel at the adventurous spirit of Xuanzang. He travelled across the Himalayas almost 1,400 years ago, without marked-out paths, nice trekking shoes and woollen anoraks, and no interpreter! At the Huaqing hot spring stands a recent statue of the beautiful Yang Guifei. There’s also the Wujian five-room suite, famous for the Xi’an incident. Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek of the Chinese Nationalist Party lived in this suite for a while. On December 12, 1936, two of his own generals, Zhang Xueliang and Yang Hucheng, staged a coup d’etat. Hearing gun shots at 4 a.m., Chiang Kai-shek escaped through the window and fled barefoot. He was arrested from the adjoining mountain and forced to negotiate with the armies of the Chinese Communist Party to jointly fight the Japanese. Seeing the bullet holes on the wall, and the bed, tables, chairs and other furniture purportedly used by Chiang Kai-shek gives one a palpable sense of visiting the past. In Humayun’s tomb, imagine seeing where the last emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar was hiding after the debacle in the First War of Independence. Among the millions of visitors who have been to Humayun’s tomb, it is doubtful whether more than a few hundred are even aware of the fact that the last Mughal emperor had taken refuge in this mausoleum after the unfortunate and tumultuous developments of September 1857. Apart from the richness of its past, the efficient manner in which the authorities have managed and organised the facilities for visiting the past are very impressive. Travel to the sites is through broad motorways. No tedious hours of navigating through traffic jams. Xi’an, an ancient city like Agra, had its own share of narrow roads, slums, and unauthorised encroachments. They have been cleared and replaced by broad avenues. North of the Wild Goose Pagoda, they have even built a delightful large plaza with a large number of fountains, parks and statues. Many archaeologists have strong opinions against restoration of ruined old monuments. However, for the ordinary tourists, seeing a restored old monument is a much more exciting experience than seeing old, dilapidated ruins and imagining — with the help of old manuscripts, pictures and paintings — what it must have looked like at the height of its glory. Wonder how many visitors to Delhi’s Red Fort can even imagine what the fort complex may have looked like before the British, after the First War of Independence, destroyed many of the pavilions and gardens and started to use it as their headquarters. The Chinese have managed to renovate and maintain the monuments well. Of course, someone has got to pay for all these facilities. Entry fees to the sites are charged to pay for their upkeep. However, foreign tourists pay the same as domestic tourists. India, with its enormous potential for tourism can certainly learn a thing or two about making the country’s rich heritage more accessible to tourists, and profiting from the venture, from its neighbour.


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