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Beijing’s man
- 14 centuries on, Hieun Tsang returns as Red China’s link with Nalanda

In the backwaters of Bihar, away from the prying eyes of New Delhi, Chinese foreign minister Li Zhaoxing dedicated a 30-foot-high statue to the 7th-century Chinese pilgrim on February 12 even as Nalanda’s eternal ruins nearby kept its own vigil on the event.

For it was here, some 1,400 years ago, that Hieun Tsang, braving the wrath of the Tang dynasty emperor, overcoming the all-consuming thirst of the Gobi desert, climbing the precipitous Tian Shan mountains of Central Asia and subduing all the remaining mortal temptations in between, arrived in search of the Buddhist sutras.

The Chinese monk stayed in Nalanda for nearly 10 years, taking the teachings of the great Buddha, the Yogacharya, back with him to China. Even as the Buddha lost influence in the mother country, unable to break though the Brahminical stranglehold of the Hindu upper castes, translated versions of the Middle Path spread far and wide in the Middle Kingdom.

It was to be the first, substantive connection between two of Asia’s oldest civilisations.

As for the Chinese, masters of the message in the 21st century, they were happy in Nalanda to avow the old Indian link, as long as the predominantly Indian audience understood that Beijing, one of the most powerful nations in the world, had taken the initiative to do so.

So, as the enormous statue of Hieun Tsang — surrounded by Chinese mother-of-pearl murals, a virgin-white mural of the Maitreyi Buddha built by Chinese artisans as the backdrop, the ceiling murals painted in the “bagh” style of the Ajanta paintings, all of it encased in an enormous hall with Chinese architectural characteristics — loomed large over the gathering, it was quite clear that the Red star had forged a new arc over the ancient, Indian Buddhist homeland.

In front of Hieun Tsang were Chinese candles and a Chinese banner with the single letter “Fo”, the representation of the Buddha.

On one side was an enormous stone tablet with the Buddha’s footprint and a commentary alongside, said to be by Hieun Tsang. And on the other side, in a glass case, a beautifully burnished, miniature gold Tibetan chhorten (Buddhist temple), inside which in another glass bowl lay a piece of the skull, the relic of Hieun Tsang himself.

It was this little piece of bone that gave such an aura to the event. It had been brought to Nalanda only the day before from the Patna museum, but was to be soon returned for security reasons.

First, the Chinese Buddhist monks, imported specially for the occasion, prayed at the altar, their blood-red robes unmistakably denoting their loyalty. Then it was the turn of the Indian monks to pray, in Sanskrit, their ragged chappals a clean giveaway to their origins.

So what were the Chinese doing in Bihar anyway' Bhikku Bodhipala, the chief priest of the Mahabodhi temple in Bodh Gaya, pointed out that “things were opening up… China is an ancient civilisation and needs to expand cultural ties”.

“Naturally,’’ he added, “China has a stake in what happens around it.’’

The monk pointed out that Japanese pilgrims had brought so much prosperity to Bodh Gaya; perhaps Chinese pilgrims would do the same for Nalanda.

Chinese foreign minister Li Zhaoxing stressed the benevolent connection. His boundless energy that morning gave away none of the exhaustion and the jet lag that may have arisen from the little Kingair jet he had hired the day before to fly all the way from Beijing to Patna. (That was a first, too.)

Only the day before, he had arrived in Beijing after a gruelling 15-day journey across Africa, China’s latest, sweetest partner, now enjoined in the service of assuaging the great Chinese hunger for natural resources. On February 12 evening, Li flew onwards to Delhi to participate in a trilateral summit with the foreign ministers of Russia and India.

In Nalanda, Li emphasised the great meeting of minds between China’s first Premier, Zhou-en Lai, and India’s Jawaharlal Nehru, and how the latter had received the relic Zhou had sent, in Nalanda, exactly 50 years ago.

“This seed of friendship sown by him we enjoy today,’’ he said. “(It’s) a great bridge between the two countries.’’

The visiting galaxy of stars, from Bihar governor R.S. Gavai and chief minister Nitish Kumar to the Union minister for tourism and culture, Ambika Soni, applauded the sentiment.

Clearly, this wasn’t the time to rake up the painful history between 1957 and 2007. To speak of how the friendship between the two countries had ebbed, how they had gone to war in 1962, and how both had since been severely mired in mutual distrust and suspicion.

Then there were the ironies to consider. How had the relic reached Nalanda/Patna in the first place' Turned out that it was none other than Zhou-en Lai who had entrusted the Dalai Lama with the relic when he came to Nalanda in 1956 to participate in the 2,500th Mahaparinirvana anniversary celebrations of the Buddha.

Nehru had persuaded the Dalai Lama to go back to Tibet the next year, because Zhou had pressed him to do so. So when the Tibet crackdown took place in 1959, the Dalai Lama fled to India.

Clearly, in Nalanda in 2007, the Indian side hadn’t wanted to embarrass the visiting Chinese dignitaries. They knew well that any mention of the Dalai Lama would make them see red. So a full week earlier, in nearby Bodh Gaya, New Delhi had allowed the Tibetan monk to make what he wanted of the Mahaparinirvana celebrations himself.

If that was the Indian way, the Middle Path, so be it. Likely, even the Buddha would have approved.

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