When Romila Thapar lost a game of table tennis to a Buddhist monk in China

The Dunhuang and Maijishan Buddhist Caves in present-day Gansu Province in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) are the remains of centuries-old religious and commercial interactions along the “Silk Roads”. Indian Sinologist PC Bagchi and KM Panikkar, the first Indian Ambassador to the PRC, visited these sites in 1948 and 1951 respectively and stressed the need for Indian researchers to study them. The remarkable travel account of Romila Thapar Gazing Eastwards during her visit to these two sites in 1957 owes a lot to these two previous visits, and especially to the intervention of Panikkar.

Thapar is one of the most renowned scholars in Indian history and an influential intellectual in India. Less well known, however, is her trip to China as a doctoral student at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. Gazing Eastwards offers insight into Thapar’s early academic career and his experiences beyond studying Indian history. From the diary she kept during the four months of the trip, the book recounts her experiences and encounters on sites that very few foreigners (or even Chinese citizens) visited in the 1950s. It also includes a particularly useful introduction which describes the “Silk Roads” exchanges and the role of Dunhuang and Maijishan in these long-distance interactions.

With Parisian art historian Anil de Silva and photographer Dominique Darbois, Thapar traveled as a research assistant in China between July and October 1957. The trip resulted in the publication of two important studies: L Chinese landscape art in the caves of Tun-huang (1964) by de Silva, and The Cave Temples of Maichishan (1969) by Michael Sullivan. Both volumes contain superb images of Darbois. In the latter work, de Silva provides a brief account of the visit (erroneously mentioning that it took place in 1958), in which Thapar attributes the trip to Panikkar and his “personal contact” with Prime Minister Chou En- lai “did while he was Indian Ambassador to Beijing.

The result of this “personal contact” is evident throughout the book. The Society for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries hosted the trip; several renowned Chinese scholars, including renowned archaeologist Xia Nai and indologist Ji Xianlin, met them; provincial and local officials organized the trip and stay; the team has been invited to official events including a state reception for visiting Indian President S Radhakrishnan. Despite such official support, their travels deviated considerably from the scripted tours of foreign delegations common in the 1950s.

The researchers first traveled to Beijing from Paris via Prague and Moscow. After a few days in Beijing and a dinner at the must-see Peking Duck restaurant, they began their journey, accompanied by an interpreter, by train to Xi’an, the ancient Chinese capital, and to Lanzhou, the gateway. of Central Asia. From Lanzhou, they took a bumpy road to Maijishan, their first research site. After a productive stay, they traveled further west to the historic border towns of Tianshui and Jiuquan before arriving in Dunhuang, the “highlight” of their trip. Visits to Zhengzhou, Nanjing, Shanghai and Hangzhou later, they returned to Beijing. Their final stop was in Guangzhou / Canton, where their hosts held a “spectacular” farewell and toasted the “lasting friendship” between India and China with glasses of Moutai, a powerful Chinese liquor.

The book contains valuable information about the lives of people in urban and rural China, the state of museums and educational institutions in major cities, interactions with Chinese academics, and feelings of being an Indian, in especially a woman dressed in a sari, in a foreign land. Earth. Perhaps the most remarkable part of the travelogue is the description of Thapar’s stay in a Buddhist monastery in Maijishan. Here she lost a game of table tennis to a monk, learned to play the Chinese two-stringed instrument erhu, and listened to the locals singing, including a Chinese interpretation of Awaara hoon from the Hindi film Awara (1951 ).

The homeland is still hiding in the accounts of travel to foreign regions. India appears in various contexts (but unfortunately not in the book’s index) in Gazing Eastwards, including discussions of Buddhist influences on China, comparisons of cultural practices, and states of development.

Here, Thapar’s lamentations about the fundamental difference between Chinese and Indian record keeping traditions are most noticeable. On several occasions, she laments that, while Chinese pilgrims and Buddhist historians have left behind accounts of foreign lands, including India, “pre-modern Indians … have remained indifferent to commenting on the world beyond. their immediate…. It’s a stark contrast to the Chinese who eagerly want to know the world and write about it, ”she wrote.

It is in this context of a dearth of Indian writings on China that the value of Thapar’s travelogue must be considered. The first Indian travel writings on China did not appear until the end of the 19th century and multiplied during the first half of the 20th century. However, testimonies from Indian women visiting China are scarce. From Moscow to China (1952) by activist Gita Bandyopadhyay, who describes her visit in 1949-50 to attend the Asian Women’s Conference, may have been the first such work. Thapar’s book falls into this rare category. In both cases, insights into the role and status of women in China, often accompanied by reflections on gender issues in India, and the experiences of women traveling to a foreign country appear in great detail.

Yet while Bandyopadhyay’s account is extremely sympathetic to the PRC’s new communist government, Thapar is more introspective about his contemporary conditions and the country’s future prospects. The combination of academic explorations and foreign travel adventures makes the book extremely informative and enjoyable, and a valid relief from the emphasis on state-state relations that dominates Indian publications on China.

Sen is Director of the Center for Global Asia and Professor of History, New York University, Shanghai

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