Wooden slates of Nia

Most of the readers must be aware of the Chinese monk, XuenZang (602-664AD), who had travelled to India in the seventh century AD. His travels extended over a period of 17 long years, and the efforts and hard work done by him in India, to make authentic copies of Buddhist Sutras'or scriptures are well known. His travelogue has been the only source, to find and learn facts about medieval India since last 1400 years and remains so even today. XuenZang travelled to India by a land route and returned back also by land, though by slightly differing route. His travelogues therefore are considered as an invaluable asset for Indians studying medieval history of India.

Takla Makan is a huge desert area, in the Chinese western province of Xinjiang. Two Silk route branches were in use, in Xuen Zang's times, along the north and the south perimeters of this desert. There were many rich and thriving commercial centers and towns in existence, along both Silk route branches on the north and south of the desert. Most of these commercial centers were located in many desert Oases that existed along the trade route. XuenZang had naturally visited many of these Oases and had described them at great length in his travelogues for the information of future generations. In the south-west of Takla Makan desert, a larger oasis known as Hotan, exists even today. This place was famous in XuenZang's times, for Jade and gold dust mines and was an important trading center on the southern Silk route. Xuen Zang has written at great lengths about history, geography and political situation in Hotan. He has also made a significant claim in his description, that Hotan and the surrounding regions, were ruled in the past by a king of Indian origin. The last battle for control of Hotan, took place between a general of the emperor of western China, Wu-Ti and the army of this Hotan king of Indian origin, in which, the Hotan king was defeated. After this battle, the people of Chinese and Indian origins, started living in separate settlements in Hotan. XuenZang gives reference of a Tibetan manuscript known as ' Annals of Li-Yul' for his claim. Since this reference is no longer traceable, authenticity of XuenZang's claims, and questions such as, who was this king of Indian origin? and Which emperor of India sent his army of Indians to Hotan? have remained largely unanswered.

The famous archeologist of the twentieth century, Sir Aurel Stein came across this claim made by XuenZang and thought of launching an expedition to prove or disprove this claim. Aurel Stein originally was a citizen of Hungary; born in Budapest. During his university days, he read about Alexander's campaigns in Persia and India. He became absolutely fascinated with this history. He gave up his university career and took up a job with the British Indian Government to look for avenues to carry out research about Alexander's campaigns. During his service in India, he became an expert in arts and sculptures of the ancient country of 'Gandhar' and came up with a hypothesis that the 'Gandhar' art style must have spread to central Asia and along Tarim river basin in Chinese Turkmenistan (Xinjiang) province of China. He also found out substantial information about the silk route and eventually wished to go on an archeological expedition along the ancient silk route. He also decided to examine truth behind the claim of XuenZang, mentioned above. Sir Aurel Stein writes about this in his book.

A substratum of historical fact is the old local tradition heard by Hsiian-tsang, which asserted a partial occupation of Khotan )by Indian immigrants from the region of ancient Taxila.”

( In his writing Aurel Stein refers to Hotan as Khotan; however I have used the current name of Hotan here)

Aurel Stein launched three major extended period expeditions in the years, 1900-1901, 1906–1908 and 1913-1916, along the silk route in Chinese Turkmenistan region, all of which were sponsored by the then Government of India. Stein visited Hotan in all the three expeditions, searching for Archeological finds. He began his first expedition on 29th May 1900 from Srinagar in Kashmir and crossed the Karakoram mountains through Mintaka pass travelling through Gilgit and Hunza and leaving behind the Indian peninsula. In Xinjiang, he first stayed at Kashgar and then at Yarkund. By end of the year 1900, he reached Hotan. In the vicinity of Hotan oasis he was able to find number of Terracotta items used in second or third century CE. While excavating some promising areas on the bank of Keria river, east of Hotan, he came to know that there is an another Oasis, named as Nia on the east or river Keria. River Nia flows near about this Oasis. If he could travel towards north along with this Nia river, he would first come across a Mazar of saint Imam Jafar Sadiq. If he continues further north along the river, which is half dead, he would come across an ancient settlement now almost submerged in the desert sands. Aurel Stein felt after hearing the description that this was the kind of place, which can reveal old archeological treasures. He prepared well for an expedition to Nia and left on 18 January 1901 for Nia. After a torturous travel lasting for 4 days, he finally reached the Nia Oasis. During his travel, the only thing which he saw were the snow capped peaks of the Kun-Lun range of mountains on the south and sand dunes of Nia in the North. Aurel Stein writes about the joy he felt after reaching the Nia oasis.

At Niya I was glad to find myself once more on Hsüan-tsang's track, for there can be no doubt that the present small oasis corresponds to the pilgrim's town of Ni jang. He reached it after entering the desert east of P'i-mo, which, as already noted, must be located near Uzun-Tati, north of the present oases of Chira and Gulakhma. The distance of 200 li between the two places is certainly under-estimated, even allowing for the reduced length of the more direct route north of the present one, which Hsüan-tsang is likely to have followed. But apart from this measurement, his account of Ni jang, points quite clearly to the present Niya. This town is 3 or 4 li in circumference ; it is situated in a great marsh ; the soil of the marsh is warm and soft, so that it is difficult to march on it. It is covered with reeds and tangled herbage, and one sees neither roads nor tracks. There is only the route leading to the town which is practicable to some extent. On this account those coming and going must pass by this town. The king of Ch`ü-sa-ta-na [Khotan] has placed there the guard of his eastern frontier. ”

On 23rd January 1901, Aurel Stein left Nia for Imam Jafar Sadiq Mazar with twenty labourers and a small convoy of additional hired camels to help in the transport of a month's supplies. This route was of 3 days duration along the river Nia, which becomes dead after Imam Jafar Sadiq Mazar. Stein, after reaching the Mazar, realized that he had reached the last outpost of human existence or civilization and to the north was a vast desert almost borderless. After walking along the dead river for about 2 miles, Stein could see 2 dwellings halfway submerged in sand hills. When he approached them, he could see that that they were actually ruins of a Buddhist Stupa. Since it was late evening, Stein decided to camp in the vicinity of ruins only.

Ruins of Buddhist Stupa

On the next  morning, with temperature hovering around zero degree Fahrenheit, Stein and his team started examining the ruins. He first reached a ruin, which was about a mile from his camp. It appeared like a terrace or a plateau above a sand hillock. After climbing up there, Stein found 3 wooden slates with some writings on them lying in a corner. Stein had studied earlier, ancient Indian scripts and immediately recognized the script in which the writing on the slates was made. The script was the “Kharoshti' script in use in ancient north India. Encouraged and recharged by this find, Stein's team began excavations around. In a spot, where there was a heap of broken wooden pillars, beams, cross members and wooden planks, Stein discovered few more slates. After this the entire terrace was excavated and the blown sand was removed. Stein found another 110 slates. Stein visited this place in both of his subsequent expeditions and in all, discovered between 200 to 300 wooden slates.

The Spot where slates were found first

The ruins of ancient village

The garbage heap where slates were found

Another spot where slates were found

On that extremely bitter and cold evening, back in his camp, Stein tried to read
and decipher few of the slates. He immediately realized that he has hit upon an invaluable historic treasure. The wooden slates, which he had found were in different shapes, sizes and styles. There were single plank slates and a large number consisted of two planks stacked together. Some were shaped like a knife blade. Double plank slates were attached to each other by a string passed through holes at one end of both slates and then tied together with a knot. In some of the double slates, notches were cut on the outer (where there were no writings) surface. A string was wrapped around both slates in the notches and then the slates were sealed with an earthen seal. The writing was from right to left (for a reader from left to right) and was written parallel to the longer side of the slate. In almost all slates, the script used was 'Kharoshti' script in use in ancient north India. 

After discovery of such large number of wooden slates, which looked very similar, Aurel Stein was worried that they may be copies of the same text containing either a prayer or few lines from some Buddhist scripture. However after studying the slates, Stein soon realized that each and every of those slates had a different content. Since Stein was fairly familiar with documents written in Kharoshti script from Kushana or Indo-Scythian (30 to 230 CE) period from northwest India, Stein was immediately able to confirm that the Kharoshti script on the slates, was very similar to Kushan period inscriptions, which meant that the slates belonged to a period between first to third century CE.

Stein found it difficult to decipher the script on the slates at the site of the ruins, where he discovered them, because the script was written in a sort of Cursive writing. However, he managed to decipher some of the slates on his camp in the evening. All the slates were basically written in the Prakrit language, extremely popular and wide spread language of the Indian peninsula during those days. Many of the slates, which looked like a knife blade, had words “ Mahanuava Maharaya lihati” or “His Highness the Maharaja writes” scripted at the header. Because of the use of these words, Stein concluded that these slates contained messages sent by the King's court in Hotan. By that evening, Stein was successful in deciphering the text written on 3 slates, which had least amount of writing. The text on these 3 slates clearly indicated that they contained administrative orders issued by the state. One of the three slates was addressed to Sothamga Lipeya alone, and directed him that Cuvayalina Phummaseva going as, messenger to Khotana should be furnished with certain transport and supplies. More elaborate orders were called “Anadilekha” and some messages were named as “Kilamudra”, which perhaps had different kinds of meanings. Since word “Khotana” appeared on many slates, Stein presumed these to be orders from the royal court.
Even though, all the slates were dated, since the date era had began with the reign of the king, not much information could be derived from the dating. Stein found that the King was addressed as “Devaputra” or “Son of God” in the slates. Similar references for the Kings are very commonly found in Inscriptions of Kushan or Indo-Scythian or even later dated periods in India.

Stein observed many names mentioned in the texts, were Indian or sounded like Indian names. Names like Bhim, Bangsen, Nandsen, Saamasen, Sitak, Upajeev, which were clearly Indian, appear in the texts. Distorted Indian names like Angas, Cuvayalin, Fumasen, Piteya, Saamaghil, Samajak, Somajak, Susam, Sugheeya, which do not have any meaning also appear in the texts. Obviously some un-Indian names like Lipeya, Opageya, Limir, Mamnagaya, Tsamaya are also found. A very interesting name, which can be considered as direct evidence of its genre in Kushansena. The slates also mentioned some designations like “Divir”,(A clerk), “Saar or Saaraka” (A secret agent), “Rayadwaar Purasthit” ( President of the Royal Court) and “Lekhdharaka” ( Letter-carrier) of those times. Letter carriers are however mentioned as “Dutiya” (Messenger) on their way.

Stein found another interesting fact in the texts. All the texts had a briefness and frankness of the Sanskrit texts, which are always found to the point. Stein observes that none of the texts had long addresses, lines inquiring about the health and the welfare of the recipients and the mandatory formal lines used by English letter writers.

After he returned from the expedition. Aurel Stein requested some of the epigraphists in England to give their opinion about the contents of the texts. After receiving their expert comments and with his own observations, Stein came to following conclusion.

Discovery of the Kharosthi documents from Early use at the Niya Site, proves beyond all doubt, that an Indian language closely allied to the old language of Prakrit of North-western India, was in daily use for administrative purposes throughout the Khotan and Khotan region, about the middle of the third century A.D. Considering the character of these hundreds of documents, dealing with all the varied affairs of practical life and social organization, it is impossible to assume that their language should not have been widely, perhaps universally, known within the territory. The conclusion to be drawn from this current use of an Indian language is greatly strengthened by the Kharosthi script of the records ; for we know that within India this script was peculiar to that region of which Taxila and the adjoining Gandhara were the historical and cultural centres for centuries before and after the commencement of our era.”

Stein mentions further that

Neither the language nor the script of these documents can be satisfactorily accounted for by the spread of Buddhism alone, which, so far as our available evidence goes, brought to Central Asia only the use of Sanskrit as its ecclesiastical language, and the writing in Brahmi characters. But the current use in Khotan of both a Prakrit dialect and of the Kharosthi script becomes at once intelligible if we recognize a substratum of historical fact in the old local tradition heard by Hsiian-tsang, which asserted a partial occupation of Khotan by Indian immigrants from the region of ancient Taxila. “

Even though most of the experts agree that some of the residents of Hotan were definitely migrants from the Indian Peninsula, there is a wide disagreement amongst them, regarding fixing the exact time period in which these Indians had migrated to Hotan and the route by which they might have made this migration. There are three schools of thought.

According to XuenZang himself, he thinks that this migration must have taken place much before the spread of Buddhist religion in Chinese Turkmenistan(Xinjiang). He gives reference of a hand written Tibetan manuscript known as ' Annals of Li-Yul', which says that Hotan's king “ Vijayasambhava” was initiated in Buddhism by a monk named “Arthaveersena”, who had come from Kashmir. This initiation was done 170 years after the establishment of the Kingdom of Khotan. Emperor of western China, Wu-Ti had defeated the Hotan king somewhere around 269 CE. The date of establishment of the Kingdom of Hotan by the Indian migrants therefore works out to first or second century BCE. XuenZang also gives another old story, heard by him in Taxila (Capital of Gandhar) as a reference. According to this story, Governor of Gandhara and Emperor Ashoka's son “Kunal” was blinded by his step mother in a palace intrigue. When emperor learned about this, he immediately arrested all those responsible for this plot and dispatched all of them to the cold deserts beyond the eastern borders of his empire. Xuen Zang says that these disbanded plotters must have managed to reach Hotan and establish their new kingdom. According to this story, this migration happened during life time of Emperor Askoka or 3rd century BCE.
Stein considers another possibility in his book. He says that since residents of Hotan look very much like residents of Kashmir, they might have migrated from Kashmir and established the Hotan Kingdom. However it is extremely difficult to predict whether these migrating Kashmiri people travelled to Hotan through Karakoram pass or through Gandhar border. Only one thing can be said firmly. Since Buddhist monk “Arthaveerasena” had visited Hotan during reign of King “ Vijayasambhava” for promoting Buddhist religion teachings. There must have beeen a close relationship between Kashmir and Hotan Kingdom.

In the 1988 issue of a publication, published twice in a year and called Central Asiatic Journal, a Harvard historian Douglas A Hitch has put forth a totally new theory. According to this theory, the entire Tarim river basin was under control of Kushan or Indo-Scythian kings in the period 88-90 to 124-127 CE. The armies of Kushan emperor Kanishka and his son Huvishka were present in this region. Since Hotan Oasis is part of Tarim river basin, it was naturally ruled by Kushan kings. Hitch claims that the discovery of letters written in “Kharoshti” script in ancient towns like “Kara Shar” and “Turpan”, which are located on the northern silk route and use of Prakrit language in the inscription on ancient coins of Hotan indicate that entire Tarim river basin from Kara Shar in the north to Lu Lan in the south was part of Kushan or Indo-Scythian empire, when it was at its strongest. It is possible that emperor Kanishka or his son Huvishka might have sent their armies to Tarim basin over the Pamir mountains to capture this region. Han dynasty of China probably defeated Kushan armies by second half of the second century CE. Even then, all the kings in this region have been following the Kushan traditions for a number of centuries afterwords. Their administration language was still Prakrit and they invariably called themselves as “ Devaputra” or “Son of God”.

We may never know the real historic truth ever. Whether Tarim river basin in Xinjiang province of China, was a part of Kanishka's empire? Or whether Hotan was part of Kashmir? We shall never know. One thing can be however said with almost certainty, that Karakoram mountain range was not necessarily eastern border of the empires of medieval India. To what extent these empires made in road into Tarim river basin? May remain an unknown forever.

1. Ancient Khotan -By Sir, Aurel Stein Chapter XIX
2. Kushan Tarim Domination, An article by Douglas A Hitch, Central Asiatic Journal Volume 32 (3-4) 1988

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