Sunday, April 5, 2015

Termez. The Buddhist Side.

Ruins of Zurmala Stupa.

Oh, I was exhausted and hungry when I woke up this morning. Exhausted because I didn't get to sleep until really late. Our hotel is situated, literally, in the backyard of another, larger hotel. From the back entrance of that hotel to the front entrance of ours could not be more than 50 feet. Last night, there was a raucous party going at that hotel. The music was loud and I could feel the thumping base all the way to my bed. I had hoped to get a really good night's rest because we have a full day today with Sergei. He gives out a lot of information and it takes energy to listen to what he's saying and then digest it all. Lucky for Pat, she's a bit hard of hearing so she slept through all the partying last night.


We had breakfast in the hotel restaurant. I think we're the only two guests staying here so instead of a buffet, they delivered individual plates of food to us. Whenever they do that, it's often an odd mish mash of food items, most of which I don't want to eat. Fortunately, there were some hardboiled eggs and since Pat doesn't eat them, I got her's. The eggs, along with some walnuts dipped in honey, bread, cheese, and mystery meat....which they seem to love in Central Asia, was enough to fill me.

We met back up with Sergey and Shavkat at 9a. I kid you not when I say that our history lesson began with Sergey the moment we got into the car. He is so passionate and excited about the history of Termez that it's truly hard to ignore him - you don't want to be rude. But, I was still tired. I think Sergey talked for at least 10 minutes before the first of my gray cells engaged in listening to what he was saying.

I don't know religion Sergey ascribes to but if I could tag one for him, it would be Buddhism.  His whole face lights up and his body seems to twitch with excitement every time he talks about the religion and its impact on the small city that he calls home, Termez.  He was totally in his element this morning when we went to visit two of Termez's major Buddhist historic sights.  Truthfully, I didn't expect to see anything related to Buddhism in Uzbekistan as I identify the country as an Islamic nation.  I was curious to learn more.

On the top of our itinerary today was a visit to a place that holds a soft spot in Sergey's heart - Zurmla Tower.

From the main road, Shavkat turned off onto an unpaved road.  A few small houses stood alongside the road but we were in the middle of nowher.


When I got out of the car, there was a vast wheat field before us.  I could not figure where the heck a stupa could be....in all this farmland.  I was expecting the usual "parking lot in front of landmark" deal.

We followed Sergey to the edge of a dirt trough.  Way, way off in the distance was a giant mound of dirt. That was Zurmala Stupa.  Didn't look any of the stupas I've seen on my travels through China, India and Nepal.  It really looked a boulder....standing in the middle of a wheat field. You would've thought that a landmark with its significance would be somehow cordoned off and given it's own special designated space rather than being left out, alone, on a field.


Sergey began his talk, reiterating some of what he had said to us yesterday. He took us back in time, back to when Termez as in the path of monks who were spreading the word of Buddha.  They had made their way north from India and established a center of learning in Termez.  From here, they would take the teachings of Buddha to other parts of Asia and all the way to China.

Archeologists have been studying Zurmala for decades.  As far back as 1926, they had already concluded that it must have been a Buddhist stupa though there seems to be debate whether or not there as a monastery nearby (no ruins have been found) or whether the stupa was specifically built as a lone structure. In any event, a thorough exploration carried out 50 years later proved that it was a cult structure dating back to the golden age of the Kushan Kingdom.  Even so, Sergey referred to it as a stupa so I will do the same.

Sergey even gave us the history of the origin of the stupa as a religious structure.  Of course, I already knew about it all having researched stupas when preparing for my trip to Nepal.


When Sergey finally ran out of words, he marched forward across the field.  We followed.  It's not easy walking through a wheat field - especially if you have to constantly step over the mounded rows.  We didn't get very far before Sergey stopped us.  He pointed into the far distance and asked us if we could see the hills beyond.  Yes, we replied.  "That's Turkeminstan.", he said.  He continued pointing in another direction.  "You can't see it from here but just over there is Afghanistan."  Turning yet again, he said, "And over there is Tajikistan."  He was making the point about the strategic location of Termez which of course, was important during the Silk Road Days.

Beyond the wall is Turkmenistan.

It was a big field.

We had to climb up and down a few ditches along the way.

It was cute how Sergey would get excited at the littlest things.  He was giddy when we came upon the mulberry trees.  They are his favorite and he was thrilled to see that they were starting to leaf out. He asked me to send him a copy of the photo I took.  I have made a mental note to do this when I get home.




It seemed like a walk in eternity before we got close to the stupa.  There was path leading up to it so we kept trudging across the field.  Had Sergey not been with us, we would have completed ignored this structure as there was no marker sign either - nothing to tell you it's name or give a clue as to what it is.  Up close, it definitely looks like a large thumb shaped mound of dirt.  I did not see a stupa. at least not like any other stupa I've seen before.


Sergey has seen this structure countless of times but he was so enthusiastic, you would have thought it was his first visit.   He absolutely loves this structure.  He told us his wish is that someday, it will appear on the cover of National Geographic magazine.  I think he would be absolutely over the moon if that ever happened.

I swear Sergey got more animated the closer we got to it.  At one point, he insisted on taking us to a spot where we could take a photo of the stupa, along with his beloved mulberry trees.  We gladly obliged.  Hard to deny such a simple request.


Sergey was always a few steps ahead of us but I swear he picked up his pace as we were just a stone's throw away.  I think he would have made a run for it had Pat and I not been there. :-)


Whether you see it from afar or upclose, Zurmala does indeed look like a giant thumb shaped mound of dirt.  However, it's not.  The cylindrical shape of Zurmala stupa measures 14.5 meters in diameter and the structure stands 13 meters in height from the base.  Excavations at Zurmala showed that initially the stupa rested on a podium, lined with white stone slabs.


Zurmala is built of adobe square bricks.  Each of the bricks has a distinctive stamp in the form of a line and two small pits. According to archeologists such bricks were used in Bactria, specifically during the Kushan Empire in the early part of the 3rd century AD.  Otherwise, the bricks would have been rectangular in shape.  The stupa had been also faced with kilned bricks; their fragments can still be found around the stupa.

The upper part of the stupa is believed to have had had a reliquary – a chamber to store Buddhist scriptures, statues or Buddha relics.  The exterior facade of the stupa was painted a bright red color.


Zurmala holds the distinction of being the first Buddhist structure found in Central Asia. Today there are about forty Buddhist monuments in Central Asia with twenty of them being located in Uzbekistan.

Sergey had us climb up the mound and stand at the entrance.   I was curious to see what was there and well, there was nothing.


Looking out, we could see the field of wheat and somewhere in the far, far, far distance, which we could not see, the land of Tajikistan.


Before we trudged back, across the wheat field, to Shavkat and our car, I convinced Sergey to perform a kora i.e., walk around the stupa.  This is what a Buddhist would at a stupa.  Unfortunately, I couldn't remember if you walk clockwise or counterclockwise around the stupa - we took a clockwise route.  As we walked around the stupa, we got to see it from another angle.


It was quite a walk back to the car - we had to clamor up and and down a couple of pretty dip ditches.  Somewhere along the way, Sergey stopped to ask a couple of a questions.  How do you pronounce, "Kansas" he wanted to know.  Pat replied, "Can-suss".  He then asked, "Well, then how do you pronounce "Arkansas".  Pat replied, "Ar-cun-saw".  I could see Sergey virtually shaking his head.  It makes now sense....it should be pronounced, "Ar-can-suss".  I couldn't agree with him more.  We couldn't justify the difference in pronunciation except to say that proper names in English do not follow the same naming convention.

He was puzzled.  I think he was looking for a more plausible answer than what we had given him.

Then he wanted to know about how islands are named.  Specifically why is Manhanttan known just as Manhattan versus the The North Island of New Zealand.  Shouldn't it either be The Manhattan or just North Island?  Sigh.  There's no explaining proper nouns so it all makes sense.  We shrugged it all off and continued walking.

Eventually, with no more questions from Sergey, we made it back to Sergey and the car.  From here, headed off to our next destination - Fayaz Tepe.

Termez is not exactly a big place.  I don't think it took us more than 10 minutes to get from the wheat field to our next spot, also in the middle of nowhere.  The landscape here is flat, not a whole of anything to see.


As we got out of the car, there were reconstructed ruins on our right and in the far distance, something that was covered by a large canopy.  There was absolutely nothing else around us.


The canopy was set up to protect the excavation work that is still being done at Kara Tepe, the ruins of a complex of Buddhist temples and monasteries that date back to the 2nd century AD.

As we gazed over at the canopied area, Sergey gave us some history on Kara Tepe.


The complex at Kara Tepe is comprised of cave temples and some free standing structures built from adobe bricks.

 Interiors of the shrines were decorated with topical and ornamental paintings on stucco plaster and sculptures made of loess and clay. In the architectural deco,  marblelike limestone and carved stucco were widely used.  The complex at Kara Tepe flourished during the Kushan period but started to decline in the 4th century.  During that time, the cave temples were repurposed as burials sites and the entrances to them were bricked up.  However, it likely that some of the shrines, or at least their surface parts continued to exist as Buddhist places of worship till the 6th century. In the 9th-12th centuires hermits called "sufi" settled in semi-destroyed caves.  To this day, ancient grafitti drawings and inscriptions left by visitors can still be see on the walls of the caves at Kara Tepe.

Through my zoom lens, I could see some of the remains of the site but because excavation work is still ongoing, we were not allowed to get much closer than where we were standing when we got out of our car.   Kara Tepe is spread across three hillsides so it's much larger than just what is canopied over.



From where we were standing, we could get a glimpse of the Amu Darya River; Afghanistan lay just beyond.  Sergey pointed to a sliver of land - an island located on the Amu Darya River that is a nature preserve.  I could barely make it out.


It was Sunday today and the boys were out to play!  Some very energetic munchkins waved to us and not to my surprise, followed us around.  They were a very happy lot!  I'm sure they were curious what we were up to.



With Kara Tepe at our backs, we saw Fayaz Tepe before us.  It too is a Buddhist complex.  As you can see from the map below, not only are the two complexes close to each other but they are also very near by to Zurmala Stupa.

Map of the historic Buddhist sites of Termez.
Image from "Remarks on the Paintings from the Buddhist Monastery of Fayaz Tepe (Southern Uzbekistan)" .

Even from a distance, it was obvious that the ruins were reconstructed.


Layout of Fayaz Tepe. 
Image from "Remarks on the Paintings from the Buddhist Monastery of Fayaz Tepe (Southern Uzbekistan)" .

The layout of the Fayaz Tepe consisted of a series of adjoining courtyards, each intended for a different function.  The large central courtyard, the heart of the Buddhist temple, was flanked on one side by the main living quarters of the monastery and on the other, by the main refectory.



The brick stupa of the temple dates from the first century ВС and is believed to be only the inner section of a much larger construction.  The remains of the 1st century brick stupa are now housed under a recently built dome.

Remains of the original brick stupa.

With Sergey and the stupa.

The curious boys made their way to the stupa and picked up an adult along the way.  He, too was curious about us.

Clay and gypsum statues of Buddha, a series of murals, and fragments of pottery containing Brahmi, Punjabi, Kharoshti and Bactrian scripts have all been found at Fayaz Tepe.  Remains have also been discovered of a two-kilometer long aqueduct that supplied the monastery with water from the Amu Darya.

After we took a quick look at the stupa, we continued on to other parts of the site - mainly seeing more courtyards.  Along the way, Sergey pointed out remnants of the original walls to us - making sure we saw just how thick they were.





The energetic munchkins were following us by running along the tops of the walls.  Showing off a bit, they leapt across openings.  The more we looked up at them in awe, the more they jumped!  Fortunately, none of them fell!  Whew!  I was worried we would have to be making a trip to the local hospital.





At present, UNESCO and the Japanese government plan to connect Kara Tepe and Fayaz Tepe with a road, shore up their walls and build a visitor center, handicrafts shop and display of Kushan architecture.

We didn't stay long at Fayaz Tepe but it was an interesting visit.  This wrapped up our visit to Termez's Buddhist sites.  Now, onto seeing Termez's Islamic side.