I spent most of my last two weeks cuddled with a notebook, a pen, and Sunita Dwidevi’s Buddha in Gandhara. I gave up on my favourite reading corner at home and sat at the study desk. It was almost as if it was exam mode on, except I was reading and making notes from Buddha in Gandhara. Even though I wasn’t giving an exam, the book was nothing less than a refresher in history, geography, art, culture and whatnot.
Sunita Dwivedi is a silk road traveller, author, and independent researcher. She has been passionately following the trails of Buddha and has published four books based on her travel and research. Buddha in Gandhara is her fourth and recent book in which she takes the Uttarapath or the Northern Highroad of Buddhaland and ventures into Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Sunita calls this book of hers ‘a humble effort towards recreating a journey on the Buddha’s trail along the Lahore – Peshawar and Kabul – Samangan routes to the once-thriving cities of Gandhara’. Having spent more than fifteen days poring over the pages of this book, I can assure it isn’t humble, but it is humongous. Starting with her Pakistani visa to the multiple footnotes that adorn almost every page of this book, this is a work of relentless passion and meticulous dedication. Even though it is called a travelogue, it reads more academic to me. The chapters are so laden with information that those instances where Sunita talks of her experiences as a traveller become a breath of fresh air for lesser readers like me. Nevertheless, the amount of information is awe-inspiring.
I must thank whoever came up with the idea of attaching a map to the book. It came in handy as I tried hard to keep up with Sunita while she kept travelling from monasteries to dheris to heritage sites. She introduces to you the glorious past of these seemingly less significant places and the various historical and cultural treasures unearthed from these places. Not only does she travel to these sites on the Uttarapath, documenting the remnants at these sites in the current times, she also sheds light on the observations made by pilgrims like Xuanzang, Faxian and Hye Ch’o during their travel along the same corridor.
The book talks about the various patrons of Buddhism from Pataliputra to Gandhara, their historical connections to one another as well as these heritage sites and more. Through the stupas, their inscriptions, and the scripts used in these inscriptions, we try and comprehend the politics of the Buddhist era. The nature of the various artworks excavated from these sites and the depictions on these artworks helps you understand the cultural and religious amalgamation that had happened over time in these places.
The book captures some anecdotes from the life of Buddha, his ancestors and some of the bodhisattvas. I loved that Sunita indulged her readers in some Jataka tales too. I for one enjoyed learning about the’ Miracle of Sravasti’, the Festival of Buddha, the relics trade, the culture of story-telling over tea in the caravanserais of Peshawar and more. The book has a handful of beautiful pictures from both Pakistan and Afghanistan tempting you to set out on a journey to witness them all in person.
I found some information repeated across different chapters more than a couple of times. These repetitions can tend to tire readers. In retrospection, those are parts I remember better. Yet, I am convinced that those repetitions could have been avoided. I am also convinced that this is a treasured addition to my home library.
Facts apart, I relate to Sunita’s undamped spirit as she climbed the stepped hilly path of Jaulian in the rain, her childlike excitement about the balakhanas, her pensiveness at the holy site of the great Kanishka Stupa and her disappointments over illegal mining, encroachment and trafficking of precious antiquities. She reminds me of my year in Europe and how overwhelming it was to stand on the same ground that once bore many people who changed the face of history. Time, that way is a great equaliser.