|Inside the famed Terracotta Warrior museum in Xi'an|
I SET OUT for China with a suitcase crammed with second-hand notions. That traditional religious and social mores had been steamrolled in the quest for modernity. That the shiny facades of Beijing and Shanghai were its tourist foci. But Xi’an, the capital of Shaanxi province in the Yellow River basin, made me jettison such excess baggage and travel lighter.
We arrived in Xi’an, aware of its famed terracotta warriors and horses around the mausoleum of Qinshihuang (221 to 207 BC), the first emperor of a united China. A Unesco World Heritage site, often referred to as the eighth wonder of the world, the 1,087 restored clay figures were first discovered by peasants digging a well in 1974. Folklore suggests the terracotta army was commissioned to help the monarch rule in the afterlife! Even recently, archaeologists discovered two four-horse chariots as they essayed a five-year dig of the 230-by-62-metre first pit, continuing their search for generals and archers
A rich past
Our local English-speaking guide, Ivy, tells us that in ancient times, Xi’an — the capital of 13 dynasties over 1,180 years — was called Chang An. Historians compared this cradle of an ancient civilisation to Athens, Cairo and Rome. The city marked one end of the Silk Road that once led to Rome, about 4,000 km away. Xi’an is ringed by a well-preserved city wall, 13.7-km long, with 98 guard towers at 120-metre intervals.
At the Big Wild Goose Pagoda in this city of eight million, we find a Buddhist shrine dating back to the Tang dynasty in 652 AD. It includes a seven-storey pagoda containing hundreds of Buddhist texts that pilgrim-traveller Huien Tsang (600-664 AD) brought back from India. In a trice, Sino-Indian relations take on a different complexion beyond history texts.
The Wild Goose pagoda
Our quest for genuine Chinese cuisine leads us to sample Xi’an’s centuries-old dumpling banquet — dainty shapes stuffed with pork, chicken, beef, shrimp and superlative sweetened ground walnut puree. Each dumpling visually hints at its filling — such as a dainty duck with a beak, or a pig with a snout and a wiggly tail. The feast is rounded out by a hotpot of chrysanthemum soup, into which we dip for fingertip-tiny jiaoze dumplings, with three, six or nine signalling high-value blessings for the diner.
The Great Mosque
But what of China’s resurgent spiritual life after the Cultural Revolution? Our explorations loop past Buddhist temples to the Great Mosque at Xi’an’s Hua Jue lane. China’s best preserved Islamic shrine dates back 1,300 years. The city has over 60,000 practising Muslims, all Mandarin-speaking Sunnis or Hui, the country’s largest ethnic minority in a Han-dominated nation.
The pavilion of the mosque
The mosque, originally built by the Tang dynasty in 742 AD, was reconstructed during the Ming and Ching dynasties (17-18th centuries). To us, it resembles a Buddhist temple, though its grand axis is East-West aligned, facing Mecca. We look for domes and minarets — and find none! Instead, pavilions and pagodas adapted to Islamic functions rivet the eye.
We are enchanted by its five courtyards leading into the 28-by-248-metre mosque, whose walls embrace 12,000 sq. metres of traditional Chinese architecture. Stone drums stand by the nine-metre freestanding wooden gateway or pailou. Carved dougong brackets support its glazed blue tile roof. Its inner pavilions boast exquisite doors and lattice windows, while ornate stone floral motifs lead to the 1,270-sq-metre prayer hall, with features from Ming era mosques and Han palaces. Even the Arabic inscriptions hint at Chinese calligraphy cues.
Bridal couple pose for a pre-nuptial photograph
Timeless scenes beckon within the mosque. An elderly man in a cap walks past, smiling serenely, his eyes curious about these strangers in his comfort zone. Clad in quasi-Bollywood outfits, a young couple poses for pre-nuptial photographs under the dougong eaves before they seek the Imam’s blessings or sign the civil register. A woman in a headscarf glances our way shyly. We speak no Chinese, she has no English. Our dialogue is in the universal language of smile and gesture. She poses for a photograph in a milieu centuries away from skyscrapers or malls.
Sizzling kebabs on the street.
A similar mood pervades the bustling Islamic Street beyond the mosque, by the Xi’an Drum Tower dating back to 1380 AD. Along the sidewalks, vendors hawk glutinous Pa-Pao-Fan or Eight Jewel rice pudding in bamboo steamers at one RMB (about Rs 7). Trollies packed with beads and baubles, dates, plums and kiwis, or delicate green mung cakes trundle by. Youth in embroidered caps skewer beef kebabs, while sizzling stir-fries lure hungry passers-by. Sand-roasted walnuts waft their aromas across to speciality tea shops filled with hand-painted teapots and lidded mugs for brews of jasmine, ginseng, licorice or even lychee!
A speciality tea store.
Mandarin surround-sound chatter fills the air. A calligraphy store owner scans potential customers for ink tablets or bamboo-handled brushes of natural wolf, sheep or pony hair, often in silk-lined cases. In the winding bazaar by-lanes, Indian tourists bargain hard for silken bags and fake Samsonite suitcases, jade seals embossed with names, or miniature porcelain cups, quickly learning to cite a fifth of the vendor’s price. In this corner of Xi’an, tradition and modernity coexist in easy harmony.
Historians point out that at the time of the Prophet Mohammed, China was considered the globe’s premier civilisation. Though Arabs had already travelled the Silk Route, it was 18 years after his death that his maternal uncle officially invited the Chinese Tang emperor Yung Wei to embrace Islam. The latter built the Memorial Mosque at Canton, marking the birth of Islam in China. Semi-official estimates guess at 32,000 mosques in China today for an estimated Muslim population of over 20 million. Post Xi’an, our existing notions of Chinese culture are dramatically revamped.
The world comes to Xi’an today mainly for the Qin funerary terracotta army. And yet, the deeper secrets of this charming city are impossible to contain within a mere travelogue.
Any attempt proves as frustrating as learning Mandarin in 30 days. I wouldn’t even try.
(Originally published in The Hindu Business Line in September 2009)