The fifth century is drawing to an end. Buddha is dead. Confucius is no more. Yet, Asia is the centre of the world. Even for the Greeks, one of the most creative of their populations, the Ionians, live in Asia. Europe exists in myth, carrying the legend of the beautiful girl Europa, daughter of a Phoenician king. The great Asian millennium, as Stewart Gordon writes in his aptly titled When Asia Was the World, is about to begin, and dominate the next 1,000 years till 1500 CE (Common Era).
Light of Asia: Istanbul, one of the ‘great cities’ of Asia that Gordon talks about in the book.
Asia is where everything is happening. Its mathematicians have invented zero and algebra, its astronomers tracked stars, its writers penned great literature and poetry. It boasts of the world’s five largest cities, including some of the greatest — Delhi, Beijing, Istanbul. Buddhism and Islam thrive and spread along its busy trade routes. Asia is also a major centre of innovation: Hundreds of tropical plants arrive at royal courts; and Babur claims to be the first person to grow Indian oranges in Kabul.
It is against this heady backdrop that Gordon, a research scholar at the University of Michigan, sets up a motley crew of early travellers, scholars, warriors and monks who traversed Asia and created the “riches of the East”. There is a Chinese Buddhist monk who learns Sanskrit in India, a mandarin from Baghdad who travels to Central Asia to hire a Bulghar king, a Tunisian Jew who sets up shop in India and trades spices to West Asia, and a Sunni Islamic scholar who logs several thousand miles travelling to Spain and China, and back.
Ryszard Kapuscinski, the greatest traveller-writer of our times, says the world teaches humility. It makes you aware of your ignorance. Gordon’s intrepid travellers—monk and marauder alike—soak up the knowledge the world offers. Xuanzang, the Buddhist monk, travels for 14 years “to clear his doubts” and bring
back crucial texts from India, the centre of Buddhism. Ibn Batuta, not yet 30, arrives in Delhi from Morocco with an entourage of 40 people, including male and female slaves, servants and travelling companions, and writes that Islam demands personal travel for “spiritual development and learning”. Thirty-something Ma Huan, a low level Muslim official from the port city of Hangzhou who sails from China into the Indian Ocean, is described as a man who “constantly went out...to enable everybody to acquire knowledge about conditions in foreign regions”. Even the conquest loving Babur, from Fergana Valley — whose dynasty would rule India for 200 years—is struck by the tower of Babel that is Kabul: “Eleven or twelve languages are spoken in Kabul,” he wrote. “If there be another country with so many differing tribes and such a diversity of tongues, it is not known.”
When Asia Was The World: De Capo Press, 288 pages, $26 (around Rs1,000)
The scholars in Gordon’s interesting book are formidable too. One example: Philosopher-physician Ibn Sina from the Persian city of Hamadan, who struggled with Aristotle’s Metaphysics at age 16, and went on to write more than 100 books on metaphysics, ethics, logic, cardiac remedies, colic, lovesickness, geometry, and management of troops.
Were these travellers and scholars among the early purveyors of globalization? Nayan Chanda, author of Bound Together: How Traders, Preachers, Adventurers, and Warriors Shaped Globalization, says the first globalizers were the first humans who left Africa. Gordon’s travellers surely carried on the tradition. Trade was the pivot which kept Asia moving and helped in the spread of Buddhism and Islam. Cotton cloth from Gujarat, silver currency from the caliphates, ceramic and silk (a universally accepted currency) from China, and steel from Damascus found eager buyers all over Asia. Networks—intellectual, religious, familial, ambassadorial, trade- and art-related—were strong. Ibn Batuta’s conversations with the kings, according to Gordon, were, “in a sense, the management seminars of the day…(he) was a particularly successful management consultant”.
Asia was a go-go world of great empires and large capital cities—before it lost its groove. The wheel hasn’t turned full circle yet. China is slowly reclaiming its place in the world as an economic and political hegemon, but lack of democracy could yet trip its ambitions. Baghdad—once the haven of the best minds in the world—lies in ruins, first crippled by a dictator, and then ripped apart and bloodied by modern-day invaders. India has been unshackled from its rusty chains, but it has a long, long way to go before it can call itself a genuine power to reckon with. Islam is struggling with its contradictions. The borderless, globalized world has possibly regressed—a far cry from Ibn Batuta, who travelled in a world “largely without borders for educated men”. Indeed, the world teaches you to be humble.
The author is India editor for BBC News Online.
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