Most people aren’t aware that until about a millennium ago, the Tarim Basin (northwest of Tibet) had Indian cultural influence. It was a flourishing part of the Sanskritic world and its people spoke the Gāndhārī language.
Many may see them as descendants of the Vedic Sanskrit speaking group and are closely related to Khotanese Saka. We can compare it to Kashmir which lays towards the north of the region writes Subhash Kak.
The two regions had much interchange of culture, with many scholars travelling from Kashmir to Khotan, and silk culture is believed to have passed from Khotan to Kashmir and then into the rest of sub-continent. Gāndhārī inscriptions have been found as far east as Luoyang and Anyang in Henan region in Eastern China which demonstrates to the vastness of influence the Sanskrit language had. Europeans in recent centuries called the whole region Serindia, signifying the place of China and India met.
Khotanese kings were Mahāyāna Buddhist. However, we know this sect incorporates Vedic and Tantric systems, with all the devas such as Indra, Śiva, Viṣṇu and Sarasvatī, and just places the Buddha at the head of the system. There was also Krishna worship in Khotan and we find the Rāma story in Khotanese language, of which there is also a Tibetan version.
The Buddhists put a distinctive spin on the Rāma story, which has had an enormous influence on the imagination of the people from all over Asia. In their variant, Rāvaṇa is spared and becomes a worthy Buddhist to accord with the Laṅkāvatārasūtra, set in Laṅkā, in which the Buddha instructs Rāvaṇa. (Likewise, in order not to lose followers of Rāma, Jain texts show him as a faithful Jain.)
Subhash Kak notes that the Khotanese Rāmāyaṇa is not the typical Rāma story we hear in India. In it Daśaratha, who is called Sahasrabāhu (“thousand-armed”), he fights with Paraśurāma and gets killed, and his sons Rāma and Lakṣmaṇa are saved by a queen. When they grow older, they slay Paraśurāma in vengeance and become gurus of all Jambudvīpa.
While the Rākṣasas are ruled by Rāvaṇa (Daśagrīva). A daughter is born to his chief queen and it is prophesied that she will be the cause of his ruin. So, he orders the girl, Sītā, to be cast upon the great river in a box. A saint chances upon the box and raises the girl lovingly. This is of course somewhat similar to the account in Adbhuta Rāmāyaṇa.
Later in the story, Rāma, Lakṣmaṇa and Sītā are in the forest and as the brothers leave to hunt, Lakṣmaṇa draws the magic circle around Sītā for protection. Daśagrīva sees this lovely woman from the air, and not knowing she is his own daughter, approaches her and persuades her to step out of the circle to abduct her. There is war and Dasagriva is defeated.
However, in this account, Rāma doesn’t kill him. At the end of the story, the Buddha Śākyamuni is identified with Rāma and Maitreya with Lakṣmaṇa. Daśagrīva comes to the Buddha and receives instruction in the Dharma as in the Laṅkāvatārasūtra.
Khotan, on the southern and the more ancient branch of the Silk Road, was established by Aśoka Maurya in 3rd century BCE. It was ruled by Buddhist kings until it was subjugated by the Muslims in 1006. Some of the kings mentioned in the “Prophecy of the Li Country”, composed in 746 CE, dealing with events of the current past are Vijaya Kīrti, Vijaya Saṅgrāma, Vijaya Dharma, Vijaya Saṃbhava, and Vijaya Vāhana.
Many Khotanese cities went by Sanskrit names. For example, Khotan in Sanskrit was Gaustana and the modern city of Kashi (Kashgar) was called Śrīkrīrāti. The Khotanese called their language hvatanai which later became hvaṃnai; this is equivalent to the name deśī that is used for language in India.
The liturgical texts in the region were in Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit, whereas those in the region of Krorän (Chinese Loulan), used Prakrit in administration. A third language called Tocharian was also used to translate Buddhist texts and as an administrative language. Many Indian Sanskrit texts remember the general region as Tuṣāra or Tukhāra.
Another major language was Khotanese Saka, which is sometimes seen as an eastern Iranian language (that is emerging from the region just west of Kashmir). Subhash Kak believes that the Saka languages were largely Indo-Aryan, although as one travelled further west, the Iranian elements increased.
Khotanese Saka was principally an Indo-Aryan Prakrit, strengthened by the fact that the texts are in Indian scripts of Brāhmī and Kharoṣṭhī. Many of these documents were collected in archaeological explorations to Chinese Turkestan by Aurel Stein, who is also known for his translation of Kalhaṇa’s Rājataraṅginī. Stein came across tens of thousands of manuscripts from 5th to 11th centuries in various sites including the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas in the Kansu (Gansu) area. One of the principal scholars who edited and translated many of these texts was H.W. Bailey and this literature remain a popular field of study for scholars.
The Mummies of Tarim Basin
The unearthing of the Tarim mummies that go back to 1800 BCE supported the view that the area was Sanskritic. The earliest mummies in the Basin are exclusively Caucasoid, and the American Sinologist Victor H. Mair has said: “Because the Tarim Basin Caucasoid corpses are almost certainly the most easterly representatives of the Indo-European family and because they date from a time period that is early enough to have a bearing on the expansion of the Indo-European people from their homeland, it is thought they will play a crucial role in determining just where that might have been.”
Some have recommended Europoid identification to explain the blonds and red-heads among the mummies, but there is no requirement to travel thousands of miles to Western Europe to explain this; Kashmir, just south of the Basin has plenty of red-heads and blonds.
One of the DNA studies notes that the population had “relatively close associations with the modern populations of South Central Asia and Indus Valley, as well as with the ancient population of Chawuhu.” This is can be easily explained if the original residents of the region were from Indus Valley [code for India] and they had left a genetic trace in the region we are talking about.
The End Of A Civilization
The Islamic attacks and conquest of the Buddhist cities east of Kashgar happened by the Turkic Karakhanid Satok Bughra Khan who in 966 converted to Islam. Islamic Kashgar launched many jihads which eventually ended in the conquest in 1006 of Khotan by the Karakhanid leader Yusuf Qadir.
Subhash Kak writes, that the monks during the reigns of Khotanese kings began to copy texts which were sealed in caves to be conserved for posterity. Following this was a period of destruction and vandalism equalling the worst elsewhere in the world. At the end of it, the populace remembered nothing of their collective past and until the discovery of the mummies and the literature, they remained unaware that their ancestors spoke Indian Prakrits.
The end of the civilization was memorialized by the Karakhanid writer Mahmud al-Kashgari in a short poem which goes:
kãndlãr õzã čiqtimiz
furxan ãwin yiqtimiz
burxan ũzã sičtimiz
“We came down on them like a flood,
We went out among their cities,
We tore down the idol-temples,
We shat on the Buddha’s head!”
Kashgari asserts that the people of Khotan did not previously speak the language they speak now.
Penned By Subash Kak