--from the Peony archives
There is a rumor that circulates in India that Jesus-- rather than dying on the cross-- spent his later years journeying through Kashmir; or even that he made it all the way to Japan where he worked as a rice farmer tending a small paddy in a small village in Aomori. Indeed, grave hunters spend their fine careers visiting the various "graves of Jesus" that dot remote areas of the East.
Some of you may recall the story of Persian Prince Pirooz, who had traveled so far to Chang'an in exile at the collapse of the Sassanian dynasty. Well, you may be interested to know there is a similar rumor about him, and that is that he too actually traveled even further East than my story had it-- all the way to Japan. And there, it is suggested that he had a hand in influencing the elegant Iranification of that land. This is all the stuff of urban legend, of course...
Japan is one of the world's great civilizations-- but, alas, it was a late bloomer, and many Japan-scholars will acknowledge that Japan must have got significant help from "foreign advisors" during the 5th-6th century. For the most part, the Koreans are credited for the direction of the great surge in artistic and intellectual productivity of the Asuka and Nara periods. There are those, too, who say Iranians had a large (if indirect) part to play-- and even that our Prince Pirooz came to lend a hand. Marrying a Japanese lady, the legend has it that he left her and their children behind when he returned to China in his later years. And so his legacy lives on in the Land of the Rising Sun as well.
Even if he himself did not come-- which he most probably did not-- Persian musicians and dancers did. And, so did beautiful objects of art. Glassware was one of the miraculous items brought to Japan from the West. Unlike the Chinese, Persian royalty and aristocrats, preferred glass and metalware to ceramics and their glassware was particularly exquisite. There is one particularly stunning piece of cobalt blue cut glass in the Shosoin Collection. A goblet, 22 cobalt color glass rings are fused to the outer walls of the glass, which has a beautiful etched silver stem and base. Carried on the backs of horses and camels across the deserts of Central Asia, Japanese emissaries to the Tang Court brought such glass back to Japan from China where they stole the hearts of the Japanese. Of extremely high quality, these objects were treasured in Japan and most of the finest remaining examples of this early glass are preserved there today.
It is one of the peculiar tendencies of the Japanese to treasure and preserve what is fine, and this almost obsessive antiquarianism is one of the traits that sets the Japanese apart. For while "Roman," or Sassanian Glass objects are found here and there from Damascus to the markets of Tehran, the glass is usually milky or silvery from exposure. Those pieces preserved in Japanese collections, however, have retained their original sparkling transparency in a way that seems almost miraculous.
Perhaps even more phenomenal is what happened with music and dance.
Have you ever heard of the Sogdian Whirl?
A rigorous, twirling dance, the Sogdian Whirl was usually performed on a colorful felt carpet. The dance took the Tang capital by storm. Not only the emperor, but his favorite concubine, the infamous Yang Guifei-- along with her "favorite," the 400 pound Sogdian-Turk An Lushan could perform this exotic dance, snacking on Lychees from Canton and sipping grape wine out of Roman cut glass goblets, all night long. There were Sogdian dances danced to Persian melodies, played on Persian lutes and harps, Indian dances and music and those from the Northern steppes and Korea. Without a doubt, most famous of all the Tang dances was the music and dance of Kucha.
As is well known, at Kashgar the Silk Road, in order to skirt the desert of death, splits into two routes, the northern and southern. Here, where now there is nothing but dusty, long forgotten outposts (oasis sounds too charming) in the desert, there once thrived a great Buddhist civilization. Among the first Buddhist Kingdoms on earth, the cities on both sides of the desert were not only bustling trading centers of goods from both east and west, but they were great centers of Buddhist scholarship. Of all the Kingdoms from Khotan to Dunhuang, Kucha was the largest. And Kucha was famous-- very famous-- for its dances, music and instruments.
Located on the Northern Route, not far from present-day Aksu, it was a place where Theravada Buddhism reigned. The King was particularly devout and it was said the city was full of temples, monks and music. The palace was made of gold, as the kingdom was wealthy from its rich mineral deposits of gold, copper and iron. Another highly cosmopolitan Silk Road garrison city-state, a dozen languages could be heard in the marketplaces, including Chinese, Tibetan, Persian and Kuchean (which was itself an Indo-Euopean language).
Susan Whitfield in her wondrous, Life Along the Silkroad, desribes Kuchean dance as being "not unlike Indian dance, with its emphasis on hip movements, changes of gesture and expressive eyes, but it also adapted dance forms taken from other places, such as the famous Sogdian 'whirling dance,' performed by both men and women."
"Music, song and dance," says Whitfield, "were Silk Road commodities, bought and sold like silver and jade. Itinerent dance troops from India, Burma, Cambodia and Sogdiana performed at both the royal court and the public marketplace in every silk road town." We have Tang period pottery of "Western" dancers and musicians on camelback. These statutes still fascinate and are proudly preserved in museum collectons in many places from Shanghai and Tokyo to Paris.
The dances of the Silk Road were taken up by the Tang Court and there they were performed with native and other foreign elements to be transformed into the music and dance that today is known as ancient Tang music. And, what is perhaps the most fascinating part of the entire story, this music and these dances were then "borrowed"-- in what is often referred to as the "great borrowing of continental culture"-- by the ancient Japanese of the Nara period.
When we speak of ancient Tang music, the influence from Kucha cannot be ignored. The Tang court music itself was based, explains Whitfield, on the tuning of the Kuchean lute and most of the Tang emperors were proficient at playing the Kuchean drum, as well. Like golf among the wealthy today, the Kuchean drum was "de rigueur among emperors and noblemen of China." Emperor Xuanzong had some 30,000 musicians and dancers housed within the walls of the Palace, and many of those performed in the Kuchean style, playing orchestral pieces, as well as performing great dance dramas perhaps similar to those still performed in South India and in Java today.
Don't you wish you could hear it? Of course, the great civilizations of the desert are long since gone. Covered in sand, if it weren't for the murals of Dunhuang and the Tang chronicles, we would hardly even know of their existence. Not only the civilizations, but the languages too are long since dead. Kuchean, Sogdian, Khotanese, they are nothing but echoes in the desert. In China, too, we only have the written record.
Believe it or not though, these Persian and Central Asian melodies and dances still exist in Japan much as they were 1500 years ago. Just like the perfectly preserved roman glass goblets, the Japanese Imperial Household has preserved this music for a millenium. Japanese Imperial Court Music and Dance, called Gagaku (or "elegant music"), is made up of three bodies: Saibara (native Shinto), Komagaku (Korean and Manchurian) and Togaku (Tang Music). Amazingly, you can still see these dances and listen to this music today in Japan; performed either by the Imperial Household Department of Music (which performs both Western classical music as well as all forms of gagaku) or by groups formed by former members of the Imperial Household Department of Music who form their own groups (most famous has to be Hideki Togi, who performs to sold-out concert halls in Japan and Europe. Read about him here).
"Like whale song, a haunting blend of flutes rising up from the deep, accompanied by the strumming of silk strings and the rumble of drums." Says National Geographic.
"The group was officially designated as “maintainers of a significant cultural asset,” a kind of Japanese National Treasure. They were playing gagaku, literally “gracious music,” which the Japanese claim as the oldest surviving orchestral music in the world. It is ancient music, which came to Japan by way of Korea and China well over a thousand years ago and still survives as the official music of the Japanese Imperial Court.
That venerable legacy stretches back to the beginnings of Japan’s imperial family, which is thought to be the longest running monarchy in the world. The music exists today because of the Emperor’s patronage, which supports the carefully chosen, rigorously trained court musicians who perform at official palace functions, garden parties, religious occasions, and public concerts.
Whale songs with a deep drumbeat.... Well, at first listen, it certainly does sound pretty bizarre. The more you listen, however, the more the music intrigues. Especially the range of various instruments. Other-worldly best sums it up, I think.
You can listen to a sample here.
As National Geographic hints, yes, without the unique antiquarianism of the Japanese and the loyal patronage of 100 or so generations of Japanese emperors, this music certainly would have been long lost. For it remains the oldest, pre-composed music for large orchestras on earth, and inside the Imperial Household, the music is accompanied by 1500 year old dances with costumes and masks reminiscent of their ancient Central Asian originals-- actually, some masks are originals.
A unique musical tradition that is a tradition bearing little resemblance to Arab or Ottoman music, the music of the Persian Sassanian Empire was to make waves that floated all the way to the Eastern shores of the earth-- all the way to Japan, where it would be prized and then preserved by 100 generations of Japanese emperors.
As one friend paints it
Now think about it, a civilization dead these 1500 years has left us a legacy in the form of the most ephemeral of all art, music, in places as distant from each other as Japan and Persia. The past, though passed, is still with us in mysterious ways and the dead musicians of the Taklamakan continue to whisper in the conchlea of our ear.
It boggles the mind. A cup of fossil tea anyone?
I'd love a cup, actually.
Finally, as BBC's Melvyn Bragg pointed out in one of his email newsletters, compared with other great empires of the past, less is known about the Sassanids. This is because the language is dead and there is a paucity of written records. They were-- like Bragg himself perhaps-- devoted to the oral tradition. The ancient Persians were Zoroastrians, who as a religion stressed prayer, chanting and the oral tradition (having less faith in the written word, which they thought could be corrupted). So, little actually remains from their great empire. And, yet the cultural triumphs of the dynasty still informs Iranian identity.
I wrote more about gagaku's silk road roots here.
There is one more legend about Prince Pirooz that bears repeating. After his death in China, Prince Pirooz's life story came to be melded into the Zooroastrian myth of "Shah Bahram Varjavand." Like the Moshiach of the Jews, Shah Baham Varjavand is the Coming Messiah of the Zooroastrian religion. People believed that it would be Shah Bahram Varjavand who would rise in the East to come and avenge Iran's occupation by the Arabs and restore the glory of the empire.
Another more modern persona considered to be the "Shah Bahram Varjavand," is-- of course-- Baha'u'llah, founder of the Bahai faith.
Born in Iran, the Bahai faith is perhaps the most spread out religion on earth. And, of the some 5 million adherents, 2.5 are in India. For the life of me, I cannot recall know how I ended up touring the famous Bahai Lotus Temple in New Delhi, but the place has vividly stuck in my mind for years-- almost as if I was there yesterday.
Like Zen, the Bahai faith appeals to Westerners in search of something they can believe in-- and all over Kashmir and in Northern India, I met American and European Bahai faithful. Perhaps, it was having met so many British and Americans talking about "the Bab" and Baha'u'llah that led me to want to see the famed temple for myself. Whatever the reason, it truly was as close to an ideal image of a temple as I can imagine. I couldn't find any good images online, but what really struck me was the lack of ornamentation inside the great temple. There was no altar or statues or candles-- just a simple wooden lectern, pews and beautiful Persian carpets.
More than anything, however, it was the quiet of the place that struck me. I don't know how to describe it, but it was perfectly, beautifully quiet, and I remember thinking what great possibilities quiet like that could have.
I suppose what is so resonent for modern people about the Bah'ai religion is its stress on unity (one God with all religions being different expressions of God's message) and peace. The religion is also strongly rooted in social service and community (discouraging asceticism and monasticism in any form). The Bahai is one of the only religions I know of that has not acrimoniously split into factions either. Because of their commitment to unity (unity with God and unity in humankind) they are vehemently opposed to war.
It was so hot and dusty as trudging up the path toward the temple. The simple beauty and deep quiet of the inside of the temple, though, was cool and refreshing as a glass of water. The founder of the Bahai faith, Baha'u'llah, was believed to be Shah Bahram Varjavand, the Messiah. He is also asserted to be a descendent of Yazdgerd III, the last monarch of the Sassanian Dynasty.
The Lotus Temple