Xian’s Warriors of Clay (2005)

Xian’s Warriors of Clay (2005)

Beijing West railway station is as crowded as Chennai Central railway station, but is much grander and more orderly. Passengers are not allowed on the platform until a few minutes before departure. People stand patiently in queues in front of the gates without shoving or pushing, and there is no filth strewn around. Finally, the train arrives and we find ourselves in the soft-seat compartment of the express train to Xian, the ancient capital of China. It is a luxurious air-conditioned coach with running hot water, gleaming wash-rooms, and disposable bathroom slippers for every passenger. And to crown it all, each berth comes with its very own television screen! Excellent value for the 300-odd yuan for a 10-hour overnight journey.

Two engineers who work for a telecom company befriend us; they are eager to practise their English and we are more than happy to oblige. So my companion and I carry on an animated, if halting, conversation on everything from the price of real estate in Beijing to the state of the Indian economy. As we fleet past picturesque villages, it is such a relief to see traditional Chinese architecture – tiled houses with courtyards – after the daunting steel and chrome skyscrapers of Beijing.

Gateway to the Silk Route

Xian, the oasis of the Gobi desert and the gateway to the ancient Silk Route, is the capital of Shaanxi province in China’s northeast. It is a dusty town that lies a few miles to the west of the confluence of the Huang ho (Yellow River) and the Wei river. China as we know it today was born in this region more than 2,200 years ago. Its emperor unified the various provinces and gave them a single nationality. Xian, formerly known as Changan, has served as the national capital for 12 successive dynasties of Chinese rulers.

At Xian one was in for a big surprise. Where one expected a decrepit walled city, a welter of narrow alleyways with traces of ancient grandeur peeping out of the ruins, there stood a very modern city with broad avenues, huge shopping malls and fashionable fast-food chains. Sure, there is a city wall, with ramparts wide enough for three horse-drawn carriages riding side by side!

Having failed to find a cup of tea – the Chinese don’t seem to drink tea as a separate drink although they do quaff copious quantities of green tea with their meals – we head for the terracotta warrior museum, Xian’s star tourist attraction.

Your Very Own Guard of Honour

After a long drive through an orchard-lined highway, we reach the museum, whose exterior gives no clue to the splendour that unfolds inside. There are rows and rows of fierce-looking life-size soldiers standing to attention, their tunics billowing in the wind. It seems like one’s very own guard of honour. There are 8,000 of them in all and no two faces or facial expressions are alike! But their uniforms are, to the last fold in the sleeve. They are mostly foot soldiers, but there are a few cavalrymen too. A closer examination shows that they carry no weapons. No, they are not kung-fu warriors who can fell the enemy with bare hands, but soldiers whose swords have been taken away.

This is the terracotta army of Emperor Qin Shinghuang who ruled China 2,225 years ago. Why soldiers made of terracotta, of all things? Qin, like most ancient monarchs, had his share of whims. He became king at the age of 13 and decided to build an impressive tomb befitting his stature as monarch of unified China. (Qin also built the Great Wall of China, which is said to be the only man-made object visible from outer space. But the Great Wall does not traverse Xian.)

The First Emperor also built over 6,000 miles (9,600 kilometres) of roads to rival those of the Roman Empire, over a thousand miles of canals for flood control, transportation and irrigation, and consolidated three sections of what would be the Great Wall. Just the work on the wall took 10 years and 300,000 soldiers an uncounted numbers of civilians.

Qin may have been an able administrator, but he was not fond of philosophy or metaphysical discussions. Irked by the Confucian advocacy of good governance and temperance, Qin ordered the burning of books on history and philosophy and even put to death over 400 Confucian scholars. Like the Egyptians, ancient Chinese kings also believed in after-life and buried alive slaves and servants to minister to the dead king in his after-life. Mercifully, Qin did not think he needed to take a live army into his tomb, and was content with life-size terracotta warriors. The construction of the tomb continued for 38 years until Qin died at the age of 51. The tomb, spread over 56 square kilometres, is said to be the largest in the world.

Giant Pottery

The Xian of Qin’s days must have been a bustling city. Several thousand potters and kilns must have been employed – much like a modern-day assembly line factory – to fabricate the warriors. And as the starting point of the fabled Silk Route, Xian must have seen camels and caravans loaded with spices, scrolls and bolts of silk.

Huge quantities of royal treasures were also buried along with the king. Although the soldiers themselves were made of terracotta, their arms – swords, spears and bows and arrows – were all real. So were the treasures that were buried with the emperor. But the treasures were protected by crossbows – anyone who tried to plunder, would be struck down by the crossbows that were released automatically on impact. In fact, General Xiang Yu’s army, which defeated Qin’s successor in 210 B.C., raided the tomb and took away the swords but could not touch the treasures because of the crossbows. Legend has it that General Xiang Yu razed more than 700 palaces built by Qin all over China and the fires raged for three months.

Tip of the Iceberg

The terracotta army was discovered accidentally in 1974 by a farmer, Yang Pi Yen, while tilling his field. Today Yang Pi Yen is the governor of the museum and a celebrity who still sits at the museum stall, signing autographs and posing for photographs, all for a fee. What has been unearthed in these last 30 years is only the tip of the iceberg. Work continues at the site. Extricating the terracotta soldiers without damaging them is an excruciating task. Many are without limbs and among the warriors set in rows is an occasional headless one. Restoration is a slow process considering the fact that the soldiers were buried in pits about 20 feet (six metres) below the ground in long narrow corridors partitioned by earthen walls. These were covered with wooden planks and a layer of matting and fibre. Mud was spread over the fibre to hide the warriors, which is why they may have survived 2,000 years without crumbling.

There are three pits – actually huge halls with the warriors neatly arranged in rows. Pit 3 has archers, cavalry, infantry and charioteers, while Pit 1 has only infantry and charioteers. The other pit is only half-excavated and with limbs strewn all around it looks like a veritable battlefield. There are two exquisite bronze chariots reconstructed painstakingly from 3,400 pieces found on the site. The site also yielded copious quantities of coins and currencies, units and measures and axles. Legal codes used during the period were also found. The artefacts found at Xian testify to a very advanced civilisation that had a hierarchy of administrators, a codified legal system and a common currency.

There is more to Xian than just the terracotta warriors. It is a city that seems to be reinventing itself constantly. Its skyline is replete with construction cranes. We drive past busy market areas to reach the Small Wild Goose Pagoda, a tapering ancient pagoda of grace and beauty. Built in A.D. 707 by the rulers belonging to the Tang dynasty, the pagoda has layers of eaves. The upturned eaves of the surrounding buildings, with their animal and bird motifs, are reminiscent of the architecture of the Forbidden City in Beijing. Says a signboard: “Historical relics cannot resuscitate. Everyone is in duty bound to protect it” (sic).

Xian Museum houses some exquisite New Stone-Age pottery found in the adjacent Whampoa village. Shaanxi province seems to have been inhabited continuously for over a million years. Lantians, one of the early Homo Erectus species, lived in this region over a million years ago. The museum also contains exquisite artefacts of the Ming dynasty.

We make our way to Xian’s Great Mosque, a sprawling complex of assorted structures built over different periods. But for the presence of a few Chinese Imams in white fez, the feeling one got was of being inside a pagoda, not a mosque. The architecture is entirely Chinese, without even a trace of Arab influence. The mosque does not have the usual domes and naves, but has gently sloping octagonal, square and rectangular ceramic-tile roofs. There are four courtyards separated by large, traditional Chinese-style archways and buildings. Two inscribed stone tablets lie in the second courtyard, describing the repairs made to the mosque during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing dynasties (1644-1911).

Mosque of Babel

The minaret is built in a pagoda-like two-story building adorned with dragons on its eaves. Chinese is the predominant language used in the inscriptions in the complex, but the fourth courtyard has a stone archway with the verse from the Koran in Arabic. The mullah translates it for me. It reads: “God said that mosques are for Allah, so do not pray to anyone else but Him.” The pages of the Koran are carved in 600 massive wooden boards around the insides of the walls. Thirty of them are in Chinese; the rest are in Arabic. The mehrab is made of wood, decorated with carved and painted motifs that are Central Asian in colour, though the floral patterns have a distinctive Chinese flavour. The mosque is surrounded by a garden that is so inviting and peaceful that we deposit ourselves on a cement bench and sink in the ambience. A setting sun, the muezzin’s call to prayer and the chirping of birds cast their magic spell on the moment.

The Muslim quarter, of which the mosque itself is the crowning glory, is an intricate maze of alleyways full of stalls hawking everything from chunky coral necklaces to antiques and even Mao’s Red Book. Most of the shopkeepers are women in hijab. The oriental flavour of this market is totally in contrast to the modern malls that dot the main avenues of Xian. One steps out into the Bell and Drum Towers, so called because of the huge drum and bell installed at the entrance. This is the most lively part of Xian, where one can get a taste of the city’s night life and cafes on the sidewalk. We climb up the city gate, which offers a magnificent view of the moat-surrounded city. Later, we take a ride in an open car on the 13-kilometre city wall.

What better way to wrap up a trip to this quaint city than a visit to the local opera followed by a dumpling dinner at the speciality restaurant atop the opera house. We were plied with a never-ending stream of dumplings steamed with a variety of mouth-watering stuffings and presented in attractive bamboo baskets. That the humble dumpling could take so many forms was a revelation.

As in so many other areas, the Chinese are way ahead of Indians when it comes to packaging tradition and hospitality. Almost wherever we went in China, we found the attendants – whether in hotels, restaurants, tourist offices or opera houses – dressed elegantly in traditional Chinese costumes, unfailingly courteous and ever eager to pamper the most fastidious visitor. If ancient China is what the visitor wants to see, that is what is packaged and presented – for a price. No wonder Xian gets 8,000 tourists a day.

(Published in Frontline dated Sep 10, 2005)



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