Silk Route: Buddhism and Biscuits


One of the most important things transported along the Silk Route were not goods but ideas. Buddhism was brought to China during the Han Dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE) from it’s birthplace along the Ganges in India. Starting around the 4th century, the Silk Route also became the way for Chinese Buddhist pilgrims to go to India, but by the 7th century Buddhism began to decline with the conquest of the Muslims from the West. Buddhism was uniquely suited to the trade industry and the merchants along the Silk Route embraced it’s tenants. Not only did the Buddhist monasteries give the merchants places to stay, the deeply ingrained Buddhist value of conflict avoidance was good for trade.

300px-Tarimbecken_3._Jahrhundert

Kingdoms in the Tarim Basin during the 3rd century, connecting the territory of China with that of the Kushan Empire: Kashgar, Kucha, Khotan, Karasahr, Shanshan, Turfan.

It was the Kushans who dominated the areas of Hindu Kush into Kabul, Gandhara, northern Pakistan and north-western India who were mainly responsible for the spread of  Buddhism. Although Buddhism was inherently Indian, along the Silk Route it evolved through translations and adoption by Greco-Romans and Persians.

It is through those (Buddhist) artworks that a fusion of eastern and western cultures was demonstrated. The art of Buddhism left the world the most powerful and enduring monuments along the Silk Road, and among them, some of the most precious Buddhist sculptures, paintings and murals. Furthermore the contact with the Hellenized Gandharan culture resulted in the development of a new art form, the Buddha statue, sometimes referred as a Buddha image. Before Buddhism reached Gandhara in the 3rd century BC, there had been no representation of the Buddha, and it was in the Gandharan culture that the use of Buddha images had begun. The earliest Buddha images resembled the Greek god Apollo. – http://www.silk-road.com

This is where East and West truly merge and then part ways. In the Western/Persian/Mesopotamian traditions we see a worldview which is based on conflict. In the Eastern/Eurasian/Indian traditions we find a worldview based on lack of conflict. Now, it might be a bit of a stretch to tie in modern history yet, but this is a place where we can clearly see the dynamic that would ultimately lead to the extinction of 2/3rd of the population of the Americas. When Islam took over the Silk Route in the 7th Century and the peaceful trade associate with Buddhism began to wane, Westerners and Africans began looking for other routes to China. The problem, of course, with getting from, say, Constantinople to Bejing by sea is that India is in the way. We will see a bit later on how this split between the overland routes north of India and the sea routes that went south around the tip of India greatly shaped Indian culture and the world.

Buddhism, however, has left another mark on the modern world. We experience it very personally on almost a daily basis, yet few of us really understand it. Buddhist cultures, particularly India as it birth place and Tibet as it’s modern home, place a high value on lack of conflict. In the West our culture emphasizes conflict. Just take a look at your history books and you will see. It is these fundamentals of world views that shape our history, personally and socially.

180px-Central_Asian_Buddhist_Monks

Blue-eyed Central Asian Buddhist monk, with an East Asian colleague, Tarim Basin, 9th-10th century.

JJ said to me, more than once, that he wanted me to know something as if by magic. I was never quite sure what ‘that’ was. Recently I have discovered what it is – a concept of conflict. Inherent in the worldview of most Indians is an idea that conflict should be avoided, but inherent in the world view of many westerners is that conflict should be mitigated. When conflicts arose, he wanted to walk away and come back later, I wanted to talk about it. I’m sure that somewhere in the Greco-Buddhist traditions that arose on along the Silk Route there is a place for both of these skills.

What we see today is that those, like the British who were at a far point from the center of Greco-Buddhist thoughts, were willing to seek out conflict. This eventually lead to the discovery and conquest of the Americas. The Han Chinese were also willing to do this and we see these examples in the great treasure ships from the East prior to Columbus. Zheng He, who was a great Chinese general, Eunuch and…guess what…Muslim, was in command of the greatest Chinese maritime explorations from 1405 to 1433. The exception, of course, to this theory is the Mongols who were both Buddhist and aggressive. In 1449, it was not only that the Mongols required the attention of the Chinese, but when they usurped the throne, they also brought with them Buddhism (again) in the form of government administrators and China abandoned it’s maritime conquests.

 As Mahayana Buddhism emerged, it received “influences from popular Hindu devotional cults (bhakti), Persian and Greco-Roman theologies which filtered into India from the northwest”. – Tom Lowenstein. This means that as this idea of conflict avoidance moved north and south, the ideas of conflict proliferation and mitigation moved East and West. These walls of conflict in Persia and China fenced in the Eurasians and closed off the Silk Route, setting up a circular historical context which would eventually lead to my mothers fine china, British boarding schools in the Buddhist/Hindu heartland and afternoon tea.

And what is most important to have with tea? Crumpets, of course. Unless you are my conflict avoiding friend, Ashok, then you will want Biscuits.

British Crumpets

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  • 12 fl oz/350ml semi-skimmed milk, warmed but not boiling
  • 1 lb/450g all purpose or plain flour
  • 1/8 oz/5g dried yeast
  • 2 tsp sugar
  • 12 fl oz/350ml finger-warm water (approx)
  • 1 tsp Salt
  • 1tsp baking powder
  • Vegetable oil for cooking

Preparation:

  • Whisk together the milk, flour, yeast and sugar. Once combined add half the water and beat into the batter, continue to add more water until the batter is thick and smooth. Stop adding water once it reaches the consistency of thick cream. Cover with cling film and leave in a warm draft free place until foaming – about 1, up to 2 hours.
  • Whisk the salt and baking powder into the batter then heat a heavy based frying pan on the stove to hot but not smoking.
  • Dampen kitchen paper with a little oil and grease the base of the pan and a crumpet (or pastry) rings measuring 3″x 1 ½” (8 X 3.75cm) approx. If you don’t have any pastry or crumpet rings then use a small, washed food can to the same measurements.
  • Place one ring in the heated pan, add enough batter to fill just below the top of the ring. Cook for five minutes when there should be many tiny holes on the surface and the crumpet is setting. Flip the crumpet over and cook for another two – three minutes.
  • Repeat with the remaining batter until used up. Rest the crumpets on a wire rack until cool and reheat in a toaster or under the grill before serving. Serve with lots of butter and/or jam.
  • NOTE: If the batter seeps from under the ring it is too thin, whisk in more flour. If the crumpet is heavy and without holes, the batter is too thick, add more water.

Basic Biscuit Mix

22137_l

  • 185g butter, softened
  • 3/4 cup caster sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 egg
  • 2 cups Lighthouse Cake, Biscuit and Pastry plain flour
  1. Preheat oven to 180ºC/160ºC fan-forced. Line 3 baking trays with baking paper.
  2. Using an electric mixer, beat butter, sugar and vanilla until pale and creamy. Add egg. Beat until combined. Sift flour over butter mixture. Using a wooden spoon, stir to combine. See notes for baking instructions and tips.
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