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Crossroads of Civilization

An overview of the ancient Silk Road route through India, past deserts and mountains, through forts and caves, and at the shores of vast waters.

India shines like a brilliant jewel along the sprawling network of the Silk Road trade routes. 

This vast subcontinent was crisscrossed by overland caravan trails and maritime voyages, facilitating the movement of goods, ideas, and culture across the ancient world. And this land surely enchanted those passerbys as it does to this day. In fact, it is hard to quantify India, the world's most populous nation, filled with thousands of years of history, and endless color. Though cliche, it still holds true - India must be experienced.

Beginning in the arid deserts of western India, one branch of the Silk Road traced the path of modern Rajasthan. Camel caravans laden with coveted silk, spices, and handicrafts traversed the shifting sands of the Thar Desert, a formdable barrier to enter Hindustan, or the Land of the Hindu's, as India is also known as. From deserts west, Rajasthan comes in view, meaning "the Land of Kings."

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Rajasthan, the quintessential India of desert forts, camel caravans, exhilarting music and extravagant turbans, The fabled cities of Jaisalmer, Jodhpur, and Jaipur are the most well know, serving as vital oases and trading hubs along this desert route. Jaisalmer, crafted from golden sandstone, is known as the Golden City. Its imposing fort dominates the skyline, encircled by an ornate cityscape straight from The Arabian Nights. Founded in 1156 AD by the Bhati Rajput ruler Rawal Jaisal, Jaisalmer Fort is one of the largest and most impregnable citadels ever constructed of its era. A sand castle rising from endless sands.

Further east a well trodden path leads to Jodhpur, where the mighty Mehrangarh Fort looms over the azure-hued houses of the Blue City below. This massive citadel traces its origins back to the 15th century and is still home to the Jodhpur royal family today. According to lore, a wealthy trader once remarked that the city was "worth a groat" - a derisive term for a meager sum. To spite him, the ruler insisted that every house be painted blue, a rare and costly dye once sourced from crushed lapis lazuli along the Silk Road from Afghanistan.

Jaipur dazzles with sprawling palace complexes and the iconic windowed hive of the Hawa Mahal. Constructed in 1799, the "Palace of the Winds" consists of a striking red and pink sandstone façade of almost one thousand finely carved windows and balcony screens, once allowing royal ladies to observe street life in secret. Jaipur, like its Rajasthan cousins, has also adapted a colorful nickname - the Pink City.


The Silk Road routes from Persia eastwards led to Rajasthan, a kaleidoscopic region that still harkens back to the "exotic" nature of the east. There existed another crucial route into India as well - through some of the world's tallest mountains. These mountains are integral to India, forming its northern barrier to the rest of Asia, a result in a massive yet painstakingly slow collusion of the once Indian island onto Asia. The Himalayas, and the surrounding ranges such as the Pamir Mountains, are born, and are still rising to this day.

Passing the winding paths through the Pamirs leads caravans, nearing brreaking points, to the Kashmir Valley nestled within the of the most beautiful peaks. This lush, alpine region straddling the modern India-Pakistan border has been a crossroads of cultures and religions for millennia. One of the earliest regions to embrace Buddhism, ancient stupas and rock carvings depict the earliest diffusion of Greco-Buddhist art along the northern Silk Road branches extending to Central Asia. 


These routes, through sand or snow, all eventually converge into what is commonly termed the heart of India, where rivers rushing down the mountains give way to vast and fertile plains. Today it is known as Indo-Gangetic Plain, and, at its center, lies the city of Delhi - one of the most highly populated areas on the planet. As the capital of numerous empires from the Delhi Sultanate to the Mughals, Delhi was a vital nexus linking overland trade from Central Asia and maritime trade from coastal regions. A symphony of smells and sights greats the weary traveler as soon as Delhi is reached, quite unlike anything found thus far.

Architectural wonders abound here as well, and one can easily imagine leaving one speechless. A thirteenth century minaret, Qutb Minar, rises 238 feet in the center of Lol Kot, Delhi’s oldest fortified city. A 16th century tomb, the Mughal emperor Humayan’s, sits beautifully on the banks of the Yamuna River. It was also India’s first garden-tomb constructed. One of India’s largest mosques, the Jama Masjid, stands proudly in the center of Old Delhi, a symbol of the Islamic power that swept across India from the 17th through 19th centuries.


Past and present, one thing remains paramount to the inhabitants of Hindustan - the Ganges River. Sustaining millions upon millions and the basis of numerous civilizations, it is no small wonder the Ganges River is also worshipped, being viewed as the personification of the goddess Ganga. Along this river, the holy cities of Varanasi and Patna were key entrepots integrating the river trade routes into the Silk Roads. Varanasi, one of Hinduism's most sacred pilgrimage sites, holds an ancient symbolic identity as the cosmic center of the universe. Philosophers, scholars, and spiritual seekers either came from or were drawn to this city.

And speaking of identity, no mention of India could be complete without diving into its national identity. This is the Taj Mahal, found of the banks of the Yamuna River, which runs parallel and eventually flows into the Ganges. No one is ever prepared for the first glimpse of this ivory-white mausoleum, built by a Mughal emperor to be the resting place of his wife. The Taj Mahal has not only become a symbol of love, but the symbol of India itself.


Silk Road merchant and explorers were faced with a choice, continuing southwards down the Ganges and out into the Bay of Bengal, where vast maritime routes await. Or they could veer southwest into the arid Deccan Plateau and the subcontinent's bountiful southern reaches. In the remote ravines of this region stands as one of the wonders of the world, and surely the most inspiring monuments in India. Here are the caves of Ellora and Ajanta, where artisans carved breathtaking cave temples and monasteries directly from the basalt cliffs over a span of seven centuries between 200 BC and 600 AD.

These enduring stone sanctuaries depict a convergence of Buddhist, Hindu, and Jain influences filtered through the constant ebb and flow of trade and cultural exchange along the Silk Road. The Ajanta frescoes in particular are renowned for their vibrantly hued depictions of contemporary life during the Gupta Era, recognized as a brilliant age of art, science, and intellectual achievements in classical India. The crown jewel of Ellora is the enormous Kailasha temple - a megalithic replica of Mount Kailash. Hewn from one single rock slope, the temple required removing 200,000 tonnes of stone by primitive means. Far more than just an architectural feat, these caves represent the Silk Road's role in bringing creative influences from across Asia to new heights, where it still continues to welcome millions of visitors to India's crossroads of civilizations.


As the paths radiated outwards across the Deccan, they eventually reached the warm shores of the subcontinent's Coromandel and Malabar Coasts. These long coast lines are connected by India's southernmost branches of the Silk Road and facilitated by the maritime trade sailing across the Indian Ocean from the Red Sea, Persian Gulf, and beyond. The seafaring routes brought foreign merchants, missionaries, and explorers directly to these bustling trading hubs. The world's most prolific explorer in the 14th century, the Arab traveler Ibn Battuta, visited this region on numerous occasions where he paints vivid pictures of the bustling markets teeming with the diversity of the Indian Ocean trade network.

In cities like Calicut on the Malabar Coast, he marveled at the abundance of Chinese, Malay, Yemeni, Persian, and Greek traders plying their wares alongside the local Hindu merchants and Jain moneylenders. Chinese sources record ships laden with coveted spices, textiles, precious stones, ceramic ware, and other Indian exports plying the maritime routes westward to Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and Africa.


Through these myriad overland routes and maritime voyages, the material wealth of India radiated outwards along the Silk Road - ornate textiles, fragrant spices and gemstones. The intellectual wealth of religion and philosophy, mathematics and astronomy, language and literature perhaps was even more valuable. The numeral system we use today originated in India before diffusing west via Silk Road travelers, transmitted by Hindu scholars and preserved in Arabic translations. Indian philosophy, folk tales, and artistic motifs left their imprint across the trade routes, from the Javanese epics to the distinct architectural styles of stupas, temples, and mosques facilitating the blending of spiritual and physical designs. Through these few examples, India's legacy is evident from the architecture seen in supermarkets to the every math book.

The journey through the Silk Road in India concludes as one sets sail to new lands. Listening closely, the spirit of these ancient routes whispers through the desert caravanserai, mountain monasteries, temple carvings, and bustling harbor bazaars. India's lasting legacy is seen today, around the world, this colorful crossroads of culture.

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