Book House The Lead

The story of how Romila Thapar happened to visit China in 1957 for studying Buddhist Sites

Author and Historian Romila Thapar
  • The book “Gazing Eastwards: Of Buddhist Monks and Revolutionaries in China” is a lively and arresting account of Romila Thapar’s first visit to China in 1957, when she went to the country as a research assistant to the Sri Lankan art historian Anil de Silva, and worked on two major Buddhist sites in Maijishan and Dunhuang.

  • Besides her work on the Buddhist sites that brought her to China, the author was able to travel to the historically important cities of Beijing, Xi’an, Nanking, and Shanghai, as also some small cities and villages of the Chinese hinterland.

  • Her observations of her time in 1950’s China provide the reader with a profound, funny, original, and constantly insightful look at one of the world’s oldest and most complex countries.

  • Read an excerpt from Romila Thapar’s book “Gazing Eastwards” below.

The story of my visit to China begins in London in April 1957.

The phone rang in the late evening. Anil de Silva, whom I knew but slightly, was ringing from Paris. She was Sri Lankan, an art historian, and a friend of my brother and sister-in-law—Romesh and Raj Thapar—as well as a number of people active in the world of writers and artists in Bombay, such as Mulk Raj Anand, and with some of whom I had a passing acquaintance through my brother. Her field of study was Buddhist art history. That was in the 1940s when I was still in my teens and anxious to get a taste of the big, wide world, so different from the cossetted cantonment culture in which I had been brought up. Anil had subsequently moved to Paris, where she was now settled, and was focusing on studying Buddhist art. I was then a student at London University working on my PhD, and had occasionally helped her with minor research on the Buddha image for her book on the Buddha, and through this became acquainted with her.

Anil spoke excitedly on the phone about how she had received an invitation from an organization in China in response to her application to do a study for a month or so each at two Buddhist cave sites in China. She had suggested Maijishan and Dunhuang. Her proposal, addressed to the Chinese authorities, had the support of K. M. Panikkar, the then ambassador of India to France. Panikkar’s recent book, Asia and Western Dominance, had been much discussed and acclaimed in Asian countries. Anil’s proposal was accepted and she received an invitation to spend three months or a little more in China accompanied by a photographer and a research assistant. The invitation was from the Society for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries of the People’s Republic of China. The society was to host the entire visit. Anil had already spoken to the photographer she wanted, Dominique Darbois, who had agreed to come. She was now ringing me to find out if I would join them on the project as a research assistant.

Romila Thapar at the entrance to a cave at the site of Maijishan. (Photograph taken by Dominique Darbois) | Image from the book
Dunhuang. A school in the oasis. A group of children at play during a brief break in the school timetable. | Image from the book
In the vicinity of Yumen. A fortified watch tower on the edge of the desert. | Image from the book

The proposition was not just a surprise but was also such a windfall in some ways that I became silent for a moment, unable to reply. I was then on a research fellowship from London University, working on my PhD thesis on Ashoka, the Mauryan emperor, and was halfway through it. I explained to Anil that much as I would like to join the project, I was involved in my own research, and that since it was not connected to Buddhist cave sites in China, I would have to confer with my research supervisor, Professor A. L. Basham, as to whether I could take so much time off. So I told her that I would call her the next evening.

Needless to say, I was awake the whole night trying to decide on what to do. I was nowhere near being a specialist in Chinese Buddhist art, but nor was I a complete novice. I had come to London in late 1953 to do a BA Hons. in history, specializing in ancient Indian history at the School of Oriental and African Studies of the University of London (SOAS). SOAS had specializations in all the branches of Asian history and in the course of the first few months, the wider world of Asian history slowly unfolded in my consciousness. I was quite unfamiliar with the East Asian world. I had come from the curriculum of the Raj, and we had been exposed only to Indian and British history. We knew little about Asian history or, for that matter, the history of other continents, and more so their pre-modern history, a situation that remains largely uncorrected to this day. Only a few universities taught brief courses in the modern history of other countries. Discovering the history of China and Japan for the first time was almost a startling experience.

I had heard about a one-year course in Chinese art and archaeology that was being given at the Courtauld Institute of Art. In order to remedy my ignorance, I decided to take it, as it seemed a comfortable way of getting acquainted with an area of Asia comparable to the subcontinent and about which I knew so little. It meant one evening lecture a week and some reading to go with it. I decided I would just sit in on the lectures, do the reading and aim at merely scraping through the exam at the end, since my purpose was limited to being generally informed about the subject without being a specialist. The thought that I might actually go to China and be able to use this little bit of knowledge never occurred to me as it was the most unlikely event to happen at that point. And now it was possibly happening.

The next morning, I rushed off to discuss the invitation with Professor Basham. I approached the subject rather tremulously as I had been scolding myself for not concentrating on the thesis, leave alone considering the possibility of setting it aside for some months. Professor Basham heard me out and then asked why I was hesitating in taking a decision. It was, he said, the chance of a lifetime and I should not let it pass. The thesis, he thought, could be set aside for a short while and then I could return to it when I got back. So without another thought I decided to accept Anil’s invitation and rang her soon after, so as to be sure that I did not have time to change my mind. I asked her if she wanted any preparatory work to be done and she said this would not be necessary beyond some limited reading. She essentially wanted me to be there to record what we saw and whatever discussions took place with others at these sites. I did, however, take time off from my own research to read up on the sites preparatory to the visit.

The two sites we would be working on, as I’ve mentioned earlier, were Maijishan and Dunhuang. Maijishan, at the time, was virtually unknown to the world, apart from the couple of monks who lived there, and the Chinese archaeological department. Over the last fifty years, it has attracted much attention and has now become a popular tourist site. Dunhuang was better known being a far more important site and having been visited by a few Sinologists and art historians from Europe and the US, who first came to know of it at the end of the nineteenth century. The site had been written about and there were a few publications. The next three months were spent in high anticipation and intensive reading. We set off in July when I joined Anil and Dominique in Paris, from where we flew to Moscow via Prague, and from there to Beijing (or Peking as it was then called). So the ‘diary’ of the trip begins with setting out on the journey. The entries were sometimes written on the same day and sometimes a few days later. The text that follows is essentially a transcription of the diary, barring a few sentences added to clarify a statement.

Excerpted with permission from Gazing Eastwards: Of Buddhist Monks and Revolutionaries in China, Romila Thapar, Aleph Book Company. Read more about the book here and buy it here.


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