Imbibers of India

It is difficult to overestimate Indian influence on the whole of the Asian continent. Being the motherland of the two important world religions, Buddhism and Hinduism, as well as of many more regional faiths, and the land where some of the oldest literature and most influential art canons were created, Indian civilization can claim authorship of, or at least influence on, a vast swathe of Asian cultural heritage. Like almost every civilization from the Mediterranean to the Far East, Sogdian culture was greatly impacted by the ideas, values, and motifs of Indian culture. 

Sogdian and Brahmi Inscriptions on a Boulder between Shatilal and Chilas

Sogdian and Brahmi Inscriptions on a Boulder between Shatilal and Chilas

In India the Sogdians were known under the name of Cūlikā. This deformation of the name Sūli, which was frequently applied to Sogdians in eastern Central Asia, was also used to describe a cock’s crest and referred to the Sogdians’ signature high caps (Ostler, 2010, 125). Sogdians are only mentioned once in the Indian epics, forming a contingent of the Kuru army in the Mahābhārata, and were perceived in India as warriors not as merchants. In fact, in their trading activities the Sogdians followed the example of the Indian merchants (De Vaissière, 2005, 11). The biography of the half-Indian, half-Sogdian traveller and translator Kang Senghui describes settlements of Sogdians in India as early as the 2nd century CE. Although Kang Senghui was orphaned at the age of ten, he still knew he was Sogdian, leading Franz Grenet  to postulate the existence of a structured Sogdian emigration network in India at that time (Grenet, 1998), although there is too little evidence to make a definitive claim that such a network existed. However, rock carvings and inscriptions of Sogdian writing discovered on the banks of Indus river between the town of Chilas and the village of Shatial signal to numerous connections between the Indians and the Sogdians (Sims-Williams, 1996). Unfortunately, these inscriptions do not include much more than personal names and patronymics, and therefore have proved to be very difficult to date.  Paleographic analysis show, however, that they coincide with the Ancient Letters and were produced around the 4th to 6th century (ibid), although some seem to be even earlier (De Vaissière, 2005, 81). 

It is impossible to be certain if the Sogdians who left the inscriptions came from Sogdiana itself, or from Chinese Sogdian outposts. During the first centuries CE the main Indian trading route with China passed south of Sogdiana, through Pamir, Bactriana and the Hindu Kush. The prosperity and the stability of the Kushan Empire was inviting to Sogdian merchants, and some of them emigrated there (ibid, 83). The inscriptions seem to have stopped by the 6th century, around the time of the decline of this commercial route between China and India, supporting the idea that they were produced by Sogdians from the outposts. On the other hand, contacts between the two regions did not dry up completely (Compareti, 2009). For this route was not the only possible one between India and Sogdiana, and in fact it was quite a challenging one, which may easily have lost importance as other routes became more viable. This sustained contact between the two civilizations allowed the Sogdians to continue to borrow artistically from Indian iconography (De Vaissière, 2005, 88). So it is also possible that the inscriptions were the product of the mainland Sogdians.

 
Fragment of a Wall Painting with a Scene from Mahabharata

Fragment of a Wall Painting with a Scene from Mahābhārata recovered in Panjikent

Much Sogdian art, especially pictorial art, was greatly influenced by an Indian visual vocabulary (Marshak, 2002; Grenet, 2010). Urban elites wanted to present themselves in a very sophisticated way, and chose artistic styles and imagery from the refined Indian or Kushan culture. De Vaissière notes that “in fact, it is an aristocratic and not a merchant culture that clearly prevails in the iconography: scenes of legendary combats, armored heroes on horseback <…> noble iconography reigned supreme, integrating a refined culture with its depiction of Indian tales, the epic of Rustam, and more” (De Vaissière, 2005, 162). There are numerous connections with Indian literature. In Panjikent painting we see depictions of the scenes from Mahābhārata and of the fables from Pañcatantra, while in Afrosiyab a whole wall of the Hall of the Ambassadors allegedly was covered with a fresco devoted to India. When a Sogdian artist had to represent a very distant land, a fairytale land where only marvels are possible, he often chose India (Marshak, 2002, 27). Religious iconography was frequently borrowed and often the Sogdian artists represented their native divinities using elements of the Indian iconography (Compareti, 2012, 303). This kind of iconographic representation happened in three ways: Hindu gods are directly depicted (possibly, there were a few Hindu devotees among the Sogdians); or local or Zoroastrian gods are represented using Hindu motifs and techniques; or else there is a mixture of the two. Some of the most prominent Hindu features are gods and goddesses with numerous limbs and heads, gods being associated with a particular animal, and the use of poses and attributes connected with specific Hindu gods.

Chess Figure

Indian Ivory Chess Figure (VII-VIII centuries)  from Samarkand 

 

A fine ivory chess set, discovered in Samarkand with Indian characteristics (L’Asie des Steppes, 2000, 94), further attests to a desire to imitate Indian aristocratic ways of life, which permeated material culture, house decoration, religious iconography, and entertainment. This desire found its way in the obituary practices, too, as is attested by a Hindu component present on the funerary coaches of Sogdians. If syncretic elements can be seen on the Wirkak sarcophagus, Grenet proposes to see the so-called Guimet coach as the tomb of a Hindu Sogdian, possibly a Vaiṣṇava (Grenet, 2007, 410-411). The main arguments for this attribution are the total absence of any Zoroastrian imagery or symbolism, and the presence of Kubera and the sun god Sūrya, assimilated to Viṣṇu. While the tomb was definitely produced by carvers who worked for the Sogdians, we cannot exclude the possibility that the actual person who ordered the coach was from Southern Central Asia, such as Bactria, Gandhara or even Kashmir. 

Imbibers of India