Time-travel through Indian history in Uzbekistan

On a trip to the less explored Central Asian republic of Uzbekistan, Vidya Srinivas, finds that you can`t ignore the Indian connection and the blue tiles colouring several of its monuments.

Uzbekistan’s capital Tashkent has no statues of the iconic Russian rulers: Lenin or Stalin, but a bust at a crossroad honours our late Prime Minister, Lal Bahadur Shastri, who died there in 1966 after signing a peace treaty with Pakistan’s General Ayub Khan. India’s connection to this 23-year-old landlocked republic first began during the Silk Route period. Later, in the 11th century, Timur invaded Delhi and ruthlessly massacred its citizens, followed by Ferghana Valley`s Babur, who became our emperor.

I discovered that while the Tashkent airport, a 2.5 hour flight from Delhi across the Hindukush Mountains, lacks modern conveyer belts, the tree-lined city has modern buildings, which were rebuilt after being flattened by an earthquake in 1966. Tashkent airport, a two-and-a-half-hour flight from Delhi across the Hindukush Mountains, lacks modern conveyer belts. But with modern buildings, rebuilt after being flattened by an earthquake in 1966, this tree-lined city is a pleasant surprise.

Quran of Caliph Osman

Among those reduced to rubble were the blue-tiled mosaic domes and minarets of the Hast Imam complex, built between the 15th and 19th century. This Islamic center, neglected by atheist Russians and rebuilt after independence with help from UNESCO, houses the Ottoman Koran–the primary source of Islam. The Arab invaders brought Islam to Uzbekistan in the 8th century. Although 70% of the Uzbeks today are Muslims, only 30% practice Islam. Consequently, muezzins are forbidden from calling out the azaan for fear of disturbing the non-practicers.

Bukhara, our next stop on the Silk Route, was once a center of trade, culture and religion, where money, jewels and silk were exchanged under the 16th century tokis (domes). This place still remains a center of business and like every monument in Uzbekistan, its nooks and crannies are occupied by stalls selling carpets, potter`s presents and junk jewellery. The Kalyan Minaret, overlooking Bukhara’s Poh-I-Kalyan architectural complex, was once used to toss off criminals. The blue-tile domes of the madrassah and mosque that can accommodate 10,000 people belong to one of Uzbekistan`s four UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

The Tokis of Bukhara

The Jewish community that Bukhara once housed, lived around the spectacular 16th century buildings surrounding the Lyabi Khaus reservoir. Each year the diaspora reunites here, but little has been done for the tired-looking synagogue and the Jewish school.

Then there`s the 9th century Ismail Samani Mausoleum. According to the guide, its cubical shape, represents stability, and its basket-weave exterior is what probably protected it from violent attacks. However, the Bukhara Fortress constructed in line with the Ursa Major had less luck. It was ransacked by Genghis Khan and bombed by the Bolzheviks.

The Tokis of Bukhara

The homes and buildings within the crenellated walls of Khiva’s Fort Itchan Kala protected the treasures of the Silk Route’s cross cultural influence. These include a swastika on the Djuma Mosque wall, statues of Ganesha and Buddha in the Zoroastrian Museum. Ruled by Iranians in the 7th century their history is painted on the walls of Zoroastrian Museum. Acrobatics and ropewalking are an honoured tradition in Khiva, and we held our breath as a three-year-old performed with her family.

The road to Samarkand through the Pamir hills and valleys of cotton fields is watered by the Syr Darya and the Amu Darya, Uzbekistan’s chief rivers. The country has been criticised for using forced labour; our guide Akmal denied it, but we saw police vans escorting buses of labourers. Samarkand was destroyed in turns by Alexander, the Arab Caliphate, and Genghis Khan; but each time, it rose from the ashes to become a major city in Central Asia. Ruling the city was Babar’s lifelong ambition and it was his defeats here that sent him riding across the Hindukush to India. Samarkand saw peace and prosperity during Timur’s reign. Here lies his burial place, Gul-Emir Mausoleum, which Indira Gandhi refused to honour with a wreath. However his dynasty’s legacy, the majestic madrassahs of Registan Square, with majestic domes covered with blue mosaic tiles in a carpet-like design, are the most-photographed sites in Uzbekistan. Monuments of Samarkand abound with legends. The 12th century Shan-i-Zindah necropolis, decorated with blue mosaic tiles, claims that a cousin of the Prophet Mohammed, who disappeared underground to evade his killers, appears periodically. Then there`s the story of Timur’s wife Bibi Khanum; she had to kiss the architect on his cheek to speed up construction of the polished brick mosque. Timur was not pleased, but she was a persuasive woman, and remained his queen.

Swastik on ceiling in Khiva

Samarkand was our last stop on this Central Asian section of the Silk Route. We returned with memories of blue tiles, ikat fabric, a traditional weave that craftsmen had to relearn in India after independence, suzanny embroidery akin to the Kashmir crewel work and of course Bukhara carpets, which were inexpensive like our trip.

October to March. The summers are brutal here.

Uzbek Airlines operates daily flights from Delhi and stops at Amritsar too. The roads are excellent and tourists are bussed around.

Tashkent has a 5-star Intercontinental Hotel. The hotel industry has yet to reach that level in the rest of the country.

The local food is bland and vegetarians may have a rough time… but there are menus that offer plenty of salads… and yes there are some pizzarias around.

The country produces every variety of fruit and nuts. Carpets, embroidered items and pottery are available everywhere. Indian bargaining skills come in handy.

Vidya Srinivas is a freelancer

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