Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

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To the sand buried ruins of Dandan Uliq and Niya

A hundred and seventeen years ago, Aurel Stein, the Hungarian-British archaeologist then working in India, led an expedition to the Takla Makan Desert of Xinjiang in China. He sought to unravel the mystery of the ‘Sand-Buried Ruins of Khotan’, as his book is titled. This is the much-abridged non-technical version for general public. For the specialist, he wrote a huge, three-volume set complete with a large number of black and white images. This technical version is titled Ser India (or Upper India).

I first became acquainted with this treasure house of history in 1991 while researching at the Royal Geographical Society in London.

Among others, two of the ‘sand-buried’ ruins are the ancient cities of Dandan Uliq and Niya, in the vicinity of the city of Khotan, that were, even at the time of his visit in 1901, completely ruined and abandoned. However, the ultra-dry desert air of high Asia had preserved much of the organic material used by the natives in that bygone age.

Among the ruins, Stein found wooden writing tablets very like the takhti we use in the Indian subcontinent to improve children’s calligraphic skills. From decrees of nobility to everyday business transactions to letters of ordinary people, these tablets gave insight into those ancient lives from a couple of hundred years before the advent of the Common Era. The point of the greatest interest is that the script on the tablets was Kharoshthi as used in northern India and the language was the Prakrit of upper Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa.

Rewind to circa 644 CE when the great Chinese Buddhist monk Xuanzang having spent 13 years in India was returning home to his monastery at Chang’an (modern Xian). As he tarried in Khotan, the master wrote of the Indian people who lived in the city and who spoke an Indian tongue.

Xuanzang wrote that Asoka’s son Kunal, governor of Taxila, was intrigued against and blinded by his courtiers. As a result, a furious Asoka ordered the banishment of the involved persons “to the north of snowy mountains”, where they were “to establish themselves in the midst of a desert valley”.

Stein showed that the takhtis were proof of that ancient intrigue in Taxila and expulsion of a large number of people. They established the cities of Dandan Uliq and Niya on the southern fringes of the Takla Makan Desert where they maintained their separate Punjabi identity and language even after the passage of 1800 years.

I have been within half a day’s journey of Takla Makan and its ruined cities. But in that journey the focus lay elsewhere. If I have the time and the resources, it is to Dandan Uliq and Niya that I will go. There to walk among the ruined timber walls that were first put up by workmen whose blood I may or may not share; but they did speak my language in its ancient form. There I will try to discover their spirit and why they rebelled against Kunal, the philosopher prince of Taxila.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 10:50 AM,

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My Books

Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

The Apricot Road to Yarkand


Jhelum: City of the Vitasta

Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

Salt Range and Potohar Plateau

Prisoner on a Bus: Travel Through Pakistan

Between Two Burrs on the Map: Travels in Northern Pakistan

Gujranwala: The Glory That Was

Riders on the Wind

Books at Sang-e-Meel

Books of Days