Uzbekistan Beckons

Nisha and I are off to Uzbekistan on the 27th. Can’t believe it’s actually happening! Four months ago, I didn’t even know where Uzbekistan was and now, it’s like I have travelled there a million times on the virtual silk roads of our times. And that’s even before I’ve physically got there!

We’ll be crisscrossing the country in search of craft that flourished in the 13th century when, besides trade, artists and artisans met and interacted along the silk routes. It is believed that ceramists from China were summoned by the great conqueror Amir Timur to teach the potters of Fergana the secret behind their brilliant blue porcelain. The nomads that traversed the Central Asian steppes frequented the silk roads to trade their suzanis, kilms, jajims (tribal blankets) and carpets. Miniature painters from China would inspire royal painters of Central Asian dynasties to document the life and times of their rulers. A couple of centuries later, their art would travel to India with the Moguls.

There’s an Uzbek proverb: “There are two roads in the world: in the sky the Milky Way, on earth the Silk Road.”

I can hardly wait to travel one tiny but significant part of that incredible highway. To arrive at the legendary caravan cities of Samarkand, Bukhara, the oasis town of Khiva, only to get sent back 2,500 years. The magnificent turquoise domes, the breath-taking Registan square, the old souks – the Rome of the East, the Pearls of the ancient Moslem world…

As if retracing the ancient silk roads wasn’t quite enough to set my heart beating out of my chest, last week I chanced upon a small detail that would send this tour on a completely different tangent for me. I must state here that I am a Zoroastrian or, as most Indians would know us, a Parsi. This fact has raised many an eyebrow with Parsis I meet. I am accustomed to my pedigree being challenged in this manner: “are you ‘full Parsi’, my dear???” For those who know Parsis, their nose and complexion precede them. I am not that way endowed. Besides, my married name is Pinto. Ok, so you rightly ask, what does this digression have to do with Uzbekistan?!

What I chanced upon in my reading that day, was a passing reference to ‘the ruins of an ancient temple for fire worshippers’. Now, Zoroastrians are often (and inaccurately) known as fire worshippers. Hmm… that got me thinking. I started to furiously google Uzbekistan + Zoroastrianism.

Shılpıq, Karakalpakstan

Shılpıq, Karakalpakstan © David Richardson

And I can’t begin to tell you what I discovered! Of the 63 Zoroastrian monuments around the world, 38 are in Uzbekistan. Zoroastrianism, according to some sources, may have originated in a small town called Khorezm in north Uzbekistan. There are roughly 23 dakhmas (towers of silence) dating back to the 1st century BC that still dot the Uzbek landscape. The biggest holiday in Uzbekistan is Nowruz, celebrated on the same day as we Parsis celebrate our Navroz or New Year.

This was all so strange and exciting! We are such a miniscule community and disappearing fast. Yes, Parsis are Indian and we’ve been here long enough to belong. But we did come from somewhere else. We were part of a glorious time in ancient history, when for over 13 centuries, right up to the 7th century AD, the people of Greater Persia (stretching from Iraq, the Caucasus, and Turkey in the west, to the Indus River of Pakistan in the east) were practising Zoroastrians. I cannot explain it but somewhere within me, that far away connection began to stir. It could be good old-fashioned curiosity, but in some strange way, I was being led. For two nights and three days, I raced through the internet to find someone who could tell me more. And I did. A wonderful Parsi lady who had visited Tashkent in 2006 to help the Zoroastrian community there revive its traditions, post the Soviet ban on religion. I tracked her down with the help of family who were by now completely involved in this unfolding story. Through her, I got in touch with Mr Abdukamilov, an Uzbek Zoroastrian who has a school in Tashkent where he teaches 400 students the almost extinct Avestan language. When I go next week, he will show me Tashkent, as a Zoroastrian. I would like to share with you how he ended his only email to me:

Waiting You,

All Zoroastrian Students, Zoroastrians of Tashkent, and Rustam.

This promises to be one amazing journey for me. From connections in craft to connections with the past of my small community with big personality. What will I return with??

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