Propositions and prospects for a Central Asia Group

Thierry Dodin
Zentralasiatisches Seminar,
University of Bonn, Germany

Though currently partitioned into a large number of independent or more or less autonomous political entities, Central Asia consists basically of three large cultural and linguistic areas:

-the western Turkic/Iranian area (Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Xinjiang, Tajikistan, Afghanistan),

-the eastern Mongol/Tungus area (Mongolian Republic, Inner Mongolia, Tuva, Kalmyk, Buryat) and,

-the southern Tibetan/Himalayan area (Tibet, Qinghai, Autonomous areas in Sichuan, Gansu and Yunnan, Bhutan, Himalayan regions of India and Nepal).

Fig. 1 The three main cultural and linguistic areas of Central Asia.

Today this whole region is widely considered a backyard or hinterland of the surrounding countries, that is mainly China and Russia, as well as a part of the "zone of influence" of Iran, India and Pakistan and even Turkey.
Central Asia's past history and common cultural traits, however, justifies considering it a region in its own right. Being situated at the crossroads of the great Eurasian trade routes, it was a zone of transition which both incorporated influences from the outlying cultures and itself exerted an influence of primary importance on these regions' cultural history.

To China, for example, Central Asia has been a great source of innovation. Many cultural phenomena came from there, and these include practices now considered distinctively Chinese (for instance the "dance of the lion"2) and significant innovations such as the introduction of iron and metallurgical skills. According to recent research, even the modern standard Chinese language is to a wide extent a product of the interaction of Chinese with Central Asian linguistic and cultural influences.3

Thus for centuries, and even maybe thousands of years, Central Asia has been a kind of cultural reactor, fed from heterogenous sources, further developing and transforming cultural features before passing them on to the surrounding world.

Finally, as far as political history is concerned, we should not forget, that Central Asia greatly influenced the whole of Asia, either through large-scale invasions; or military pressure exerted on the border regions of surrounding empires; or by the very control of trade routes through which vital goods were exchanged between the great Asian civilisations and far beyond.

China for instance was under the control of two Central Asian powers for many centuries during the second millennium: the Mongols first and then the Manchus.

The greater part of India has been invaded and unified by a central Asian dynasty, the Moghuls, who completely transformed the political and cultural history of the sub-continent.

Also Russia has been, if not lastingly conquered by Central Asians, at least influenced in its military history (and even material culture) by its interface with Central Asia.

Finally, the history of the Near East stood deeply under the influence of invaders from Central Asia.

It therefore seems impossible to go in depth into the culture and history of Asia without taking these facts into account.

Central Asia as a cultural continuum

Apart from a few phenomena which might be acknowledged as forming a fuzzy "cultural core" (whether due to diffusion or convergence under similar ecological conditions), Central Asia cannot be considered a culturally homogenous region. In fact there are few parts of the world which can provide such a great diversity of languages, religions, local ethnic differentiation, political systems etc. Still, this diversity is not as anarchic and chaotic as it may seem at first sight. Closer observation, taking into account a wider historical perspective, reveals a well-ordered web of links between the different sub-regions and ethnic groups, clearly establishing patterns of interaction and "genetic linkage". It would therefore be proper to consider Central Asia as a cultural continuum.

Thus, Western and Eastern (i.e. Turkic and Mongol) Central Asia have been linked since time immemorial by way of a common linguistic and - hitherto rather unsystematically explored -pre-Islamic and pre-Buddhist religious heritage.

Eastern and Southern (i.e. Mongolian and Tibetan) Central Asia were linked mainly by a common religion, Tibetan Buddhism, which, beyond influencing the spiritual history of both these regions, brought them into a common political "Schicksalgemeinschaft", first under Genghiskhanide empire and then under the influence of China or rather (an important distinction) of the "foreign dynasties" ruling over it (Yuan and Qing, respectively Mongols and Manchus).

Though in recent history the interconnectedness of Western and Southern (i.e. Tibetan) Central Asia, widely limited as it was to trade links, has been comparatively weak, previous centuries had seen strong interaction, mainly through military invasions (the Tibetan Empire for instance lasted in Li (Khotan) for more than one century) and a long-lasting flow of religious ideas from West to South-East. Thus western Central Asia was a repository of Buddhism from which it was partly introduced into Tibet, like Nestorianism before it. Traces of these important cultural contacts are still detectable for instance in traditional Tibetan medicine.

Fig. 2 The interconnectedness of Central Asia.

Still, in by far the longest part of history none of the three linguistic-cultural areas of Central Asia has been unified under a single political power or - if so - at most superficially. In fact Central Asia has been mostly - one may see a kind of geographical or ecological determinism therein - an essentially decentralised region of atomised political units in a continuously changing landscape of political alliances.

The Kalachakra Tantra as a Central Asian cultural complex4

The creative vitality of Central Asian culture, its capacity to incorporate alien cultural elements, its interconnectedness and its interaction with the surrounding world can best be exemplified by the impressive and versatile history of the Buddhist Kalachakra cycle.

It is well-known that Buddhism originated in India in the second half of the pre-Christian millennium. From there it spread all over Asia, one of the main axes of diffusion being the famous Central Asian Silk Road and its trade centres. It is there, in the western part of so-called "Serindia", that what Hoffmann calls the "latest Phase of Buddhism in India"5, the Kalachakra Tantra was elaborated.
Though the Kalachakra Tantra and its development is still far from being satisfactorily investigated, available research reveals its obvious syncretic character which reflects the spiritual atmosphere as well as the political situation in the western part of Central Asia in the 9th century, the probable date of its emergence.

Besides the basic indian buddhist substratum of the Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions, the Kalachakra Tantra embodies a large conglomerate of Western Asian, mostly Iranian (Zoroastrian, Manichean), elements, Hellenistic and local religious features characteristic of Gandhara and Udyana as well as Vedic borrowings (which interestingly had themselves made their way into India via western Central Asia, though in prehistoric times).6 Besides that, it shows the marks of Buddhism's struggle against the inexorable expansion of Islam in the region, and bears traces of the Jewish and Christian traditions, also probably mediated into the region by the Arabs.7

Legend has it that the Kalachakra teaching was bestowed directly by the Buddha himself upon Sucandra the king of the mythic Kingdom of Shambhala from which it was then introduced to India. Shambhala is also the "hidden" place in the heart of Asia, the repository of the Kalachakra from which at the end of the "age of Darkness" a later incarnation of the king will conquer the world, defeat the forces of evil and establish a golden age of justice in which the Buddhadharma will reign.
Historically, the Kalachakra started spreading in India in the course of the 10th century after which it was passed on to Tibet through the famous Buddhist universities of Nalanda and Vikramashila before vanishing from the subcontinent, along with the whole of Buddhism in the wake of the Islamic invasions (originating from Central Asia) and the resurgence of Hinduism.
Whether through Tibet or via the Silk Road, the Kalachakra Tantra found its way to other parts of Eastern Asia as well. Remote traces of it and the connected Myth of Shambhala can be found for instance as far away as Japan.

In Tibet, the Kalachakra Tantra and the idea of Shambhala were spread in the course of the "second propagation of the Religion" (phyi dar) and were adopted by all Buddhist schools, but particularly the dominant schools of the Gelugpa and Kagyupa. Its deep influence is particularly noticeable in the closely interconnected fields of traditional astronomy, astrology, time computing and mathematics (skar rtsis, rtsis rig). With the spread of Tibetan Buddhism among the Mongols and the Manchus, the Kalachakra ultimately found its way also into the eastern parts of Central Asia and thus later influenced Mongol and Manchu rulers on the Chinese throne.

In Tibet and Mongolia the Kalachakra, and particularly the eschatological myth of Shambhala, were not confined within the walls of monasteries and hermitages, but also became a part of the collective consciousness of ordinary people, and the deeds of the kings of Shambhala of the past as well as those to come were related in narratives enjoyed by young and old folk with the same fascination as the Gesar epics.

In view of the eschatological nature and the great fascination exerted by the myth of Shambhala, it is certainly not surprising that its echo can also be traced in the field of politics. Thus already Manchu/Qing Emperors of China occasionally declared themselves incarnations of the King of Shambhala, while at the eve of the 20th century the Russian Mongol and advisor of the thirteenth Dalai Lama Agvan Dorjiev in his attempts to achieve a political rapprochement between Russia and Tibet circulated a pamphlet declaring the then Tsar as well as earlier members of the Romanov dynasty to be emanations of the King of Shambhala.8 The intended merging of myth and politics ultimately failed to serve Dorjiev's geo-political designs. Rather, it alarmed the colonial government of India and ultimately led to the 1903/1904 British military expedition against Tibet to secure the position of His Majesty's Empire in the "Great Game". Nevertheless it also provided Dorjiev with a unique opportunity to open a Mongol Buddhist temple in Petersburg, a Kalachakra Temple, which after decades of closure under Communism was able to re-open its gates under Gorbachev's Perestroika.9
Later, in the turbulence of the Russian revolution the German adventurer von Ungern set up an Army to create a pan-Mongol state in Central Asia and once more instrumentalized the Shambhala vision to motivate his troops, a strategy which again was adopted in the Second World War by the Japanese in order to gain the support of the Mongols against the Chinese and the Russians.10
On the eve of the Sino-Japanese War the Panchen Lama of Tibet staged a great Kalachakra initiation on demand of his Chinese hosts to prevent the outbreak of the war.11
Finally the Shambhala Myth, or rather a "creative" perception of it, obviously influenced the Theosophists of the 19th century who played an important role in the first introduction of Buddhism in the West, thus helping shape the Western image of Tibet12 but also awakening the vocation of a fair number of explorers of Central Asia. Nowadays the same myth seems to play an inspirational role in the revitalization of Tibetan Buddhism in Mongolia, Russia as well as in Tibet herself. Also the current Dalai Lama is a convinced adept of the Kalachakra Tantra and regularly performs its initiation ritual throughout the world with the express design of thus contributing to the achievement of world peace.

After this short account of the Kalachakra, it should be stated that if here a Central Asian cultural complex has been selected from the field of religion, this is only due to the personal field of expertise of the author. Central Asia would, however, provide many more cultural complexes with of the same or similar nature in other fields of cultural history like for instance music, material culture, language, military science/history, forms of political organization etc.

Perceptions, perspectives and scholars

As with every other part of the world, in Central Asia a difference should be made between cultural and historical facts and their perception. Perceptions, as is well known, depend greatly on the perspectives of the perceivers. Scholars dealing with Central Asia have often studied it from a narrow perspective. In many cases Central Asia may have been their field of research but not really their field of interest or the subject they have been studying primarily.

In the case of Tibet, for instance, scholars have been mainly interested in Buddhism. As a result, a considerable literature is available on Tibetan Buddhism while other aspects of great importance for an in-depth understanding of Tibetan culture and history remained neglected until recent years. Even Buddhism tended to be investigated here mainly from an Indian perspective, thereby playing down the considerable contribution of the Tibetans themselves to this religion.

By contrast, the study of Mongolia has been deeply influenced by scholars who obviously considered Shamanism the essence of "genuine" Mongolian culture. In this environment everything Buddhist or Tibetan is considered a kind of alien anomaly pejoratively labelled "lamaist". On the other hand, links between the Mongols and Siberian peoples which seem to have been of rather peripheral importance for cultural history are a matter of great concern here.

Similarly, the Western part of Central Asia has been mainly investigated by scholars of Islamic studies who obviously considered it a part of their sphere, mainly of interest as a source of political power or fields of resonance of things Persian or Arabic.

Thus the scholarly reception of Central Asia has been highly selective in two senses. On one hand, the three great linguistic-cultural areas of Central Asia have themselves been observed in a one-sided perspective. On the other hand diverging interests and approaches were an obstacle to interdisciplinary exchange, so that the aspect of cultural continuity within Central Asia has been to a great extent ignored and the development of a global Central Asian perspective prevented. These, however, would first provide a better understanding of this region, and give it the place it deserves in the world's cultural history.

In recent years, new developments have actually worsened this sad state of affairs. With the implosion of the former Soviet Union, full batches of "Eastern Block" observers in quest of new fields of activities seem to have discovered their goal in Central Asia. In many cases, however, their perspectives are still stigmatized by Cold War patterns of thinking, and do not even envisage analysing Central Asian processes of transition and transformation from a Central Asian perspective i.e. taking into account the historical backgrounds and traditional norms and values of the respective societies. A certain phenomenon of fossilisation is to be observed here which already finds its expression in the global appellation "Central Asia-Caucasus" for denoting the region, while obviously acknowledging as Central Asia only those parts of it which once formed part of from the Soviet Union. At the same time the growing interest in the Mongols since the emergence of a truly independent Mongolian Republic and particularly the on-going promotion of the Tibet question to a global cause c??re has led some Sinologists to turn their sights to these parts of Central Asia. Though this could ultimately result in an enrichment of Central Asian studies, the products of this new interest has been sometimes deceiving, by showing alarming Sino-centric prejudices more than innovative views.

Central Asia at ECAI

ECAI is not a research project, rather it is an initiative which strives to provide a scientific infrastructure as an instrument of presentation of knowledge on the cultural history of the world as well as a device for further research. As such it cannot be expected to remedy obviously existing scholarly deficits, yet, the solutions and standards we choose for presenting and providing documents is a matter of concern because it will influence the perception of global cultural history and by that - if ECAI is recognized as an authority (which we hope!) -the direction of further research. The influence of an initiative like ECAI should not be underestimated: it presents a great chance for the scholars of Central Asian studies to restore their field of expertise to the status it deserves. For this, however, we should strive to find a consensus on how to deal with Central Asia within ECAI. Therefore, there is a logical need for an autonomous Central Asia group within ECAI, the creation of which the author of these lines would herewith like to propose.

The issues to be addressed within an ECAI-Central Asia group are too manifold to be further developed here, and these will certainly be the subject of future discussions. Two issues, however, seem to be of elementary importance and should therefore be briefly introduced here for further discussion. These are the issues of names and territoriality concepts.

Names: When it comes to place-names in Central Asia a great state of confusion arises. The region's linguistic plurality, as well as its turbulent political history, means that a certain place in Central Asia is often known under different toponyms. Therefore, the establishment of a mutilingual table of concordance for toponyms taking into account the historical as well as the cultural context of their respective validity seems to be a matter of great priority. Wherever possible, I suggest that we consciously keep traditional, historical names for cities, kingdoms or geographic feature or at least adopt the principle of always documenting the plurality of names. It certainly doesn't make sense, if we set up a historical atlas, to use neo-toponyms, which, as we all know, mostly arose against a political background. Among geographers for instance, this has become a liminal habit, but we should avoid it. This is particularly important if, in our own interest, we scholars of Central Asia do not want to be considered as dealing only with so-called "Border regions" or zones of influence of currently dominant political players.

Territoriality concepts: In Central Asia territoriality is or has been defined according to different criteria from the big surrounding political entities. Mostly we do not have to deal here with vast areas, but with quite fuzzy territories with fuzzy boundaries, when the idea of boundary in the modern sense of the term is present at all. In many cases we even have to do with nothing but nodal points (market places, centres of pilgrimage, meeting points for regular political events) organized in an often fluid network and from which influences of different nature (economic, military, religious, social etc.) are exerted on surrounding or even remote and non-contiguous territories as well as other nodal points.
If we are to work with GIS, then a discussion should be initiated on how we best use this technology for rendering in a proper manner these networks in all their fuzziness and fluidity. How can we graphically express, for instance, fluctuations in the density of political authority within one specific territorial entity? How can the intensity of goods exchange on a trade route be rendered? How can a network of monasteries spread over a wide area without any direct correspondence with political, linguistic or cultural territories be rendered, or its economic power which consists of the added economic weight of every single monastery? Is it possible to record on a map a military power which lacks its own territory but steadily moves like an expedition?


1. The author feels indebted to John Bray who corrected the first draft of this paper.

2. Courant: Essai historique sur la musique classique des chinois. Paris 1913.
Eberhard, W.: Chinese Festivals. New York 1952

3. Mantaro J. Hashimoto: The Altaicization of Northern Chinese. In: Contributions to Sino-Tibetam Studies (Eds: John McCoy & Timothy Light); Leiden 1986.
Hidehiro Okada: Mandarin, A Language of the Manchus: How Altaic? In: Aetas Manjurica, Vol. 3, Wiesabden 1992.

4. For technical reasons diacritics had to be omitted in the following section.

5. Helmut Hoffmann: Das Kalachakra, die letzte Phase des Buddhismus in Indien. In: Saeculum 15,1964.

6. Hoffmann op. cit.
Siegbert Hummel: Frau Welt und der Priesterkoenig Johannes. In: Zeitschrift fuer Missionswissenschaft und Religionwissenschaft 43/2, (M?ster) 1959).
Siegbert Hummel: Notes on the Lamaist Apocalypse. In: Tibet Journal XXII/4, 1997 (Orig. in: Archiv Orientalni 26/2, Prag 1958).

7. Helmut Hoffmann: Kalachakra Studies I. Manicheism, Christianity and Islam in the Kalachakra Tantra. In: Central Asiatic Journal XIII, 1969.
Helmut Hoffmann: Kalachakra Studies I. Addenda et Corrigenda. In: Central Asiatic Journal XV, 1971.

8. W.A. Unkrig: Aus den letzten Jahrzehnten des Lamaismus in Russland. M?chen-Neubiberg 1926.
John Snelling: Buddhism in Russia. Shaftesbury 1993.

9. Unkrig op. cit.; Snelling op. cit.
10. Robert A. Rupen: Mongols of the Twentieth Century. Bloomington/The Hague 1964.

11. Helmuth von Glasenapp: Buddhistische Mysterien. Stuttgart 1940
Tokan Tada: The Thirteenth Dalai Lama. Tokyo 1965.

12. Peter Bishop: Nicht nur Shangri-la: Tibetbilder in der westlichen Literatur.
Thierry Dodin & Heinz Raether: Mythos Tibet - Zwischen Shangri-la und Feudalherrschaft. Versuch einer Synthese.
Frank J. Korom: Tibet und die New Age-Bewegung.
Poul Pedersen: Tibet, die Theosophie und die Psychologisierung des Buddhismus.
All four articles were published in: Thierry Dodin & Heinz Raether (Eds.): Mythos Tibet. Wahrnehmungen, Projektionen, Phantasien. Koeln 1997.

Thierry Dodin
Zentralasiatisches Seminar der Universitaet Bonn
Regina Pacis Weg 7
53113 Bonn