Ramblings: If anyone ever wonders where I am with the translation, you can check out my Progress page located on the top menu bar, which I will also provide link here. The page has been there since the beginning but I don’t think many are aware of it.
T/N: Any notes at the end of relevant paragraphs that are indicated with an asterisk * are usually my own translation notes, unless I say otherwise in square brackets. Words in square brackets [ ] in sentences are also words I added for clearer meaning.
Chapter 18: Going to the Cakuri Monastery
The carriage keeps on going. I open the curtain to look outside. It seems we are heading north. Looking at the fields all around us, we must have left the Kuchan capital a long while ago. How strange, to travel so far, could it be the inn is in the countryside?
“We are going to the Cakuri Monastery,” seeing my confusion, Rajiva tells me. “I am presiding over the monastery. It is located forty li from the capital, a long distance to travel.”
Cakuri Monastery? The monastery that Xuanzang once lectured at? Where the Subashi ruins that I explored extensively while at Kucha are? That’s right, Rajiva did preside over the monastery. However, there are no documents that recorded the exact date. I didn’t expect it to be when he is this young.
“We will arrive in time for the evening meal.”
My bewildered face must be an amusing sight because Rajiva’s smile grows wider.
I am about to defend myself, but seeing that bewitching smile, I forget what I wanted to say and just stare at him. His smile at age thirteen was already quite disarming, but his smile at age twenty-four is even more captivating. I put a hand over my eyes. I must stop exposing myself to this blinding sight that keeps making my heart throb.
“Your arm is still hurt, don’t touch it.”
Rajiva, do you know that gaze and smile of yours are what people in the 21st century called “giving signal” huh? I put my hand down and force myself to ignore those bewitching eyes by trying to change the topic.
“Is Pusyseda doing well?”
At the mention of his brother, his smile turns gentle. “He is currently the captain of the royal guard, highly regarded by the king.”
I knew it. Since young Pusyseda has always enjoyed martial arts more than letters, always making me play soldier with him every time we had a lesson. Only after that will he agree to sit down to study. Thinking about that little boy, I can’t help but smile. Now that he is a twenty-one, I wonder if he still remembers me, even though the time we spent together was barely three months.
“Is he married?”
“No. Pusyseda is always playing around, never seen him serious with any girl. When father urged him [about marriage], he said he will marry the most unique woman of all times.”
Haha, what a high standard! But then again, he is from the royal family, probably very tall and handsome to boot.
“I want to meet him but I’m afraid my appearance might scare him.”
Rajiva chuckles, seeming to remember something. “No, he always thought you are a fairy and that you will definitely return.”
“Can you arrange for us to meet then?” I wonder if I will be able to recognize Pusyseda as he is now.
Seeing Rajiva’s nod, I feel a sense of relief.
“Seeing you, then meeting with him later, I can leave in ease. “
Kucha was not a planned destination in this time jump. I purposefully diverted the plan to see Rajiva and find a way to meet Pusyseda but after that, I will be exploring Taqian and head to Chang’an. I keep reminding myself, I came here to work. I can only stay in this era at most a year. Even though the Lithium battery has made the time-travel watch much more stabilized, the battery’s life is limited. To ensure that I have enough power remaining to return, I have to leave this era within a year. If not, I will have to stay here forever.
Rajiva looks a little surprised. “Back to the Central Plains? Or back to heaven?”
Heaven? I am stunned. “You actually believed that?”
“If not, why would a Han woman appear all alone in the desert? Why, despite having never been to Kabul, do you know the [Kizil] cave temple’s design so well? Why do you know about the origin of the Masha temple in Khotan? Why is your knowledge more extensive and profound than any other woman’s? Why did you disappear so suddenly without a trace behind? Why has your appearance not changed from ten years ago?”
His mountain of “why’s” renders me speechless. Facing such a great debater like him, how could I win. If he continues to ask, I’m afraid I might just confess everything.
Seeing that I am at a loss, Rajiva gives a faint smile: “In fact, I already had doubts ten years ago. You suddenly disappeared, then returned ten years later looking unchanged. This led me to believe that your presence is the will of Buddha.”
I break away from his gaze; it’s making me nervous. I try to keep my calm and change the topic again.
“Is your father well?”
His eyes become clouded. “He has not been in good health, perhaps because he misses my mother.”
I recall reading that Jiva would eventually leave Kucha for India, but there are no records as to when. I guess that by now, she has already left.
I become silent. Kumarayana, that elegant scholar, that intelligent and gentle person, must have always loved his wife dearly. He could have inherited a title in India (not sure which kingdom he was from because at that time, as India was divided into many territories) but chose to leave it all behind to become a monk and travel to Kucha. One document wrote that Kumarayana married Jiva because she loved him, even forced him to marry her. But I think, monks with a heart as hard as rock like him, if he didn’t love her greatly, he would not have remained in Kucha and become the State Preceptor. After all, he had a title in India! If not because of his beautiful wife and his two intelligent sons, why would he agree to this self-exile? That’s why he strongly opposed Jiva becoming a nun, and only reluctantly agreed when she went on a hunger strike for six days. Looking at his dear wife shaving her head, knowing that his family will never be whole again, it must have been painful. He himself is a monk, he should have been happy that someone has voluntarily chosen to dedicate their life to Buddhism. But when that person is someone he loves, why couldn’t he resign himself to it?
I open the curtains again to look outside. The carriage travels very fast, but since it is of good quality, the ride is not too bumpy. A patchwork of fields appears far away, and beyond that is the Tian Shan range laying against the blue sky backdrop. I turn around and find Rajiva’s eyes on me again. Why is it that even though Kumarayana was reluctant in letting his wife join the monastery, he allowed his seven-year-old son to do so? Perhaps it was not just because the little boy needed his mother, but also because Kumarayana wanted Rajiva to look after her.
I am lost in my own thoughts. The carriage’s wheels keep turning and my eyelids get heavier and heavier. The past few days have left me exhausted. My ear hears a warm voice speaking gently, “Ai Qing, lie down and sleep.”
Without thinking any further, I lay my head down. Before I fall asleep, I remember lying on some soft pillow, but after that I sleep like the dead.
When Rajiva wakes me up, it is already afternoon. Rajiva’s face is red again. My sleeping posture must have been weird. I feel embarrassed, but the feeling quickly dissipates after I climb down the carriage and see what is outside. The carriage has stopped before a magnificent site of architecture that is more like a city.*
This is the most famous monastery in the history of Kucha – Cakuri Monastery, built during the Wei-Jin2 period, and also the largest Buddhist ruins that remained in the Western Regions [in modern era]. In the “Great Tang Records on the Western Regions”, Xuanzang translated the temple’s name to Chinese as 照怙厘 (Zhào Hù Lí). It reached its peak during the Sui and Tang dynasties, where Xuanzang stayed for more than two months and left behind numerous documents for later generations to study.*
1 also known as the Subashi Ancient City. Ai Qing will explain it more later.
2 220-316 CE, encompassing the Three Kingdoms period, which tripartite division of China between the states of Wei (魏), Shu (蜀), and Wu (吳), and the Jin dynasty.
* The order of the sentences in these paragraphs has been slightly rearranged to makes it easier to follow.
The monastery’s area extends to the hills and mountains on the east and west side of Tongchang [Kucha] River. To the north of the site is a small Uyghur village rumoured to be the inspiration for the “Women’s Country” in the novel “Journey to the West” by Wu Cheng’en. Whether that is true is a mystery that has yet been solved.
Buddhist grottoes in the north are still left standing to this date, where there are frescoes and stones carved with Tocharian characters. However, most of the Buddhist statues in the monastery are believed to have been destroyed by Muslims later on [who overtook Kucha] because their religion prohibited idolatry.
The Cakuri Monastery used the Tongchang River as natural border separating the temple into two areas, west and east. The Kuchan people today call the entire site Subashi Ancient City, the most significant historic site in Kucha aside from the Kizil Caves. Today, if you want to travel to the Cakuri Monastery in Kucha, you have to mention the Subashi Ancient City because those who are not experts on the history of Kucha will not know which temple is the Cakuri. In reality, Subashi is only a small city at the southern end of the west side of the temple, merely affiliated with the entire site that is the Cakuri Monastery. Subashi is the resting stop for tourists who come here to visit. The city is filled with numerous pagodas, both tall and short, making the eyes tired from just gazing at them.
We are currently inside the Subashi City. Rajiva brings me to a small courtyard at the edge of the city. The one who opens the door is an old man. There is something familiar about him. The old man is also studying me. Ah, I remember. He is the housekeeper from the State Preceptor’s residence, named Masavu, who served Kumarayana from India to Kucha. It takes him longer to recognize me. When he does, he is so overcome with surprise that he keeps pointing at me, unable to say a word. Rajiva explains to him in Sanskrit. The man starts to calm down, but still looks at me curiously as he leads me inside.
The courtyard is not very big, consists of only two, three small buildings on each side. Like other houses in Kucha, the courtyard also has a grapevine, which is currently in full bloom. The grapes are maturing, filling the air with a light sweet smell. [Ai Qing is then brought to a room.] The room’s furnishings are very simple: bed, cupboard, table, chairs, and no extraneous items. It is spotless everywhere, as if the entire place is free from earthly musk and dirt. The only belongings of value are the two bookshelves leaning against the wall. A glance at them tells me that they are filled with all kinds of books: Han, Tocharian, Sanskrit and a couple others that seem very familiar.
“This is my reading room,” Rajiva explains, seeing my interest in the shelves. “Pusyseda has no interest in books, so father gave me all the books from home.”
“You live here?”
“I live in the temple. This is merely a quiet place for me to read.” The eyes on his thin face are not looking at me. “You can be at ease here, Masavu and his wife will look after you.”
Rajiva steps out. I quickly set out my belongings. A moment later he returns with a bottle of medicine wine and a clean white cloth. I try to treat myself, but when the wine hits the wound, I grit my teeth in pain. Watching from the sideline, Rajiva scolds me for my clumsiness, takes my hand and gently dabs the wine-soaked cloth to my wound. The wound on my palm is actually not that serious, but the big gash on my elbow is. I roll up my sleeves and show him the blistering wound.
Rajiva stills at the sight of my bare arm. Bandaging forgotten, a strange look crosses his eyes as they travel along my arm. I suddenly realize that the person before me is no longer the teenage boy of thirteen but someone of ten years later, a man the same age as me. During this period in history, it is not appropriate for a woman to show her bare arm in front of a man. I pull down my sleeves and tell him I will treat the wound myself.
He has not spoken this whole time, but suddenly grabs my arm to his side, rolls up the sleeves and dabs the wound with the cloth. His movement is not as gentle [as before], but the serious look on his face makes me forget about the pain. I just carefully observe him.
Under the dim oil lamp, a faint circle of light reflects on his face, casting a glow on the slightly upturned eyebrows, the high nose, and the pursed lips. That handsomeness makes breathing difficult for the person opposite. The distance between us is close enough that I can smell the scent of sandalwood from his body, an intoxicating scent that seems to pull me closer. I suddenly come to a realization—I have to leave this place soon, before I make a big mistake. The kind of mistake that my boss will not forgive, that even I will not forgive myself for making.
Masavu and his wife walk in with food. The food’s aroma helps dilute the heady scent in the room. Masavu still seems to be suspicious of me, evident in the eyes that keep glancing at me. I do not know what Rajiva told him to make him accept my return, so I can only offer a weak grin in reply. I ask Rajiva later and am told that his explanation was that I am Ai Qing’s niece. I laugh hard at that. To explain it like that…But wait, I thought monks are not allowed to lie? I am about to tease Rajiva for it but stop in time. Even I do not know how to explain my return [and unchanging appearance].
“Rajiva, I left behind my backpack last time, did you keep it by any chance?”
I left behind so many modern items, including my notepad and sketchbook. My boss has repeatedly told me not to leave behind any garbage from my time, because if someone finds it in the future, then… Imagine, a grizzled archaeologist hard at work digging up a relic, when he suddenly discovers that a corner of the item says the word “Northface”… What a scary thought!
Rajiva nods but the expression on his face is off. How strange, could it be he took a liking to my backpack? Don’t joke around, Northface is the most famous brand in the world for traveller’s backpacks! The fund used to purchase it was provided by the researchers, or how else could a poor student like me afford it. No matter how much Rajiva likes it, I cannot give it to him.
“I will bring it to you in a few days.”
I nod and take another gulp of the mutton soup.
“Rajiva, I want to visit the Cakuri Monastery. May I?”
He has been watching me eat and at my request, gives a slight nod. “I will take you there tomorrow.”
At night, I sleep on the low wooden bed. There are no bed sheets and soft pillows in this era, but I am used to it. Rajiva said he does not live here, probably to let me feel at ease. I am pretty certain he used to live here, because a faint smell of sandalwood remains on the blanket, the pillow and the mat I am lying on. That clean, soft scent lulls me into a deep slumber.
For those who want to know more or see more photos of the Subashi Ancient City, here are some links I found/relied on in my research:
1) Xinjiang’s Tourism: general info from the official website of Xinjiang’s Tourism
2) Xinjiang Travel: mostly photos
3) China Today: article about when the Subashi Ruins was designated UNESCO Heritage Site (June 2014) and some info/history.
Ramblings: China has always been one of my destinations to travel to when I’m able (as in not broke as I am now), but now I am adding Xinjiang (Kucha) to the list of cities to visit in China. I would love to see the Subashi Ruins, the Kizil Caves, the Tian Shan range and the Xinjiang Museum. It’d be quite a detour but definitely worth it. I’ll be able to see remnants of the Silk Road as well. Ah, I’m already excited at the thought.