Ramblings: Thank you to everyone who left such kind and supportive messages for me since my last announcement. I promised to not give up this project, so here I am once again. Thank you for your understanding and patience so far. ❤
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 words I added for clearer meaning.
This chapter is from the old version of the novel. See the end notes for more details.
Chapter 21: The Kizil Caves
Seven days later, on a bright summer morning, we set off on Rajiva’s horse carriage to the Kizil Caves. The Kizil Caves are located about 70 li from Kucha, but with such a good carriage, our travel time only lasts two days. However, having to share the cramp space with Rajiva for that whole time is slightly uncomfortable. No matter where I look, his image remains in my line of vision. Serene Rajiva, smiling Rajiva, elegant Rajiva, eye-scorching Rajiva. My eyes, like an 800-megapixel camera, work non-stop to capture these images. If only I can have a photograph of him as a keepsake for when I return to my time. Return? That’s right, I will have to return sooner or later, so it’s best that I stop harbouring these hopeless feelings. I must focus, must put away these fantasies, must resist this charming and handsome man, and complete my work.
With these thoughts in mind, when the carriage stops for rest, I ignore the proffered hand and instead jump down on my own. During our meals, I help myself, determined not to be my lazy self from before who relied on his hands. When I finish chewing on the dry naan bread, I wipe off the crumbs on my mouth and refuse the handkerchief he offers. Embarrassed, he pulls back his hand. When we return to the carriage, unable to avoid looking at him, I close my eyes to recuperate, and even when drowsiness hits, I refuse to let my body sway to the side, lest I wake up and find that I have used his shoulder as a pillow.
We reach our destination at last. I am impressed with my own self-discipline. During the past two days, despite being stuck in that narrow space that could drive one crazy, I managed to stick to my resolution of not developing any emotional attachments to historical people. It was also what my boss told me every time I time-travelled: “Always remember that you are a modern person, that you will have to return to your own era. Always remind yourself that if you happen to develop romantic feelings, history may change because of you…”
But seeing the Queletage Mountain dyed a reddish hue under the sunset, the grottoes that seem to run on forever, the cave openings set in a straight line, the long wooden ladders connecting one hallway to another, and those heavy thoughts about feelings and attachments immediately evaporate from my mind.
That evening, I stay at an inn beside the Muzat River. Although I was told that this is the best room available, the sanitary standard is still relatively low. Thankfully I have brought along my sleeping bag. When the night falls on the river banks, the atmosphere is cool and without clouds, allowing the stars to illuminate the skyline. Breathing in that unpolluted air, one cannot help but feel serene. I intended to wander along the riverside, but a tall and thin figure with soft footsteps keeps walking behind me and stirring my heart astray. I have no other choice except to turn around and return to my own room, abandoning that lonely figure to the luminosity of the moon overhead.
When we arrive at the cave site the next day, as expected, there are many people who recognize Rajiva. The Kizil Cave Temple has attracted a great number of monks from all around to come here to train, and all the meditation rooms are filled up. Everyone looks at Rajiva with surprise, a few with scorn? No, no, how can it be? Why would anyone give Rajiva scornful looks? I must have been imagining it.
The abbot welcomes Rajiva with enthusiasm and later leads him to a special meditation room that was recently cleaned. How come? Don’t people usually surround him with discussions about Buddhist scriptures? Why are they leaving him in that lonely room? I look around and realize that the other monks also stay rooted to their own rooms. In fact, for the rest of the day, nobody even set a foot outside. I find this very strange, which is perhaps due to my lack of understanding regarding the rules and rituals of the Buddhist monastery. Oh well, I am mostly here for those murals on the walls, so there’s no point pondering these things any further.
There are 236 of the Kizil Caves in total [in my time], which are all numbered accordingly, and only 80 of those caves still have frescoes remaining on the walls. Most of the caves are meditation rooms for the monks following the Hinayana tradition. I once visited this site when I was still in the 21st century. The living quarters of the monks contain no murals, only a simple earthen bed and simple facilities in each. During the ancient times, these caves must be dug and built by hands, making it an arduous and costly process. At the beginning, all the associated costs that went into building this site were funded by the King of Kucha. During this period I am currently in, there are only three caves with murals, eight meditation rooms and two more caves with unfinished frescoes. The artists are still in the middle of painting them.
This is great! One can easily choose any topic—be it paint mixing, grid patterns, composition, the Buddhist stories depicted in the paintings—to write a high-quality academic paper on. I once visited the ruins of the Guge Kingdom in Ngari (now part of Zanda County, Ngari Prefecture, Tibet), and by chance met volunteers from the United Nations at an 800-year-old temple. They were in the middle of restoring the paintings named in the World Heritage list free of charge. I craned my neck up to chat with a Swiss female restorer who was squatting on the scaffolds. She showed me her toolbox: brushes of all sizes, trowels, tweezers, palette knives, and numerous other tools that look very difficult to use. I watched her work in awe. The amount of attention required to work on the minute details made it seem like some highly skilled embroidery. After restoration, the murals seem to come to life, as if they were reborn. I deeply respect and admire the work put in by those restorers and conservators.
Having this chance to see with my own eyes the murals in the process of creation and completion, I am overcome with excitement to the point where I forget about hunger and exhaustion. I want to observe how the artists, in this setting where the tools are limited and the lighting poor, are able to create those great murals that generations later still admire. As I chat with the artists and immerse myself in their work, learning their techniques, sketching their finished murals, I think to myself—I have never been busier and happier!
They use the ultramarine made from ground lapis lazuli for the background, and then yellow powder or gold foil for the Buddha’s robes, which will give the image of Shakyamuni [Gautama] Buddha a glowing sheen from afar. After centuries of weathering and decay, although the cinnabar red will turn black and the other colours will become unidentifiable, that lapis lazuli blue will not fade and remain as brilliant as ever. Lapis lazuli is a stone native to Afghanistan, a distance of over 1500km from Kucha, and possesses a seductive blue tint and pyrite luster that is highly attractive. In areas where merchants transported these stones to Kucha, the prices rose up to double its weight in gold.
The interplay of colours between the ultramarine, cinnabar red, malachite green and golden foil brings life to these magnificent sceneries, each painting a treasure for generations to come. Later on, when Kucha was invaded by the Uyghur, whose religion [Islam] prohibited idol worship, the artists were forced to remove the yellow pigment from the Buddha robes, leaving the cracked gray earth underneath exposed to present day. Only that ultramarine remains throughout the ages, a colour so vivid that the 21st century scholars who gaze upon it cannot help but let out a quiet breath of admiration.
After the rise of Buddhism in the 6th century BCE, for hundreds of years, there were no statues of the Buddha. The only symbols of the Buddha were footprints, altars, the Bodhi Tree and the stupas. When I visited the Ajanta Caves in India, a series of Buddhist caves built as early as the 2nd century BCE, I did not see any statues, only the Buddha’s footprints and altars. A century after CE, with the rise of Mahayana Buddhism, idol worship became more common and statues of the Buddha began to appear.
[T/N: I never formally addressed this before, but it was my personal choice to use the alternative designations BCE (Before Common Era) and CE (Common Era) instead of BC (Before Christ) and AD (Anno Domini, “in the year of the Lord”). The latter is obviously Christian-based and I find that jarring in a story steeped in Buddhism.]
After Alexander the Great conquered Gandhara (north-west of the Indian subcontinent, now north of Pakistan and the northeastern border of Afghanistan) [in 327 BCE], Buddhist statues began to absorb more and more of the Greek techniques, turning the Gandhara style into a major school of Buddhist art later on.
The murals in the Kizil Caves are deeply influenced by the Gandhara art style and by extension, the Greek art. The statues of the Buddha that were later destroyed are representative of the Gandhara style: Oval-shaped face, symmetrical features, high nose, wavy hair tied into a bun. Wearing a long robe that leaves one shoulder bare and a beard. The Buddha, the bodhisattvas and the nymphs shown on the murals are mostly half-naked, depicted in graceful and delicate postures, and the clothes, sashes and jewellery they wear are painted with vivid strokes.
Right now, I am copying a mural titled “The maiden seducing Siddhartha”. The mural depicts the early life of the Gautama Buddha when he was still the prince Siddhartha. Having seen life’s endless sufferings and sorrows, the prince decided to become a monk. His father, King Suddhodana, wanted the prince to inherit the throne instead, and so he tried to surround Siddhartha with all kinds of luxuries and pleasures.
In the middle of sketching, I suddenly feel a presence behind me. I turn around and see Rajiva staring at my sketchpad, his face incredibly red. I look back at my drawing and understanding dawns. I am currently drawing a courtesan leaning her curvaceous body onto the prince, a hand on his thigh. It is only a small scene amongst thousand other images in the murals. If I didn’t copy the image and enlarge the details, nobody would have noticed a thing. Except now that I have done it, the figure of the courtesan is clearly visible, her position undoubtedly suggestive, and the scene now spans an entire page of my sketchpad.
A small blush travels across my face. I quickly close my sketchpad and ask him what’s the matter. He says that he came to tell me that it is lunchtime. The past few days, I have purposely chosen to arrive at the caves at a different time and always ate lunch with the artists. Now that he personally came to look for me, only to notice I’ve been drawing risqué images, how embarrassing. I quickly look around and see that everyone has left. I have no choice but to follow him.
The past few days, Rajiva and the abbot were often found walking back and forth, constantly looking at some sketches, eyes looking at the cliff ahead, fingers pointing all the while. I ask him out of curiosity and get told that Rajiva is planning to use the donations from the royal family for the Cakuri Temple the past few years to build a life-sized Buddha statue here. I take a peek at the design sketch. The statue is going to be 15m tall and in the Buddha’s backlit aura, there will be a circle of smaller statues. This kind of depiction of the Buddha in Nirvana is different from that of the Hinayana tradition. This is the later Gandhara art style, also known as Indo-Afghanistan style.
Gandhara art travelled to the East along the Silk Road and began to flourish in the eastern region of Afghanistan during the Kushan period (1st – 3rd century CE). The Buddhas of Bamiyan that were later destroyed by the Taliban [who were against idol worship] represented the classic blended style of Gandhara art. In his youth, Rajiva followed his mother to Kabul, part of the Kashmir region and the center of Gandhara, so he must have seen those great statutes. Perhaps that is why the Kizil Caves also came to have those humongous statues. A project that grand in scale, without the hands and brain of a master like Rajiva, would have never seen the light.
But what Rajiva does not know is that this combination of Indian rock-cut architecture and the gigantic Gandhara Buddha statues of the Kizil Caves will not only be a sensation in Kucha, but will also later become a major influence on sites like the Mogao Grottoes of Dunhuang, the Yungang Grottoes and the Longmen Grottoes. My respect for Rajiva only seems to grow.
At the same time, I notice something strange. While Rajiva is busy working on this and that, all the other monks remain in their meditation rooms all-day. They do not come out even during meal times. Instead, little monks would bring food to each room. How peculiar. Perhaps they are observing some sort of ritual? When I bring this up to Rajiva during our meal, he tells me that they are merely meditating, nothing to ponder about. He is clearly not telling me the whole truth but asking anymore would only be futile. In the afternoon, when I resume my work alongside the painters, I put forth my inquiry to them.
“They are in a summer retreat.”
Summer retreat? Sounds familiar. Ah, in his Biography, the monk Faxian wrote that in his journey to the West, he also had to frequently stop for a three-month summer retreat.
“Every year, when the summer comes, all the monks will confine themselves to their rooms and not step a foot outside.”
“That’s right, they are not allowed to go out. Even if an emergency happens, they will still need to ask the abbot for permission before stepping out.”
“Right, right, they sit like that for a whole month. The grand masters have to sit for three months straight.”
* After some research, I found that the correct term for this practice in Pali is vassa. It is a practice within the Hinayana tradition. More accurately, the retreat takes place during the monsoon or wet season and lasts for three lunar months, usually from July but not always. Most Mahayana Buddhists do not observe vassa. Zen Buddhists, however, has a similar practice called ango in Japanese.
The discussion no longer holds my interest. The back of my nose stings. During the monsoon season, all the Buddhist disciples would remain on temple grounds and meditate. This is the time where everything grows, so they avoid going outside to prevent unintentional killing. No wonder those monks look at Rajiva with contempt. He is supposed to stay in his temple and meditate, but instead he is out travelling with a girl. Although he comes here to begin the construction of the Buddha statue, but must it be during this season of retreat? He is disobeying the monastic rules…Is it because of me?
In the evening, I walk along the Muzat River in a daze. I am aware that from a distance not too far away, he is gazing at me in silence. I wave a hand at him. The gesture startles Rajiva. He begins to walk towards me. When he reaches my side, I pat pat the stone next to me. He hesitates for a second before sitting down on it.
“Rajiva, you shouldn’t have gone out during the summer retreat…”
Startled, he casts his gaze toward the moonlit river and speaks in a calm tone: “I came here to begin the statue construction, a gesture of respect towards the Buddha, what is wrong with that?”
“Couldn’t that wait at least another month?”
Rajiva suddenly turns his gaze on me. Under the starry night, those eyes are like waves surging forward, and in the next instant, they have disappeared into the depths.
My throat constricts in sorrow and pain. I do not have the courage to look into his eyes.
“Rajiva, I have drawn quite a considerable amount. You can leave tomorrow.”
Silence. He turns his head back to look at the river, his expression unreadable.
I bite my lips and gather all my wits together, “Rajiva, I do not belong here.”
He suddenly stands up and straightens his back. His chest inflates up and down. He is really tall. My neck hurts as I look up at him. Or maybe it is not he who is too tall, but my head that is getting heavy, as if weighed down by rocks, slowly falling…
“We will leave tomorrow.”
I try to look up again, only to see the brown kasaya robes moving quickly towards the inn, and in a flash, vanish around a corner.
That night, looking out from the windows, underneath the pale light of the moon, I see a lonely figure standing beside the river. A callous breeze passes by and messes up the thin robes, making that figure appear even more lonesome. I stare at that figure for a long while as if hypnotized, until my clothes become cold to the touch. I wipe the tears that have fallen on my face and dash out of my room. The night is quiet, save for the water trickling in waves. There is no one by the river any longer. I return to my bed but do not fall asleep. Instead, my eyes watch the night slowly giving way to dawn and then to morning.
On the way back, we both remain silent in the carriage. There are deep circles around his eyes. And me? According to the bronze mirror, not that much better. He is gazing outside, and I am doing the same. We are both adults. We know that what cannot be, will not be, so why bother holding on uselessly?
I will return to the 21st century, return to my own life, and who knows, maybe I will find someone to love. There is an upperclassman in my program who has expressed his feelings toward me once. Perhaps I should consider further development with him. Even if he is not as handsome, not as intelligent, not as gentle, not as…I know, I know that upperclassman cannot be compared to Rajiva, but at the very least he is a real person, whereas Rajiva to me is only historical data to be collected, only a few lines in a pile of tattered books…
We remain in silence for the rest of the journey back to the Subashi City. Before he returns to the temple, Rajiva stares at me for a moment before letting out a long sigh.
“I will arrange a group of merchants for you. In the coming days, I will have to sit in retreat and will not be able to return here in the evenings any longer.”
A long moment later, he is still rooted to the spot, hovering at the door, unable to take a foot forward.
“The Su Mu Zhe festival will occur in another ten days. You once said that you wanted to observe this festival. So maybe…” he hesitates for a second, “maybe wait until after the festival…”
I look up and find myself lost in the deep abyss of his eyes, unable to escape. My usually clever mouth becomes stiff as a board, my tongue as dry as the sand, and I only have enough strength to utter out a single sound: “Alright.”
The corners of his mouth curve up unconsciously. It has been a long time since I last saw him smile. But just to be clear, I am not staying behind because of you, Rajiva. I honestly want to observe that festival steeped in the Eastern traditions. I am an earnest student, a hard-working researcher, not an ideal…lover.
Ramblings: So, as it turned out, my mom refused to send me the newer edition of the novel in her parcel recently, claiming that they were too heavy (over 2kg or something). I was really upset. She said she will bring them over when she visits me next year. T_T
I still can’t locate an ebook version of the new edition, so for the time being, I will continue to translate from the old edition.