Myth of the Silk Road

The Karakoram Highway being known as the Silk Road is another one of many nuggets of official mendacity.

Salman Rashid June 30, 2011
Myth of the Silk Road

Until the Karakoram Highway — connecting Abbottabad with Kashgar via Gilgit and Hunza — came near completion in the mid-1980s, no one knew that the Silk Road ran through Pakistan. With the great highroad ready and with lorries plying its nearly seven hundred kilometre-length, suddenly someone upped and told us that this was the fabled Silk Road. And we, the Great Unwashed of this land, gobbled it up hook, line and stinker (pun intended).

We, or our bureaucracy, have spent sixty-four very diligent years creating a huge body of lies, lies and lies that now passes for history. (No wonder with such industry occupying us, nothing else of any consequence ever got done in this sorry land.) The Karakoram Highway being known as the Silk Road is another one of those many nuggets of official mendacity.

Fact: The Silk Road connected China with Persia, Mesopotamia and Byzantium and passed through Central Asia, skirting every inch of what was to one day become Pakistan. Travellers’ tales and histories abound containing yarns of those heady days when caravans laden with Chinese silks jangled their way westward. Men like Marco Polo, Wilhelm of Rubruck and the several Jesuit priests who travelled by it part of the way left behind intriguing tales; tales of romance and adventure so titillating that they make the heart ache for a similar journey.

Those travellers and raconteurs of yore name cities, potentates and exotic customs describe scenery as it still exists. But not one of them, not a single one, names a place as heartbreakingly beautiful as Hunza or one as evil as Chilas. However, there are no stories of any silk off-loaded in the fabulous and very learned city of Taxila.

For a moment, let me fault those stingy travellers who stole the Silk Road glory from us Pakistanis. Outside Chilas (the gateway to Taxila via the Babusar Pass) by the sandy banks of the Sindhu, rock after huge rock is carved with the most exquisite drawings. Bodhisattvas, Buddhas, pilgrims, conquerors, hunters, ordinary travellers what have you are all represented on these stones. But not one stone bears even the faintest clue about a bolt of silk. If there had been silk, someone would have noticed it and left behind a record in stone of its trade. Since there is no record of it, neither here, nor anywhere else in the entire length of our so-called Silk Road, the safe conclusion is that no silk ever came this way. The question then is why call it by that fictitious title?

Imagine a desk-bound, half-educated, bureaucrat of the minister of tourism who thought of cashing in on the newly built highway. What better idea than stealing some of the glamour and romance of the real Silk Road. The man probably reckoned that by so naming it, we’ll have tourists giving off the real item and thronging to our shores.

This pygmy did not realise that instead of this supposititious untruth, we could simply have billed this great highway as the eighth wonder of the world — which it truly is. Instead of celebrating silk, we could have commemorated those brave pioneers, Chinese and Pakistani, who gave up their lives to build this overland connection for us. But no. So used was the bureaucracy to inventing lies about Pakistan that they had to create yet another. And so it is that 185 million people today erroneously know the Karakoram Highway as the Silk Road.

How then did the silk used in the subcontinent ever get here? For one, there was the great sea route between peninsular India and China. The major land transit for silk was from China’s Yunan province through Myanmar into India.

That having been said, it must be conceded that there was indeed a mountain route as well. A British traveller of 1924 encountered hundreds of bales of silk stored in an inn at the foot of the Karakoram Pass on the great trade route between Yarkand and Leh, which eventually connected to Srinagar and the rest of India.

If there was any subcontinental Silk Road, it sadly lies in India.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 1st, 2011.


Adnan | 13 years ago | Reply This guy (the writer) seems to carry massive chips on his shoulders. While I understand the dirth of interest in ancient history in Pakistan, I don't understand the uncivilized language used (referring to another human being as pygmy), and I do not understand purposefully making up faulty information and feeding it to the unsuspecting public.
Safir afkhan. | 13 years ago | Reply khuram @ i agreed with u man.
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