Sunday, November 16, 2014

Stories from the Silk Road

Retold by Cherry Gilchrist
Illustrated by Nilesh Mistry

The Silk Road invokes a vision of galloping warriors seeking adventures and enterprising traders in caravans. This ancient route started in the capital city of China, now called Xian, and wove its way towards Central Asia. You could turn south at some point and venture into India, or you could continue beyond Samarkand and head off to Europe. It was silk that first drew fascinated Europeans eastward, and hence the name.
This collection is a wonderful introduction to the history of this route and to the various legends woven along the many splendid cities that thrived along it. The seven stories are threaded together by brief interludes narrated by the Spirit of the Silk Road.

The book, fittingly, begins with the story of silk, about a young girl called Ma-t’ou who becomes the goddess of silk and looks after all the silkworms and silk workers all over China. This story is preceded by a brief history of silk and an introduction to how it is made, and an account of its historical importance.

The story of the Jade Monkey tells the reader of the fact that not just goods but also knowledge travelled along the Silk Road. In this story, a priest-teacher from China is on his way to India to seek Buddhist scriptures so that the Chinese could be sure they were learning the correct teachings of the Buddha.

We carry on and reach Dunhuang. The story based here tells us of the harsh conditions that travellers had to bear along the route. It features the White Cloud Fairy who took pity on the people living in this parched desert city and created a crescent shaped lake, which survives to this day, despite the Sand God’s attempts to thwart her. It illustrates how legends and myths often lend a supernatural element to unusual geographical landmarks.

The next story introduces us to the ever-present perils of the Silk Route – robbers, tricksters and even demons and evil spirits! But, the story tells you, the biggest danger is posed by man’s greed.

We leave the harsh desert now and are about to enter mountains of the Hindukush. This is a meeting place for travellers from all directions and stories are often swapped. We are told about the fortunes of three brothers, the message being this - take what you are given and no more, help others and you will be helped too.

Now we are in Kirghiz country, high up in the mountains. We go into a yurt and listen to their tale of a young boy called Ashik who proved that age has not much to do with wisdom.

We now enter the great city of Samarkand. For centuries, traders have praised this beautiful abode of the emperors and displayed their finest wares here. We attend a grand feast thrown by the Emperor himself and listen to the storytellers amid the merry-making. This time we learn of the splendours of the city, so much that they were often taken for granted and only the very exotic could provoke excitement!

A brilliant book for a young child interested the history of this ancient crucible of international commerce and trade. I especially enjoyed reading the fact files narrated by the Spirit of the Silk Route.

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