Title: Beyond the Himalayas: Journeying Through the Silk Route
Author: Goutam Ghose
Publisher: Niyogi Books
Major Hari Ahluwalia was a young officer in the Indian Army when he climbed Everest in 1965. He was a member of the first Indian expedition to successfully scale the mountain and one of the first to reach the summit. Our then prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, awarded him India’s coveted Arjuna Award and India had a new national hero. But within two months of receiving the award, he was wounded in combat along the India-Pakistan border and permanently disabled. Despite the setback, Hari continued organizing mountaineering expeditions and writing books about his life and travels.
It was as the chairman of the Youth Exploring Society of India that he invited me to film an expedition he was planning along an ancient trade route connecting India with Central Asia and Tibet. But most of the route lay within modern China. This would be the first time any group was being allowed to make a journey with its own vehicles – a diplomatic breakthrough and a personal triumph for Hari.
In 1962, a border dispute between India and China had erupted into a brief war which left the two countries estranged for the next thirty years. In the two most populous nations of the world, a generation of young people had grown up, knowing little or nothing about one another.
Hari’s idea was to encourage peaceful dialogue between India and her northern neighbour through new cultural exchanges. In Beijing, he met with the president of the Disabled Federation, who, like Hari, is confined to a wheelchair. As it happened, he is also the son of China’s leader, Chairman Deng Xiaoping, and is thus perfectly placed to help Hari fulfil his dream.
I live in Calcutta and I make films about India. My country was run by the British for 200 years, yet it preserves an ancient culture that conditions every aspect of its daily life. Because we live in a world of our own, separated from the north by politics and geography, I have always wanted to see what lay just a few hundred miles from me on the other side of the mountains. Excited about Hari’s proposal, I abandoned my new idea for a feature film and began to think about journeying along the ancient Silk Road.
The first place I decided to visit was The Asiatic Society. Founded by Sir William Jones in 1784, the society pioneered the rediscovery of Asia and its past. All the early expeditions were organized and monitored from here. I was suddenly filled with curiosity and an impetuous desire to delve into all the rare books and manuscripts on its shelves. The Travels of Marco Polo describe the wonders of the Silk Road – cities far greater than his own and a world more magnificent than anything imagined by the insular backward Europe of the thirteenth century. But he was a late traveller. The Silk Route was one of the greatest trade routes in history and men had already been travelling there for four thousand years. Before sea routes were discovered in the fifteenth century, this trans-Asian highway was the sole link between the east and the west. It ran from Xi’an in China all the way to the Mediterranean. There were, moreover, many tributaries to the mighty river, not least of which were caravan routes across the Himalayan mountain range between India and Central Asia.
A facsimile of Hari’s letter to me –
You will be delighted to know that we now have all our permissions. Because of the current turmoil in Afghanistan, we cannot drive through the Khyber Pass into the Central Asia as planned. All the members of the expedition including the jeeps and equipment will be flown from Delhi to Uzbekistan on the 18th of May.
I believe I told you about my London-based friend Michael, who is a filmmaker with a longstanding interest in Buddhism. He has wanted to make this trip for a long time and I’m sure he will be immensely helpful to you. Do please get in touch with him.
As per Hari’s suggestion I met Michael Haggiag in his London home. Michael was preparing for the trip with great excitement. I filmed him and his wife there.
A conversation between Michael and his wife Katherine in London –
Katherine – ‘Want some tea?’
Michael thanks her. ‘This is what Marco Polo had to say about the women of Hami and their very nice customs.
‘I give you my word – when a stranger comes to a house here to seek hospitality, he receives a very warm welcome.
‘The host makes his wife do everything the guest wishes and he leaves the house and goes about his own business and stays away for two or three days. Meanwhile, the guest stays with his wife in the house and does what he will with her – lying with her in one bed, just as if she was his own wife, and they lead a gay life together. The women are beautiful and vivacious and always ready to oblige.‘
‘I am not sending you there.’
‘No? It’s also very hot. It’s 40˚C in the shade – that’s over 100˚F. They also have the largest cockroaches.’
‘Sounds like it’s terrible out there!’
‘Anyway, I’m preparing for the trip. Look at these wonderful books here … this is Bukhara and this, Samarkand … these are some really old pictures of the way it was in the 1890s!’
‘Do you realize how long Hari had to wait for permission for this? He started organizing his expedition eight years ago and he just got confirmation now. And if we don’t go within the next three weeks, we can’t go at all.’
About the Book: Filmmaker Goutam Ghose was part of the Central Asian expedition organised by Major H.P.S. Ahluwalia in 1994, the first of its kind. They undertook an arduous 14,000 km journey through Central Asia, China and Tibet tracing the ancient trade route. Ghose captured this once-in-a-lifetime adventure as a five-part series in his film Beyond the Himalayas (1996). This film book is a pictorial chronicle of Ghose’s incredible experience on the Silk Route. Much of the text is the narration of the original soundtrack of the series which has been adapted for the benefit of book readers. His lens captures breathtaking visuals of a less travelled road. The tapestry of history, travel anecdotes, local legends and titanic characters lend a cinematic quality to the whole narrative. The fabled past and the present are intercut by cinematic jumps in this fascinating record of an enduring memory in the collective consciousness of the history of mankind.
Goutam Ghose launched into documentaries, group theatre and photo journalism in 1973. His documentary, Hungry Autumn won him the main award at the Oberhausen Film Festival. Since then Ghose has produced several documentaries on personalities like Ustad Bismillah Khan, Satyajit Ray and HH Dalai Lama, in addition to ten feature films and a number of advertisement, corporate and short films. He has won fifteen National Awards, besides Filmfare Awards and a number of international awards like Silver Balloon, Nantes Film Festival, UNESCO Award at Venice, Golden Semurg at Tashkent, Fipresci Award and Red Cross Award at Verna Film Festival. He is the only Indian to win the coveted Vittori Di Sica Award and was awarded the Knighthood of the Star of Italian Solidarity in 2008.
Goutam Ghose is a well-known award-winning film director, scriptwriter and even actor. He has been the only Indian to have received the Vittorio Di Sica Award from Italy in 1997 and was awarded the Knighthood of the Star of the Italian Solidarity in July 2006. Ghose has won fifteen National Awards, besides Filmfare Awards and a number of international awards like Silver Balloon, Nantes Film Festival, UNESCO Award at Venice, Golden Semurg at Tashkent, Fipresci Award and Red Cross Award at Verna Film Festival.
But did you know he has also authored a number of books? Just as he bridges borders with his poetic films that touch the human heart with a range of emotions, he does the same with his books. He takes up burning issues with artistry, never inciting with rage or hatred but conveying by his skill with the camera and words. He has created a world without borders with his transcontinental outlook and approach.
His reaction to the Ram Janmabhoomi riots was Moner Manush(2010), a film based on Lalon Fakir’s life, knitting together the best in Muslim and Hindu traditions instead of filming the clashes and the violence. Published in English as The Quest (2013), the book is a powerful dramatisation with pictures from the film. The book, like the film, is also an emotional lesson in humanism. Based on Sunil Gangopadhyay’s novel on Lalon Fakir’s life, the film is beautiful. But the book allowed me to mull over the words, which have been translated by Sankar Sen. It is a book that needs to be read when casteism and religious divides take precedence over humanitarian values. By bringing these songs into translation to readers unfamiliar with Bengali, both Ghose and Sen have opened a world of love and tolerance to new readers, who will hopefully find the time to mull over the wisdom of these songs.
‘What was your caste when you came here,
What caste did you take on arrival, dear,
What would be your caste when it’s time to go --
Ponder and tell me if you know.’
-- Translated by Sankar Sen, from The Quest
His other book that traverses the silk route and journeys through China, Beyond the Himalayas(2019), transcends boundaries and fills the reader with a sense of exhilaration. It is based on his documentary of the same name. Both these recordings of their journey along the silk route are worth viewing and reading. They show humans are the same across all borders. The book, interspersed with lovely pictures of the landscape and mature writing pauses on history at the right junctures. The narration is poetic in both the book and the documentary.
Though Ghose claims that these texts and photographs capture memories of the film, both his books transported me to a different time and space. I saw the films after reading the books, but both were energising, emotionally charged and entertaining. The journey takes one through different parts of the world and gives a new perspective to a 4000-year-old route. Initiated and organised by Major Hari SinghAhluwalia and Deng Xiaoping’s son, the travels in Beyond the Himalayas took me across borders to areas I have never visited and now, I hope to visit post pandemic. Both the book and the film acquainted me with cultures that excite. And The Quest reinforced the belief, through the depiction of Lalon’s life, that humanism exists despite the degradations of history. That riots can be calmed with the soothing notes of Lalon’s lyrics, rich in wisdom, would be a win for the human spirit.
Like all great artistes, Ghose speaks in beautiful poetic sentences about concepts that touch the human heart and imagination. In this exclusive, he speaks not just about his film-books, but about the real journey and issues he is facing through the pandemic, including the delay of his film with an Italian male lead and his new short film on the current times, Covid-worn and waiting…
You are a very well-known film director, cinematographer, and music director. You have directed award winning Bollywood and Tollywood movies. Normally books come before films but from two of these films, you have made books. Why did you go in for making books of the films?
I have loved books since my childhood. The shape and form of it, the touch and smell of a book fascinate me. They will never die even if we read on the screen rather than by turning pages of a physical object. A certain sense of the sacred has surrounded books from civilisations’ inception. In cinema, be it fiction or non-fiction, we write a script at the pre-production stage. A film-book is all about times gone by — a book of memories, of both cyclic and linear time. My producer from Bangladesh, Habibur Rehman Khan, had liked the idea of film books and had published three wonderful books on Padma Nodir Majhi(Boatman of the Padma River, filmed in 1993), Moner Manush (filmed in 2010 ) and Shankhachil (Unbound, filmed in 2016) in Bengali. Niyogi books of India has published a beautiful pictorial English version of Moner Manush as The Quest and also Beyond the Himalayas, my journey along the Silk Road. Another lovely film book is Pratikshan’s bilingual centenary tribute to Bismillah Khan (Bismillah in Banaras the film Goutam Ghosh made, 2017).
Is dubbing or subtitling the film not an easier option than doing a film-book?
Well, dubbing or subtitling is for watching a language film, but a film book is meant for reading. It becomes a part of your book collections. I have some wonderful film books published from Europe and United States.
Moner Manush is based on Lalon Fakir’s life and on the novel by Sunil Gangopadhyay. Why did you feel there was a need for a separate book after you made a very powerful film on it?
Lalon Fakir is an eternal savant. Scholars have been doing research on Lalon’s life and philosophy since long. It is heard that Lalon was an illiterate man. But going through the words of his songs and the implied significance, it seems as if he was an erudite scholar tutored in an age-old system of education. His faith was not guided by any particular religion, rather it could be said to be comprised of the mysticism of Sufi and the love and forgiveness of Vaishnavism and the liberalism of the tantric sect of Buddhism. My film on Lalon fakir is research on this great man aswell. The Bengali film book contains important articles by scholars besides the script, reviews and memoirs.
Do you feel that the message of Moner Manush is relevant in a world beset by not just divides but even a pandemic? Is there something we can learn from the story?
Yes, of course the message of Moner Manush is even more relevant in today’s intolerant world, a world of greed and opportunism. The pandemic has victimised the togetherness of the human race but how can we survive without empathy? I don’t know how good the film is, but Moner Manush will serve as a gospel to those who revere humanity.
Lalon says as his own introduction “I am a human.” How important is that for humankind to see themselves as humans over titles of caste, profession, and economics?
The baul (minstrels in Bengal) community had renounced all recognised institutions of religion and revolted against long established rites, customs and faiths. Breaking down the barriers of the narrow confines of communal faith, they had found a large expanse under the sky which had served as a bountiful meeting place of many religions. Under that open sky, Lalon had found the truth in Humanism.
Lalon dreamt of a borderless world. Do you think adopting his outlook can change the outlook of nations which draw borders between the species? Do you think it is implementable at a personal, national or international level?
I think all mystics believe in borderless space of Earth where all centennial beings live in peace and harmony. But the wheel of time had moved in the direction of Divide and Rule. John Lennon’s Imagine has become the iconic song on the dream of a borderless world. It may have been a failed dream, but I confess it might have been one I shared growing up in India and will cherish till the last breath of my life. Let it be a dream and a wonderful utopia.
Beyond The Himalayas was first a documentary film. How long was it and when was it screened? How many episodes is the film?
Beyond the Himalayas was made as a documentary film during our expedition through the Silk Road in 1994. The final edited version is four-and-a-half hour long. It was shown in Discovery Channel in five parts in the late nineties. A shorter version was screened in BBC as well. The Indian national TV had screened a Hindi version of all five episodes.
The book seems to cover lesser than the documentary. Is that true or do the visuals/ music just seem to impact us more? Why did you leave out Pakistan?
Well watching the film with arresting visuals and absorbing the soundtracks of the trail is a linear viewing of our journey along the fabled Silk Road. It is very, very exciting indeed. But the film is also a journey back in time with many references and anecdotes from history. For instance, while showing the travel through the deadly Taklamakan desert, I referred to Sven Hedin’s(1865-1952) expedition of the region. I quote: ‘The first European to map this desolate region was the Swedish explorer, Sven Hedin. His first expedition in 1895 was very nearly his last. The local guide supplied enough water for four days in the desert instead of ten requested. When the caravan lost its way, the guide was the first to die. The others became insane with thirst, drinking anything — even Sheep’s blood and camel’s urine. By the fifth day, the men, camels and other livestocks were all dead except for Sven Hedin and one other man. Hedin writes in Through Asia, “If I was doomed to die in the sand, I wanted to be properly attired. I wanted my burial clothes to be both white and clean.” But fate was on its side. Spying the dark green side of an oasis, he dragged himself to safety. “I stood on the brink of a pool with fresh cool water, beautiful water. I drank, drank, drank time after time. Every blood vessel and tissue of my body sucked up the life-giving liquid like a sponge.”’
Here the film-book helps the readers. One can refer back to the time past and time present more deeply to understand time as a metaphor of history.
How many days were you on the road? What was the experience like?
We were out for almost ten weeks covering a distance of 14,000 kms. The journey was fascinating for the entire team. There can be no journey more enchanting than the route we took. The collective trove of memories has made the Silk Road so memorable. We had to negotiate extreme weather conditions in Central Asia and Tibet. In a single day, we experienced two extremes. While negotiating the desert, temperatures rose to 48 degrees Celsius, and by nightfall when we pitched camp at Tianshan mountains, the temperature fell to 2 degrees. The situation is almost like the scenes of Satyajit Ray’s Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne — desert to snow in the blink of an eye.
Did you travel through the part of the route Marco Polo used? Did you find it much different from what you had imagined?
Well, the travels of Marco Polo described the wonders of the silk road, cities far greater than his own and a world more significant than anything imagined by the insular backward Europe of the thirteenth century. But he was a late traveller. The silk road was one of the greatest trade routes in history and men had already been travelling along for 4,000 years. Before sea routes were discovered in the fifteenth century, this trans-Asian highway was the sole link between the East and the West. It ran from Xian in China to all the way to the Mediterranean. There were many tributaries to the mighty river, not least of which were caravan routes across the Himalayan mountain range between India and Central Asia. We could not follow the planned route through Pakistan and Afghanistan to Central Asia via Khyber Pass because of the civil war. The government of India did not want us to take such risks. All the members of the expedition, including the jeeps and equipment, were flown from Delhi to Uzbekistan on 18th May, 1994.
With the silk route being revived, do you think this film has significance?
Yes, the film is still significant because it carries the memories of time. We were the first group of travellers after many, many years to cross three new republics after the collapse of Soviet Union and a vast territory of China. Now, the route is open to tourists, and I was told that many travel packages are available all along the mighty river and its tributaries. I would like to revisit the cauldron once again to understand how those multi-ethnic republics have survived the onslaught of modern times with its regional rivalries, new mafias, and consumerist pressures. I wish the new silk route trade brings peace and harmony in this intolerant world. Travellers today can choose from many trails as we did during our expedition. My favourite was Xuanzang’s (602-664 AD) trail. I quote from my book. “At 27, he set out his pilgrimage until he was 43. Unconvinced by the translations available in China, he sought the true teachings of Buddha in the holy lands of India. He walked alone into the great unknown, crossing the world’s greatest deserts and its highest mountain ranges. He faced death many times and his courage and equanimity impressed kings, bandits and barbarians alike. He lectured at monasteries and debated with learned monks and by the time he reached his destination, his reputation as a great sage had already preceded him. Xuan Zhang was not the only Chinese pilgrim to visit the homeland of Buddhism, but he was the most important. Like a death star that keeps releasing energy for thousands of years, he continues to be a valuable source of knowledge and inspiration.”
You are making a new film I believe rooted in the present pandemic. What is it about? Will you be making that too into a book?
My 2019 film Rahagir or Wayfarer, starring Adil Hussain, Tillotama Som, Neeraj Kabir, had travelled to many festivals and received awards and appreciations but unfortunately, we could not release it in public theatres due to the pandemic. Another multilingual film is also stuck for obvious reasons. I could finish the Italian shoot in January 2020, but the Indian shoot did not happen till date. It is so frustrating.
Meanwhile, I have finished a short film Memories of Time on pandemic days. It is about a happy, cultured couple living in the heart of Kolkata. Like everyone else, they are caught in the claustrophobia of the pandemic and the consequent lockdown. The film travels back and forth in time as they try to navigate through these hard times and search for fresh air and sanity. The film is an exploration of their fears, realisation and going back to nature. It’s from my own experience — how I have navigated 2020 and moving through the course of this pandemic. I think one can really publish a film-book because it has so many elements, the fear of people and the inhuman approach of the human race and then the migrant labours — their terrible conditions, the psychological problem of people confined inside their home and the most importantly, the problem of the children. They are confined as if in a prison. They can’t go to school. They can’t really meet their friends. I think this could be a very, very interesting material for a film-book.