21st Century Silk Route

Nov 14, 20155 min read

A late 8th century poet wrote on the Sihigiri mirror-like wall about a "sina-pata beji [e] rana-vana", a golden skinned beauty wearing Chinese silk.

The silk cloth would have arrived in Sri Lanka from China by the "Silk Route". However the Silk route did not carry only silk on their ships. They carried other commodities, but more important were the intangible valuables carried and spread along the silk route. Sri Lanka which was on the maritime Silk Route played a major role in the East-West trade, with Mahatitta as a main port for trade entrepot. Cosmas Indicopleustes too mentions Sri Lanka about the trading activities. Godapavata (Godavaya) would have been the other port, where the custom duty charged was gifted to the temple in the 2nd century A.D..

Silk is said to be one of the oldest known fibers, and the invention is credited to Lady Hsi-Ling-Shih, wife of the Yellow Emperor who had lived around 3000 B.C. A cocoon of a silk worm had accidentally dropped into her cup of tea, and she had unravelled the silk fibre from it. It was only in the 3rd century B.C. that silk reached other countries. It was a monopoly of the Chinese till two monks smuggled silk worm eggs inside their bamboo walking sticks, for Justinian in 552 A.D., thus introducing sericulture to the west, and this is probably the first recorded case of industrial espionage.

The term "Silk Road" is said to have been first used by Baron Ferdinand von Richthofen in the 19th century, to describe global highways of commercial trade that also led to cultural trade. The term silk is probably from the Old English 'sioloc' from Latin 'sericum' from 'ser' the silkworm.

The trade routes, by sea or by land, were used by human beings. In the same way silk made a new culture of the dresses and ornaments of the people in the west, China too received the technology of blow glass from Egypt and the Middle East. They received the art of landscape painting from the Buddhist murals in India. The Arabs introduced Cobalt blue-and-white tin-glazed ware to China where the technique was developed to glaze porcelain to be exported to Arabic countries.

Paper making, one of the most revolutionary developments in the field of literature, moved along the silk route to Europe, while the industrial innovation, the water wheel, moved from Roman Syria to China. The Silk Route opened the doors to multiculturalism. The sailors, caravan drivers, the traders and the travelers were able to surmount all the barriers of nation, race, creed and political power. They were received warmly, and with respect deserving a guest, and they too respected their hosts.

Today we see a revival of the 'Silk Route' for the 21st century. It has been initiated by China, and there have been mixed responses from the countries on the route and around the world. However if we look at the cultural influence of such a revival it is sure to fulfill a timely need to create a truly global village. We still depend on printed books, for our literature and newspapers. We still prefer live concerts and musical performances, we still prefer to travel around the world on pilgrimage, on pleasure and holiday visits. For that the New Silk Route, not only by sea, but by land or by air, would be of immense help.

A cargo train which left Yiwu in China on November 17th, 2014, arrived in Madrid, Spain on December 9th, completing a journey of 12,800 km. There were 30 containers carrying consumer goods from China, including children's toys and the train returned to China loaded with wine, ham and olive oil. Let this train, running on the longest railway line in the world, be a way to link the cultures, arts and literature along the route, China, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Germany, France and Spain. Let us hope soon the containers would carry books, music and film recordings, and works of art. They could run a passenger train, with facilities for passengers to stop in any city, any country they are passing through, and then hop on the next train. For travel by train would be so much more economical, and enjoyable. If we are to have such 'Silk Route Tourism', the trains should run at a leisurely pace, and the 'bullet trains', vying for speed, would not serve the purpose.

The New Silk Routes will also open more business opportunities and improve the income around the world. It would also bring in better and more equal distribution of food and other commodities and assist in greater development, through sharing of knowledge and skills. But what we need to be careful is not to let the basic human weakness, greed for power and wealth, drive away humanity from mankind. The Silk Route has to be open and free, for navigation, for trade and for cultural exchange, and should belong to the whole world. It should extend not only to Asia, Europe and the Middle East, but to entire Africa, Australia and the Americas.

The ancient silk route covered the old world around the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean. Then it was the courageous and the privileged who were able to travel along the silk route. Now it is the wealthy and the privileged who are able to travel. The opportunity for the proletariat and the less privileged is minimal, unless they happen to be taken as paid workers, where they would still be the downtrodden underprivileged.

To provide equal opportunity for all, we need a Cyber Silk Route, encompassing the entire earth, where not only the intangible culture and arts, but also tangible material goods could be shared, exchanged, sold and purchased, when we become one human nation world over.

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