Day 10: Buddhist Stupa of Zurmala

Rising above the cotton fields like Devils Tower in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Stupa Zurmala is the largest known stupa in Central Asia, and was the first discovered archeological evidence of Buddhism in Uzbekistan.

We never got our Uzbek cotton field experience until we decided to visit the archeological wonderland of Termez and vicinity in June 2018.  After a short drive from the 3rd century AD Buddhist monastery of Fayoz-Tepe into the dusty countryside, we turned off the main road and down to the end of a dirt track near the Afghan border that led into the fields.

There before us, standing like Devils Tower in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, was the Buddhist Stupa of Zurmala, right in the middle of a cotton field.  This time of year in Uzbekistan, the growing season is well underway, but cotton takes time to mature.  The small plants we were carefully stepping over to get to the stupa won’t be ready for harvest until September, but between now and then, they’ll grow at least three times their current size, and soon blossom into Central Asia’s biggest cash crop before being harvested, processed, baled, and distributed all over the world.

the stupa rises 14.5 meters above the surrounding countryside – you can’t miss it

Over the course of nearly 2,000 years, the Stupa of Zurmala had eroded away on the windswept frontier, sand piling up around it, to the point that by 1926, when it was discovered, the stupa was just a shapeless pile of dirt.  Excavations by Soviet archeologists soon revealed something much more than just a mound of rubble.  What they had discovered was the first known evidence of Buddhism in Uzbekistan.

The nearby Monasteries of Kara-Tepe and Fayoz-Tepe were not re-discovered until much later.  Archeologists soon noticed similarities to other stupas found much further afield dating from the same time period, and a particular resemblance to the much better preserved Shingardar Stupa in Pakistan.  Definitively dating the structure was a challenge, but experts noted brickwork typical of the Kushan Empire, bringing their estimate of stupa’s origin to the 3rd Century AD, when Termez was a center of Mahayana Buddhism in Central Asia with pilgrims and missionaries from across the empire making their way through this ancient silk road city, south from India, and across to China.  Today Stupa Zurmala is the largest known stupa in Central Asia.

Interestingly, no remains of a monastery have been found, unlike at nearby Kara-Tepe and Fayoz-Tepe where the stupa is an integral part of a larger complex.  What is clear is that the area was a very active part of ancient Termez.  Farmers irrigating their crops made an astounding archeological find in the same canal that we had to jump across in order to reach the stupa.  Researchers from the Termez Archeological Museum rushed over and pulled out a nearly complete Kushan-era statue of a man and a woman.  The find astounded experts who assumed that the stupa was an isolated monument.

through a partnership with Rissho University in Tokyo, a monitoring station has been set up to measure conditions around the monument

Even though excavations around the base of stupa have not revealed any parts of a larger complex, archeologists did uncover a podium lined with white stone slabs.  The cultural layer that was once ground level has long since been covered by the shifting sands of the Surkhandarya valley, so the original height of the Stupa of Zurmala is estimated to be nearly 16 meters (50 feet).  In its current condition, with the original platform of the structure buried below the cotton fields, only 14 meters are visible.  It’s likely the original structure was shaped like a proper dome, but has since eroded away.  The reliquary chamber is also exposed, long since looted of its contents.  Who knows what else remains to be discovered beneath the cotton fields?

In an effort to prevent further deterioration, and in recognition of the strong cultural links between the people of Uzbekistan and Japan, a perimeter monitoring station has recently been installed around the stupa by the Rissho University in Tokyo in partnership with the Termez Archeological Museum.  A concrete tile perimeter keeps the area isolated from farming equipment, but otherwise the site is totally exposed and unprotected.  Other than monitoring temperature and humidity, and keeping the fields at bay, nothing more is being done to preserve this ancient Buddhist landmark.

Once the center of Buddhism on the silk road, it was through Termez the religion spread to China, Korea, and Japan.  Today the Japanese are doing their part in preserving a link to their ancient cultural heritage as the relentless Uzbek climate steadily wears away at a monument that was protected by a covering of sand for the better part of 2,000 years.  Today, exposed in the cotton fields, and not frequented by tourists, the stupa gets more attention from local farmers than it does from archeologists.  But for those adventurous travelers who don’t mind trudging through cotton fields, the Buddhist Stupa of Zurmala offers a rare glimpse back in time to the golden age of the Kushan Empire.

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