What have the highlights of your career been? Are there any memorable anecdotes or moments?
I joined the Indian Revenue Service in 1996, so it’s been a journey of 24 years so far. I have mostly handled law enforcement - in fact, for almost 13-14 years. Of these, 10 years have been in the DRI, the premier intelligence and investigation agency of Indian Customs.
As I mentioned, we don’t only look at outright smuggling which includes gold smuggling, drug smuggling, smuggling of articles like wildlife, counterfeit goods, fake currencies; but we also combat commercial frauds pertaining to imports – exports frauds, which involve misuse of import export promotion schemes or undervaluation with intent to evade Customs duties or those involving trade based money laundering. Anything that crosses the borders of the country in violation of any law automatically becomes a violation of the Customs Act.
I’ve also handled policymaking in the Ministry as Director in respect of service tax issues as also GST implementation for the Centre in Rajasthan. I was looking after excise, service tax and policy issues in Dehradun during one of my stints. I’ve also had a diplomatic assignment in Hong Kong as Consul in the Consulate General of India there.
That’s been the brief journey, but I started this all with a very interesting assignment at Centre for Policy Research. Before I joined the Civil Service, I was a research assistant in Chanakyapuri to the late Professor PV Indiresan, the man behind ‘PURA’ or Providing Urban facilities in Rural India who was honored with the Padma Bhushan.
Your book On the trail of Buddha: A Journey to the East traces the history and spread of Buddhism. Tell us a little bit about your relationship with spirituality. What was your inspiration behind writing this book?
Let me tell you that this book is more of a travelogue into East Asia with Indian eyes. When I say East Asia, I mean China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Mongolia and of course Hong Kong, where I was based for three years as a diplomat.
Photo courtesy: Deepankar Aron
It’s a travelogue interspersed with pictures and photographs, and there are close to 100 destinations which I’ve written about in this book. These travels have been spread out over a period of six years.
It was never really spiritual to begin with, though it may have changed me and brought in me a bit of that dimension. But what was remarkable was that there is so much Indian heritage still present in East Asia, and so vividly captured for eternity. That’s 2,200 years of history of Indian connections— cultural, philosophical, spiritual, artistic linkages with this entire region. Obviously, we all grew up reading in history books that Fa Hien and Hiuen Tsang came to India from China. Fa Hien came around 399, while Hiuen Tsang was here between 629 and 645, a full 17 years. Coincidentally, his name is not Hiuen Tsang— he was called Xuan Zang in China. But a lot more happened, which we don’t know much about.
The book is about the enormity of these linkages in an era where there were no mobile phones, no aeroplanes. Modes of transport and communication were very different, very primitive. And yet, you had hundreds and thousands of monks who went from India to these areas, and primarily, it was Buddhism that moved along with trade. These were the routes through which art, and even architecture like that in Ajanta Ellora, also travelled. The linkages were mostly Buddhist in origin, and therefore the theme - On the Trail of the Buddha.
You have for example, the first officially recorded Buddhist temple in China, which was set up in a place called Luoyang in AD 67 by two Indians, Dharmaratna and Kasyapamatanga. It’s a beautiful story ﹘ the Chinese emperor – Ming of Eastern Han dynasty had a dream of a golden angel flying and the next morning he summoned his ministers and said, “Tell me what I saw in my dream. What are the implications? Who was this angel?” They said “Your Lordship, Your Highness, we know there is a Buddha in the West (India), and so he said, “Get me more information.” So out go these Chinese envoys and request the Indian gentlemen, Dharmaratna and Kasyapamatanga and they come duly escorted by the Chinese envoys. They stay in the state guest house in Luoyang, the then capital of China, for one year. Then this temple, called Temple of White Horse (Báimǎ sì in Chinese) is built. And these people died there. Before that of course, they translated the sutras from Sanskrit into Chinese, and their tombs are still there today. You can see their figures etched on stone, you can see them in paintings, you can see Chinese kids coming and touching their feet much the way we do in India. There are hundreds of different stories like this in East Asia, waiting to be discovered, which is what I’ve tried to include in this book.
It does make us a bit spiritual because you realize that Buddhism is a very scientific thought process. Perhaps the spread of Buddhism into Asia made Mark Twain say that - “India is the cradle of civilization.”
It took many years to write this book. Tell us a little bit about the research and writing process. Do you have any memorable moments or anecdotes to share?
As I mentioned, these journeys are undertaken over many years. There have been many fascinating moments in each of these journeys. It’s difficult to share them all, but let me try and share some interesting ones.
Photo courtesy: Deepankar Aron
It’s not just a book of history, it’s a travelogue. Unless you are able to capture what you felt in the place, how you connected with it, it just becomes facts and figures, places and history, which is not what it is. It is a recreation of that ancient aura and that vibrant cultural homogeneity in East Asia through a firsthand account, and the history and facts automatically come in.
The writings would happen on a day-to-day basis whenever I would travel, even if it’s 1 am and you’re returning to your youth hostel accommodation. So there would be daily notes taken, and on rides back to my stations, I would have tomato juice, and not any wine because I would try and write on flights, and at night.
Let me also make this honest confession: the idea of a book was never there. It only came up towards the fag end of these journeys. The only connection perhaps was my first posting as a Customs Officer at the Indo-Nepal border, in a place called Nautanwa. It was practically my first posting and I hadn’t heard of it until I got posted there. As an Indian Revenue Service officer, it was much like English August - the film and the novel, when Rahul Bose’s character, August gets posted in a nondescript village. This place is 100 km north of Gorakhpur. It’s close to our border with Nepal on the other side, it's also called Sonauli. The other side is Lumbini, where Buddha was born, but that’s not exactly the reason I ended up writing this book; that is just incidental.
It was only in 2015, towards the end of my travels that I started seeing this pattern.
I saw this Buddha called the Daibutsu of Kamakura near Tokyo, in Japan. It is a gorgeous bronze statue dating back to the 13th century. Kamakura was the capital of the shoguns in Japan. Shoguns were the army chiefs. For hundreds of years, Japan had two power centers: one was the Emperor based in Kyoto and the other was this General called Shogun, who would have a separate clan and capital. They would try to imitate the aura, the grandeur of the Emperor. The Emperor in Kyoto had a beautiful bronze statue in a place called Nara, and they recreated the same bronze statue in Kamakura.
If you go to Hong Kong today, near the airport, there’s a huge statue of Buddha called Tian Tan Buddha, inspired by the one in Kamakura, Japan. There’s also another one in Leshan, Sichuan province of China called the Dafo. Dafo of Leshan is a gigantic rock-cut statue of Buddha which is 250 ft high— it’s the world’s highest rock cut Buddha after the Buddhas of Bamyan in Afganistan were blasted in 2001. So you see, all these kinds of pattern recognitions, linkages, started unfolding and falling into place in 2015.
Dafo, the world’s highest rock cut Buddha. Photo courtesy: Deepankar Aron
I took only one trip with this book in mind, to a place called Dunhuang (in the far western Gansu province of China, on the Silk Road) and to the western-most province of China, called Xinjiang or Chinese Turkestan with some famous places like Turpan, Urumqi and Kashgar that too lie on the silk road. Dunhuang is very famous for the Mogao caves, a World Heritage Site. There are 1000 plus caves over there, very similar to Ajanta Ellora. Xinjiang borders Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and the Indian subcontinent. People like Hiuen Tsang, Fa-Hein passed through this province to come to the Indian subcontinent.
Dunhuang, Gansu province of China. Photo courtesy: Deepankar Aron
We know you are passionate about wildlife as well. Are there any themes about wildlife and human-animal coexistence in Buddhism or spirituality that you came across in your travails, or any themes that we may find relevant today?
Buddhism is not very different from Hinduism in essence, because it comes from Hinduism. It’s a byproduct, and there are lots of similarities in terms of non-violence, meditative practices, etc. — the Eightfold path of Buddhism is very similar to what Vedanta says in Hinduism. Both these religions talk about taking care of as much of the environment, and earth and flora and fauna as of ourselves.
There are some other very interesting examples. For instance, Ganesh in Hinduism is basically an elephant, right? In Buddhism too, the elephant is considered sacred. I went to a place called Emeishan ﹘ shan means mountain and Emei is the place in Sichuan province in China. This is one of the four holy places in China, much like we have char dham in India. In Emeishan, they worship Samantabhadra, the bodhisattva for righteous action or good conduct. Samantabhadra is called Pǔxián in China. On that particular mountain, Samantabhadra is shown mounted on an elephant. This elephant is a very interesting mythical one because it has six tusks instead of two; three on each side. It was quite startling to see that.
Emeishan, located in Sichuan province of China. Photo courtesy: Deepankar Aron
There are many other examples. We all know Gandhiji’s three monkeys, right? See no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil. These three monkeys are originally from Buddhism. There’s a temple called Toshogu temple in Japan, in a place called Nikko, north of Tokyo. These three monkeys are engraved on the temple’s front wall. And the temple goes back to the 15th century. When I saw that, I was startled. I said “These are Gandhiji's monkeys. What are they doing here?” Then a bit of research followed and I discovered that in fact, Dr. Lokesh Chandra, Padma Bhushan recipient and expert on Indology in Buddhism who’s written the foreword to my book, writes that Gandhiji was told about the three monkeys by a Buddhist monk called Fuji-san from Japan.
The three monkeys in Toshogu temple, Japan. Photo courtesy: Deepankar Aron
Then there is a Chinese Monkey king as well much like our Hanuman. He is called Sun Wukong. He accompanies the character representing Xuan Zang (Huien Tsang in India) who embarks on a 17 year long journey to India to get the Buddhist sutras, in the fictionized account of the actual travels, which is called A Journey to the West, a classic piece of Chinese literature written in the 16th Century by Wu Chengen. In fact, the title of my book is inspired by A Journey to the West.
Sunwukong and Hanuman. Photo courtesy: Deepankar Aron
When it comes to flora, a good example is a timber called Red Sanders (Pterocarpus santalinus), a species endemic to India found in the Seshachalam hills, spanning 5000 sq km in the Andhra Pradesh, Telangana region. It’s an endangered species listed in CITES. It has very less demand in India but an absolutely stunning demand in East Asian regions. In China in fact, it’s called Tzu-t'an, which means Emperor’s wood. This is not exactly a good example of conservation, quite the opposite. The royalty was identified with thrones being made out of this wood, so there’s lots of smuggling that happens from India to China of this wood. In a museum in Shanghai, I actually saw the thrones of the Qing dynasty from Manchuria, the last Chinese dynasty. On their thrones it was written that this is made of red sanders. You see, there are many such linkages, both on the conservation side and on the flip side, where we need to conserve.
India had launched a big operation called Operation Sesha (named after the Seshachalam Hills) in the international community in 2015 to tackle smuggling of endangered species of timber. This was in the Asia Pacific region. The second phase of this operation was in 2017 where some Middle Eastern and African countries joined. Finally, we had a global phase of the operation in 2019, where 63 countries joined hands with various international organizations like Interpol, World Customs Organization, International Consortium for Combating Wildlife Crime, UNODC. There were a lot of seizures of various timber species across the world which are listed under CITES.
One can go on with more examples from mythology to conservation to endangered species.
It’s interesting you say that. As you’ve pointed out, there have been a lot of wildlife seizures in the West Bengal and the North East of India, especially concerning the import and export of exotics. Why are these areas such hotspots for wildlife trafficking?
As I mentioned, we are in a region that is close to five other countries. We have had lots of cases here by the DRI itself, where we find these exotic, endangered species which unfortunately have become the subject of greed among some people living in our country who want them for their farmhouses. Species like Hoolock gibbons, lemurs from Madagascar or exotic birds like Hyacinth macaw. Then we’ve had Kookaburras from Australia, birds like the Javan finch, different types of hornbills, Rosellas, African Pygmy Falcons. They go from Thailand to Burma, Burma to states of Mizoram or Manipur, and then they come to Guwahati, or sometimes they end up in Kolkata, and go further onward to Chennai, Mumbai, Bangalore, Pune or other places. So that is one modus operandi we’ve come across. There are quite a few cases of these animals and birds. Then we’ve had ivory elephant tusks sadly, and star tortoises.
So yes, this region is sensitive because of its geography.
You have also published a book on the World Heritage Sites of Uttarakhand, your home state. Do you feel a close connection to the wildlife and biodiversity of the region?
Uttarakhand is certainly a treasure trove of wildlife, both flora and fauna. I had the privilege of growing up and of course, serving in the state for four years from 2001 to 2005 which gave me a chance to see it at closer quarters. Therefore, my first book, World Heritage Sites of Uttarakhand is about the two national parks which are world heritage sites— the Valley of Flowers National Park and Nanda Devi National Park. The Valley of Flowers National Park is home to about 500 different species of exotic flora. They grow each year once the snows melt and year after year it’s been happening, as if by magic, as if God is a gardener, and many of these species are endangered I believe. There’s a fascinating variety to be found there, starting with the Brahmakamal (Saussurea obvallata), the state flower of Uttarakhand. Brahmakamal has a cabbage-like shape, about 8 inches in size. It’s obviously a thing of exoticness, beauty and tends to get a spiritual, philosophical, religious angle automatically. It’s not a surprise then that it’s also used in worship of Lord Shiva. It’s found at an altitude of more than 3500 m. Even in the Valley of Flowers, you will find it on the way to Hemkund Sahib, which is at a height of 4200 m.
The Brahmakamal flower on the way to Hemkund Sahib. Photo courtesy: John Muir via Wikimedia Commons
I have included 100 species of wildflowers in this book. In fact, Ayurveda has used many of these species and discovered their medical applications. Vicco Vajradanti is good for your teeth, there are certain herbs that are antipyretic, and certain others that help with ailments like arthritis, for example. So, the endeavor was to bring out this floral beauty.
Nanda Devi is another World Heritage Site. After the Himalayan region, it was the next most popular mountaineering destination in the world until 1972, when we as a country realized that lots of environmental damage was happening to the park. The highest peak in Uttarakhand is Nanda Devi. She is in all the cultural folklore of Uttarakhand, like the Nanda devi festival. So all these peaks ﹘ Trisul, Nanda Khat, Nanda Kot, Nanda Ghunti, make a bowl of Himalayan peaks and Nanda Devi National Park is in the middle of the bowl.
It’s very difficult for normal human beings like you and me to enter the national park— you have to be a mountaineer, and a pretty good one at that. It was only entered for the first time in human history around 1934 by two gentlemen, Eric Shipton and Bill Tilman.
It is a very rich part of the country, in terms of both flora and fauna. This book is the first one on the subject of World Heritage Sites of Uttarakhand. It was released in 2010 during an international conference on World Heritage Sites for the Asia Pacific region in presence of the Secretary General of UNESCO by Uttarakhand’s Minister for Tourism and Culture and the Minister in charge of Culture, Govt of India.
Finally, are there any more books in the offing, or will they come about retrospectively again? If you were to write something in the near future, are there any particular themes you would be inclined towards?
I think you’ve also answered the question while asking it. You see, both books were accidental books– there was never really a design. The latest book for instance is inspired by this enormous cultural, spiritual and artistic heritage that we have in common with the civilizations in East Asia. When you see the kind of art in Yungang Caves, in Shanxi province, China, or the Longmen Grottoes near Luoyang (both covered in the book), you see the enormity as well as the finer aspects of a culture which has been shared in the entire region of East Asia, which struck me as absolutely wondrous. While many aspects of this connect are no longer that visible in India, you can still see them so vividly captured in East Asia!
Longmen Grottoes, near Luoyang, China. Photo courtesy: Deepankar Aron
Even the first book started off in the form of travelogues appearing in various magazines and newspapers. Over the years, I would’ve had close to 100 of them in magazines like Discover India, Swagat, Srishti, India Today Travel Plus, and India Perspective, the magazine of the Ministry of External Affairs and even some international publications. In fact, the first prominent article was on the Valley of Flowers back in 2001, which came out in Discover India as the cover story.
The idea for the book came after an exhibition I did in Uttarakhand on the flora, fauna and the people of Uttarakhand in 2004. The Governor who inaugurated the exhibition said I should consider bringing out a book on the Valley of Flowers.
Life is like a journey filled with mystery and surprises, and you never know where you get stationed and what you see. There are certainly quite a few ideas in my mind but they need the nourishment of time and leisure to grow.
It seems like we have a long wait ahead of us! We hope you’re able to travel more, so you can give us more gems like these.
Yes, in fact, the Northeast and East India are very exciting regions from any perspective, whether its wildlife or cultural heritage. It’s the Land of Renaissance for India and modern Indian times. There are infinite possibilities, but we are only finite.
Photo courtesy: Deepankar Aron
Deepankar Aron’s book On the trail of Buddha: A Journey to the East is available for purchase here.
By Aashika Ravi