Friday, April 12, 2013

The Emperor's Terracotta Army

The first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, was obsessed with immortality. It is said that he spend the last few years of his life in the elusive quest for the magical elixir of everlasting life! He was also very concerned about the after-life - and to protect himself and his capital, Xi'an, even after his death - he commissioned this gigantic army made of terracotta warriors and horses!

About 700,000 artisans labored for over 37 years to create this army of life-sized terracotta figures. In the tradition of many a despotic monarch, the First Emperor had most of these artisans put to death - to protect the secret of his immortal army! And a secret it remained for over 2000 years!!! Generations passed, farming their lands, burying their dead - totally unaware of this wonder that lay buried deep under! Until 1974, when a farmer digging a water well unearthed some pieces of terracotta pottery - further investigations revealed this astounding creation!

Buried almost 5 meters under the ground, the terracotta army has been found in 4 main pits, about 2kms away from the emperor's tomb - which was discovered in the 1950s, but has not been excavated to date due to fear of damage to the contents because of oxidation, and also the possible risk of mercury contamination. Archaeologists now estimate the army to consist of 8000 warriors, 160 chariots and 600 horses - majority of which still remain buried! The warriors have been found in less than pristine conditions - shattered to pieces in some cases - probably because of a massive earthquake which hit Xi'an area in the 16th century. What can be seen today is the result of an elaborate piecing together of the fragments - a giant clay jigsaw puzzle! Work still continues on the site, and there doesn't really seem to be an end in sight!

OK, that's my history lesson for the day! Back to present day Xi'an - the Terracotta Army is now located about 40 miles from the city. City buses are available to make it to the site - but after our earlier experiences, we decided to opt for a private van and tour guide - about 700 RMB for both together. The ride takes about an hour- have I mentioned that traffic in Xi'an is horrendous? From the entrance gates where you buy the tickets to the actual pits - you can walk, or take a little shuttle for 5RMB. It is actually quite a pleasant walk, and it gave the guide a chance to tell us a little bit more about the history of Xi'an and the Army! The first stop on the tour was a bit of a gimmick, in my opinion! Our guide took us into a shop, ostensibly to meet one of the original farmers who discovered the site! For a mere 200 RMB, get a picture with this discoverer and also an autographed book about Xi'an! Now, I don't know this person from Adam - I would most certainly like to give him the benefit of doubt - but when the attendant said, 'No buy book, no picture' - I really wasn't interested anymore!

One more thing that makes this place so unique - the museum has actually been built on the original site! The first glimpse inside Pit 1 - totally taken aback by the sheer size! Gaze upon the warriors in the pit - China at its best 2000 years ago, and then lift your eyes to the dome above - modern China, all in one place! All the figures are incredibly life-like - from the expressions on the faces to the lines on open palms! The dress and hairstyles indicate rank and also, age - our guide said that the warriors range from 16 to 60 years of age! They are taller than the average Chinese man in those days, and proud moustaches are meant to demonstrate aggressive masculinity! At the rear of Pit 1, work still continues to reconstruct these figures - too bad, it was a holiday! It would have been something else to actually see the archaeology team on site!

Kneeling archer

Martial arts expert

A general!

Cavalry officer with his horse

Pit 2 and Pit 3 are a lot smaller, and have not been excavated as much. The bronze chariots, armor, weapons along some of the warriors are located in a separate museum. Up close, the attention to detail is astounding! These figures were all lacquered and colored originally - some remnants of the color is still visible, it must have been breathtaking in the glory days! The chariot made for the emperor is bronze, and so is the armor and the weapons. The horses drawing the chariot fascinated me - the horse is a noble animal to begin with, and it has been so lovingly crafted here - you can almost imagine its hot breath and shuffling hooves!

The tour is dotted with stops at various shops where you can buy souvenirs - these are the original souvenirs, of course! But don't buy anything here - way too highly priced, plus, they won't bargain! There's plenty of opportunity to shop as you make your way to the exit! No shuttle on the way out, there's no escape from all the souvenir stalls! It is a surprisingly long walk back to the parking lot - especially after the 3 odd hours already spent on the site! There's a Subway at the very start of this 'Magnificent Mile', or for the more adventurous, there are plenty of local food stalls, where you can try the hand made noodles and soup!

The taxi brought us back to the hotel at about 4pm - money well spent I would say! I really wanted to go to the Shaanxi Cultural show - or Tang Dynasty show, as it is known - but it was too late to get tickets. Probably for the best - the kids would have been hard to handle after the long day! Instead, we made an amazing discovery - about 5 minutes walk away from the Crowne Plaza is the Cade Plaza, a newish mall. The amazing part is the restaurants it has - we went there looking for a Mexican place, but there was atleast 5 other restaurants we could have eaten at, including a really nice Indian restaurant! 5 minutes away! Why didn't this come up yesterday?!

We still had to visit the Muslim Quarter behind the Drum tower - another good place to sample the local fare, and to get the best bargains! It is a very picturesque location, little alleys with the usual souvenirs, with the Drum Tower as a backdrop! Mountains of dates were available, and so was jade! What treasure did I find? A travel mahjong set in a pretty wooden box!! I admit I'm addicted - sadly, Ajey wouldn't let me buy it - one is enough, he said! Is it really enough, Ajey, is it???

Xi'an - what treasures to be found here! I came here with the Terracotta Army as the main attraction, but I was amazed at the sense of history this place has! True, it is not as clean or shiny as Suzhou or Shanghai, the taxi drivers not as polite, the roads not as good, the metro not as well connected - but still, it has an unique charm! I look at the preservation work, the integration of history with the quotidian - how true it is that unless you understand your past, you cannot look to the future! I also have a twinge of regret - my homeland has a history that stretches back further than even ancient Xi'an, and yet, India has somewhat lost her connection to her glorious past. We have let invaders and conquerors rewrite our illustrious history, forgotten our heritage and rich traditions...

It is said that you have not been to China unless you've been to Xi'an. Whatever truth that statement might have, Xi'an should definitely be on everyone's bucket list. The Emperor's immortal Terracotta Army is waiting for you, and what you will bring back with you is certainly more than just mere souvenirs! Xi'an the ancient, Xi'an the first, Xi'an where it all began...

1 comment:

  1. A very good collection of photos and description of the sight. A few references to the history would help a reader to know more details. currently I am reading an article" Chinese Emperor's Tomb" National geographic August 1992 p114 where they describe terra-cotta army of Jing Dithe fifth ruler of china's Han dynasty. A lyrical sentence"The smiles of Jing Di's soldiers linger in my mind's eye....." says a lot on the beautiful faces of these soldiers. It may be mentioned Qin Shi Huang Di is also builder of China's great wall.