Before the conquest by Arabs in the 8th century AD, different religions lived side by side in Central Asia. Nestorianism, Manicheism, Zoroastrianism, Tengrianism and Buddhism were spread along the Silk Road and found fertile soil to grow in the minds of the people of Central Asia.
Spread of Buddhism in Tajikistan
Between the first to the fourth centuries, the Kushans dominated the area that is now Tajikistan, as well as parts of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Northwest India. They controlled the trade between India, China, Parthia and the Roman Empire. Known as the consummate trader race, their rule provided an ideal medium for the further spread of Buddhism from its cradle in India. From the 2nd century BC to the 2nd century AD, Buddhism gradually developed in northwestern India and was spread through the Silk Road.
Central Asia made a significant contribution to Buddhist art by mixing it with the artistic heritage of the Greeks that the region received through the conquests of Alexander the Great. The Buddhist kingdom of Gandhara, centered on the Peshawar valley, was the first place where Buddha sculptures were made in the 3rd century BC. Before that time, the Buddha was only represented through symbols such as a footprint, a wheel, a tree or a stupa. The new Gandhara images had a straight, sharply chiselled nose and brow, classical lips and wavy hair, since they were modelled on Greek ideals.
Buddhist monasteries and relics in Tajikistan
The most important Buddhist relic Tajikistan has is the 14m-long giant reclining Buddha (video) which is now displayed at the National museum of Antiquities in Tajikistan. It was discovered in 1966 in the monastery of Ajina-Teppe, but cut up in pieces and hidden in the basement of a museum in Dushanbe, as the Soviet rulers did not want to admit to a pre-Islamic history of Tajikistan. Many smaller images found in the monastery got sent off to the Hermitage in St-Petersburg. In 2001, the Buddha was eventually restored and ever since the destruction of the giant Buddhas of Bamiyan by the Taliban, Tajikistan can now claim to have the largest Buddha statue in Central Asia.
The most interesting Buddhist monastery is that of Ajina-Teppe, near Kurgon-Teppa. It’s an archeological site, so don’t expect to see much more than a bunch of stones if you have only a sporadic interest in archeology.
All monasteries and stupas are located in southern Tajikistan. The heartland of Buddhist culture in the south of Central Asia lay in Northeast Afghanistan and North-Pakistan, with towns like Bamiyan, Fondukistan and Ghazni, and the closer you move to these borders, the more remnants you might find of ancient belief systems.
To the casual observer, Buddhist culture no longer seems to play a part in Tajikistan. But traces of history have found their way into the 21st century, for instance through jewelry art.