Aspects of Religious Coexistence in Bactria-Tukharistan on the eve of the Islamic conquest
The Chinese Buddhist pilgrim Xuanzang who visited these regions in about 630 CE presents Tukharistan (known as Bactria in Antiquity) as largely following the Law of the Buddha, like most of Gandharan and Gangetic India at that time, and unlike its northern neighbour Sogdiana where the "native" religion Zoroastrianism still held sway.
A critical examination of published results of archaeological research shows that this account was partly distorted for propaganda reasons. Quite many Buddhist cult places dating from the Kushan (1st - early 3rd century) and post-Kushan period have been identified, but they appear to have been far less numerous than in the regions south of the Hindukush and far less conspicuous in the landcape, except in the main trading cities (Bactra, Termez). Onomastics and funerary practices demonstrate a continuation of a local form of Zoroastrianism, iconographically syncretized with some deities of the Hindu pantheon introduced under the Kushans. At Dil’berdzhin in the Bactra oasis, the main excavated urban site still occupied in the period preceding the Arab conquest, Buddhist presence in not documented after the 4th century and the main temple was occupied until the early 7th century by deities from the Shivaite circle, some of whom were possibly assimilated to Zoroastrian gods. In addition, a silver dish executed for one of the royal courts of Tukharistan in the second half the 7th century, has recently been proven to depict the six main Zoroastrian festivals symbolized by dancing couples holding various attributes. The possibility can be contemplated that such religious celebrations co-existed harmoniously with Buddhism and sometimes shared the favours of the same families.
Frantz Grenet is professor at the Collège de France. Chair in History and Cultures of Pre-Islamic Central Asia.
Grenet was in 1977-81 deputy-director of the French Archaeological Delegation in Afghanistan (DAFA) and took part in the excavations of the Hellenistic city of Aï Khanum. In 1984 he published his thesis Les pratiques funéraires dans l’Asie centrale sédentaire de la conquête grecque à l’islamisation. From 1981 to 2013 he was research fellow in the French National Centre for Scientific research (CNRS). Since 1989 he has coordinated the French-Uzbek Archaeological Mission in Sogdiana, which excavates mainly at Afrasiab, the site of pre-Mongol Samarkand. Since 1999 he has taught "Religions of the Ancient Iranian World" at the École Pratique des Hautes Études (Sorbonne). Invited professor at UCLA Berkeley in 2001.