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Central Asian Programme

The Caravan Sarais 

The most interesting feature of the Silk Route was the cultural diplomacy and international relations. Dotting the Silk Road were thousands of big and small caravan sarais where the travelers, traders, fortune seekers, missionaries and men of fine arts assembled from different corners of the world after a long and arduous journey. The keepers of these places ensured that the atmosphere at these sarais was such that the inmates could relax in a free and jovial atmosphere. Away from their homes and in the company of strangers and newly found friends, with whom they had to share their woes and weal, these travellers experienced new relationships and often (even mis) adventures. A cosmopolitan atmosphere prevailed at the sarais.

The sarais were both state owned and centrally administered as well as privately run by nobles or commoners. Such was the love for the development of trade that in later years under the Samanids, even the military posts at the frontier stations, called Ribat, were willingly turned into the caravan sarais. Even kings like Chengiz Khan and Timur devoted much of their energy and resources for the development of trade. Many such travelers, during their sojourn, gathered information and recorded it in their private diaries and travelogues, which could serve as good historical information.

It is interesting to note that many such caravan sarais in certain parts of the world were open to all and that too free of cost. Their purpose was to gather secret information of all kinds from within and without, creating a network for spying and an informal intelligence system. There were separate places of worship for Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Christians. Inside the big caravan sarais, there were halls for dance, qawwalis, with proper seating arrangements for the onlookers and audience. Each caravan sarai had a separate covered area for cattle.

The high thick walls and sky scraping ceilings provided enough protection against the vagaries of weather. Skylights with pierced tracery ensured sunlight. Hot and cold water was made available. Cooling and heating arrangements, bathhouses, shops for necessaries were also there. The arabas (carts), sarbans (camel drivers) and guides for the deserts, routes in the steppes and plains could also be hired through these caravan sarais. 



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