Jesus of the East 1

Jesus of the East

Fortean Times 

Although Jesus’s death on the cross, resurrection and ascension to Heaven are fundamental to the Christian faith, a number of stories persist that He travelled in the East and is buried there. Simon Price reviews the claims for the Saviour’s final resting place.

By Simon PriceMay 2004

The final resting places of the holy and the revered have always been popular attractions, inspiring pilgrimage and drawing those who wish to pay homage to sacred figures. Which isn’t to say that all such tombs contain the relics of the saintly or pious; after all, Red Square and Graceland receive their annual complement of visitors, intent on paying their respects to the departed souls of Lenin and Elvis.

But there is one tomb, in Srinagar, capital of Kashmir, the contested northern province of India, which has never become such a centre – although there are millions of people around the world for whom its purported occupant is the holiest of all holy men.

The tomb, known as the ‘Roza Bal’ (or ‘Rauza Bal’), lies in the Kan Yar district of this bustling city. Standing in front of a Muslim cemetery, it is an unassuming building, with whitewashed walls and simple but elegant ancient wooden fittings and frames. Inside, until recently, stood an elaborately carved wooden sepulchre; it has been replaced with four glass walls, within which lies a wooden sarcophagus. The occupant of the tomb, though, actually resides below in an inaccessible crypt. A sign outside states that the tomb contains the body of one Yuz Asaf. There’s nothing – either outside or inside – to suggest that anyone of particular importance is interred here. Nothing, that is, until you notice a somewhat puzzling carved imprint of two feet, bearing significant marks, on the floor near the sarcophagus. The marks would seem to coincide with the puncture wounds of someone who has suffered crucifixion (below).

So could this obscure tomb, a long, long way from the Holy Land, really be the tomb of Jesus Christ?

Various writers, researchers and investigators have explored the notion that Jesus was no stranger to the East (see FT26:28 and FT141:40-44). Generally speaking, the resulting theories can be broken down into two main camps. Either they posit that Christ survived the crucifixion and travelled to India, usually via modern Iran and Afghanistan, or that he spent much of his ‘lost years’ (between the ages of 18 to 33, the period that goes unmentioned in the Gospels), travelling widely in the Far and Middle East. Some theories combine the two elements. But why would Christ have set out on a journey to the East? Apart from the obvious need to escape the clutches of the oppressive Roman Empire there is, perhaps, a more fundamental reason, one bound up with the notion that Jesus was actually searching for his roots.

“These twelve Jesus sent forth, and commanded them, saying, Go not into the way of the Gentiles, and into any city of the Samaritans, enter ye not: but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (Matthew 10: 5 & 6).

In 597 BC, King Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Jerusalem and subsequently enslaved the Jews in Babylon. This marked the final dispersal of the Jewish people begun some 150 years earlier as a result of various inter-tribal struggles, as well as offensives by outsiders such as the Assyrians. After 47 years of captivity in Babylon, the Persian King Cyrus freed the Jews, whereupon many of them scattered throughout the Far and Middle East. Two tribes (of the original 12) remained in Judæa and Israel; what happened to the remaining 10 has long been a matter of debate. Many believe they settled in areas including Egypt, Persia, Iran and Africa. Another region believed to have been the final destination for some of the homeless Jews was Northern India or Kashmir.

There is, without doubt, significant and compelling evidence to suggest that the people of Kashmir can trace their roots back to a Hebrew source. Scholars have identified more than 90 tribal or caste names that are common both to Kashmir and Israel. There are also at least 70 place names that appear to enjoy similar sources. It would be surprising if at least some of these names did not share some common origin.

The people of Kashmir also exhibit a number of important cultural and physical features that might attest to a possible Hebrew ancestry. These include customs such as women who have given birth observing a 40-day purification ritual; the avoidance of fat when cooking; the wearing of Jewish-styled clothing such as a distinctive male cap or the placing of graves on an east-west alignment. The latter is still done, in contrast to the now dominant Islamic practice of south-north alignment; interestingly, although the cover of the Rosa Bal tomb is of Muslim date, it covers an older burial aligned east-west, suggesting a Jewish or Christian occupant. 

The most compelling case for such a shared-origin idea emerged from work done in 1998 by University College London’s Centre for Genetic Anthropology. Tests performed on the Bene Israel (literally “children of Israel”) from Alibag, Northern India, showed a clear link between them and the Jews of Yemen, as well as tribesmen from Southern Africa also believed to have been part of the Jewish diaspora.

The theories concerning Jesus’s Eastern odyssey are not new, but of all the figures connected with them over the years there is one who emerges as both the most consistent and the most controversial: Nicholas Notovitch. Born in 1858 into a wealthy Russian family in the Crimea, Notovitch had converted from Judaism to Orthodox Christianity when young. He became a journalist and political writer whose books on Russian politics secured him a positive reputation throughout Europe; but it is the discoveries Notovitch made when travelling that now claim more attention. In 1877, he undertook a journey through the East.

In his book The Unknown Life of Christ (1894), he described “the first object” of his journey as “to study the customs and habits of the inhabitants of India amid their own surroundings, as well as the grand, mysterious archæology and the colossal, majestic nature of the country”. 1 “Wandering,” as he put it, “without any settled course,” he travelled through Afghanistan, modern Pakistan, Northern India, Kashmir and finally into Ladakh – the land sandwiched between Kashmir and Tibet.

It was here, after what would turn out to be a fortuitous fall from his horse, that he was cared for by Buddhist monks from Hemis monastery. While recuperating, Notovitch struck up a relationship with the Lama, who eventually produced a number of ancient scrolls written in Tibetan by Buddhist historians. An interpreter translated the scrolls, and Notovitch managed to make copies of a significant part of them. The scrolls narrate the story of Jesus (identified as Issa – see footnote 4) from birth to death, but most significantly tell of Christ’s wanderings between, roughly, the ages of 13-30. According to the scrolls, Christ came specifically to study the teachings of the Buddhists. His travels took him through Sindh, the Punjab and eventually to Juggernaut, where he studied the Vedas.

However, Jesus was driven out when he taught the Holy Scripture to those whom the Brahmins thought unworthy and spoke out against such caste distinction. He sought sanctuary in the Gothamide region, where he continued his studies before returning, at the age of 29, to Judæa. Then, with certain deviations in the details, the story of Christ follows the conventional one, with his eventual death on the cross.

When Notovitch returned to the West, he sought to publish his translations of the scrolls. Not surprisingly, the established Church, when consulted by Notovitch on several occasions, advised against publication. Eventually, he gained the support of the respected French academic and philosopher Joseph Ernest Renan, who was extremely interested in the scrolls and their contents. However, when Renan offered to make a report to his academy, Notovitch declined, fearing that Renan would take the credit and steal his own thunder.

Notovitch eventually published the material himself, in 1894, as The Unknown Life of Christ. There have been attempts to refute Notovitch’s findings – some have gone so far as denying that he ever visited Hemis monastery – or even that the monastery did not exist. Now, however, there would seem to be sufficient evidence, both circumstantial and otherwise, to corroborate Notovitch’s movements as he gave them. The scrolls themselves, though, have remained elusive. While certain researchers claim to have had their existence confirmed by the Buddhist monks, these mysterious artifacts have yet to make a physical appearance. Until they do, doubt will inevitably persist.

Nicholas Notovitch was a major force in bringing the notion of Jesus in India to the attention of the West, particularly the Christian West.

Alongside Notovitch ranks another highly controversial figure: Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, author of the Urdu treatise Masih Hindustan Mein (Jesus in India, 1899). In this readable – if undeniably polemical – work, Ghulam Ahmad set out his theory that Christ survived the crucifixion and journeyed to India, where eventually he died at the venerable age of 120 and was laid to rest in the Roza Bal tomb in Srinagar.

Ghulam Ahmad was born in 1835 in the small Indian town of Qadian. His fervent devotion to Islam became all too apparent when, at the age of 49, he wrote his massively popular (in the Muslim world) Baraheen Ahmadiyya. This aggressive and thorough declaration ‘proves’ the superiority of Islam over the other religions of the world and was enough to earn Ghulam Ahmad the distinction of Mujjadid or reformer – a title granted to only 13 other Muslims throughout history. However, it wasn’t long after receiving this honour that Ghulam Ahmad cultivated a far more controversial role within the Islamic world with his stunning declaration that he was, in fact, the long awaited Mahdi, or Messiah, who would herald the final rule of Islam.

In the eyes of most Muslims, Ghulam Ahmad had turned himself from a saint into a sinner almost overnight. His astounding claims turned his most devout supporters into his most vocal critics; an attitude that was only compounded with the publication of Jesus in India, which ensured that he would become a popular hate figure for Christians and Buddhists as well as Muslims.

Central to Ghulam Ahmad’s treatise is the notion that, after the crucifixion, Christ travelled towards India in search of the lost tribes (rather than, as in Notovitich’s version, during his so-called ‘lost years’). Ahmad also states vociferously, and provocatively, that Buddhism owes a specific debt to Jesus’s journey. Some have argued that there are, indeed, perceptible similarities between the teachings of Christ and Buddha, similarities that go beyond any mere notion of the world’s religions sharing certain underlying precepts or worldviews.

While some people may have been convinced that elements of Buddhism crept into Christ’s teachings in some form or another, Ghulam Ahmad turned this idea on its head, stating that after Christ taught extensively throughout India and neighbouring countries his teachings were appropriated and approximated by Buddhist monks and then passed on as the words of the Buddha. It is only, perhaps, when compared to other religions that the common elements we find in the philosophies of Buddha and Christ take on a very distinct form that might lend credence to such an idea. 2

Ghulam Ahmad’s treatise was the culmination of extensive research into the tomb of Roza Bal. First alerted to the shrine’s existence by one of his followers, he undertook and directed months of investigation, during which local people were questioned as to their knowledge of the site. The picture that emerged was that the tomb was believed to have had stood for roughly 1,900 years, and that its occupant was a foreigner who had arrived to preach to the people some 600 years prior to Mohammed. Local Muslims named him Yuz Asaf.

As well as local knowledge, Ghulam Ahmad draws on various Buddhist and medical texts to support his hypothesis.

Most notably though, what Ghulam Ahmad’s treatise tackles head-on is the most controversial element of the whole ‘Jesus in India’ theory – that if we accept that Jesus died at the age of 120 in India, then there arises inevitably a fundamental question about Christ’s crucifixion and death. This, as the very cornerstone of Christianity, cannot easily be glossed over. Ghulam Ahmad was not the first to challenge the idea of Christ’s death and subsequent resurrection, but he was the first to do so in a relatively far-reaching publication.

Before assessing the evidence that Ghulam Ahmad and others have posited for Christ’s survival, certain parameters must be established. If we accept that Christ was indeed sentenced and punished, as the gospels claim, there are only three possible outcomes: He died, rose again and ascended to Heaven to claim his rightful position at the side of God; He merely died; He didn’t die on the cross.

For those who don’t subscribe to the most fundamental Christian tenets, only the final two options are available for consideration – but any tomb other than the one near Golgotha would challenge the dogma of the Ascension.

But if, as has become increasingly prevalent over the last century, we are to concern ourselves with the study of the Gospels (and other texts) as historical sources, and if we apply to them the sort of consistent historical rigour employed in other forms of research, we are practically forced to the conclusion that Christ did not die on the cross. After all, he is reported as walking and talking after his supposed ‘death’, and unless we read these stories as metaphor – which a stylistic comparison of these passages and the rest of the Gospel narratives in no way encourages us to do – then we must posit a post-crucifixion survival for Jesus.

Surviving crucifixion, after all, was not entirely unknown. As the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus wrote:

“…On my return I saw many prisoners who had been crucified, and recognised three of them as my former companions. I was inwardly very sad about this and went with tears in my eyes to Titus and told him about them. He at once gave the orders that they should be taken down and given the best treatment so they could get better. However two of them died while being attended by the doctor; the third recovered.” 3

Some of the discussion by scholars and researchers that casts doubt on Christ’s death on the cross stems from the quantity and quality of the ointments provided within the tomb. It has been noted that what is described in the Gospels is far more in keeping with recuperative rather than funereal treatment. 4 It has always seemed strange that a punishment that was meant to take days would be ordered with only a few hours left before the Sabbath commenced, after dusk on Friday evening. Execution on the Holy day was forbidden in Jewish law. The actions of Christ’s disciples such as Mary Magdalene and Joseph of Arimethea suggest strongly that Christ’s life, though probably in the balance, was not forfeit. (See FT146:30-33 for another discussion of Christ’s possible survival).

So, assuming that Christ did survive crucifixion, what – apart from the supposedly post-resurrection events offered in the Gospels – is the evidence that he was not only up and about but also, more specifically, that he made his way eastwards? Perhaps surprisingly, there is a body of suggestive evidence available from a variety of manuscripts and other texts. The most prominent of these is the Bhavishya Maha Purana. This is one of the 18 holy books (Puranas) of Hinduism. Compiled in AD 115, it includes an intriguing encounter between King Shalivahana and a holy man referred to as Isa-Masih. 5

Isa explains who he is:

“I am called a Son of God, born of a virgin, minister of the non-believers… I come from a foreign country where there is no truth… I appeared as the Messiah.”

Much later in the Rauzat-us Safa, a Persian history dating from AD 1417, we hear that:

“Jesus (on whom be peace) was named the Messiah because he was a great traveller… Journeying from his country he arrived at Nasibain. With him were a few of his disciples which he sent into the city to preach.” 6

Later in this narrative, Jesus’s followers are arrested but freed once He performs an act of healing.

In the 10th century, the Muslim scholar Al-Shaikh Al-Said-us-Sadiq recorded his cultural investigations under the title of Ikmaul-ud-Din. In it, he speaks specifically of a Christ-like foreigner, and his disciple Ba’bad, spending his final days in Kashmir:

“Then Yuz Asaf… reached that country which is called Kashmir. He travelled in it far and wide… until death overtook him. He then directed Ba’bad to prepare a tomb over him. He stretched his legs towards the west and head towards the east and died.” 7

The Ikmal-ud-Din also describes Yuz Asaf teaching by the use of parables, the most striking example of which is that concerning a ‘sower of seeds’ whose truths fall on good land and stony ground; its similarity to Jesus’s parable in the Gospels (Mark 4:3-20) is startling.

A Jesus-figure also appears in various other texts, including Buddhist, Urdu and Persian documents. Dr Fida Hassnain, who has written convincingly on this subject, encountered many such documents when he was Director of Museums and Antiquities for Kashmir. His research also seems to support the claims made by Nicholas Notovitch in relation to the documents that were presented to him during his stay in Ladak. 8

In the sources quoted above, and in other documents, the apparent Jesus figure is referred to as Yuz Asaf. This, according to a sign outside the Roza Bal, is the name of the tomb’s occupant. Another striking instance linking Jesus to the name Yuz Asaf, and to the locale of Srinagar, is to be found at the Takhat Sulaiman (Throne of Solomon) temple at Lake Dal in Srinagar. Here, there are four inscriptions:

1. The mason of this pillar is Bihishti Zargar, year fifty and four.

2. Khwaja Rukun son of Murjan erected this pillar.

3. At this time Yuz Asaf proclaimed his prophethood. Year fifty and four.

4. He is Jesus, prophet of the children of Israel.

The year 54 is usually believed to equate to AD 78. 9

Jesus is by no means alone among Biblical personalities to be connected with journeys to the East: Moses, Noah, Mary, Joseph, Aaron and even Jesus’s donkey all have ascribed burial places in the region. There is also one other important biblical character who sheds an intriguing light on the whole theory. Thomas was one of the disciples and – interestingly, in relation to the previously quoted Bible passage in which Jesus instructs his followers to seek out the lost tribes – he was sent to India. Thomas’s subsequent travels are recorded in the Acta Thomæ (declared heretical in AD495), which has been dated to the first century AD.

A highly significant event is highlighted in the Acta Thomæ. It is a marriage ceremony at Taxila, in India, which Jesus is said to have attended and is clearly placed some years after the accepted date of the crucifixion in AD49. Some have identified Thomas with Yuz Asaf’s disciple Ba’bad; others have suggested that Thomas himself might have been the basis for the stories of Yuz Asaf – the evidence for his visits to India pre-dates these tales, after all. 10

Jesus has, over the centuries, been linked to many places far from Palestine. From France to Japan (see FT110:24-26), it is a common cultural strategy to claim any possible post-crucifixion Christ as one’s own. But what is striking about the Christ-in-India tradition is that the very people we’d expect to claim Jesus as ‘belonging’ to Kashmir – surely a good ploy for bringing in visitors and money to the region – don’t. The entire hypothesis, and the evidence that seems to support it, has been researched and offered up by outsiders investigating what were originally seen as purely folkloric claims. To those living around the Roza Bal, the site is simply a shrine to a venerated holy man, a foreigner who came to their country with powerful teachings. To others, it is the tomb of Christ himself.

Whoever is buried in the Roza Bal, he has, at the very least, forced many to reconsider the accounts contained in the Bible and other religious texts, to explore what historical evidence they might, or might not, contain, and perhaps to perceive the similarities and common elements between religions often bitterly opposed. For this alone, he deserves our reverence; long may he rest in peace.

Considering the enormous implications of the claims that have been made in relation to the Roza Bal, it would seem strange if the research had simply ended at a speculative juncture. In fact, there have been attempts to dig deeper and to gain access to the tomb and what it holds. Suzanne Olsson, an independent researcher who has self-funded years of enquiry into the Roza Bal and related matters, recently got very close to applying modern science to age-old faith.

Planned for publication later this year, her book, In Search of Jesus: The Last Starchild of the Old Silk Road details her protracted wranglings with officials from Church and government as she sought to gain samples from the Rosa Bal for DNA testing. Gaining the nickname ‘Indiana Sue’ for her formidable, and sometimes considerably risky, efforts to investigate a variety of sites across Northern India and Pakistan, including the alleged grave of Mary at Murree (right). Sadly, the Murree site has since been commandeered by the Pakistan military, who have built a communications tower directly over the grave. In spite of this, Olsson very nearly succeeded in uniting India and Pakistan, at a time of heightened tension, in this archæological venture. Her aims were to compare samples from the two tombs.

Tragically, she was thwarted at the final hurdle by what would seem to be an act of considered indiscretion by one of the officials involved. This is not the first occurrence of a similar close call. Some years ago, one of the leading authors in this field, Holger Kersten, having obtained permission to collect samples for DNA testing, was similarly blocked at the 11th hour. In a region beset by continual inter-factional strife, every decision is linked to a deeper agenda. A seismic shift in cultural and political values will need to occur before any explorations can begin.

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