It is thought that Central Asia has had contact with Buddhism since the time of the Buddha himself: there are records of a pair of merchant brothers from Bactria (modern-day northern Afghanistan, Tajikistan and southern Uzbekistan) visiting the Buddha and becoming his disciples; upon their return to Bactria, they built temples to him. Between the second century bc and the second century ad, Buddhism spread east from India via the Silk Road. Over 50,000 km of trade routes connected China and India with Persia and the Mediterranean, and Buddhist merchants and monks travelling these routes disseminated Buddhist teachings to the oases along the way. By the seventh century ad, Buddhism had spread to Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan via the Turkic conquerors from Mongolia in the north, completing a cycle from India through Central Asia to China and back again to Central Asia. Buddhism in Central Asia went into decline with the expansion of Islam in the eighth to the eleventh centuries.
The spread of Buddhism beyond the boundaries of India took place at the time of the Mauryan emperor Ashoka (c. 268 B.C.), and found expression in his edicts engraved on pillars and rocks at various points throughout the empire. In the propagation of Buddhism and Indian culture in Central Asia and Hast Turkestan (of which Ashoka Maurya was the initiator), an important role was played by the Parthian, Saka and Kushan rulers of north-western India. A major influx of Buddhist missionaries into these territories occurred among the Kushans. The principal route of Buddhist expansion lay through Bactria and the western possessions of the Kushan Empire. Part of this territory (northern Bactria on the right bank of the Amu Darya, or Oxus - later Tokharistan) now forms part of Middle Asia (southern Uzbekistan and Tajikistan). Recent archaeological findings have shown that Buddhism and Indian culture permeated every area of Central Asia, leaving direct evidence in the form of inscriptions and religious structures, as well as profound traces in the cultural substrata of the local peoples. Buddhism only ceased to play an important role in the region from the end of the eighth century, after the arrival of Islam, and in the northern region of Central Asia (in Semirechye) Buddhist religious centres were evidently still functioning as late as the tenth century.
In the seventh century A.D., a Buddhist monk, Xuanzang, visited Central Asia on his way from China to India. Later, he reported that Buddhism appeared to be thriving in the region, with hundreds of temples and thousands of monks. One place in particular stood out in Xuanzang's recollections -- the ancient city of Termez, located on the banks of the Amu Darya River.
Just across the border from Afghanistan, the town of Termez has the sites of two major stupas, dated between the 1st and 3rd century AD — Kara-Tepe and Fayaz-Tepe. The ruins show that both were major monastic centres.
The Fayaz Tepa site consists of a rectangular building complex with a stupa, a dome-shaped shrine containing sacred Buddhist relics. The walls of the sanctuary and parts of the central court bear the remains of mural paintings.
Several other Buddhist monuments have been discovered in the surroundings of ancient Termez. Kara Tepa, a complex of Buddhist monastic and ritual structures, and the 16-meter high Zurmala tower, the largest Buddhist stupa remaining in the region, are among the most attractive. Kara-Tepe has vast and extensive ruins and must have housed a large number of monks. This is the same period of time when the great Indian Pandit Kumarayana would have traveled on the Silk Route, from Kashmir past here to Urumqi (now in China), where he married Princess Jiva of Kucha. Their son Kumarajiva went on to become the greatest name in Buddhism in China. Travelling through Uzbekistan reminds one of the great romances of the exchange of philosophic and aesthetic ideas in the ancient times.
The excavations of such sites has lent valuable insight into the culture of the region's former Buddhist community with the discovery of sculptures, paintings, and building inscriptions. Many of these historic relics have been gathered at the Surkhandar'ya Regional Museum of Termez, and the Museum of the History of the Peoples of Uzbekistan in Tashkent. Excavation work at the sanctuary of Fayaz Tepa has turned up one of the most celebrated pieces of early Central Asian art: a limestone sculpture showing the Buddha in meditation with disciples.
The trade routes that ran from northwestern India to northern China made possible both the introduction of Buddhism to Central Asia and the maintenance, for many centuries, of a flourishing Buddhist culture there. Indie faiths were never a missionary movement. However, Buddha’s teachings spread far and wide on the Indian subcontinent, and from there, throughout Asia. In each new culture it reached, the Buddhist methods and styles were modified to fit the local traditions, without compromising the essential philosophical points of wisdom and compassion.
When Buddhist merchants visited and settled in different lands, members of the local populations developed interest in their beliefs. Such a process occurred with Buddhism in the lands along the Silk Road in Central Asia during the two centuries before and after the common era. As local rulers and their people learned more about this Indian religion, they invited monks from the merchants’ native regions as advisors or teachers and, in this manner, eventually adopted the Buddhist faith.
Traces of Buddhism have been found in all five former Soviet Central Asian republics. But Michael Barry Lane who is UNESCO's representative in Uzbekistan explains why so many Buddhist sites are concentrated around Termez, the former northern capital of ancient Bactria, a historic region that included southern Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and northern Afghanistan: "The main inspiration for the Buddhist culture transmitted to China and Japan was the Greco-Buddhist culture -- or Hellenistic culture -- which flourished in Gandahara, in today's northern Pakistan and Afghanistan, from about the first century B.C. to the fourth century A.D. The trade route from Gandahara to the northwest also left a lot of influences and a lot of vestiges along the Amu Darya River in Central Asia. And the center of this region was Termez."
Founded 2,500 years ago in the foothills of Nepal, Buddhism spread to Gandahara. From there, the religion traveled along trade routes to reach Parthia in modern Turkmenistan and northeastern Iran, and Bactria. Mostly from Bactria, Buddhism arrived to Sogdia in central Uzbekistan and northwestern Tajikistan. Later, in the seventh century, Buddhism continued its route to southern Kazakhstan and northern Kyrgyzstan.
"In Tajikistan and in Kyrgyzstan there are also some Buddhist sites dating from a later period, from the seventh and eighth centuries," Lane said. "There is one in Kyrgyzstan close to Bishkek, which is called Krasnaya Rechka (Kyzylsuu). And there is an important site in Tajikistan called Ajina Tepa. It contained the biggest reclining Buddhist statue in Central Asia [the 'Buddha in Nirvana' statue] which is now conserved in a museum in Dushanbe."
Central Asia was home to many religions before the arrival of Islam. The Magok-i-Attari mosque in Bukhara, Uzbekistan, illustrates this cultural diversity. It was built upon a Zoroastrian temple, which in turn was built upon a Buddhist shrine.