Thursday, 26 April 2018

X for Xuanzang

Xuanzang is the historic Chinese pilgrim and Buddhist monk who came to India in the 7th century to study and acquire knowledge on the core tenets of Buddhism. Xuanzang was known by a few name variations in his birth land China and was known in India by the name of Hieuen Tsang.

He is famous for not only having travelled throughout the expanse of India but also for the closely detailed accounts of his travels that he has left behind. These notes and accounts have been invaluable in establishing details about many of India’s ancient cities when the later historians and archaeologists set out to identify and record the history of these cities.

Hieuen Tsang’s notes helped not only to reveal locations of lost ancient cities, but also gave us sufficient glimpses of the life in India’s ancient cities in his time. We come to know about religion, kings, culture, art and architecture, literature and language, administration and even earlier history of many of our ancient cities through Hieuen Tsang’s descriptions.

It is only fitting and necessary that while on the theme of Ancient Cities of India, we take a look into the life of Hieuen Tsang and his expansive travels across many ancient cities of India.

Hieuen Tsang’s early life

Hieuen Tsang was born in 602 AD in the Henan province of China and from his boyhood days itself was drawn to reading religious books and stories of ancient sages. Though his family followed the religion of Confucius, he followed in the footsteps of his elder brother and took a deep interest in Buddhism. He was ordained as a Buddhist monk at the age of twenty and by then had travelled to many cities in China in search of Buddhist books and treatises.

Hieuen Tsang was most moved by the incompleteness and differences he saw in Chinese Buddhism and what he learnt of Indian Buddhism at that time. When he no longer found answers to his questions in China, he decided to visit India and the Central Asia regions where Buddhism had spread, to learn the Indian Buddhism doctrines right in the cradle of the religion and in the land of the Buddha himself.

Hieuen Tsang knew about Faxian’s (Fa Hien – another Buddhist monk and traveller who had visited India in the 4th century) travel to India and like him was confused with the misinterpreted nature of the Buddhist books that had reached China. Having decided to undertake the travel to India, Hieuen Tsang learnt Sanskrit and also took interest in the metaphysical Yogacara school of Buddhism. Accordingly he left his homeland in 629 AD and started the long and arduous journey to India in the quest of knowledge of the true doctrines and practices of Buddhism.

Hieuen Tsang’s route to India

Upon leaving his province in China, Hieuen Tsang travelled across the Gobi Desert to reach Hami city (in Xinjian area of China), there onwards following the Tian Shan mountain range westwards to reach Turpan in 630 AD. He travelled further west and crossed the Bedel Pass and entered Kyrgyzstan, where he toured a few monasteries of the Mahayana Buddhist school. Continuing further, he visited Tashkent and Samarkand (in present day Uzbekistan) and impressed the ruling Persian king with his preaching. He also visited the abandoned Buddhist monasteries and relics in these cities.  Moving southwards and crossing the Pamir mountain range and passing through the famous Iron Gates, he reached Amu Darya and the city of Termez where he met a large congregation of Buddhist monks. Their abbot Dharmasimha advised Hieuen Tsang to visit Balkh in Afghanistan and see the Buddhist sites and relics at the Nava vihara. It was here that Hieuen Tsang met another notable Buddhist monk Prajnakara with whom he stayed and studied the scriptures for some time. Together they travelled to Bamyan where they saw the two mammoth and magnificent Buddha statues carved out of the rock-face.

Hieuen Tsang then crossed over through the Shibar Pass and reached Kapisa, in the Kabul region, which had 100 Mahayana Buddhist monasteries and more than 6000 monks. Hieuen Tsang participated in religious debates here and engaged other monks on his discourses on the various schools of Buddhism. It was here that he first met the first Hindus and Jains of his journey. Towards the end of 630, Hieuen Tsang reached Adinapur (modern day Jalalabad in Afghanistan) where he thought that he had reached India.

Hieuen Tsang’s travels in India

From Adinapur, Hieuen Tsang crossed the Khyber Pass and reached Purushapura, (ancient Peshawar) the earlier capital of the Gandhara kingdom. Buddhism was on the decline in Peshawar at that time but had an immense wealth of ruined monasteries and stupas. The most notable of them was the Kanishka stupa which Hieuen Tsang described in his accounts. Much later, in 1908, the Kanishka stupa was rediscovered by archaeologist D B Spooner with the help of Hieuen Tsang’s records.

Hieuen Tsang then travelled further east and crossed the Indus River at Waihind (modern day Hund in Pakistan) and moved on to Takshashila. Takshashila had been a very famous centre of learning especially for Buddhism in the latter years, but by the time Hieuen Tsang reached there the place had been ruined. He laments in his travel account of Takshashila, “the place is ruined and desolate though some monks continue to live on… the city is now a dependency of Kashmir, though once it was a part of the Kapisa (Kabul-Gandhara Empire).”

Hieuen Tsang met a very talented Buddhist monk Samghayasas in Kashmir in 631 AD and with him visited many monasteries in the region. Between 632 and 633, he spent 14 months visiting about 100 monasteries and interacting with many monks and studying early scriptures of Buddhism under the well-known monks Vinitprabha and Chandravarman. He also visited Lahore during this time along with other cities in the region. His accounts also give us the earlier history of these ancient cities alongside the description of life during the time of his visit.

In 634, Hieuen Tsang arrived in Jalandhar, before entering the Kullu valley where he visited the non-Mahayana Buddhist monasteries to study their doctrines. He turned southward and then visited Bairat, another important Buddhist monastery location, and then finally traversed up the Yamuna River to reach Mathura. Though a Hindu-dominated place, Mathura had 2000 monks from both the Hinayana and Mahayana faiths of Buddhism. Having visited many monasteries which dotted the region, Hieuen Tsang then crossed the Ganges River and reached Kannauj the capital of King Harsha’s empire at that time.

Hieuen Tsang was completely overawed by King Harsha’s grand capital and the peaceful co-existence of religions in the region. King Harsha played an excellent host and installed Hieuen Tsang with great honour in his court. Religious debates and discourses flowed and Hieuen Tsang continued to visit monasteries in the region. He found a wealth of information to study, not only in Buddhism alone, but also gaining knowledge of Hinduism, reading many texts composed in Sanskrit and taking a taste of classical and religious literature. He continued to stay on in Kannauj under the patronage of King Harsha and records state that he visited few hundred monasteries and interacted with the monks there. He writes that he was greatly impressed by the King’s patronage of both scholarship and Buddhism.

Hieuen Tsang next visited Ayodhya in 636 AD, which was the homeland of the metaphysical Yogacara school of Buddhism. Over the next year, he travelled to Kaushambi (near Allahabad), Sravasti, Kapilavastu in Nepal and finally reached Lumbini, Buddha’s birthplace. In 637, he started his travel again and visited Kusinagara (the place of Buddha’s death) and moved on to visit Varanasi and Sarnath (the founding seat of Buddhism) and further making stops at Vaishali (north Bihar), Pataliputra (modern Patna) and Bodh Gaya. From there the local monks took Hieuen Tsang to Nalanda where the Mahavihara (university) was fully functioning at that time.

Hieuen Tsang stayed on in Nalanda University, enrolling as a student under the tutelage of the very famous Buddhist monk Silabhadra. He studied logic, grammar, Sanskrit and the Yogacara school of Buddhism during his time in Nalanda. The venerable Silabhadra was the superior of the Nalanda Mahavihara at that time and his association with Hieuen Tsang became legendary. Rene Grousset, the French historian specializing on Oriental history, writes, “The Chinese pilgrim had finally found the omniscient master, the incomparable metaphysician who was to make known to him the ultimate secrets of the idealist systems... Silabhadra had been trained by the founders of Mahayana idealism, and was thus in a position to make available to the world the entire heritage of Buddhist idealism. The “Siddhi”, Xuanzang's great philosophical treatise... is none other than the summary of this doctrine, the fruit of seven centuries of Indian Buddhist thought.”

From Nalanda, Hieuen Tsang travelled on to the Eastern kingdoms of India and visited notable monasteries at Tamralipta (Tamluk in West Bengal), Sylhet (in present Bangladesh) and Pragjyotishpura in Kamarupa (Guwahati in Assam) before treading on to South India where he visited the monasteries at Kanchi (Kanchipuram) amongst other cities. Across the Deccan, Hieuen Tsang also visited Nashik, Ajanta and Ujjain before proceeding northwards onto Multan.

In 643 AD, Harsha invited Hieuen Tsang back to Kannauj where he had organised a great Religious Assembly. This was followed in the same year by another Religious Assembly at Prayag (Allahabad), which was titled the ‘Mahamoksha Parishad’. Glorious descriptions of both the Assemblies are given in Hieuen Tsang’s accounts. Harsha had made Hieuen Tsang the Chief Guest of the Assemblies and honoured him with the title of “Master of the Law”. These religious assemblies were attended by many neighbour kings and large congregations of Hindu Brahmins and Buddhist monks. Hieuen Tsang was greatly impressed by the magnanimity of King Harsha towards all religions and his generosity towards his subjects. “History does not present another example of a king who gave away his wealth so freely to the believers and the needy, as did this king…” Hieuen Tsang wrote about King Harsha at the end of the Religious Assemblies.

Hieuen Tsang’s return to China

Hieuen Tsang was given a grand farewell by King Harsha in 645 AD in Kannauj and he set out laden with a caravan full of gifts and accompaniments. He travelled through the Khyber Pass of the Hindu Kush Mountains and reached China, sixteen years after he had left his homeland. His return was greatly celebrated by the Chinese Emperor Taizong of Tang who offered him special appointments in his empire. But Hieuen Tsang declined such appointments and instead retired to a monastery where he spent time in translating Buddhist scriptures and texts and assimilating his travel accounts. It is said that he returned with over 600 Mahayana and Hinayana Buddhist texts, 7 statues of the Buddha and over 100 relics. Hieuen Tsang passed away in 664 AD, leaving behind a wealth of information.

While his main purpose was to receive Buddhist scriptural knowledge, texts and instructions on Buddhism while he was in India, he had indeed done and left back much more. He had preserved the records of all political and social aspects of the cities and lands he visited and such chronicles have immensely helped later historians to reconstruct the history of the 7th century India and throw valuable light on the history of its ancient cities.

The Xuanzang Memorial Hall in Nalanda has been constructed in memory of this great Chinese pilgrim, traveller and Buddhist monk.


Photo: Portrait of Xuanzang (a.k.a Hieuen Tsang)

Photo credit and source: Wikimedia Commons

Connect with me on Twitter: @Sayan74

I am participating in the #BlogchatterA2Z challenge and today’s letter is ‘X’.


  1. A fascinating retelling about one of India's greatest ever visitors. Excellent research, Sayan. I enjoyed reading this.

    1. Thank you Varad for your appreciative comments; I am happy that you enjoyed reading the post!


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