Xuanzang: Rediscovering the ancient Chinese traveller

He travelled almost all the Buddhist monasteries of this land and recorded in his travel notes about 100 monasteries with 5000 thousand monks
Xuanzang: Rediscovering the ancient Chinese traveller

I do not remember the actual date but those were the pleasant days of summer 2001 that Shalimar Travelers Polo view Srinagar, famed travel agency, had a guest from Taiwan, and I got a chance to attend him.

In my first interaction with this guy I came to know that he was basically a photojournalist working for some Taiwan based news magazine, who had arrived here to cover the travel story of the ancient traveller Xuanzang known in Kashmeri records as Huen Tsang.

In my interaction with this journalist I first felt a bit difficult to understand him, as he was unable to pronounce the words properly. Usually Chinese, Taiwanese and Japanese have got such names which are difficult for us to pronounce. He was repeatedly referring to some Xuanzaing named ancient Chinese traveller. I could understand that he is referring to Huen Tsang named ancient Chinese traveller, about whom we Kashmiris are already familiar. He has also been one of the significant foreign historical characters of Kashmir.

I remained with him for several days and guided him as per my little knowledge which I had got about this ancient traveller. He pictured several ancient sites and the remains of Buddhist Stupas and monasteries where this ancient traveller had stayed and studied the ancient Buddhist texts.

I could also enhance my information about many things pertaining to this ancient traveller, in fact among the ancient foreign account, Huen Tsang contribution to Kashmir history has been very wonderful. The Kashmir chapter of his travelogue is considered the basic foreign account of ancient Kashmir history. The critical events which the 12th century Kalhana’s Rajtarangni has missed to record, this Chinese traveller has recorded them in his travel notes.

Since exploring history and culture has remained my hobby and I have also read little bit about several ancient travellers to this land, the earliest mention is made in Grecian geographers. Ptolemy’s Geography mentions it as Kaspeiria. Another Greecian traveller Hekataios mentions it as a city of Gandharians. Herodotus (Historian) has also accounted it in his arrivals. Ou Kong, the first Chinese traveller has also made mention of this land, but the way Huen Tsang has recorded Kashmir and given the description of this land and its people is wonderful.

Aruel Stein, the 20th century European traveller has been very much inspired by Huen Tsang and credits him with the first ethnographic survey of Kashmir, where the pilgrim studied Buddhist Philosophy for two years from 631 to 633; this long stay was not surprising as his biographer reports. He further writes, “this country from remote times was distinguished for learning and these priests were all of high religious merit and conspicuous virtue, as well as of marked talent and power of clear exposition of doctrine, and though the other priests (priests of other nations ) were in their own way distinguished, yet they could not be compared with these; so different were they from the ordinary class.

Xuanzang also known as Hiuen Tsang was a Chinese Buddhist monk, scholar, traveller, and translator. He travelled for years together (in 7th century AD) to far off lands of Central Asia Afghanistan, India and Kashmir in search of Buddhist texts to correct his Buddhist scripts. It was not today’s travel - air-conditioned planes, trains and buses. It was quite hilly and by zig zag paths mounting on horseback or on camel or elephant back and sometimes by foot and taking months and years together to reach any destination.

The ancient records say that, ‘while heading north towards Kashmir, he arrived in the city of Pushkalavati, with many holy Buddhist sites. Xuanzang worshipped at these “great stupas and big monasteries”. Thereafter he reached the country of Udayana, through which flowed the Subhavastu River (now called Swat River)

Xuanzang arrived in Taxila, after crossing a river with “poisonous dragons and evil animals”. There, he visited a major Buddhist monastery of the Sautrantika School. From there, after covering some 2200 li, he passed through the country of Simhapura (Kalabagh), of Urasa (now Hazara), and then into Kashmira

It was in 631 that he reached Kashmir and was received by the king, Durlabhavardhana of local Karkota Dynasty at the Budhist monastery of Ushkar present day Baramullah. He travelled almost all the Buddhist monasteries of this land and recorded in his travel notes about 100 monasteries with 5000 thousand monks. Jayendra vihara has been most significant Vihar and it is widely believed that it is in this Vihar that this Chinese traveller has spent most of his times. The identity of this site is not clear, some identify remains of Ushkar site with Jajendra vihara, while other are not sure about it and they say it was located somewhere in Srinagar either at Zaindar Mohallah or at Reyazet Taing Raniwari. He spent his times at Ushkr or at Srinager doesn’t matter, but the interesting thing is his travel history and historical description of this land, which needs to be explored. In his travelogue, while describing this land at one place he writes;

‘Kashmira is land with a very cold climate and is often calm without any wind. The region has lakes, grows plenty of flowers and fruit, saffron and medicinal herbs. Kashmira has over 100 monasteries and more than 5000 monks. The residents revere four large stupas that were built in ancient times by Ashoka. King Kanishika too built many Buddhist monasteries here. He also had treatises with 960,000 words written on copper plates and stored in a newly built great stupa. The Kashmira region has numerous monks well versed with the Tripitaka”

He is known to have stayed here for a long time, for about two years and studied and discussed these treatises with the local monks.

He was the first ancient traveller who made mention of ancient Kashmiri fruits, flowers, herbs, and more interestingly of world class saffron cultivation. He was first to disclose the secret of Kanishak’s Buddhist council held in Kashmir and of its copper plates. There are other myths and traditions recorded by this intellectual traveller but those needs to be verified by other sources as well.

Above all, his travels brought Kashmir close to ancient China, the Chinese Tang dynasty and Kashmir’s Karkota dynasty developed close political ties. In fact most of the events of Karkota dynasty are recorded in Chinese records of Tang dynasty.

The political relationship of Karkotas of Kashmir with Chinese Tang dynasty is a different topic. Here our concern is Heun Tsang’s travel history for which the Taiwanese journalist arrived here to record its story. He photographed almost all remains and sites of this upper Jhelum valley pertaining to his travel history, which included the archaeological remains of Ushkar, Tapper, Parahaspura, Harwan, Pandrethan, Awantipura, Bijbehera and Martand. He also pictured the ancient motifs of grapes, lotus, and saffron flowers to add more interest to his story on Huen Tsang travel history.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK .

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