Indians traditionally have never been good at recording history. Knowledge was often transmitted through the oral tradition. Most of what we know about our ancient history comes from the writings of foreign travellers. Hiuen Tsang was one such Chinese traveller whose detailed records (Great Tang Records on the Western Regions) give us a tremendous insight into the administrative, economic, social, cultural and religious traditions of the country in the 7th century.
Hiuen Tsang was born as Chen Hui in the present day region of Louyang in China. While his family followed Confucian traditions, he was attracted to Buddhism. He was ordained as a bhikshu or monk at the age of twenty. Having mastered Sanskrit, he learnt the Mahayana. But he was disturbed by the discrepancies in the translations from Sanskrit texts. Determined to resolve these contradictions and eager to discover the truths of Buddhism for himself, he decided to travel to India- which was the cradle of Buddhist civilization.
In 629, when the Chinese empire was going through political turmoil and foreign travel was forbidden, he managed to slip out of the country. He travelled by the land route – across the Gobi desert, and then westward to modern day Krygyzstan, Tashkent, Samarkand, and then to modern day Afghanistan where he saw the Bamiyan Buddha statues. He travelled past the Khyber Pass to reach Gandhara and Purushapur (modern day Peshawar) and then to Swat Valley. He crossed the Indus river, visiting Buddhist centres in Takshashila and Kashmir on the way and then reaching Lahore. In 634, he reached Jalandhar and then climbed to Kulu Valley to visit monasteries there, before going to Mathura. After crossing the Ganges, he reached Kannauj where Emperor Harshavardhan reigned. Harsha patronized both scholarship and Buddhism. Hiuen Tsang visited Lumbini and Kushinagara, the Buddha’s place of birth and death respectively, as well as Sarnath, where the Buddha had delivered his first sermon. Travelling eastward he then reached Bihar, where he visited Pataliputra, Vaishali and Bodh Gaya.
Map depicting Hiuen Tsang’s arduous journey. The lines in green outline his journey from China to India, while the yellow lines depict his return journey
At the end of this voyage through rough and rugged terrain, he finally reached Nalanda, which was then the site of the world’s first international University. After first being turned down, he was admitted as a student in the University under its chancellor Shilabhadra and given the new name Mokshadeva. The student – teacher relationship was mutually fulfilling and Hiuen Tsang turned out to be one of Shilabhadra’s most hard working pupils. He spent five years in Nalanda as a student, where keeping in with traditions, he learnt logic, philosophy, grammar, Buddhism and yoga. He was honoured in the Kannuaj assembly by Harshavardhan. He also spent a year as a teacher in Nalanda, before returning to China in 645 AD.
Mural depicting Hiuen Tsang’s journey to India
Mural depicting how Hiuen Tsang lost some of the texts while crossing the Indus river on his way back
Beautifully decorated ceiling of the memorial hall
On his way back, Hiuen Tsang carried with him 657 Buddhist texts and 150 Buddhist relics on 20 horses in 520 cases. On reaching China he refused all appointments and devoted all his energy into translating the Sanskrit Buddhist texts into Chinese. He also wrote detailed memoirs of his expeditions. While Hiuen Tsang’s primary endeavour was to learn about Buddhism and gather Buddhist books from India, he ended up writing elaborate chronicles which serve as rich accounts of life and history of that era.
If you are visiting the ruins of Nalanda, do not miss a visit to the Hiuen Tsang Memorial Hall, which is a short drive away from the UNESCO World Heritage Site. The first thing which struck me was the spelling of the pilgrim’s name. But then Hiuen Tsang’s name underwent several modifications in the countries he visited. Wikipedia alone lists at least 22 different variations of his name.
The memorial is a joint venture of India and China. Interestingly, the idea of honouring the Chinese traveller came about in 1957 when the first Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru and the first premier of the People’s Republic of China Zhou Enlai were discussing the principles of Panchsheel and the air was rent with slogans of Hindi-Chini bhai bhai. There were talks of China providing funding for the construction of this memorial. The Chinese government had presented the relics and remains of Hiuen Tsang, which were kept in the Temple of Great Compassion in Tianjin, to Nehru through the Dalai Lama. But then war between India and China happened. And all possibilities of this memorial being built came to a standstill. Finally work on the building was completed in 1984.
However it wasn’t until 2006 that the memorial received a fresh lease of life, when a joint effort was made by both countries again. Beautification of the site commenced. Murals from Hiuen Tsang’s birthplace were flown in. A special gate was made at the entrance, and a huge bell now adorns the garden of the premises.
The ornamental gate to the Memorial
The huge bell installed in the garden: Ring it to ring in good fortune
Statue of the Buddha in the memorial
The Buddha’s footprint
A bronze statue of Hiuen Tsang weighing 750 kg attracts tourists at the entrance.
I simply loved the huge backpack with the Chinese umbrella that the statue carries. To think this man completed this arduous journey of seventeen years via the land route in that era all by himself speaks volumes about his determination and his adventurous spirit. He calls out to the voyager in my soul- to discover knowledge around the world for yourself. To journey outward to discover your own self within.