Alexander Csoma de Koros: A Hungarian’s search for his people’s roots

Print edition : November 19, 2021

A sketch of Alexander Csoma de Koros by Ágoston Schoefft. Photo: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Map showing Csoma’s travels. He died in Darjeeling in 1842. Photo: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Bethlenianum, the famous Protestant school in Nagyenyed where Alexander Csoma de Koros learnt Latin, Greek and logic. He also had to work around the college like all students who got free room and board. Photo: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

The life and work of Alexander Csoma de Koros (1784-1842), who spent his life travelling and learning languages in his search for the roots of the Hungarian people and language, form the first strong cultural link between India and Hungary.

“Aren’t you cold? Should I get the fire started?” asks Dr Archibald Campbell of Alexander Csoma de Koros in the second scene of Gábor Lanczkor’s 2010 play The Malaria. In the play, two young people, an Irish girl, Barbara, and a Hungarian boy, Sandor, are in front of Beechwood House in Darjeeling at the location where Csoma—as Alexander Csoma de Koros (1784-1842) is called for short in Hungarian—spent his last four days. The power of Csoma’s presence is such that the local characters and the outsiders start understanding one another’s language without interpretation. In an interview, Lanczkor has described how standing at the graveside of Alexander Csoma de Koros in Darjeeling gave him the impetus to write the play.

Csoma’s life and work are open to interpretation in many ways, and the exhibition “Pilgrim Scholar—Alexander Csoma de Koros Memorial Exhibition”, which opened in the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA) on October 4, presents Csoma’s life, work and his death in Darjeeling, builds on the global reception of Csoma’s work, and the emotional impact his work exercises on Hungarians in Hungary. From the 19th century novels and poetry were written about Csoma. Mor Jokai’s novel Eppur si muove centres around the figure of Csoma. Lajos Áprily, Gyula Juhasz, Sandor Endrodi wrote poems about Csoma, and even Robert Browning’s poem about the “grammarian” (A Grammarian’s Funeral) carries an allusion to Csoma in its reference to the grave above Darjeeling. Novels and poems still deal with his character. Apart from the play by Gabor Lanczkor, there is a novel by Andras Mullner (2000) and a film by Tibor Szemzo, Guest of Life (2006), to mention a few.

Hungarians are enthused by the way Csoma walked thousands of kilometres, joined caravans or travelled by ship and adapted to the lifestyles of the places he found himself in.

Hungarian nation-building

In the first decades of the 19th century, at the time of Hungarian romanticism, there was no definite narrative of Hungarian history. The Orient appeared to be a crucial element and a strategic asset since from the 18th century Hungary had been a part of the Habsburg monarchy. There was a strong emphasis on features that distinguished Hungary from Austrian and German culture. The issue of national origins and the demand for a national history were connected. This coincided with the movement for the renewal of the Hungarian language, the creation of the national epic, the Flight of Zalán (1825) by Mihaly Vorosmarty, the establishment of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences (1825), and the founding of the National Theatre (1837). It was expected that a scholar or a poet should highlight the ancient glory of the nation, and Csoma’s search for the original homeland of Hungarians fortified the narrative of the nation and reinforced the project of nation-building.

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The “Pilgrim Scholar—Alexander Csoma de Koros Memorial Exhibition” is based on the bequest preserved in the Oriental Collection of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and was curated by Dr Agnes Kelecsenyi, Head of the Oriental Collection, and Dr Gergely Orosz, who is in charge of the Tibetan collection. The exhibition guides us through Csoma’s birth in 1784, in Transylvania in Háromszek (renamed after him as Csomakoros), to his school in Nagyenyed—Bethlenianum, the famous Protestant school where he did not have to pay for tuition since it was endowed by the Transylvanian Prince Gábor Bethlen. According to the Szekler-Hungarian tradition, he would have had to become a border guard at the age of 16 and serve as one until he was 50. But when he turned 15, his father permitted Csoma to continue his studies. In Nagyenyed, he learned Latin, Greek and logic. He also had to work around the college like all students who got free room and board.

The exhibition leads to Göttingen and presents Csoma’s professors, Eichhorn, Blumenbach and Heeren, who guided him in what were then the most recent discoveries in history, anthropology and the Oriental languages. When Csoma went to Göttingen, he already knew seven languages, but he improved his knowledge of some languages and learned Arabic, Turkish and English. He especially attached great importance to learning Arabic and researching Arabic sources for information about the predecessors of Hungarians. Throughout his studies and journeys, shortage of money remained a constant fact. In 1818, he was permitted to return to Nagyenyed, which became his home after the death of his parents.

The exhibition presents Csoma’s travels from the end of 1819 to 1822 from Transylvania, Bucharest and Sophia, further away to Alexandria, Beirut and Aleppo by ships and caravans. He often stopped or clanged his travel plans because of epidemics or wars. He found patrons like the British Ambassador in Tehran, Henry Wilcock. He stayed in Tehran for months to improve his knowledge of Persian. He even adopted Persian dress. Later, when he wanted to proceed to Central Asia he changed to Armenian Christian garments. But he could not stay long in Bukhara because of a Russian attack.

In Peshawar, he met two French officers, Jean-François Allard and Jean-Baptiste Ventura, who were in the service of the Punjabi ruler, Ranjit Singh, and reached Lahore in March 1822. When his plans to cross the Karakorum desert were terminated, he met the caravan of William Moorcroft, the veterinarian “Superintendent of the stud-farm” of East India Company. Moorcroft was impressed by Csoma’s knowledge of 14 languages and his extreme adaptability. He persuaded Csoma to learn Tibetan and compile a Tibetan dictionary and grammar. He also offered him financial assistance and letters of recommendation for the purpose. Csoma decided to learn “this strange language”, Tibetan, with the hope that he would find information “respecting the origins and language of Hungarians”, as he wrote in the Preface of his Tibetan-English Dictionary.

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Sangs-rgyas Phun-tshogs in Zangla helped him to learn classical Tibetan and taught him the basics of Tibetan literature. In Zangla, the lamas answered Csoma’s questions about the basics of Buddhist religion, Tibetan culture, medicine, astronomy, poetry, and linguistics, and the content of the “Alexander Books” was compiled. These four books represent the beginning of Tibetology and Western Buddhist studies, which are considered to be now the most valuable part of Csoma’s heritage and recognised as part of Memory of the World by the UNESCO since 2009. These books as well as studies on Tibetan Buddhism occupy a major part of the exhibition.

This part of the exhibition in the IGNCA was also enriched by statues and objects, like a 15th century statue of Manjusri, a 19th century statue of Tsongkhapa, a 17th century statue of Atisa, Chinese and Nepalese bronze statues of Buddha along with objects like a vajra, a burner and silver vases for rituals given on loan by Tibet House.

There were forced breaks in Csoma’s studies when his teacher did not spend time with him in 1824-25. But in 1827, in Kanam, Sangs-rgyas Phun-tshogs stayed with him for three years. Also, in Kanam the complete Tibetan canon was available and he could study Tibetan language, religion and culture relatively undisturbed. By 1830 he had enough material to compile his Tibetan-English Dictionary and his Grammar.

Asiatic Society stint

Csoma published these works in 1834 in Calcutta (now Kolkata), where he was appointed the librarian of the Asiatic Society of Bengal. In the Dictionary he printed the name of Sangs-rgyas Phun-tshogs, a very unusual practice in the 19th century. In the Preface he gives a brief account of his travels and the difficulties of studying a language that had been so far studied only superficially. Apart from the Dictionary and Grammar, Csoma also published extensive studies on the Buddhist canon, about Buddhism and about grammatical works in Tibetan. He was elected an honorary member of the Asiatic Society of Bengal in 1833. This is also the reason why on October 28 the exhibition will be taken to Kolkata, where a number of manuscripts and other documents are preserved. The Asiatic Society of Bengal also maintains a special room, Csoma’s room, with objects of art from Hungary and his birthplace, Transylvania.

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The exhibition presents the response to Csoma’s work after his death by Brian Houghton Hodgon (1800-1894), Solomon Caesar Malan (1812-1894), Denison Ross (1871-1940), the Hungarian Count István Széchenyi (1791-1860), his first well-known biographer, the British-Hungarian Theodore Duka (1825-1908) and the famous Hungarian Indologist, the uncle of Amrita Sher-Gill, Ervin Baktay (1890-1963). Ágoston Schoefft’s painting of Ranjeet Singh’s court and the portrait of Csoma made by Schoefft are also presented.

An impressive part connected to the exhibition was a series of lectures and a closing panel discussion. On October 8, Gergely Orosz presented a lecture on the Alexander Books. On October 12, Ágnes Kelecsenyi had webinar on Alexander Csoma de Koros and Oriental research in Hungary. On October 18, there was a panel discussion on “Indian and Hungarian Cultural Encounters” by Indian and Hungarian panellists, Radha Banerjee Sarkar, Bandana Mukherjee, Kumud Bhansali, Imre Lazar, Margit Köves, and the moderator, director of IGNCA, R.C. Gaur, who also curated the events linked to the exhibition.

Csoma’s life and work are the first strong cultural link between India and Hungary and Csoma is presented to young people as a model of perseverance and sacrifice in the interest of learning new languages, widening one’s horizons and merging oneself more deeply in history, relating it to the past of other peoples. For the last 16 years there is an essay competition among students of Hungarian in Delhi University named after Alexander Csoma de Koros, and his birthday is celebrated as Csoma Day in April on Csoma’s birthday.