A master chronicler

Print edition : December 08, 2001

The Unknown Hsuang-Tsang, edited by D. Devahuti; Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2001; pages.184, Rs.495.

MUCH of our knowledge of early Indian history comes from the accounts of foreigners who as pilgrims, travellers and traders crossed the seas and difficult land routes to reach India. In their writings on their observations and experiences of a country new and strange to them, they left for posterity valuable contributions to the historical understanding of early Indian society. As outsiders, they found worthy of mention facets and facts about the country that native writers missed or often simply took for granted and hence ignored. They acted, often unwittingly, as agents of civilisational contact and exchange, bringing with them new ideas, skills and technologies, and returning, in turn, armed with new knowledge as the harbingers of cultural and intellectual change. The valuable role of these extraordinary individuals as the connectors of civilisations is of particular significance in India today when state-sponsored textbook writing and officially-endorsed historical research is set on a path of 'indigenisation'. There is a rather futile search for a pure and inbred society that was fertilised by the wellsprings of its own creative energies, and not by "outside" or, worse, "foreign" influences.

One of the greatest of foreign travellers to ancient India was Hsuang Tsang (or "Xuangzang", as he is referred to in China), the celebrated Buddhist scholar-pilgrim from China who spent 14 years of his life, from 630 to 644 A.D., in various parts of the Indian subcontinent. The links he established in his time between two great civilisations of the period remained strong and abiding. The Unknown Hsuang-Tsang, edited by the late D. Devahuti, is a valuable addition to the scholarship on Hsuang Tsang. Of interest to the scholar and non-specialist alike, the book is a compilation of excerpts from old and recent translations, including Devahuti's, of Hsuang Tsang's writings. It also includes excerpts from his biographies written by his contemporaries. Devahuti's research interests in Harshavardhana, the 7th century ruler whom Hsuang Tsang visited during his stay in India, led her into explorations on the life and times of the Chinese scholar. Her unpublished writings could only be published posthumously.

Tan Chung, Professor at the Jawaharlal Nehru University and a close friend and colleague of Devahuti, in his introduction to the book quotes Ji Xianlin, Life Professor of Beijing University and the doyen of Chinese scholars on Sino-Indian studies. According to Tan Chung, Xianlin has summarised the contributions of Hsuang Tsang as having been four.

First, Hsuang Tsang was among the foremost translators in the Chinese language. He translated with great mastery into the Chinese nearly 3,000 pages of Buddhist scriptures he brought from India. Second, he established a new school of Buddhist disciples called the 'Weishi'. Third, he was instrumental in getting diplomatic relations between Harshavardhana and the T'ang Dynasty established. Fourth, he was responsible for taking to China the technique of making brown cane-sugar, known in ancient China as 'shimi' (stone honey).

HSUANG TSANG, born in 602 A.D. in the Honan Province of China, died at the relatively early age of 62 in 664 A.D. near the capital Chang-an. In the 14 years he remained in India, he stayed in Kashmir for two years, in the Punjab for about a year and a half, at Nalanda for five years, in Magadha for two years, with the remaining years in the Deccan and south India. He returned to the Chinese capital in April 645. He worked ceaselessly on his translations and memoirs for the next two decades during which time he received both the patronage and encouragement of the rulers of the T'ang dynasty.

The two major sources on Hsuang Tsang's life are his biography, written by two of his disciples, and his travelogue. The first chapter of the book is a fresh translation by the author of those chapters of Hsuang Tsang's biography that deal with the years after his return to China. The second chapter contains letters exchanged between the pilgrim and two monk scholars at Nalanda. These have been translated from the Chinese and Uigur versions of the originals. The second chapter also contains a translation into English of the German translation of the Uigur version of the letters by A. von Gabain. The book also has an English translation of the French rendering of Hsuang Tsang's biography by S. Julien, with notes and comments by Devahuti. The last chapter contains the author's translation of selected chapters that pertain to India from Hsuang Tsang's travelogue entitled 'Records of the Western Lands of the Great T'ang period', completed by him in 646 A.D., a year after his return to China. He wrote this at the urging of T'ai Tsung, the T'ang Emperor.

For a non-specialist reader, perhaps the most engaging parts of the book are the excerpts from Hsuang Tsang's biography that deal with the years after his return to China, and the portions from his travelogue pertaining to his experiences and observations on India. Hsuang Tsang's biographers write in a style that is remarkably free from exaggeration and sycophancy. The account is almost contemporary in its matter-of-fact narrative and attention to providing detail. Hsuang Tsang emerges as a man of erudition for whom there is widespread respect and veneration. His deep faith in Buddhism was matched only by his single-minded dedication to his work, which was primarily that of translation. He worked himself to exhaustion, refusing the administrative positions that were offered him by the Emperor. His early death could well have been hastened by the punishing schedule of work he set for himself.

For the modern reconstruction of ancient Indian history, Hsuang Tsang's description of India is of great value. It is a clear, dispassionate and rational voice that describes the India of the 7th century. It speaks of everything from the geography of the country to its products, from its social and religious practices to the existing revenue and administrative arrangements.

For example, here is a 7th century view of the geographical and physical boundaries of India: "As to the demarcation of territories we can say that the territory of the five Indias is more than 90,000 li in circumference, three sides overlooking the sea, and one side, the north, backing on the snowy mountains, the north being wide and the south narrow, resembling the shape of a half moon. It is divided into more than 70 'countries'. The climate is particularly hot, the ground has many springs and low places. The north is mountainous with alkaline soil. The east is a fertile river valley with rich productive fields, the south is full of luxuriant vegetation, and the west has soil that is stony. This is a brief account of the general description." Hsuang Tsang also describes the country of Kanauj, with an account of its history, legends, people, customs, and the person and court of King Harsha.

Devahuti has provided fresh notes and commentaries for the versions that others have translated as well as for those that she has translated afresh. She has also given a listing, in the most likely chronological order, of all the Buddhist texts translated by Hsuang Tsang.

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