“In this desert, there are a great many evil spirits and also hot winds; those who encounter them perish to a man. There are neither birds above nor beasts below. Gazing on all sides as far as the eye can reach in order to mark the track, no guidance is to be obtained save from the rotting bones of dead men, which point the way.”
That’s an excerpt from the travel writings of Fa-Hien, a Chinese monk who left Chang’an in 399 CE, at the age of 62, and set forth on an expedition through Central Asia to India, and ultimately Sri Lanka. Accompanied by four others, he was on a mission to visit the land of the Buddha and search for Buddhist texts.
The journey was not easy. Sixteen hundred years ago, the Gobi Desert was still untracked and the mountain passes of the Himalayas perilous to pass. It took months to get from one place to another. Weather conditions ranged from scorching heat to sub-zero cold and, with most of the journey done on foot, exposure was a very real threat. In addition, there were wild animals and bandits lying in wait.
So Fa-Hien’s quest was, quite literally, a legendary one. Centuries later, the travels of this monk, who spent 15 years on the road, would reveal to the world intricate details of life on the subcontinent. For instance, if we know what Patna looked like at the time and what festivals were celebrated in Sri Lanka, we have largely him to thank. As he travelled across what is now Pakistan, Nepal, Northern India and eventually to Sri Lanka, he recorded his observations in a travelogue titled Fo-Kwo-Ki (Travels of Fa-Hien).
Fa-Hien was one of the earliest Chinese traveller-pilgrim to make his way to India. Not since Indica by Megasthenes (4th-3rd century BCE) and The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea (1st century CE) had there been a major contemporary account of the subcontinent, by visitors who viewed it – until Fa-Hien’s writings in the 5th century CE.
Between the 3rd century BCE and 2nd century CE, the Buddha’s teachings had spread far and wide. While the Mauryan Emperor Ashoka (r. 269 - 232 BCE) sent his missionaries to places like Greece, Mysore and Myanmar to preach Dhamma, the land trade routes of Uttarapatha and Dakshinapatha and the Indian Ocean trade network too became a conduit.
Under the Kushana Emperor Kanishka (r. 128 – 150 CE), who adopted Buddhism, the religion made its way deep into Central Asia and China. The Kushanas controlled an area that stretched from present-day Kabul through northern Pakistan and north-west India, and from the frontiers of China to Mathura and beyond in the Indo-Gangetic plains. These were also strategically important lands situated along the Silk Road. Along with merchants and goods, monks and Buddhism too began to make their way out into the world.
Travelling monks left markers along their trails — along the passes of Gilgit-Baltistan, there are still hundreds of images of Buddha and Boddhisattavs carved into stone.
Fa-Hien was among the first monks to take a reverse route, back along the Silk Road, to the Indian subcontinent. He began his journey in North-Central China, visiting as many Buddhist shrines as he could. And we know this because he documented everything. His travelogue, compiled after he returned home at the age of 77, is filled with invaluable accounts of what life was like, the places he saw and the nature of Buddhism at the turn of the 5th century.
Who Was He?
Fa-Hien was orphaned at an early age and spent most of his adult life in Buddhist monasteries. During a visit to Chang’an, an ancient capital city, the devout Buddhist was taken aback by the torn and weathered state of the Books of Discipline (known to us as the Vinaya Pitakas, which contain the monastic code for Buddhist monks and nuns).
Fa-Hien decided to go to the holy land of the Buddha and obtain a better copy of these texts. He talked four other monks – Hwuy-king, Tao-ching, Hwuy-ying and Hwuy-wei – into joining him. This group was later joined by another group of five monks at the emporium of Chang-yih, further along in their journey. Chang’an (present-day Xi’an) was in Fa-Hien’s time a part of the Later Qin state ruled by Yao Xing (r. 394-416 CE). It was during his reign that Buddhism first received official state support in China.
Fa-Hien made his way from Chang’an to the Kingdoms of Loulan and Khotan (in present-day Xinjiang province, China). In Khotan, a lord of the country lodged Fa-Hien and the other monks comfortably in a Mahayana monastery called Gomati. While three men from the group set out in advance for their next destination, Fa-Hien and the others stayed in Khotan for three months to see a chariot-procession that he describes in vivid detail in his writings:
“At a distance of three or four li [Chinese mile] from the city, they made a four-wheeled image car, more than thirty cubits high, which looked like the great hall (of a monastery) moving along. The seven precious substances [i.e., gold, silver, lapis lazuli, rock crystal, rubies, diamonds or emeralds, and agate] were grandly displayed about it... The (chief) image [presumably Sakyamuni] stood in the middle of the car... When (the car) was a hundred paces from the gate, the king put off his crown of state... went out at the gate to meet the image…”
This is from the translation of Fa-Hien’s travelogue by Scottish sinologist James Legge, first published in 1887, titled A Record of Buddhistic Kingdoms: Being an Account by the Chinese Monk Fa-Hsien of Travels in India and Ceylon (A.D. 399-414) in Search of the Buddhist Books of Discipline. It is considered the best English translation to date, and all excerpts presented here are drawn from it.
When the procession was over, the group moved south and halted in K’eeh-cha (probably Skardu in present-day Pakistan). Here, the king was holding a pancha parishad religious conference. Fa-Hien writes that this kingdom had some of the Buddha’s relics, which were in possession of this kingdom.
“There is in the country a spittoon which belonged to Buddha, made of stone, and in colour like his alms-bowl. There is also a tooth of Buddha, for which the people have reared a tope (stupa), connected with which there are more than a thousand monks and their disciples, all students of the hinayana.”
Fa-Hien made his way towards Northern India, passing through vegetation that was very different from that of the Land of Han (as Fa-Hien referred to China). The only familiar plants he noted were the bamboo, pomegranate and sugarcane. Through their travels, via land and sea, Fa-Hien never failed to write of the dangers the group confronted, although some of these accounts seem exaggerated. For instance, just before entering the Indian subcontinent, Fa-Hien writes:
“There are also among them venomous dragons, which, when provoked, spit forth poisonous winds, and cause showers of snow and storms of sand and gravel. Not one in ten thousand of those who encounter these dangers escapes with his life.”
Fa-Hien entered the Indian subcontinent via Udyana (an ancient city in the present-day Swat district of Pakistan). Interestingly, he connects many of the places he visits with stories from the Jatakas, and his account is filled with references to legends around the life of the Buddha. In Udyana, for instance, he mentions a rock with the footprint of the Buddha and a place where the Buddha apparently dried his clothes. Near Taxila, he refers to a place where the Buddha threw down his body to feed a starving tigress.
When the group reached Purushpura (Peshawar), he recollects how the Buddha (571 to 485 BCE) had predicted the birth of a king named ‘Kanishka’, who would build a magnificent stupa at this place. Clearly, by now, legend had taken over and there was an attempt to indicate that the Buddha had travelled even more widely than he actually had. Of Kanishka’s stupa, built in the 2nd century CE in today’s Shaji-ki-Dheri on the outskirts of Peshawar, Fa-Hien writes:
“Of all the topes and temples which (the travellers) saw in our journeyings, there was not one comparable to this in solemn beauty and majestic grandeur. There is a current saying that this is the finest tope in Jambudvipa.”
Just before Fa-Hien crossed the Indus River to go east, he lost one of his companions. The monk Hwuy-king died, possibly from exhaustion. In his last words, Hwuy-king pleaded with his companions to return home, Fa-Hien writes, so that not all of them would die the same way. Fa-Hien was filled with grief, but the group continued its journey.
An important city that Fa-Hien visited was Mathura. He writes that all to the south of this is named the ‘Majjhima-desa’ (Middle Kingdom). Writing of life here, he indicates that the city was prosperous, peaceful and that most people seemed to be teetotalers and vegetarians:
“The people are numerous and happy...The king governs without decapitation or (other) corporal punishments...Throughout the whole country the people do not kill any living creature, nor drink intoxicating liquor, nor eat onions or garlic. The only exception is that of the Chandalas. That is the name for those who are (held to be) wicked men, and live apart from others. When they enter the gate of a city or a market-place, they strike a piece of wood to make themselves known, so that men know and avoid them, and do not come into contact with them.”
While in Mathura, Fa-Hien also writes of how, after the death of the Buddha, the kings of the land extended patronage to Buddhist priests:
After Buddha attained to parinirvana, the kings of the various countries and the heads of the Vaisyas built viharas for the priests, and endowed them with fields, houses, gardens, and orchards, along with the resident populations and their cattle, the grants being engraved on plates of metal, so that afterwards they were handed down from king to king, without any one daring to annul them, and they remain even to the present time.”
It is worth noting that there is little in Fa-Hien’s writings on general polity or on other faiths. Surprisingly, he doesn’t even mention the Gupta Emperor Chandragupta II (r. c. 380 – 415 CE), who would have been at the height of his power during Fa-Hien’s visit.
Fa-Hien writes that he was most excited to visit Kapilavastu (located near India’s border with Nepal, there is more than one contender for this ancient city). He wanted to see the grandeur of the place where the Buddha was born. It turned out to be quite a big disappointment. He writes:
“In it there was neither king nor people. All was mound and desolation. Of inhabitants there were only some monks and a score or two of families of the common people... On the roads people have to be on their guard against white elephants and lions, and should not travel incautiously.”
During his travels within India, Pataliputra (present-day Patna) served as a base. Fa-Hien lived here for three years, witnessed monasteries being built and visited places of significance to the Buddhist faith. Sadly, none of the stupas or monasteries in Patna that Fa-Hien mentions in his writings survives today.
“By the side of the tope of Asoka, there has been made a mahayana monastery, very grand and beautiful; there is also a hinayana one; the two together containing six hundred or seven hundred monks. The rules of demeanour and the scholastic arrangements in them are worthy of observation. Shamans of the highest virtue from all quarters, and students, inquirers wishing to find out truth and the grounds of it, all resort to these monasteries.”
He further wrote that the cities and towns here were the greatest of all in the Middle Kingdom and that the inhabitants were rich and prosperous, and vied with one another in the practice of benevolence and righteousness.
While he travelled to many cities associated with the life of the Buddha - Sravasti, Sarnath, Bodh Gaya, Vaishali, Rajgir and more - Fa-Hien’s main objective in coming to India remained unmet. He had still not found the original Buddhist texts he sought. Across the various kingdoms of North India, he had found masters transmitting the rules orally to one another, but there were no transcriptions, no written copies.
Finally, in Pataliputra, in a Mahayana monastery, he found a copy of the Vinaya Pitaka, containing the Mahasanghika rules — those laid down in the first Great Council, while the Buddha was still in the world. But it was in Sanskrit. So Fa-Hien stayed in Patna for three years, learning Sanskrit and writing out the Vinaya rules.
Moving on from Patna, Fa-Hien followed the course of the Ganga eastwards, and reached Champa, and then the port of Tamralipti (in present-day West Bengal). From here, he boarded a large merchant vessel and, after 14 days, reached the country of Singhala (Sri Lanka). He writes about the legends surrounding the history of the island, as he heard them:
“The country originally had no human inhabitants, but was occupied only by spirits and nagas, with which merchants of various countries carried on a trade. When the trafficking was taking place, the spirits did not show themselves. They simply set forth their precious commodities, with labels of the price attached to them; while the merchants made their purchases according to the price; and took the things away.”
In keeping with other legends of the time, Fa-Hien wrote that the Buddha also came to this country in order to transform the wicked nagas. However, historically, there is no record of the Buddha travelling as far as Sri Lanka.
In Singhala, Fa-Hien extolled in detail the richness of the Buddhist influence, as shown in the monasteries, a giant jade statue of the Buddha and their celebration of the holy tooth relic festival. Fa-Hien spent two years in Sri Lanka before finally deciding to return, along a precarious sea route, to China. Today, there is a cave in the district of Kalutara in Sri Lanka named after Fa-Hien. It is believed that he resided there.
Upon his return home at the age of 77, Fa-Hien spent the next decade – the last decade of his life – translating and editing the many scriptures he had collected, and collating his travelogue. Incidentally, he was helped by an Indian monk named Buddhabhadra, of whom, sadly, very little is known.
Chinese pilgrims and travellers would follow in Fa-Hien’s footsteps for centuries. The most famous were Hiuen Tsang (602-664 CE) and I-tsing (635–713 CE), who penned their own travelogues.
Today a striking statue dedicated to Fa Hien stands near the Huayan Temple in Dataong, China. Though recently erected, it is an apt tribute to the courageous monk who undertook an arduous journey. After all, the temple houses an elaborate library of Buddhist texts, some of which might have been written on the basis of what Fa-Hien put down in words 1600 years ago!
This article is part of our 'The History of India’ series, where we focus on bringing alive the many interesting events, ideas, people and pivots that shaped us and the Indian subcontinent. Dipping into a vast array of material - archaeological data, historical research and contemporary literary records, we seek to understand the many layers that make us.
This series is brought to you with the support of Mr K K Nohria, former Chairman of Crompton Greaves, who shares our passion for history and joins us on our quest to understand India and how the subcontinent evolved, in the context of a changing world.
Find all the stories from this series here.