Ten Thousand Miles Along the Silk Road and Indian Subcontinent

By Xuanzang Memorial, Nava Nalanda Mahavihara

Xuanzang Memorial Nava Nalanda Mahavihara

Map Depicting Travel of Xuanzang - Chang′an to Nalanda (2014) by Deepak AnandXuanzang Memorial, Nava Nalanda Mahavihara


When Xuanzang studied Buddhist texts in China, he found that they contained a lot of discrepancies owing to multiple interpretations of Buddha’s teachings. He realised that if there would be one complete version of the Yogācārabhūmi-śāstra (Discourse on the Stages of Yogic Practice) then the disagreements arising out of multiple interpretations could be removed. A monk advised Xuanzang to go to Nālandā in the Magadha Empire to study at the Buddhist learning centre there. Xuanzang decided to go to learn the true teachings of Buddhist, collect Buddhist manuscripts to carry back to China and pay homage to the sacred places associated with Buddha.


In 629 CE, Xuanzang decided to travel to India. At this time, however, the Tang Dynasty was plunged in chaos. King Taizong had recently usurped the throne by committing fratricide and forcing his father to abdicate. There was widespread civil unrest and subjects of the state were not allowed to leave the empire and travel abroad. Thus, when Xuanzang put in his request with the king for permission to go to India, the king refused to give permission. Left with no choice, Xuanzang planned to go to India secretly. He got lost in the Mo-kia-Yen desert (Gobi desert, Sand River) and wandered for several days. He almost lost hope of surviving when his horse miraculously led him to a spring. Thus he was saved.

The prospect of travelling along the Silk Road was challenging given the severe weather and massive expanse of land covered with desolate sand dunes and formidable snow-capped mountains. There was also the menace of bandits on the highways. Despite all these dangers, Xuanzang travelled along the Silk Road for months on end. He in fact became popular in the cities along the Silk Road. People came to know about him and often news about him reached a place before he reached there himself. Many a times people gathered around him just to listen to his travel experiences and Buddhism.
Xuanzang’s eloquence, understanding of Buddhist subjects and purpose of going to India won him admiration and support from kings, monks, merchants and common people. The king of Kao-chang (Turfan) was so impressed with Xuanzang that he persuaded him stay in his kingdom as the chief priest. King Khan of Su-she also sought to dissuade Xuanzang from going to India. He tried to frighten Xuanzang by telling him about the hot weather in India. At the end, however, most kings supported Xuanzang seeing his determination to reach India.


During the 2nd century CE, King Kanishka of the Kushan dynasty, who ruled the region of modern-day Afghanistan and Pakistan, gave a lot of patronage to Buddhism. He commissioned the construction of many stūpas, patronised the fourth Buddhist Council, established Buddhism as the chief religion in his kingdom, and worked to spread Buddhism abroad. Kanishka’s successors carried forward the legacy of Dharma patronage. With time, these kingdoms became important Buddhist centres as they came to house various sacred relics. Over time, many places in this region acquired Buddhist names: Hiḍḍa was ‘town of Buddha’s skull bone’; a place near Nagarahāra (Jalalābād) was called ‘city of Dipaṅkara Buddha’; Baktra was nicknamed ‘mini Rājagṛiha’; and the native places of the two merchants, Bhallika and Tapassu, near Balkh came to be called after them as Po-li (Bhallika) and Ti-wei (Tapassu).


Through the pilgrimage to India, Xuanzang intended not only to reduce the language barrier between China and India, but also explore routes to connect the two regions. He hoped that exploration of new and better routes would encourage more monks, scholars and pilgrims from China to go to India. Often, he detoured into the Himalayas, only for learning what countries bordered China in the south. For instance, from Udaka-khaṇḍa, he travelled north, negotiating forests, glacial rivers and hills so that he could reach Dārel. Another time, he travelled from Jālandhara to Kullu, where he came to know about the existence of two countries, Lāhul and Ladāk. In Brahmanpura, near the source of River Ganges, Xuanzang came to know about a country called Suvanagotra, which bordered Tibet and Khotan. That people of Brahmanpura knew about countries on the other side of the Himalayas was evidence that routes between China and India through the Himalayas already existed.


The Gangetic plain was where Buddhacārikā (sublime wanderings of the Buddha) actually took place, and it formed the centre of Majjhimadesa (Middle Country). The Middle Country comprised the central part of India, which was the birthplace of Buddhism and the region of it’s early spread. The kings and people of the Magadha, Vajji, Kosala and Kuru kingdoms, gave patronage to the Buddha and the Saṅgha to facilitate their wanderings. As a result, the Buddha kept travelling from one kingdom to another for the entire forty-five years of his wandering to spread Dharma. Most of the places in which the Buddha set foot later on became part of the Buddhist pilgrimage.

Map Depicting Travel of Xuanzang - Nalanda to Rest of India (2014) by Deepak AnandXuanzang Memorial, Nava Nalanda Mahavihara


INDIAXuanzang’s desire for learning Buddhist teachings did not end at Nālandā and other monasteries in its vicinity. He moved further east towards present-day Bengal visiting Tāmralipti, a trading port as well as a gateway for exchange of Buddhist thoughts. In Tāmralipti, Xuanzang came to know that in the island country of Siṁhala (Sri Lanka), there were other distinguished teachers of Yoga-śāstra. After months of travelling, however, when Xuanzang reached the city of Kānchīpura, he came to know that the king of Siṁhala had passed away and that there was a severe famine in the country. As a result, Xuanzang did not go to Siṁhala but made his way back to the North. But he did not take the eastern coast route by which he had gone southwards but took a route through western India expecting to find some Buddhist teachers on the way.


A famine and a civil war in Siṁhala (Śri Lankā) denied Xuanzang an opportunity to visit the Island country and pay offering to the Buddha’s tooth-relics. However, he prepared a detailed and vivid description of many sacred places including Anurādhapura and the Temple of Tooth from the monks from Siṁhala, whom he met at Kānchīpura. He near accurate description has led to discovery of many sacred sites in Śri Lankā.


In his accounts (Travels), Xuanzang has mentioned about a monastery created by quarrying the cliff further east of the capital of Mahārāsṭra. The description of Xuanzang has led to identification of the monastery with Ajantā. Biography of Xuanzang (Life) does not mention about his visit to the caves. Probably, Xuanzang did not visit Ajantā but collected information from local people at the capital.

Map Depicting Travel of Xuanzang - Nalanda to Chang′an (2014) by Deepak AnandXuanzang Memorial, Nava Nalanda Mahavihara


King Śīlāditya of Kannauj arranged for Xuanzang’s return. At the time of his departure, many kings, monks and ordinary people assembled to wish him a safe journey. After travelling for months along the southern Silk Road, Xuanzang reached Khotan on the western edge of China’s Tang Empire. From there he travelled to the capital city Chang´an with all the relics and manuscripts he had brought from India. On the day of his arrival in the capital, all the people of the city turned up to welcome him.


Xuanzang spent more than ten years in Indian subcontinent. He had visited numerous monasteries of various Buddhist traditions. Satisfied with his learning, Xuanzang was now eager to return to China. On his way back to China, Xuanzang paid a brief visit to the king of Kāmrupa and represented Nālandā Saṅghārama (Monastery) in the congregation of scholars at Kanyākubja. On request of king Śīlāditya Xuanzang stayed for few more months to visit the ‘arena of charitable distribution’ in Prayāga. At Prayāga, Xuanzang expressed to king Śīlāditya his wish to return to China. Śīlāditya arranged for Xuanzang’s return. At the time of departure, many kings, monks and ordinary people assembled to wish Xuanzang a safe journey.


When Xuanzang was on his way to Nalanda the king of Kao-chang helped him with patronage, in return for which he promised the king that on his way back to China he would stay for three years in Kao-chang to preach the Dharma. Unfortunately however, at Hwo, Xuanzang learnt about the death of the king of Kao-chang and gave up on going there. He finally took a southern branch of the Silk Road that was shorter than the path he was taking earlier when he planned to stop at Kao-chang.


After travelling for months along the southern Silk Road, Xuanzang reached Khotan on the western edge of the Chinese empire. Sixteen years ago, he had defied King Taizong’s decree and left China illegally to pursue his religious calling. Xuanzang sent a messenger to King Taizong to explain on his behalf why he had secretly left the empire and ask for forgiveness for defying the law. As he awaited the king’s verdict, Xuanzang began translating the Buddhist manuscripts he had brought from India. On the way, he happened to have lost a few texts due to accidents. One time, a boat loaded with manuscripts capsized in River Indus while another time, an elephant carrying manuscripts fell into a ravine near Kabhanda (Tashkurghan). Thus while he was in Khotan, Xuanzang sent messengers to monasteries in Kuchi and Kashgar with the request to replace the lost manuscripts.


Eight months passed before Xuanzang’s messenger to King Taizong returned with news from the king. The king had not only pardoned him but had also invited him to the capital city Chang´an with all the relics and manuscripts he had brought from India. News of Xuanzang’s arrival had already reached the capital. Monks and nuns from different monasteries lined up in ceremonial robes holding flags, banners and musical instruments to welcome Xuanzang. It was as if the entire city had turned up to see and welcome him. The authorities forbade the crowds to move while the grand procession was on to avoid stampede. However, the streets were still so crowded with people that Xuanzang wished to disembark, he could not, and had to finally pass the night by the canal.

Xuanzang crossing River Indus.jpg (2015) by Andree FrancoisXuanzang Memorial, Nava Nalanda Mahavihara


The depiction of Xuanzang’s travels on maps is an effort towards regenerating interest in the vast and varied contributions of Xuanzang. Xuanzang travelled 50,000 Li (10,000 miles) and visited more than a hundred kingdoms during his seventeen years long pilgrimage. These ancient kingdoms are today parts of nine countries of Asia. Only a few sites visited by Xuanzang have been identified, protected and revitalised for pilgrimage while there are hundreds of more sites that remain undiscovered. Many of these sites have been subjected to deliberate vandalisation for economic gains coming from illegally trafficking ancient arte facts and sculptures. One of the ways in which the places visited or mentioned by Xuanzang during is pilgrimage can be protected and revived is by developing sections of Xuanzang’s trail on the Silk Road and the Indian subcontinent into individual ‘pilgrimage corridors.’

Credits: Story

Research and curation: Aparajita Goswami, Deepak Anand

Editor: Dr. Ravindra Panth
First Editor: Dr Dipankara Lama
GIS Support: Sanjay Mathur

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
Google apps