Fa-hien’s Journey to the Land of Buddha


Rima Bhattacharya

PhD Research Scholar, Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur.




This paper examines an early travel text (translated from original language), written by the Chinese-Buddhist pilgrim Fa-hien, after returning to his country at the completion of his pilgrimage, as a document interacting with a historical/intellectual milieu of that period and being shaped by that context. During the reign of Chandragupta Vikramaditya  one of  the most eminent Chinese-Buddhist pilgrims, Fa-hien  came to India, during 399-414 A.D.,  in search of original Sanskrit texts which formed part of the Buddhist canon recognized by monks living in the land of Buddha’s birthplace, India. He visited the important seats of Buddhist learning spread throughout India. Fa-hien’s book Foguoji (“A Record of Buddhistic Kingdoms”) tells us a great deal about India sixteen hundred years ago and a new historicist approach is likely to open up the text as literary and historical document. An evaluation of the psychological background and social status of the author and any other factors that influenced the text will form the focus of my discussion. The early travel texts of this period help us to understand and interpret the times by offering to draw a map of the intersection of several religious, social, cultural discourses of that age. This paper would depict the historical importance of these texts in understanding the roots of our society and civilization that has evolved with time to an age of technological advancement. It would contrast early forms of travel with journeys in the modern age and highlight the psychological anxiety and its impact on these Buddhist pilgrims.  The paper highlights the manner in which the description of the past given by the pilgrim Fa-hien gives us an idea about the caste system, economic life, education, crime, punishment, law, trade-routes, administration, justice and military techniques of that period which stand as a base on which present-day Indian culture and civilization has been constructed. Buddhism was more than a religion, it was a cultural movement which influenced the sphere of art and architecture of ancient India and led to the emergence of a golden era of Buddhist sculptures and paintings. The pilgrim’s description of the Buddhist sculptures and paintings depicting the life of the Enlightened Buddha form an epitome of the glorious past of our country and encourage the people of the western world to view India as a country, without whose exploration, their idea of the Orient would remain incomplete.


KEYWORDS: Fa-hien, Hiuen-Tsang, Buddhism, Chinese-Buddhist, pilgrims, history, religion.


Fa-hien’s journey to the land of Buddha

“At the sound of the gong, three thousand priests assemble to eat. When they enter the refectory, their demeanor is grave and ceremonious; they sit down in regular orders; they all keep silence; they make no clatter with their bowls and they do not call out to the attendants to serve more food, but only make sign with their hands”(Legge, 18)

                     -- Fa-hien describing a monastery in India (Fifth century A.D.)


In this paper, I propose to depict, in what manner, the early anthology of the Chinese-buddhist pilgrim Fa-hien encourages the Indians, on one hand, to develop a sense of identity with the glorious past of their country, and on the other hand exposes its vulnerabilities to the Western nations, inspiring them to view India as a part of the ‘Orient’. Buddhism was a proselytizing religion, where the Buddha asked the monks to go forth and spread the word. So the pilgrimage to holy Buddhist sites became an early tradition among the faithful. Among the wandering monks from other lands who visited India the ones from China were the most numerous. The two who gained fame for their exploits were Fa-hien and Hiuen-Tsang who have left behind detailed chronicles of their journey. The stories of their epic journeys were meticulously recorded in journals and were fortunately preserved in the monasteries of China. These fascinating tales of adventure and discovery provide us with a vivid panorama of the country and its people as observed by men from other cultures.


Buddhist monasteries frequently situated in remote mountain areas for the sake of quiet and withdrawal from society came to be among the sites to be visited and written about. But Buddhism had another and more radical impact on Chinese geographical and travel writing. Its arrival by the way of Inner Asian trade routes around the turn of the common era represents the first time Chinese culture, high and folk, had been fundamentally altered by a cultural influence from outside the Han Chinese area. Its texts were in polysyllabic, highly inflected Indian languages, very different from Chinese. The Indian worldview they embodied was powerfully appealing, but it took a long time to grasp its nuances and to translate them into Chinese in a way that conveyed a full sense of their subtlety and power. Foreign monks resident in China were key contributors to this process. But quite a few Chinese monks felt compelled to go to India, to sit at the feet of the masters in its great Buddhist monasteries and to learn Indian languages well. They brought back texts that would help later generations to sort out the subtleties of various schools and doctrines, and to appreciate the relics of Buddha and the sacred places where he had walked and talked. Two of these monks have substantial places in Chinese literature and in Chinese conceptions of relations with the world outside China. Between the fourth and eleventh centuries of our era, India was frequently visited by Chinese Buddhist who came on pilgrimage to view the consecrated scenes amid which their great teacher had spent the years of his earthly life. They were for the most part devout monks, whose object in travelling so far abroad was not merely to render their tribute of worship at the holiest shrines of their faith, but also to obtain copies of their sacred books, and to learn the Sanskrit language in which these had been written and authoritatively expounded (Wills, 195).


The first famous pilgrim, the monk Fa-hien went to India in 399 C.E. by the Inner Asian land route and returned by sea in 414. The account of his travels through the formidable Central Asian landscape is full of description of meetings with the local kings, hazardous journeys across glacier-rimmed passes, and exchanges with eminent monks, and sharp-eyed description of splendid monasteries, with hundreds and sometimes thousands of monks, as well as landscape and cities. He is the first Chinese pilgrim on record and he covered a daunting distance from Central China to India on foot. A monk, Fa-hien was disturbed by the lack of discipline among the members of the Sangha in China and so he decided to travel to India to collect original copies of the Vinaya Pitaka, the text on monastic discipline as it was formulated by the Buddha. The plan sounds simple but it meant a perilous journey across a continent- facing the Gobi desert, battling the heights of Hindukush mountain ranges, some of the highest passes in the Himalayas, traversing right across the Indo-Gangetic plain of North India to reach the port of Tamaralipti in Bengal. Even in today’s world of highways, bridges and satellite communication it would be a daunting challenge for the most intrepid traveler.


Fa-hien traveled through India in the fifth century A.D. when the Gupta Dynasty was ruling and he visited all the important Buddhist holy sites spread throughout the country–Vaishali, Sarnath, Pataliputra, Kaspilavastu, Nalanda, Rajagriha, and Bodh Gaya.  He writes about his difficulty in finding a written text of the Vinaya Pitaka that was still being preserved through oral recitations. In Sravasti he “obtained a copy according to the text accepted at the First Great Assembly and practiced by priests generally while the Buddha was still alive” (Sengupta, 70). He stayed at the university in Nalanda, learning Sanskrit and studied under learned sages. He also collected many original Sanskrit texts and carried them back with him to China where he translated them.


It is essential to remember that Fa-hien was pilgrim and not a traveller. There is a huge difference between a pilgrim and a traveller, if they are looked at, from the psychological point of view. There is also a great difference between a pilgrim of ancient India and that of the modern world. A pilgrimage is a journey to a sacred place as an act of devotion and faith. Thus the pilgrim is not an ordinary tourist who travels for the pleasure of sightseeing and enjoyment. The sight of the holy shrines does not arouse excitement but acts as a condition for wholesome peaceful mental states to arise in the pilgrim’s mind. By showing veneration or reverence at the holy shrines, one is able to purify one’s entire human system. In this way, the pilgrim is endowed with the morality of Right Thought, Right Speech and Right Action. There are four essential bases required for the success of a pilgrimage, namely: desire-to-do (chanda), mind (citta), effort (viriya) and knowledge (vimansa). The superiority, mediocrity and inferiority of these four bases are dependent on strong, medium or weak versions of them respectively. A strong desire stems from one’s devotion to undertake a pilgrimage in order to unravel and seek the Buddha’s advice. Once the mind is made up, it is not easily distracted from its goal, nor discouraged by the painful rigors of the journey. Effort works in order to produce the energy required in order to undertake the journey, which in olden days involved travelling long distances on land, sea and across desert (San, 11). Nowadays travelling by plane and air-conditioned bus have become easier and faster, but before starting it is essential to find out the significance of each of the holy sites and shrines. All these ingredients were present in the hearts of the Chinese pilgrims, Fa-hien, Hiuen-Tsang, I-Ching and many others, when they first started off on their journey to India centuries ago.


The intellectual links between China and India can be stretched over two thousand years, and these have widely affected the history of both countries, yet they are not given any importance today. Buddhism as a religion began its spread from India to China in the first century and the scarce detail available about this period is found only among the writings of the writers interested in religious history and Buddhism. In China, Buddhism continued to occupy a powerful position until it was largely displaced by Confucianism and Taoism approximately a thousand years later. Buddhism was to a large extent responsible for the movement of people and ideas between the two countries. However the wider influence of Buddhism was not confined to religion alone. Its strong secular approach left its impression on the fields of science, mathematics, literature, linguistics, architecture, medicine, and music. One can note from the elaborate accounts left by a number of Chinese visitors to India, such as Fa-hien in the fifth century and Hiuen-Tsang and I-Ching in the seventh, that their interest was by no means restricted to religious theory and practices.   Fa-hien's years in Pataliputra (or Patna) were devoted to studying Sanskrit language and literature in addition to religious texts, but, he also expressed great interest in contemporary Indian arrangements for health care. I-Ching came to India shortly after Hiuen-Tsang's visit, and studied in Nalanda, combining his work on Buddhism with studies of medicine and public health care. I-Ching's translation of Buddhist works included texts by followers and practitioners of Tantrism, whose mysterious traditions highlighted the importance of meditation (Sen, 61–62).


In Pataliputra seven centuries before the time of Fa-hien, Megasthenes Greek ambassador at the court of Sandrakottos, resided and collected the materials out of which he composed his celebrated Description of India. From Patna, Fa-hien slowly proceeded southwards till he came to Tamalipti (now Tamluk), near the mouth of the Hooghly, where he spent two years in copying books and drawing pictures of the images of this port after which he embarked for Ceylon. Again after spending two years in this island he reached China in safety. Soon after the return from his voyage he wrote an account of his Indian travels.  The work was not known outside of China till half a century when it was unearthed by the great Chinese scholar Abel Rémusat  presented to the world in a French translation which he had himself prepared. The work on becoming known through this medium was then seen to be a source of most valuable information regarding one of the darkest period of Indian history which comprised of the middle of the second century A.D., when Greek authors ceased to write about Indian affairs and the era of Mohammedan conquest which had not yet been clearly traced.  It might have been expected that Sanskrit literature would supply the necessary enlightenment, but the Indian sages, absorbed in their dreams of philosophy, cared little for the concerns of practical life and left the history of their country untold. The version of Rémusat passed through the hands of many scholars finding its final form and shape in the hands of Dr. Legge, the Professor at Oxford of the Chinese language and literature who resided in China for thirty long years. We learn from his preface that he spent much time and care in its preparation and did not omit to make frequent references to previous translations.  Most of the places visited by Fa-hien have been more or less identified with certainty by scholars such as Stanislas Julien, Klaproth, Beal, Dr. Eitel and General Cunningham (M’ Crindle, 23). There are a number of difficulties in dealing with such a work. Firstly Indian names are hard to recognize under the forms which they assume in Chinese. The second is that many of the places mentioned by Fa-hien are either now no longer known by their old names, or have long ceased to be numbered among the things that are, some having been destroyed by war, some buried under desert sands, some forsaken by the rivers on whose banks they stood, and some swept away by resistless floods.


Fa-hien and Hiuen-Tsang were only the launching forefathers of a long tradition of scholarly interchange between India and China. Therefore it is essential to be aware of the existing literature by the other notable later scholars apart from the books of these two early scholars and travellers to India.  The scholar Lu Cheng’s work Brief Dissertation on the Origins of Indian Buddhism sheds light on the evolutionary process of Buddhism as a religion. Apart from Indian Buddhism, Chinese scholars also made notable contributions to the branch of Indian philosophy. Statistics show that in the period between the 1920s and the 1940s, three books on Indian philosophy were published in China.  They are A survey of Indian Philosophy by Professor Liang Shuming, An Outline of Indian Philosophy by Huang Qian Hua and A Concise Account of Indian Philosophy by Chongquing. Professor Tang Yongtong was among the famous Chinese scholars in the field of Indian Buddhist philosophy. Among the Chinese scholars who have made outstanding contribution to the field of Indian languages and literature are Professor Ji Xianlin, who had studied Sanskrit in Germany for more than ten years; Professor Jin Keno and Xu Disan who had specialized in Sanskrit literature and Indian philosophy (Chuan-wei, 176). 



Let us now trace the journey of the pilgrim Fa-hien through a few important places of history. Fa-hien gives a vivid description about the crossing of the sea of sand or the Sahara Desert of Asia. This desert says Fa-hien is of vast extent, stretching from the eastern front of Mongolia to within six miles of Ilchi, the chief town of Khoten, comprising in length 33 degrees of longitude, while it varies in from 3 to 10 degrees of latitude. Fa-hien’s account of the dangerous aspect of this sandy waste agrees closely with the accounts given by both Hiuen-Tsang and Marco Polo. Three of the explorers are quite at one in representing the desert as haunted by evil spirits. It is a well-established fact that the solitude of the wilderness, and the solitude of night, oppresses some minds with supernatural terrors, which the force of reason is altogether impotent to allay. After a few months of perilous journey the pilgrims finally reached a land of paradise known as Khoten. Fa-hien describes it as “a pleasant and a prosperous kingdom, with a numerous and flourishing population” (Legge, 16). The ruler of the country arranged for the stay of the pilgrims in a great monastery called Gomati, and maintained them there at his own expense. No less than 3000 monks were attached to this monastery, all under a discipline of silence like the Trappist monks of the present day (M’ Crindle, 24–25). 


Later Fa-hien travelled east-ward to reach the kingdom of Takshasila, the name of which when interpreted means “the severed head” and has references to Buddha’s act of almsgiving when he gave away his very head to a man out of pure charity. The word however meant “hewn rock” and the city might have got its name as it was built of stone instead of mud or bricks, like most Indian towns. Cunningham identifies this place with the Taxila of the Greeks, which, in Alexander’s time, was a great and flourishing capital, situated between Indus and the Jhelum. The next place visited by the pilgrims was Purushapura, the modern day Peshawar. Fa-hien found it adorned with a pagoda which had been built by Kanishka and describes it as a structure to have surpassed in solemn beauty and majestic grandeur all the topes and temples which he saw in the course of his journeyings. In this country was preserved one of the most precious relics of Buddha–his arm-bowl about which many legends were heard. It was kept in a tope, to which a monastery of 700 priests was attached and was publicly exhibited twice a day. From here he went to the place of the flat-bone of Buddha’s skull which was deposited in a vihara, in the city of He-lo, the present Hidda, which lies west from Peshawar, and 5 miles south from Jalalabad. This relic was held in extreme veneration, and was guarded with the most jealous care. Every morning it was exhibited to the gaze of adoring multitudes, whose homage was expressed by offerings of flowers and incense (M’ Crindle, 28–29).


Fa-hien gives no details of his journey through Punjab and the regions watered by the Jamuna, until he reached the great city of Mathura situated at the banks of this river. Mathura was famous as being the birthplace of Krishna, and the scene of his adventures with the milkmaids. The rest of the country south from this, he says was named the ‘Middle Kingdom”. His description of this part of the Indian subcontinent, and his accounts regarding the character and conditions of its inhabitants are in agreement with the accounts given seven centuries earlier by Megasthenes (M’ Crindle, 31).


 From Mathura the pilgrims proceeded south-east to find themselves in a kingdom called Sankasya, the name of which still remains in Samkassam, a village 45 miles north-west of Canouj. On leaving Canouj the pilgrims came successively to the kingdom of Saket and then to Sravasti. On leaving these places the pilgrims journeyed eastwards, and after halting at Ramagrama, and other two places with noted topes, reached the Medina of Buddhism, Kusanagara, “on the north of which, between two trees, on the banks of the Nairanjana River, is the place where the world-honored One, with his head to the north, attained to Pari-nirvana and died” (Legge, 105). They found the population of the city to be scattered, and to consist only of the families belonging to the different societies of monks. The ruins of Kusanagara are still extant, near Kusiah, one hundred and eighty miles north-west from Patna, and eighty miles due east of Kapilavastu. On leaving this place and travelling to the south-east the pilgrims reached the kingdom of Vaisali, in the capital of which the second great council of Buddhism had been held. From here the pilgrims crossed the Gandak river and descended south to reach the town of Pataliputra, now Patna. “This” says Fa-hien, “is the city piled up the stones, reared the walls and gates, and executed the elegant carvings and in-laid sculpture work, in a way which no human hands of this world could accomplish” (Legge, 77). From this, and the rest of his description of the place, Pataliputra would appear to have been the most important and most magnificent of all cities which he saw in India. Fa-hien’s account of the greatness and splendor of the city shows that it had undergone no deterioration since the days of Megasthenes. It was next visited by Hiuen-Tsang several years later. By that time all its inhabitants had departed, and it had shrunk from the stature of a great metropolis to that of a paltry village (M’ Crindle, 33).


The next important place visited by Fa-hien was Gaya, which was about 60 miles southwards from Pataliputra and was considered to be the Holy land of Buddhism. Here its great founder had spent few years of his life; had wondered over its hills; and had sat upon its rocks, under its trees; and had meditated in its caves. Here he had practiced with himself the most painful austerities, and resisted the strongest temptations in order to finally attain the perfect wisdom. He returned from Gaya to Pataliputra, whence he proceeded west-ward along the course of the Ganges to reach the city of Varanasi, in the kingdom of Kasi. Varanasi, the modern Benares was also well-known then as the holiest seat in all India of Buddhism. From Benares, he went back to Pataliputra where he stayed for a considerable period of time and then proceeded left along the margins of Ganges to reach Tamluk or Tamalipti, which was then the greatest center for commerce in the Gangetic delta. From Tamluk he went towards Ceylon (M’ Crindle, 34).


Fa-hien’s book Foguoji (“A Record of Buddhistic Kingdoms”) tells us a great deal about India fifteen hundred years ago and a New Historicist approach helps us to understand and interpret the times by offering to draw a map of the intersection of several religious, social, cultural discourses of the age. New historicism1 is a term applied to a trend in American academic literary studies that emphasized the historical nature of literary texts and at the same time (in contrast with older historicisms) the ‘textual’ nature of history. The historical nature of Fa-hien’s book Foguoji is quite outstanding, if we take into account the small yet significant details that it provides about the caste system, administration, education, food and drinks, crimes and punishments of that period. The prosperity and happiness of Chandra Gupta’s empire is attested by Fa-hien. The Indian subcontinent as perceived and presented by the pilgrim in his account, encourage the western world to explore India, for its oriental status. According to Edward Said “the Orient was about a European invention, and had been since antiquity a place of romance, exotic beings, haunting memories and landscape, remarkable experiences” (Said, 1). The pilgrim did note that it was possible to travel from one end of the country to another without molestation, and without the need of passports. This small detail, might be dangerous because it projects India as a representative of the ‘Orient’ which was regarded as a space, where the arrogant, swaggering European could go without any resistance.  Fa-hien in his book, mentions the name of the four great classes of ancient India several times while elaborating certain legends of the Buddha. The Brahman occupied the highest position and he was considered to be a great divinity in human form: “When Sariputtra was a great Brahman, he went to Buddha and begged (to be permitted) to quit his family and become a monk” (Legge, 45). It is almost unquestionable, that this is a depiction of the “power” of the Buddhist Way of life that Fa-hien, through his book desired to propagate. For Foucault, power entails knowledge, even while knowledge is, concurrently, constitutive of power. Power serves in making the world both knowable and controllable. Yet, if the nature of power, as Foucault suggests in the first volume of his History of Sexuality, is essentially proscriptive, concerned more with imposing limits on its subjects then, by insisting that even a Brahman, who occupied the highest position in the society, was ready to convert himself to a monk, Fa-hien was indeed fulfilling his proselytizing duty. The other classes were the Ksatriyas, the Vaisyas and the Sudras2. Below the Sudras were the early representatives of the people who were latter called untouchables, outcasts, depressed classes or secluded castes. Chief of these groups were the Chandala, 3 a term which came to be used loosely for many types of untouchables. This catalogue of classes which divides the general mass again presents India as a representative of a disintegrated, famished and underprivileged ‘Orient’, thereby rendering it vulnerable to the European hegemony. It is important to note that Time has been successful in obliterating the stark resistance that one class had against another, but has not yet been successful in abolishing the divisions altogether. The Chandalas does exist, to this very day and they are still considered to be unclean and outcast. As far as crimes are concerned, Fa-hien speaks of the Indians as remarkably law-abiding and states that crime was very rare: “Throughout the whole country people do not kill any living creature” (Legge, 43). Fa-hien records that the death penalty was not imposed in Northern India. Crimes were punished by fines and only serious revolt by the amputation of one hand. When Fa-Hien visited Nalanda in 410 A.D., which was called Na-lo4, it prevailed as an ordinary Buddhist monastery (Beal 1993, 111), which within the next three centuries grew up to be the greatest education center of Mahayana Buddhism. The teachers were also shown great reverence according to his report. The educational and the teaching system as described by Fa-hien forms the base of our modern education which has acquired its present state, after many decades of development. Fa-hien’s account also gives us certain important information about the eating and drinking habits of the people of that age. Fa-hien makes only a few passing references to economic conditions but these are illuminating.5 Fa-hien was not only a pilgrim but also a scholar and a scholar is always considered to be non-partisan and non-political. However according to Edward Said, it is not possible to detach ‘the scholar from circumstances of life’. Therefore as there is no difference between ‘pure’ and ‘political’ knowledge, the knowledge that can be gained from the anthology of Fa-hien serves to bring about an awareness among the western nations (We) to view India as belonging to the inferior ‘Other’ camp.  On the other hand, the same travel-text when approached from a new historicist perspective seems to encourage the Indians to develop a sense of Identity with the glorious past of their country.


Now to see the other way round, one can examine the ‘textual’ nature of history and legends projected through the same book. In order to do so, one has to investigate whether the religious concepts propagated by Fa-hien in his book, was ever incorporated by any literary artist in his work. The Buddhistic thoughts as elucidated by Fa-hien in his account influenced many Indian writers to construct poems, epics, dramas based on such thoughts. For example it influenced the subject matter of the great Tamil epic Manimekalai. A large number of Bengali writers, thinkers and intellectuals of the 19th century wrote on the life, philosophy and religion of the Buddha. Among the notable Hindu writers who were devoted to Buddhism are Rajendra Lal Mitra (1822-91), Ramda Sen (1845-81), Satyendranath Tagore (1842-1923), Krishna Kumar Mitra (1851-1935), Rajanikanta Gupta (1849-1900), Bijoychadra Majumdar (1861-1942), Sharat Chandra Das (1849-1971), Haraprasad Shastri (1853-1921), Chandra Ghose (1844-1922) and Girish Chandra Ghose (1844-1922). The role played by the Buddhist philosophy and culture in enriching the art, literature and intellectual life of India were recalled by Rabindranath Tagore through his poems, plays, essays, travelogues, treatises and lectures. Buddhism had a great impact in the thoughts and reflections of the poet. One of the greatest Bengali novelists and thinkers Bankim Chandra Chattapadhya (1838-94) paid tributes to the Buddha in his treatise Samya (Equality) (1879). He described the Buddha as the greatest liberal humanist and democrat who liberated the oppressed common man from the curse of caste-system of the Vedic period. In his literary journal "Bangadarshan" he published a number of valuable treaties and essays on the philosophy of the Buddha written by eminent persons. Keshab Chandra Sen (1838-84) a leader of "Bharatbarshio Brahmo Samaj" was greatly inspired by the liberal humanism of the Buddhistic thoughts.


Many creative writers-poets, novelists and playwrights were directly or indirectly influenced by the rationalistic philosophy of the Buddha. Buddhism has been steadily gaining popularity in the West since the 1950s. The concepts of Nirvana or Enlightenment and the Four Noble Truths as propagated by Fa-hien in his account, gained a huge popularity among the Western nations. This leads to a cultural ‘hybridity’6 as defined by Homi Bhabha, which is concomitant with his claim that the inherent purity and originality of cultures are ‘untenable’. In “Colonial Counterflow: From Orientalism to Buddhism,” Mark Lussier considers the prospect that the “Orient” may have had an important effect on its own representation within Western thought. Often a religion like Buddhism becomes a “counter-influence” over and against the colonialist project that interestingly coincides with the appearance of Romanticism.


Almost two centuries later, at about 628 A.D., another pilgrim came to India from China, who is till date regarded as the greatest of all the Chinese-Buddhist pilgrims. He was Hiuen-Tsang and was only twenty-six when he decided to undertake this extraordinary journey. Unlike Fa-hien, he entered India through the Silk Route connecting China with Europe. The powerful monarch, who reigned, during his visit, was Harshavardhana. Although Fa-hien’s account gives us certain important information regarding the socio-political and religious scenario of the Gupta period, yet he does not mention the name of Chandragupta Maurya in his account. Hiuen-Tsang on the other hand, in his memoir titled Si-yu-ki (Record of the Western Countries), leaves his accounts of the King which are full of praises: “His rule was just and humane. He forgets to eat and drink in the accomplishment of good work” (Sengupta, 73). Hieun-Tsang revisited the Buddhist sites that were visited by Fa-hien earlier. Two centuries before, Fa-hien, had described regions all across Central Asia with flourishing viharas and a living faith. However in the intervening years the region had faced the invasion of the Huns. Hiuen-Tsang found hundreds of ruined monastery that had been abandoned by the monks and a faith that was under threat. Unlike Fa-hien’s description of Nalanda as Na-lo, which was an ordinary Buddhist monastery then, Hiuen-Tsang descriptions of Nalanda depict a great university with ten viharas set between eight quadrangles and ten thousand resident monks. In A.D. 643, Hiuen-Tsang attended the two religious assemblies organised by Harsha at Kanauj and Prayag. At Prayag he watched an annual ritual when Harsha gave away all his possessions to the poor (See Khanna).


In India religion has always been the inspiration behind the creative arts, not just of literature but also architecture, sculpture and painting. The historian S.K Saraswati calls Indian art the “handmaiden of religion” and it is not possible to truly appreciate Indian art and literature without some knowledge of its religions. Fa-hien gives us an account of several monasteries, topes, stupas, sculptures and paintings7 relating to the Buddhist thought spread throughout India. His observations are however very objective and does not reveal the intense interconnection between religion and art, both of which, are an intrinsic part of the Indian cultural milieu. At Pataliputra, which Fa-hien describes as the “city of flowers”, he leant that Ashoka, a great patron of Buddhism, had built and endowed 84,000 ‘viharas’. He marveled at the royal palace and said, “…spirits which he employed and which piled up the stones, reared the walls and gates and executed the elegant carvings and inlaid sculpture work in a way in which no human hands in this world could accomplish” (Legge, 77). Fa-hien who came to India from a country (China) which is also regarded to be a part of the ‘Other’ nations by the Western world, expresses such astonishment at the site of the Royal palace, that he relates a story about how the great Ashoka had employed spirits in order to build his palace. However if such remarks made by the pilgrim are examined critically it will be found that, his appreciations serve to strengthen the Western outlook of regarding India as an exotic, superstitious, uneducated and hence backward representative of the ‘Orient’. In order to understand that the art of ancient India, had a much deeper sense of meaning, than as it is depicted by Fa-hien, one has to take into consideration, the several images of Buddha as described by him in his account. It will be found that all of them have a definite sense of proportion. The image of Buddha, who was called The Greatest Yogin of all Times, expresses, composed quiescence. The accord of his physical proportions is the expression of great beauty8.


The travels of Fa-hien and Hiuen-Tsang provide us with other valuable information about history which if not revealed would remain buried among the ruins of time. According to a legend reported in many different sources, the very first image of Buddha was a sandalwood statue carved in the Master’s life-time for King Udayana of Kausambi. Fa-hien talks about a sandal wood statue of the Buddha that was made in the court of King Prasenajit. According to the traditions reported by Fa-hien in the beginning of the fifth century, the sandal wood image of Buddha, carved in the latter’s life-time, served as a model for all later images of the Buddha (Shah, 366–367). Thus according to Fa-hien, the origin of Buddha image was in India –in the Madhyadesa –and not in Gandhara.  Fa-hien’s account is especially noteworthy. He writes: “…we arrive at the country of Kosala and its chief town Sravasti. There are very few inhabitants in this city which king Prasenajit governed. When Buddha ascended into the heavens to preach for the sake of his mother, after ninty days absence, King Prasenajita, desiring to see him again carved out, of the sandalwood an image of the Buddha and placed in on the Buddha's throne...This image, as it was the first made of all the figures of Buddha, is the one which all subsequent ages have followed as a model” (Legge, 57).


The Indian democratic system too owes a lot to the religion of Buddhism and the detailed account of it left behind by these Chinese travellers. As a religion, Buddhism began with two specific unusual characteristics. These were its constant preoccupation with a sense of doubt or agnosticism and its obligation towards broad discussion of public issues. Buddhism can account for the organization of some of the earliest open public meetings on record, aimed precisely at settling disagreements over religious beliefs as well as other matters. Most of these meetings took place in India in elaborately organized Buddhist "councils," in which religious enthusiasts argued over the differences in their points of view. The first of these large councils was held in Rajagriha shortly after the death of Gautama Buddha 2,500 years ago. The third council, which was probably the largest one, was held in the capital city of Patna, under the patronage of Emperor Ashoka in the third century BC. Ashoka was the first Emperor to codify and circulate certain codes of conduct and these must have been among the earliest formulations of rules for public discussion—a kind of ancient version of Robert's Rules of Order. He ordered for, restraint in regard to speech, so that there would be no eulogizing of one's own sect or disparaging of other sects on inappropriate occasions. Even when engaged in arguing, he demanded that other sects would have to be duly honoured in every way on all occasions. According to the arguments of John Stuart Mill, John Rawls, and Jürgen Habermas rational public discussion has always been crucial to democracy. Therefore the origins of democracy can undeniably be traced back to the tradition of public discussion and the emphasis on dialogue which were highly encouraged by the religion of Buddhism both in India and China (Sen, 63).


The various mudras depicted by different versions of the Buddha’s statue are of real significance. The Dharmacakra Mudra is the gesture of teaching with both hands in front of the breast, tips of the index finger and the thumps touching. The Varada Mudra is the gift bestowing gesture of compassion the right hand pendant with the palm turned outwards. The Dhyana Mudra is the gesture of meditation (Samadhi Mudra) with both hands resting on the lap, palms upwards. The Abhaya Mudra is the gesture of fearlessness in which the right hand is slightly elevated, the palm turned outwards. The Vitarka Mudra is the gesture of debate explaining the Buddha’s teachings (Vitaka Mudra) with the hands raised and the tips of the forefingers and the thumbs touching each other. The Tarjani Mudra is the gesture of warding off evil with the forefinger and little finger outstretched. The Namaskara Mudra is the gesture of prayer with the palms folded together. The Buddhashramana Mudra is the gesture of Misery also called an ascetic’s gesture of renunciation. The Bhutadamara Mudra is the protection gesture of warding off evil9.


It is interesting to note that the technique of depicting something symbolic with the help of mudras or gestures of the hands also forms an integral part of the Indian classical dance. Thereby one can discover, through a study of the Buddhist sculptures, the interpenetration of two different branches of art, namely sculpture and dance. The stupas which, are a crucial part of the Buddhist architecture, will also be found to be constructed, with a sense of proportion and balance, when observed from a religious point of view. They are constructed according to the subtle spheres of energy in the body. The perfect proportion of the Buddha’s body corresponds to the design of religious monuments. Under the mound of the stupas, the saintly ascetics were buried; their bodies were seated on the ground and covered with earth. These dome-shaped graves, or tumuli, of the saints were considered to be holy places. The basic configuration of a stupa comprises of the combination of certain structural parts, each of which is a symbolic representation of the subtle energy spheres of the body like earth, water, fire, wind and void.10


Buddha probably was one of the greatest ascetics the world has ever witnessed and it is highly interesting to trace the advent and the development of the philosophy of asceticism within the religious domain of India.  In a late hymn of the Rig Veda one reads about a class of holy men different from the Brahmans, the “silent ones" (munis), who are carefree in their lifestyle, drunk with their own silence. By the time of the Upanishads asceticism had become very widespread, and it was through the ascetics that the new teachings developed and spread. Some ascetics were reclusive psychopaths, dwelling in the depths of the forests and suffering self-inflicted tortures of hunger, thirst, heat, cold and rain. Others dwelt in "penance-grounds", on the outskirts of towns, where they would indulge in far-fetched self-torture. The actual motive working behind Indian asceticism was the attainment of miraculous powers which the Brahmans had claimed already, by virtue of their birth and training. Gradually the ascetic, even though his atonement was almost unbearable, rose far above the status achieved by the sacrificial Brahmin priest. At one point of time the Brahmins could no longer ignore the development of asceticism and mysticism. The hermit and the wandering ascetic found a place in the Aryan social structure and in the formula of the four stages of life, mentioned in the Dharma Sutras. Often it has been suggested that the heterodox ascetic systems of Buddhism and Jainism, represent a reaction of the warrior class against the pretensions of the Brahmans and the unfruitfulness of the sacrificial cult. Buddha and Mahavira, the founder of Jainism, belonged to the Kshatriya class. In fact quite a few passages in the Buddhist scriptures portray an anti-brahmanic stance (See Basham). Buddha refined the concept of asceticism by suggesting a condition of ideal and simple living which avoided both extremes of indulgence and deprivation. To his fellow monks he instructed to wear robes, to seek food, shelter and medicines only up to a very basic level. In other words, his motto was the avoidance of any excess of any kind. For this he suggested the practical solution of the ‘Middle Path’ between extreme asceticism and love of luxury, between extreme self-deprivation and self-indulgence (Bhattacharya 48–50).   


A deeper study of the Buddhist sculptures and paintings would reveal not only an interpenetration of art and religion but also the interpenetration of Buddhism and the other religions of that period, specifically Vaisnavism and Saivism. Buddha was accepted as avtara of Visnu. S. Radhakrishnan writes: “It is an accepted view of the Hindus that the supreme as Visnu assumed different forms to accomplish different purpose for the good of mankind”. Vainavism showed keen interest to adopt all the popular features of Buddhism. There was also not much difference between the sculptures and paintings of the Hindu god Visnu and the Buddha as depicted in the sculptures and paintings of the Ajanta caves. The finest example of this is the figure of the standing Bodisattva, Padmapani Avalokeitsvara, found in the Ajanta caves. Saiviam too encouraged abstract meditation, and in some matters it came very close to Buddhism. That is why, when Buddhism declined in India, the Buddha’s images were converted into representations of Lord Shiva seated in “profound contemplation”.


According to many eminent historians, the Brahmanas did not forcible expel Buddhism from India; they simply engulfed the religion by blending its thoughts and ideas with their own religious thoughts. However the past glory of this wonderful era of Buddhism remain immortalized in the accounts of pilgrims like Fa-hien and Huien-Tsang who in spite of belonging to a different culture and country could appreciate India for its rich culture and heritage. These accounts that were fortunately preserved, take us back to the past again and again so that we may relive the days of past glory by incorporating their essence in our literary and artistic ambitions.


The influence of these Buddhist pilgrims was not restricted to India alone but did extend beyond its borders to touch Ceylon, the present Sri Lanka. These ancient Chinese travellers were allured to the shores of the Indian Ocean and the Lanka Divpa not by treasure or riches but prompted by religious devotion in search of the True Dharma. The common link which brought China and Ceylon together was obviously Buddhism. Through Buddhism there came into existence a cordial friendship between these two countries for over 1500 years.


Having spent over thirteen years in India Fa-hien came to Ceylon in the winter of 413 A.D. The last port whence he boarded the ship was Tamralipti in Bengal.  He stayed in the island for over two years in search of Buddhist texts and paying reverence to the sacred places including Adam's Peak, Anuradhapura, and other Buddhist sanctuaries. Among the scriptures he acquired from the monasteries in Ceylon were a copy each of the Mahisasaka Vinaya, the Dirghagama, the Samyuktagama, and a collection of the Miscellaneous Pitaka (Sannipata). All these were introduced into China for the first time and some of them were later on translated into Chinese. Probably these were the original texts which constitute the Hinayana section of the Chinese Tripitaka. He also gives us an account of the general condition of the religious and secular population of Ceylon at that time. He further informs us in detail about the exposition of the Tooth Relic of the Buddha, the ceremony of cremating an Arhat, the donation of land to the Sangha by the Ruler, the magnificent ornamentation of the Abhayagiri Sangharama, the deep veneration shown to the Bhiksus and the blooming prosperity of the people who were wealthy and free from famine and starvation, and other particulars (Tennent, 183).



Travel narratives teach us a great deal about both the cultures they issue from and those they describe, but they yield this information only after we have placed them in a context both broad and nuanced. Empiricism and social/ cultural construction are always in tension, and we can appreciate how that plays out in the work of any writer by attempting to see what the writers were seeing. Thus any scholar who learns to look at history through the eyes of these pilgrims can easily trace out the interaction between history and the literature about it, in order to play the role of a true effective historian”. As readers of literature and history we are truly indebted to these ancient Chinese travellers who covered daunting distances without caring for their lives and left behind for us treasure trove of the unrecoverable and unredeemable time. A well-deserved eulogium written regarding these Chinese pilgrims by Mr Beal says: “Never did more devoted pilgrims leave their nations to encounter the perils of travel in foreign and distant lands; never did disciples more ardently desire to gaze on the sacred vestiges of their religion; never did men endure greater sufferings by desert, mountain and sea, than those simple-minded, earnest Buddhist priests” (Beal, Introduction, x).    




1New Historicism is a school of literary theory that developed in the 1980s, primarily through the work of the critic Stephen Greenblatt, and gained widespread influence in the 1990s. New Historicists aim simultaneously to understand the work through its historical context and to understand cultural and intellectual history through literature, which documents the new discipline of the history of ideas.


2The second class was the ruling one, the members of which were called ksatriya. The theoretical duty of the Ksatriya was “protection”, which included finding in the war and governing in peace. The historical Buddha was a Ksatriya, and his followers evidently had few doubts about class priorities. The next class was that of the Vaisyas who were entitled to the services of priesthood and to the sacred thread of initiation. They were the ancient Indian business men. Fa-hien mentions them too: “After Buddha attained to pari-nirvana, the Kings of the various countries and the head of the Vaishays built viharas for the priests” (Legge, 43). The Sudras, the humblest of the four classes had taken to agriculture.


3During his stay in Central India, Fa-hien had witnessed the plight of the Chandalas: “ The only exception is that of the Chandalas. That is the name for those who are wicked men and live apart from others. When they enter the gate of the 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…only the Chandals are fishermen and hunters, and sell flesh meat”(Legge, 43).


4Nalanda within three centuries of Fa-hien’s visit grew up to be the greatest education center of Mahayana Buddhism: “By the side of the tope of Asoka, there has been made a Mahayana monastery, very grand and beautiful…The rules of demeanor and the scholastic arrangements in them are worthy of observation”(Legge, 78). Fa-hien studied Sanskrit for three years at Pataliputra and he found there several copies of sacred texts on monastic discipline of various schools. He became extremely happy to obtain these copies. He then gives an account of the colourful procession of images on the eighth day of the second month at Pataliputra.


5Fa-hien makes only a few illuminating references to economic conditions: “In buying and selling commodities they use cowries”(Legge, 88). It appears though coins were current; most goods were so cheap that they could be bought with cowries. He further mentions: “The King’s bodyguards and attendants all have salaries”(Legge, 88). This indicates that lands were not given as jagirs, as became the usual custom later on.


6The term hybridity has been most recently associated with Homi Bhabha . In his work entitled ‘Cultural Diversity and Cultural Differences', Bhaba stresses the interdependence of coloniser and colonised. Bhabha argues that all cultural systems and statements are constructed in what he calls the ‘Third Space of Enunciation'.


7In the early centuries of Christian era two schools of sculpture flourished together, with very different style- at Mathura and Gandhara. Mathura flourished for nearly a millennium and went on to produce icons of Jain tirthankaras and Hindu deities. Gandhara primarily concentrated on Buddhist themes and was influenced by the Greco-Roman sculpture of Alexandria. The earliest example of Buddhist paintings that have survived are on the walls of chityas and viharas made by excavating caves. For a true sense of Buddhist paintings one has to study the painted walls of the caves at Ajanta and Bagh that are like an art gallery of murals. These vividly coloured and exquisitely drawn murals depict episodes from the life of Buddha and tales from the Jatakas.


8The perfect proportions of a Buddha, the graciousness of his physical form, represent one of the ten qualities or powers of a Buddha. They are the characteristics of the physical harmony and beauty of a Great Being. Everything, the spot between the eyebrows, marking the eye of wisdom, as well as the tip of the nose, has its own special place. The nose has its specific length, just as the ears have their own characteristically exaggerated length. The symbol of a Buddha's greatest enlightenment is the so-called enlightenment-elevation on the top of the head, described in old texts as that which emerges out of the head of an enlightened saint. It is the visible symbol of the spiritual generative power that strives towards heaven and passes into the immaterial sphere. Please refer to Buddhist Art and Architecture: The Proportionate Buddha. Available at: < http://www.buddhanet.net/budart.htm>.


9Please refer to Buddhist Art and Architecture: The Hand Mudras: Symbols of Deeper Meaning. Available at: < http://www.buddhanet.net/mudras.htm>.


10The basic structure of a stupa consist of a square foundation symbolizing the earth and analogous to the underworld, a dome symbolizing water and analogous to a receptacle of relics or offerings, and thirteen tapering steps of enlightenment symbolizing the element of fire. These steps lead to a stylized parasol, the symbol of wind, which is supposed to be a protection against all evil. This is topped in the ethereal sphere by the well-known ‘twin-symbol’ uniting the sun and the moon and representing the unity of the Absolute Truth (of the sphere beyond normal comprehension) and the Relative Truth (of the worldly sphere). Please refer to Buddhist Art and Architecture: Configuration of a Stupa. Available at: <http://www.buddhanet.net/stupa.htm>.



Basham, A. L. The Wonder That Was India. London: East-West Publications Limited, 1981.

Bhattacharya, Sabyasachi. Buddha for the Young. New Delhi: National Book Trust, 1996.

Buddhanet (Buddha Dharma Education Association Inc.). “Buddhist Art and Architecture”: A Featured Article. Available      from URL:  <http://www.buddhanet.net/>. 

Chuan-wei, Yuan. "Indian Studies in Modern China (1900-1989)." China Report 25.2 (1989): 175–180.

Fa-hien. Foguoji (“A Record of Buddhistic Kingdoms”). trans. James Legge. New York: Cosimo, Inc., 2005.

Fa-hien and Yun Sung. Travels of Fah-Hian and Sung-Yun: Buddhist Pilgrims from China to India (400 A.D. and 518 A.D.). trans. Samuel Beal and Xuanzhi Yang. New Delhi: Asian Educational Services, 1993

Hiuen-Tsang. Si-Yu-Ki Buddhist Records of the Western World: Translated from the Chinese of Hiuen Tsiang (A.D. 629), Volume 1. trans. Samuel Beal. London: Routledge, 2013.                                                                                                   Khanna, K. C. As They saw India. New Delhi: National Book Trust, 1971. 

M'Crindle, J. W. "Fâ-Hien's travels in India." The Scottish Geographical Magazine 3.1 (1887): 21–35.

Said, Edward. Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient. New York: Penguin Group, 1995.

San, Chan Khoon. Buddhist Pilgrimage. Malaysia: Subang Jaya Buddhist Association, 2001.

Sen, Amartya. "Passage to China." New York Review of Books 51 (2004): 61–63.

Sengupta, Subhadra. Nivana- Buddhist Pilgrimages in India. New Delhi: Rupa and Company, 2005.

Shah, Umakant P. "Origin of the Buddha Image." Journal of the Oriental Institute 14 (1965): 365.

Tennent, J. E. “Ancient Cultural Relations between Ceylon and China.” University of Ceylon Review 12-14 (1954): 182191.  Wills, John E. "Journeys mostly to the west: Chinese perspectives on travel writing." Huntington Library Quarterly 70.1 (March 2007): 191–201.


Received on 10.04.2014

Revised on 12.06.2014

Accepted on 10.09.2014     

© A&V Publication all right reserved

Research J. Humanities and Social Sciences. 5(3): July-September, 2014, 310-319