Connected Histories

Xuanzang’s Travels in the Western Regions

About This Resource

One of the travelers featured in Stewart Gordon’s When Asia Was the World is Chinese Buddhist Monk Xuanzang. Between 629 and 645 CE, he traveled across the Silk Road, over the Himalayan mountain passes to India, and returned home via the Indian Ocean. His purpose was to gather knowledge of Buddhism from the lands of Buddha’s birth, and upon his return, he began translating the documents he had collected into Chinese. Tang dynasty Emperor Taizong, who ruled from 626 to 649 CE, ordered the illustrious traveler to write an account of his travels. The excerpt is from his description of Bamyan, in today’s Afghanistan, where the ancient statues of Buddha are carved into the mountainside. Those statues, which are designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, were dynamited by Taliban regime forces in 2001, eliciting widespread global condemnation, including by Muslim governments and individuals. It is interesting that Xuanzang’s description includes a reclining Buddha, a previously unknown statue that was only discovered after the destruction.


FAN-YEN-NA [BAMIYAN]. This kingdom is about 2000 li from east to west, and 300 li from north to south. It is situated in the midst of the Snowy Mountains. The people inhabit towns either in the mountains or the valleys, according to circumstances. The capital leans on a steep hill, bordering on a valley 6 or 7 li in length. On the north it is backed by high precipices. It (the country) produces spring-wheat and few flowers or fruits. It is suitable for cattle, and affords pasture for many sheep and horses. The climate is wintry, and the manners of the people hard and uncultivated. The clothes are chiefly made of skin and wool, which are the most suitable for the country. The literature, customary rules, and money used in commerce are the same as those of the Tuhhara country. Their language is a little different, but in point of personal appearance they closely resemble each other. These people are remarkable, among all their neighbours, for a love of religion (a heart of pure faith); from the highest form of worship to the three jewels, down to the worship of the hundred (i.e., different) spirits, there is not the least absence (decrease) of earnestness and the utmost devotion of heart. The merchants, in arranging their prices as they come and go, fall in with the signs afforded by the spirits. If good, they act accordingly; if evil, they seek to propitiate the powers. There are ten convents and about 1000 priests. They belong to the Little Vehicle, and the school of the Lokottaravadins (Shwo-ch'uhshi-pu).

To the north-east of the royal city there is a mountain, on the declivity of which is placed a stone figure of Buddha, erect, in height 140 or 150 feet. Its golden hues sparkle on every side, and its precious ornaments dazzle the eyes by their brightness. To the east of this spot there is a convent, which was built by a former king of the country. To the east of the convent there is a standing figure of Sakya Buddha, made of metallic stone (teou-shih), in height 100 feet. It has been cast in different parts and joined together, and thus placed in a completed form as it stands. To the east of the city 12 or 13 li there is a convent, in which there is a figure of Buddha lying in a sleeping position, as when he attained Nirvana. The figure is in length about 1000 feet or so. The king of this (country), every time he assembles the great congregation of the Wu-che (Moksha) having sacrificed all his possessions, from his wife and children down to his country's treasures, gives in addition his own body; then his ministers and the lower order of officers prevail on the priests to barter back these possessions; and in these matters most of their time is taken up.

To the south-west of the convent of the sleeping figure (of Buddha), going 200 li or so, passing the great Snowy Mountains on the east, there is a little watercourse (or valley), which is moist with (the overflowings of) standing springs, bright as mirrors; the herbage here is green and bright. There is a sangharama here with a tooth of Buddha, also the tooth of a Pratyeka Buddha, who lived at the beginning of the Kalpa, which is in length about five inches, and in breadth somewhat less than four inches. Again, there is the tooth of a goldenwheel king, in length three inches, and in surface (breadth) two inches. There is also the iron begging-dish of Sanakavasa, a great Arhat, which is capable of - holding eight or nine shing (pints). These three sacred objects, bequeathed by the holy personages referred to, are all contained in a yellow-golden sealed case. Again, there is here the Sanghati robe, in nine pieces of Sanakavasa; the colour is a deep red (rose- red); it is made of the bark (peel) of the She-no-kia plant. Sanakavasa was the disciple of Ananda. In a former existence he had given the priests garments made of the Sanaka plant (fibre), on the conclusion of the rainy season. By the force of this meritorious action during 500 successive births he wore only this (kind of) garment, and at his last birth he was born with it. As his body increased so his robe grew larger, until the time when he was converted by Ananda and left his home (i.e., became an ascetic). Then his robe changed into a religious garment; and when he was fully ordained it again changed into a Sanghati, composed of nine pieces. When he was about to arrive at Nirvana he entered into the condition of Samahdi, bordering on complete extinction, and by the force of his vow in attaining wisdom (he arrived at the knowledge) that this kashaya garment would last till the bequeathed law (testament) of Sakya (was established), and after the destruction of this law then his garment also would perish. At the present time it is a little fading, for faith also is small at this time!


Samuel Beal, Buddhist Records of the Western World, pp. 50-53; Image: Detail from the Genjō Sanzō-e, late 13th century, at "Xuanzang (602-664) dreams of crossing the ocean and ascending Mt. Sumeru"

How to Cite This Page

"Muslim Journeys | Item #82: Xuanzang’s Travels in the Western Regions", June 21, 2024


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