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One of the oldest surviving historical accounts of India was written by this Korean Buddhist monk


Jul 23, 2017
One of the oldest surviving historical accounts of India was written by this Korean Buddhist monk
Hyecho arrived in India in 724 CE and travelled extensively, closely observing the culture, customs and geographical features of the country.

Ajay Kamalakaran
Dec 18, 2021 · 06:30 am

One of the oldest surviving historical accounts of India was written by this Korean Buddhist monk
A section of Memoir of the Pilgrimage to the Five Kingdoms of India. | Bibliothèque Nationale de France/Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain]

Among the numerous treasures in its vast collection, the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris holds a valuable 8th century manuscript. Handwritten on a scroll, the manuscript has about 6,000 classical Chinese characters spread over 227 lines and is one of the oldest surviving historical accounts of India.

The scroll, measuring 28.5 centimetres in width, ended up in the possession of France’s national library thanks to French archaeologist and Sinologist Paul Pelliot. Pelliot purchased it – along with thousands of other ancient scrolls in Chinese, Sanskrit, Prakrit and other languages – from the caretaker of the Mogao Caves in Dunhang, China, in 1908. A rare record of ancient India, the scroll is a travelogue titled Wangocheonchukguk-Jeon or Memoir of the Pilgrimage to the Five Kingdoms of India. It was written by Hyecho, a Korean Buddhist monk and pilgrim who undertook an onerous journey to India in the 8th century and travelled extensively across the country, which he believed was divided into five kingdoms.

Hyecho, a native of the Korean kingdom of Silla (now in the central and southern parts of the Korean peninsula), was born in 704 CE. He went to study in Tang Dynasty China, where he developed a deep interest in India, a country he called the land of the Buddha. At the age of 19, he set off on his journey to India from the southern coast of China.
This was a time when pilgrims travelling from southern China to India preferred trekking along the coast of the Indochina peninsula to the modern-day Indonesia so they could first learn more about Buddhism from Sumatran priests. Hyecho too chose this route, going to Srivijaya on the island of Sumatra, then a major centre of Sanskrit and Buddhist learning.

Magadha Kingdom
He arrived in eastern India in 724 CE. Among the first notes we see in the travelogue is a brief description of Vaishali in modern-day Bihar. “The land is completely flat,” Hyecho wrote. “They have no slaves. The crime of selling people is not different from murder.” Like a true pilgrim, he travelled on foot in search of sites associated with Buddhism.
“After a month’s journey, I arrived at the country of Kushinagara,” he wrote. “This is where the Buddha entered nirvana. The city is desolate, and no people live there. The stupa was built at the site, where the Buddha entered nirvana. There is a Dhyana master, who keeps the place clean.” The Korean pilgrim mentioned an annual ceremony that was held there on the eighth day of the eighth month when monks, laymen and clergy would converge near the stupa and banners were unfurled. Hyecho added that pilgrims had to cross forests to get to the area near the stupa. “Those on pilgrimages are often wounded by rhinoceros and tigers,” he wrote.

The monk found Varanasi to be “desolate” and noted that it did not have a king. He noticed sadhus who had smeared ashes on their bodies and worshipped Mahadeva. Not far, in Sarnath, he seemed impressed with the Ashoka Pillar: “On top (of the pillar), there is (a statue of) a lion. The pillar is extremely beautiful. (Its circumference measures that of) five people with joined arms. The lines carved on it are delicate.”

Hyecho managed to visit the four major holy stupas in Sarnath, Rajagriha, Kushinagara and Bodh Gaya. “All these are situated in the Magadha kingdom,” he wrote, adding that both Mahayana and Hinayana were practised in the country.
When he arrived at the Mahabodhi monastery, the monk said he was very happy as his “long-cherished wish had been fulfilled”.

Military Strength
Hyecho said he walked for a month from the “country of Varanasi” before arriving at Kanyakhubja (Kannauj). The Korean seemed most impressed with the central Indian kingdom, which he wrote had many inhabitants and a broad territory.

Hyecho made notes of the military prowess of the kingdoms he visited. Writing about the army of the central Indian king, he wrote, “The king possesses nine hundred elephants, while other great chiefs possess two to three hundred each.” He added, “The king often leads troops into battle and frequently fights with the other four regions of India. The central Indian king is always victorious.” He also described the agreed rules of war and conflict in India at that time, adding that a king with fewer soldiers and elephants would prefer to plead for peace and pay an annual tribute than challenge a stronger enemy on the battlefield.
In a paper published in the November 2009 edition of The Journal of Asian Studies, American academic and scholar of Korean Buddhism Robert Buswell Jr attributes Hyecho’s extensive writing on military matters to his obligations to the Tang Dynasty authorities. “Because his account was written at the Tang government’s behest, his memoir at times sounds more like a reconnaissance report than a travelogue, showing an inordinate amount of curiosity in the size of local cavalries and the height of ramparts,” Buswell wrote.

Climate, Customs And Culture
A significant part of the travelogue is focused on the geography, climate, food, customs and the cultural practices of the places Hyecho visited.
“The dress, language, customs and laws of the five regions of India are similar,” he wrote. “Only the language of the village folk in south India is different.”

The India that he saw seemed to be a place where violence was not the norm. “The national laws of the five regions of India prescribe no cangue, beatings or prison,” he wrote. “Those who are guilty are fined in accordance with the degree of offence committed. There is no capital punishment.” Neither the royalty nor commoners found pleasure in hunting with dogs or falcons. Staying on the theme of violence, he noted that bandits in India spared the lives of those they robbed.
Tax system of the kingdoms find a mention in the travelogue: “Apart from paying one picul of grain out of every five to the king annually, the people have no other labour service or taxes.” Hyecho said the kings possessed horses and sheep, but the common people only had cattle, which they reared for milk and butter.

There are mentions too of the disparities in wealth in India at that time: “Most people of the land are poor, few are rich,” Hyecho wrote, while taking careful note of the living conditions. “Monasteries and royal houses are all three-storied buildings. The ground floors are used as storage rooms, while the upper floors are used for dwellings. The (houses of the) great chiefs are the same. These houses are all even roofed, made of bricks and wood. Other houses are straw huts, similar to the gabled Chinese house. They are also one storied.” He observed that the royalty and rich wore two pieces of cotton cloth, while the ordinary wore one piece, and the poor half a piece.
Interestingly enough, he noted that India imported gold and silver at that time.

Although he wrote about the poverty of the average person, there is no mention of hunger in the travelogue. Hyecho wrote that people ate food cooked in earthenware pots and did not use iron cauldrons. “The foods include rice, baked wheat flour, butter, milk and curds,” he wrote. “Soy is not available, but salt is.”

Southern India

From central India, Hyecho walked for three months until he reached what he called the capital of South India. It was was hotter than central India, he said, and did not have camels, mules or donkeys. Historians are divided whether the Korean pilgrim was talking about Vatapi (Badami) in modern-day Karnataka or Vengi, the capital of the Eastern Chalukyas in modern-day Andhra Pradesh.
He wrote in detail about Buddhism in the region. “In the mountains there is a large monastery, which was constructed by the Yakshas under order from the Boddhisatva Nagarjuna and not built by human beings,” he said. “Moreover, the pillars were cut from rocks of the mountains and built in three stories.” He added that the monastery had 3,000 monks when Nagarjuna was alive but began to decay a few hundred years after the Mahayana Buddhist philosopher passed away.
Although there seems to be a sense of happiness and wonder in his writings, it was clear that Hyecho was homesick and missed Korea. He penned a poem on his way to South India, where he described his longing for home:
“On a moonlit night I looked towards the homeward path,
Floating clouds return by the wind.
I wish this letter to go with this opportunity,
The wind blows too fast; the clouds neither listen or return.
My country is in the northern horizon,
Other lands lie at the western extremity.
No wild geese in the hot south,
Who will take my words to the Homeland?”
Journey North
The Korean pilgrim walked for two months from southern India and arrived in what most historians believe is Nashik. “The products of this land are cotton cloth, sliver, elephants, horses, sheep and cows,” Hyecho wrote. “Barley, wheat and various kinds of beans are produced in large quantities, (but the production of) rice and corn is much less. Food is mainly bread, wheat preparations, curds, butter and ghee.”

Hyecho sang praises of the musical talent of western Indians. “The people of this country are very good at singing,” he wrote. “(In this) the other four regions of India cannot be compared with this country.”
He continued his pilgrimage, heading north from modern-day Maharashtra to Gujarat and Sindh, which he called Sindhukula. “The country has many camels from which the people obtain milk and butter for food,” he observed. Hyecho added that half of Sindhukula’s territory had been lost to Arab invaders.

Over three months on his journey north, he walked to Jalandhar and onwards to Kashmir, where he observed the temperate climate: “The land is extremely cold, which is different from the countries mentioned before. There is frost in autumn and snow in winter. In summer there is plenty of rainfall. The plants are always green and the leaves thick. In winter the grasses wither.”
He mentioned that Kashmir was counted “as a part of north India,” adding that the region had not been invaded by any foreign country. The roads were “dangerous and bad,” he said. Like in other parts of India, the poor were many and rich few. “The common people cover their ugly bodies with woollen blankets,” he wrote.

Hyecho also travelled to the areas bordering Tibet and observed that the country did not follow Buddhism. From Kashmir, he went to Afghanistan and Persia and Arabia. He returned to Persia and from Arabia joined a Silk Road Caravan that crossed over to Afghanistan and Central Asia, moving towards Dunhuang via Kashgar. His 20,000-km journey took about four years.

A student of Indian esoteric monk Vajirabodhi, he taught monks and students for decades in China and lived till the age of 84.
The manuscript that was sent to the library in Paris in 1908 was fragmented, with the opening and concluding portions missing. It has since been translated into several languages.
Hyecho’s sketches of India, although brief, give the reader a wide look at what life was like in the 8th century in the Indian subcontinent. His notes shed light on an obscure but important period in Indian history.

Note: For this article, the writer relied on a translation of Hyecho’s travelogue from classical Chinese to English by Han-Sung Yang, Yun-Hua Jan, Shotaro Iida and Laurence Preston.
Ajay Kamalakaran is a writer and independent journalist, based in Mumbai. He is a Kalpalata Fellow for History & Heritage Writings for 2021.
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Apr 22, 2021
United States
Interesting and then there is a very contrasting account of India and Indians by Babur from 15th century in his autobiography Baburnama


Jul 23, 2017
lol, Indian history was written in Chinese.
Because the writer was a Korean traveler.
Interesting and then there is a very contrasting account of India and Indians by Babur from 15th century in his autobiography Baburnama
Babur came to North India in 1526 Ad.
By that time North India was in utter ruins after 3 centuries of conquest and pillage by the rulers Delhi Sultanate. In comparison, Mughal rule was far better in productive criteria.
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