Xinjiang Tales: In the footsteps of Kumarajiva and Xuan Zhang

My keenness to go to Kumarajiva’s birthplace Kucha was born the day I visited Xi’an, the place of his death.

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Hindi Female

(This is Part two of a three-part series on the author's recent extensive travels in Xinjiang, China's only predominantly Muslim province and his observations on where the Indo-China ties currently stand, independent of the Western view. Read part one here.)

Kumarajiva, his black stone statue in a meditative pose sitting on a lotus pedestal, looked every bit the great scholar-monk he was. In the background, the Kizil Buddhist Caves carved out on the face of a barren hill also appeared immersed in endless meditation.

The ruination of the spiritual and artistic treasure in these once magnificent shrines, first by bigoted human hands and later by centuries of exposure to nature’s unkind forces, had not disturbed their Zen-like calm. Rather, in line with the teachings of the Great Buddha, both the place and the person who made it famous seemed to be intently reflecting upon the causes of mankind’s perennial follies and sufferings, and the ways to overcome them. 

My keenness to go to Kumarajiva’s birthplace Kucha was born the day I visited Xi’an, the place of his death.

The author in front of the statue of Kumarajiva.


I was in Kucha, the birthplace of Kumarajiva (344–413), in Aksu prefecture in China’s Xinjiang Autonomous Region. This was the third leg of my maiden journey to the province in June this year. I had come here after visiting Urumqi, the provincial capital, and Turpan, another city with a rich Buddhist heritage now in ruins. From Kucha I would travel to Khotan and Kashgar, both made historic by an added factor. Here the footprints of Buddhism look even more distinctly overridden by Islamic influence.

My keenness to go to Kumarajiva’s birthplace Kucha was born the day I visited Xi’an, the place of his death.

A Buddha shrine near Khotan. 

As I have mentioned in the first of this three-part article, many reasons impelled me to visit Xinjiang, China’s westernmost and only Muslim-majority province. Chief among them was to understand the close cultural, religious, and civilizational links between India and this region, which is located on the fabled Silk Road of yore at the junction of China, South Asia, West Asia, and Central Asia.

“It was through Buddhism that China and India came near to each other and developed many contacts,” writes Jawaharlal Nehru in his classic The Discovery of India. Among the most important of these contacts was Kumarajiva, the celebrated translator of the Buddhist sutras into the Chinese language.

As his name itself suggests, he carries an Indian connection. His father, Kumarayana, was a Kashmiri Pandit. Jivaka, his mother, was a princess of Kucha. He mastered Sanskrit and several languages at a young age. He studied the Vedas and astronomy. His reputation as a prodigious scholar of Mahayana Buddhism soon spread as far away as Chang’an (today’s Xi’an) in central China, whose haughty ruler ordered him to come and stay in his kingdom. He even sent his general to bring Kumarajiva to Chang’an. When Kumarajiva refused, he was taken prisoner. All kinds of allurements were shown to him but to no avail.

Eventually, under a new and benign ruler, he was honoured with the position of a master teacher of the nation in Chang’an, where he immersed himself in the translation of Buddhist scriptures in 294 volumes. It was the first time in China’s history that foreign classics were translated in such large numbers. Prominent among them are the Lotus Sutra, Vimalakirti Sutra, Maha Prajnaparamita Sutra, The Treatise on the Great Perfection of Wisdom, and The Treatise on the Establishment of Truth.

He also translated the life of the great Indian philosopher Nagarjuna, founder of the Madhyamika (‘Middle Way’) school of Mahayana Buddhist philosophy. Because of the excellent quality of his translations, they are highly popular even today among Buddhists in China, Japan, and Korea, and Buddhist scholars worldwide.


‘Sarira Stupa’ ─ his tongue was unburnt when he was cremated 

My keenness to go to Kumarajiva’s birthplace Kucha was born the day I visited Xi’an, the place of his death, a few years ago. His samadhi is located in a tranquil Buddhist temple on the outskirts of this city, where he taught his disciples. The memorial is a small structure called ‘Sarira Stupa’, erected over the place where he was cremated. Out of curiosity, I asked, “Why is it called ‘Sarira Stupa’?” The head of the temple explained, “Before his death, Kumarajiva had told his disciples, ‘If my tongue has uttered a single untruth in imparting my knowledge to you, my entire sarira (body in Sanskrit) will turn into ashes when you cremate it after my death. However, if all I have taught you is true and nothing but true, the entire sarira will become ashes except my tongue. His death vindicated his words. When his body was cremated, people were wonderstruck to see that his tongue was intact. That is why they erected the ‘Sarira Stupa’.”

Here is a thoughtful episode from Kumarajiva’s Lotus Sutra. Once Sakyamuni Buddha asked his learned disciples who among them would preach the Lotus Sutra in the dark, violent, and chaotic future ages, and who would endure all the difficulties and hostilities in doing so. All of them showed readiness, hoping to inherit the propagation of the Law after his mentor’s death.

However, Sakyamuni declined to entrust them with this mission and, instead, summoned the ‘Bodhisattvas of the Earth’. Bodhisattvas are enlightened beings who postpone their own salvation in order to help other living beings. A large number of Bodhisattvas emerged from the ground as “human lotus flowers”. In the words of the Lotus Sutra, they are “Firm in the power of will and concentration, with constant diligence seeking wisdom, and their minds are without fear.”

Paula Tizzano Fernández, from whose scholarly article ‘The Great Kumarajiva and his Transcreation of the Lotus Sutra’ I have taken the above passage, describes him as a ‘Translator-Bodhisattva’. A professor at the University of Alicante, Spain, she says Kumarajiva “devoted himself to translation not as a ‘profession’, but as a self-chosen mission in life, as a compassionate practice to help and empower his fellow human beings… (He) was himself a remarkably free and intercultural mind, a man of true humanism, transcending enclosed fanaticisms and religious dogmatisms.” The “translation performed by Kumarajiva was actually a dialogue among civilizations” ─ specifically, a dialogue between Indian and Chinese civilisations.

At a time when our world is witnessing multiple conflicts and crises, it certainly needs many such Bodhisattvas among translators, scholars, and statesmen, who can promote a constructive dialogue among nations, religions, and civilisations.


Xuan Zang: “My bones can stay here when I die, but my soul will continue the journey to India.”

The lives of Kumarajiva and Xuan Zang (602-664), another legendary Buddhist monk whose name is inextricable from the history of India-China civilisational interaction, are separated by over two centuries. Yet, there is one interesting common fact. Like Kumarajiva, Xuan Zang (popularly known in India as Hiuen Tsang) was also imprisoned by a ruler, who, impressed by the fame of his scholarship, wanted him to stay in his kingdom.

This happened at a place called Gaochang, a once-magnificent city now in complete ruins near the Taklamakan Desert. It was an unbearably hot afternoon when I reached there from Turpan, which itself is the hottest place in China. Gaochang was the capital of several thriving kingdoms between the 2nd century BC and the 14th century AD, when it was attacked by Khizr Khwaja Khan, a Central Asian prince.
My keenness to go to Kumarajiva’s birthplace Kucha was born the day I visited Xi’an, the place of his death.

A statue of Xuan Zang.

It had a large Buddhist monastery with several thousand monks. But it was also a cosmopolitan city. Confucianism, Taoism, Nestorian Christianity and Manichaeism (an Iranian dualistic religion that was founded in the 3rd century AD) had also flourished here. Xuan Zang visited Gaochang around 630 AD and preached there when he was on a pilgrimage to India in search of Buddhist scriptures. My guide and Uyghur interpreter Alimjan narrated what happened to him there.

“The king of Gaochang, who came to listen to Xuan Zang’s discourses, was so impressed that he didn’t want the monk to leave his kingdom. When the latter refused, he was held a prisoner. Xuan Zang went on a hunger strike for three days, and told the king, ‘My bones can stay here when I die, but my soul will continue the journey to India.’”

“The king not only relented, but became such an ardent pupil of Xuan Zang that he would allow the monk to step on his back to climb the platform meant for delivering the discourses. He later bade goodbye to Xuan Zang on his onward journey to India with full state honours.”

My keenness to go to Kumarajiva’s birthplace Kucha was born the day I visited Xi’an, the place of his death.

Xuan Zang visited Gaochang around 630 AD and preached there when he was on a pilgrimage to India in search of Buddhist scriptures.

How true is the Sanskrit proverb: “Swadeshe Pujyate Raja, Vidwan Sarvatra Pujyate”, which means a king is honoured in his country only, whereas a great scholar is honoured all over the world.

Nothing of the auditorium in which the discourses were held now remains. However, the half-destroyed temple next to it, in which Xuan Zang meditated, is still extant. There is no trace of Buddhist religion or art left in it. All visual depictions of the Buddha and other human forms all over Gaochang were erased under the Muslim rule. Manuscripts considered un-Islamic were destroyed. Even the dome of this icon-less temple has gone. So, when I sat on the dusty floor to offer prayers, all I could see was its bare mud walls with a round hole on top, where a splendid blue sky appeared to have become the new dome of this shrine.

My keenness to go to Kumarajiva’s birthplace Kucha was born the day I visited Xi’an, the place of his death.

Buddhist temple in Gaochang, where Xuan Zang meditated. 

Abstraction, minimalism and simplicity ─ “Less is more” ─ are the hallmarks of Zen Buddhism. (Zen meditation, which focuses attention on the emptiness of all reality, is Chan in Chinese, which itself is the sinicization of Dhyana in Sanskrit.) Goacheng, though destroyed and abandoned many centuries ago, seemed to have defiantly preserved this Buddhist teaching.


‘Journey to the West’, Monkey King and Hanuman  

Not far from Gaochang, geography, history, literature, and scholarly probe combine to showcase Xinjiang’s yet another amazing connection with India. This is at the Flaming Mountain near Turpan. This red sandstone mountain figures prominently in the classic Chinese novel, Journey to the West by Wu Cheng'en (1505-1580) and in the exploits of its enthralling hero, the Monkey King. It is the story of how the Monkey King safely escorted his master, Xuan Zang, on his pilgrimage to the ‘Western Paradise’ (India) in search of Buddhist spiritual knowledge. When they were barred from proceeding further by the Flaming Mountain, the Monkey King is described as having borrowed a magic palm-leaf fan to stop the flame and create a safe passage. He similarly saved the monk from various dangers all through his journey.

My keenness to go to Kumarajiva’s birthplace Kucha was born the day I visited Xi’an, the place of his death.

According to Professor B R Deepak, an eminent sinologist at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, several noted Chinese scholars have concluded through textual research that the magical monkey “is not a domestic product, but an Indian import”. They believe his character is inspired by Hanuman in the Ramayana, and later sinicised with Chinese myth-making. Deepak quotes Prof Ji Xianlin, a widely revered Indologist who translated the Ramayana into Chinese, as saying: “We can’t refute the relationship between Sun Wukong and Nala and Hanuman of the Ramayana. However, at the same time, it cannot be denied that Chinese authors have further developed Sun Wukong, and have innovatively combined the Indian monkeys with China’s Wu Zhiqi (an ape-like water demon who is said to be the prototype of the Monkey King). With their powerful imagination and refinement, they have created the brave and bold, lively and artistic image of Sun Wukong, which is loved by the people.”

Prof Deepak says, “Sun Wukong is the crystallization of the integration of Chinese and Indian literary images in the long process of cultural exchanges. It is a hybrid of the Chinese and Indian civilizations.”

In front of a museum at the ruins of Gaochang stands an eye-catching statute of Xuan Zang. After the saga of captivity, release, honour, and farewell by the king, it shows the monk resuming his journey to India with a determined stride. Quite appropriate because, after Gaochang, Xuan Zang crossed the desert, travelled to Samarkand (now in Uzbekistan), Balkh (now in Afghanistan), Khotan, Yarkand (both in Xinjiang), climbed the Himalayan heights, and finally reached India.

He studied at the famous Nalanda University and became a master teacher there. He visited many holy places in the north, south, west, and east of India, seeking new knowledge, making friends, and gaining admirers everywhere. One of his greatest admirers was King Harshavardhana, who, because of this association, sent an envoy to the court of the Tang dynasty in Xi’an, thereby establishing the first diplomatic relations between India and China. Before Xuan Zang’s departure to China, the king also gave him a grand farewell.

But why did Xuan Zang undertake this ordeal? In his own words: “The purpose of my journey is not to obtain personal offerings. It is because I regretted that, in my country, the Buddhist doctrine was imperfect and the scriptures were incomplete. Having many doubts, I wished to go and find out the truth, and so I decided to travel to the West at the risk of my life, so that the Dew of the Mahayana sutras would have not only been sprinkled at Kapilavastu (a sacred Buddhist place of pilgrimage now in Nepal), but the sublime truth may also be known in the eastern country (China).”

When he returned to Xi’an in China after spending 17 long years in India and covering over 16,000 km on foot and horses, he was given a hero’s welcome by both the king and the people. The king built a majestic pagoda, known as the Big Wild Goose Pagoda, where he, assisted by hundreds of his disciples, would spend many years translating the over 650 Sanskrit texts he had brought from India. His epic journey and the enduring impact of his work place him among the world’s greatest scholar-explorers of all time.

The book he penned on his heroic exploration, titled The Great Tang Records on the Western Regions, is an invaluable account of India of those times. Nehru in The Discovery of India praises it highly and writes, “Coming from a highly civilized and sophisticated country, at a time when China’s capital Si-an-fu (Xi’an) was a centre of art and learning, his comments on and descriptions of conditions in India are valuable.”

This is what Xuan Zang wrote about the Indian society of those days: “With respect to the ordinary people, although they are naturally light-minded, yet they are upright and honourable. In money matters, they are without craft, and in administering justice they are considerate. They are not deceitful or treacherous in their conduct, and are faithful in their oaths and promises. In their rules of government, there is remarkable rectitude, whilst in their behaviour there is much gentleness and sweetness. With respect to criminals or rebels, these are few in number, and only occasionally troublesome. As the administration of the government is founded on benign principles, the executive is simple.”

Incidentally, Xuan Zang was uniquely honoured when Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited China in May 2015. Chinese President Xi Jinping, who usually receives foreign heads of state and government in Beijing, departed from the protocol and welcomed Modi in front of the Big Wild Goose Pagoda in Xi’an. As a symbol of India-China civilizational interaction in ancient times, the choice of the place was perfect. Alas, when it comes to adding substance to this interaction in the modern era, our two countries are still faltering.


Why did Buddhism disappear from Xinjiang? 

After the advent of Islam in Xinjiang in the tenth century, not only did Buddhism experience rapid decline, but Buddhist art, culture, scholarship and places of worship came under intense attack. The new rulers waged a jihad against Buddhism forcing the people to convert to Islam. When I asked Alimjan, my Uyghur guide and interpreter, about this, he remarked, “This happened because Islam came to Xinjiang with the Holy Quran in one hand and the sword in another.”

I saw evidence of this at two more places ─ one near Turpan and the other in Khotan. At the Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves, located on a cliff in the Murtuk River gorge of the Flaming Mountains, only 83 caves are still in existence. These, featuring both Buddhist and Manichaean traditions, must have been stunning when they were created more than a thousand years ago. But now there is not a single statue of the Buddha intact. All were were broken and disfigured. Even their eyes were gouged out.

Much of what was left of the colourful fresco art in the caves was further damaged a century ago. In 1906, an unscrupulous German expedition team led by Albert Von Le Coq removed about 500 square meters of murals and took away the pieces to Berlin. Some of it was spoilt during transit. Some more were destroyed in the bombing in the Second World War. A few other Western experts, including Hungarian-British archaeologist Aurel Stein, also participated in this cultural pillage. The same was also done at the Kizil Caves in Kucha, first by Islamic extremists and later by Western explorers. All this happened because the Buddhist heritage sites in Xinjiang ─ there are scores of them ─ did not have any protection until the founding of a stable government in China in 1949.

Despite all that is tragically lost, fragments of the fresco art that still survive in the Bezeklik Caves show the splendour of what was once produced with infinite care, creativity and faith ─ many paintings of Buddhacharitra, Bodhisattva Manjushri, a procession of worshipping Bodhisattvas, Heavenly Rajas, dancing Apsaras, Brahman musicians, Vajrapala guardians, and even Vasudeva (Krishna).

The second place where I witnessed similar destruction of Buddhist heritage was Damagou, an oasis town near Khotan. In what is called the “smallest Buddhist shrine” in all of Xinjiang (only 2x2 metres), there is a statue of a sitting Buddha without a head and without even a torso. It was discovered two decades ago buried under a mound in a desert when kids had gone to collect firewood.

Khotan was once a major centre of Mahayana Buddhism. But so extensive was the destruction of cave monasteries and libraries during the Islamic conquest of Khotan that alarm bells rang in distant Dunhuang Grottos in the east over a thousand kilometres away. Dunhuang, a famous oasis city on the Silk Road in Gansu province, is the cradle of Buddhism in China. A vast treasure of Buddhist art resides in its nearly 700 caves. When the monks at Dunhuang heard of what Islamic conquerors were doing in Khotan and other places in Xinjiang, they deposited over 50,000 manuscripts, including Khotanese literary works, and paintings in a small side chamber ─ now known as Cave 17, or the Library Cave — adjoining a larger cave. The chamber was walled up, plastered over, concealed by murals, and sealed up for posterity. This secret treasure thus remained hidden for nearly a thousand years. It was only discovered by accident at the turn of the last century.

My keenness to go to Kumarajiva’s birthplace Kucha was born the day I visited Xi’an, the place of his death.



Why ─ and How ─ is China Localizing Islam in Xinjiang? 

As can be seen from the above description, India’s cultural and spiritual influence was once broad and deep all over Xinjiang in the first millennium. Today it is only present in museums, a grim reminder of what happened in the second millennium. Can the third millennium be different?

Now India has no land access to this region ─ and to other neighbouring regions in Central Asia, West Asia and even a part of South Asia (Afghanistan). This is mainly because after our Independence in 1947, Rajasthan, Punjab, Kashmir and Ladakh have remained landlocked with no access to Pakistan on the one hand and China on the other. Without physical connectivity, cultural and civilizational links get atrophied over time. Economic cooperation also gets severely impaired.

It is necessary to add here that, with the recent outbreak of the deadly Israel-Palestine conflict, the India-Middle East Economic Corridor (IMEC) has become a non-starter.

IMEC, which aims to provide sea-land-sea-land connectivity from India to Europe via Saudi Arabia and Israel, was announced with much fanfare on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in New Delhi in September. Some over-enthusiastic scholars in India and the West even predicted that IMEC would effectively counter China’s Belt and Road Initiative. But since there is no hope of normalization of Israel-Saudi relations in the near future, this project is as good as dead.

What then can provide India with the closest, smoothest, least expensive and most dependable land connectivity to Central Asia, West Asia, Eurasia and Europe? It is the Belt and Road Initiative with Xinjiang as the hub.

The sad part is, most Indian politicians and intellectuals, including those who claim to be torchbearers of nationalism, do not seem to understand ─ or care ─ that India is losing out big time due to a lack of connectivity and cooperation with our neighbours, near and extended.

China, in contrast, is marching ahead confidently by establishing modern connectivity links with all its neighbours in Eurasia, West Asia and South Asia (minus India). Yet, China also faces considerable challenges. In particular, the threat of religious extremism, terrorism and separatism has not fully disappeared in Xinjiang. So what is the status of Islam in Xinjiang? Why ─ and how ─ is the Chinese government trying to implement its policy of localization of Islam in Xinjiang, by incorporating Chinese characteristics into it? This will be the subject of the last of my three-part article.

(The writer, who served as an aide to India’s former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, is the founder of the ‘Forum for a New South Asia – Powered by India-Pakistan-China Cooperation’. He tweets @SudheenKulkarni. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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Topics:  Xinjiang 

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