Pilgrimage on the Silk Road

Ken Rodgers of the Kyoto Journal begin their special issue (#74) on the Silk Road with this thought. “Metaphorically, silk speaks of brilliant threads weaving complex interfaces, intricate interplay of elaborate craft processes, subtle aesthetics and the erotic charge of luxury and wealth. In the West, it has since Roman times conjured an exotic, mysterious Orient. Ever pragmatic, China traded silk for the ‘heavenly horses’ of Central Asia, up to forty bolts of silk for each fleet mount, buying its military equal footing with the nomadic foes that harassed its borders. In the East, the Road itself is the more powerful metaphor. Every path of personal development, in martial or aesthetic arts, is a Way. In the even bigger picture, the Dao — written with the same character as ‘road’ — signifies the true nature of the universe.”

Nekorpa’s contribution to the issue is Matteo Pistono’s pilgrimage to Tokyo to locate this statue of the 19th century Hungarian Alexander Csoma de Korosi.

The article in the Kyoto Journal #74 was adapted from the story below.

Sándor Csoma de Kőrösi – Grandfather to Modern Day Tibetan Translators

A thin layer of fresh snow blankets Tokyo’s Uedo Park. I am walking to a meeting of sorts with a man I greatly admire. Many years ago, while studying Tibetan language in London at the School for Oriental and African Studies, I heard of this man—a Hungarian who ambled from Europe to India in search of his ancestors, and in the process, became the grandfather to translators of Tibetan Buddhism in the West. He is the type of character I like to meet in my travels; not because of the superior intellect he exhibited, although I deeply admire his ability to master in the course of his life not only Tibetan but seventeen other languages; rather, I am drawn to this bold Hungarian’s sense of solitude, and the purity in which he travelled. He was traveller in the truest sense—one who leaves with no thought of returning. Travelling with no need to return, one moves with a kind of inner strength that comes from knowing they are ultimately completely alone in the world. For these journeyers, it is in the movement of travel itself that they find their deepest solitude. In the movement of travel they do not lose this solitude and their solitude does not necessitate being alone. This Hungarian, Sándor Csoma de Kőrösi left his Transylvanian home and never returned, dying in the foothills of the Himalayas in 1842. He never came to Japan. But this winter day I find myself searching for him in Tokyo.

Back in February 1819, it appeared that Csoma was going for a chilly mid-morning stroll along the riverbanks of his Hungarian village. A bit of dark rye bread and cheese in the leather satchel and walking staff in hand, Csoma certainly did not appear to be setting off from his homeland in search of the origins of his Hungarian race. When a youngster wants to learn about their heritage, he might venture to the local university library for the afternoon, or perhaps just to the local café to ask a few old timers about grandpa’s grandpa—but, such a local, perusal approach was the antithesis of Csoma. He felt no boundaries when travelling and left no query unasked in his quest.

One must admire Csoma’s ambition. At the time of his departure in February 1819, his only geographical reference for the goal of setting foot in his ancestral homeland was a classroom remark years before by Theologian and orientalist J.G. Eichhorn at Gottingen University. Eichhorn mentioned in a lecture, “certain Arabic manuscripts which must contain very important information regarding the history of the Middle Ages and of the origins of the Hungarian nation are still in Asia.” Though vague, it sparked Csoma to study Arabic in the hope of tracing down maps in the cartography department. Later, during his studies of Arabic in Germany, Csoma came across a work by the 7th century Greek historian Theophylact Simocatta who claimed that in 597, “the Turks defeated a people known as the Ugars.” Because of the linguistic similarity of the word Ugars to Ugor, Ungri, Hungar and Hongrois, Csoma and others thought that the Ugars could be a long-forgotten ancestral tribe of the today’s Hungarians. Other historians Csoma studied also erroneously tied the Huns to a people in Central Asia known variously as Ouars, Oigurs, or Yugras. It was such putative theories that led Csoma to believe that his Hungarian ancestors were from the Tarim Basin in Central Asian, very likely among the present-day Uigyurs in East Turkistan, which the People’s Republic of China annexed in 1949 and renamed the Xingjian Autonomous Region.

I first heard of Csoma from Professor Piatagorski, my eccentric Russian lecturer of Indian Philosophy in London. I suppose Professor Piatagorski was fond of Csoma because of their comparable mad brilliance and similarities in their respective efforts made in painstakingly exhaustive research. Professor Piatagorski mentioned that Csoma, in his life-long search for the origins of the Hungarian race, became the godfather to all current day translators of Tibet’s esoteric doctrine. And, it was through the writings of Csoma on the Kalachakra Tantra that the West first learned of the mythical land of Shambala. In fact, translating tantric Tibetan text was only a side project, a support, for the Hungarian who never wavered from the enduring goal of finding the origins of his ancestors. The final words I remember from Professor Piatagorski on Csoma hinted at a unique statue of the Hungarian somewhere in Japan, sitting in meditation posture, “as if he was immersed in the contemplation of the vast cosmology of the Kalachakra, or tired there from…”

Csoma’s journey set out on foot 20 February 1819 to Central Asia via Moscow, intending to enter East Turkistan from the north. Count Teleky met Csoma on the road that morning and asked him where he was going. Pausing briefly, a truly beatific Csoma replied unambiguously confident, “I am going to Asia in search of our relatives.” Csoma’s travel plans changed as soon as he left Hungary; he never made it to Russia. After stopping in Croatia to study Slavic and perfect his Turkish (adding to his linguistic rucksack which already included Latin, Greek, Hebrew, German, French, English and Romanian), he moved toward Constantinople but because of the black plague, he turned south and boarded a Syrian ship to Egypt and Tripoli; then, desert trekking to Mosul, he caught a boat down the Tigris to Baghdad where he continued along side camels in a caravan to Teheran, where he was hosted for four months by British Ambassador Willock while studying Persian.

Continuing along the Silk Road, Csoma travelled solo and sometimes in caravan through Persia towards war-torn Bokhara, past the Bamian Buddhas and Kabul, and crossing the Hindu Kush into the Indus watershed arriving in Lahore some three years after his journey began. He changed his appearance and dress, the spoken tongue, exhibited name and identification papers to suit, and indeed, survived those notoriously dangerous roads. Having passed through Kashmir via Srinagar and Amritsar in 1823, Csoma trekked up to the walled fortresses of Leh, the capital of the Kingdom of Ladakh, to learn that his only option north to East Turkistan was over the glaciated 18,000-foot trade routes of the Karakorum and Kun Lun mountain ranges. Csoma decided not to pay the high price to shady guides, recognizing also that it was particularly dangerous for a Christian to travel in the region. It was at this time, Csoma met a British officer by the name William Moorcroft—a seeming chance encounter that opened the world of Tibet to Csoma

Moorcroft, a horse-breeder turned voyager turned spy, immediately took to Csoma, gifting the Hungarian a copy of the first book about Tibetan language and culture, Alphabetum Tibetanum (Rome, 1762) by the Capuchin friar Agostino Giorgi. Csoma began to study Tibetan, believing that he might glean much needed language and cultural clues for his journey to his homeland. From Moorcroft’s perspective, he and his fellow British intelligence agents in Simla desperately needed translation of confiscated correspondence from Russian and Chinese and other languages, including Tibetan. There would be considerable work for a linguist of Csoma’s calibre. As the British were at a loss for Tibetan speakers, Moorcroft and the East India Company made an offer to pay Csoma for the preparation of a Tibetan bi-lingual dictionary. The Hungarian enthusiastically agreed. With his involvement with Moorcroft, Csoma unknowingly walked directly into the ‘Great Game’ between Britain, Russia, and China—the geo-political struggle for trade and control of Central Asia and the Tibetan plateau. It was also the beginning Britain’s patronage and support of Csoma, which often resulted in misunderstanding and later minor disdain from both sides. This could have been expected as Csoma’s calling was to his ancestral homeland while the British were conducting espionage.

Moorcroft, it should be noted, was part of a handful of British imperialists connected to the East India Trading Company who can be credited with the recovery of India’s architectural history of Buddhism. These officers, mostly young men who excelled in linguistics, archaeology, and downing stiff scotch, were not the type of colonialists who sat in their Raj tea garden but rather thrived on traipsing through the jungle, usually firing a variety of weaponry in the process.

In January 2006, I travelled to Amaravati, one of the historically significant Buddhist sites ‘re-discovered’ in 1797 in Andhra Pradesh by Colonel Colin Mackenzie, a colonial colleague of Moorcroft. I was there with more than 200,000 other pilgrims for the Kalachakra initiation by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Significant to Csoma’s story, Amaravati’s enormous Dhanyakataka reliquary-stupa is purportedly where 2,530 years ago the Buddha first taught the Kalachakra Tantra—the esoteric doctrine Csoma began studying while in Ladakh and Zangskar which tells of mythical Dharma Kings and the Pure Land of Shambhala.

Translating the deeds of benevolent kings ruling over pristine lands of perfect circumstances for meditation and contemplation notwithstanding, Csoma was still after logistics. He continued the ardent task at hand of cracking mystical codes to unlock the door to the origins of the Hungarians. Thus, Csoma spent the next eleven years engaged in Tibetan studies, living the life of a Himalayan hermit with ascetic-like discipline. Drinking butter tea, wrapped in cloaks of yak and sheep hides, and studying by the light of a single oil lamp at different monasteries and hermitages, the Hungarian’s efforts led to the publishing in the mid 1830s of his English-Tibetan glossary, a grammar, and short accounts of Tibetan literature and history. In particular, using texts printed from the ancient woodblock at Yangla monastery in Ladakh, Csoma outlined the basic themes of the Kalachakra Tantra and the Kingdom of Shambhala. His research on the Kalachakra remained the totality of westerners’ knowledge of the subject for nearly a century until in 1959 when Tibetans fled China’s hostile takeover. And the Kalachakra Tantra became the most widely disseminated teachings in exile by the Dalai Lama.

One night while studying by the glow of a coal-ember in his room in Ladakh, Csoma discovered a passage in a commentary on the Kalachakra Tantra that he believed pinpointed his ancestral homeland—identifying it as none other than the Pure Land of Shambhala, which he portrays as ‘the Buddhist Jerusalem.” Csoma wrote, “the mentioning of a great desert of twenties days’ journey, and of white sandy plains on both sides of the Sita, render it probable that the Buddhist Jerusalem (I so call it), in the most ancient times, must have been beyond the Jaxartes and probably the land of the Yugurs.” Csoma believed he finally found the esoteric passport he needed to his native soil in East Turkistan here in the Kalachakra Tantra—he only need to go three weeks beyond the desserts in current-day Uzbekistan. Csoma was not of the view that the Shambhala he was studying in the scripture was a description of a mythical landscape, a tantric playground, or some sort of passageway to a Buddhist metaphor—he believed that these tantric texts literally gave the latitude and longitude markings for Shambhala, which was none other than the land of the Yugurs, or Uigyurs, from which flowed his ancestral lineage.

Csoma completed in 1837 his Tibetan-English dictionary and grammar, which became the principal source materials for the later and more well known bi-lingual dictionaries of H. A. Jäschke and Chandra Das. He decided to remain in India and continue his study of Sanskrit and related dialects, linguistically preparing himself for thhe journey via Lhasa to his believed homeland to the north. He felt further study of Sanskrit was another essential key to open the meaning of other Buddhist scriptures found in the great monastic libraries in Lhasa—which, he believed, would provide further clues to the ancient Uigyur Kingdom.

In late March 1842, Csoma left his job as a librarian in Calcutta, walking through up the highland jungles to a hill station in Darjeeling. He immediately forged relationships with Dr. Archibald Campbell, a British agent based in Darjeeling, who set the up the diplomatic necessities that would enable Csoma to travel through Tibet. However, the journey through the jungle had taken its toll and by the first week of April, Csoma was running a high marsh fever, likely malaria.

Dr. Campbell wrote of Csoma, “…all his hopes of attaining the object of the long and laborious search were centred in the discovery of the country of the ‘Yoogors’…to reach it was the goal of this most ardent wishes, and there he fully expected to find the tribes he had hitherto sought in vain.”

Csoma never became aware that the ‘Yoogors’, or Uyghurs, of East Turkistan, were in fact a people of the Turkish tongue, who played absolutely no role in the history of the Hungarians.

On 11 April 1842, Csoma died peacefully. Campbell noted the Hungarian’s only possessions were, “four boxes of books and paper, the suit of blue clothes he always wore and in which he died, a few sheets, and one cooking pot.”

I waited in brightly lit archival room, the chill from Tokyo’s winter on my cheeks contrasted against the room’s white walls. An assistant curator had a plastic storage box in her hands, and translated for me a description in Japanese of the contents, “Twenty centimetre, bronze, gifted to Imperial Museum in 1931 by Hungarian journalist, Dr. Felix Va’lyi.” She carefully removed the statue and here before me was who I had come to meet—Alexander Csoma de Kőrösi.

Csoma was not as I imagined. He did not have the look of the Hungarian wizard with a long white beard as I envisaged, staff in hand, leather rucksack slung over his back, smelling of campfire smoke. Rather, he was seated in full-lotus posture with a thin linen shawl wrapped around him like the Buddha, downcast eyes in calm-abiding meditation. Was this the image of a disheartened man, broken in his long but unrealized quest to reach his ancestral homeland? The engraving around the base of the statue perhaps answers that question. It reads (transposing the letter s for h), “Choma in the aspect of Bodhisattva.” Bodhisattvas are those beings among us striving towards enlightenment by dedicated themselves to the welfare of others. This is an appropriate manner in which to recall Csoma for his devoted pursuit was not only a quest for himself, but for his people to whom his loyalty was unbounded. As Csoma prophetically described his life’s journey in a letter from Iran early in his journey, “Both to satisfy my desire, and to prove my gratitude and love from my nation, I have set off, and must search for the origin of my nation according to the lights which I have kindled in Germany, avoiding neither dangers that may perhaps occur, nor the distance I may have to travel.”

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