The Hungarian Tibetologist’s Memory Lives on in Darjeeling

Many examples of article for sale at this still require additional access from our editor, so you have to contact him beforehand.

The eastern Himalayan community of Darjeeling has long been a crossroads for Buddhist itinerants, lamas, pilgrims and refugees. The 13th Dalai Lama Thubten Gyatso, Anagarika Govinda, Alexandra David-Neel, Gedun Chopel, Ekai Kawaguchi, and Chatral Sangye Dorje, to name only a few, spent important periods of their lives here.

The name ‘Darjeeling’ is an Anglicization of the Tibetan ‘Dorje Ling.’ Local histories recount how a lama, Dorje Rigzin, came to this area in the mid 1700s and established a Buddhist monastery; thereafter the surrounding region took the name ‘the abode of Dorje,’ or Dorje Ling. When the British Raj came to Dorje Ling a hundred years later to establish a military depot and eventually cultivate tea on a mass scale, they changed the name Dorje Ling to Darjeeling.

In 1842 another wanderer came to Darjeeling, the Hungarian Alexander Csoma de Kőrösi, now recognized as the grandfather of modern Tibetan translators. I wrote about his extraordinary attempts to find the origins of his people in Kyoto Journal 74 (Silk Roads: Samarkand to Nara), published in 2010. Briefly, he was convinced that a Central Asian tribe named the Ugars, mentioned by a 7th-century Greek historian, were ancestors of the Hungarians of his era, and were still represented among the Uigyurs of East Turkistan (and present-day Xinjiang, China).

Tibetan scroll painting of Csoma de Kőrösi

Csoma de Kőrösi’s arrival in Darjeeling was preceded by a quarter century-long epic adventure that started in 1819 when he left his Hungarian birthplace of Kovaszna (now in Romania) for Croatia and Constantinople, traveling then through Egypt and Syria by foot, camel and boat en route to Baghdad and eventually caravanning along the Silk Road from the Middle East to Bukhara, past the Bamian Buddhas and through Kabul, into Pakistan and Lahore. This European Christian changed his appearance and dress, spoken tongue, name and identification papers to suit, and indeed, survive the notoriously dangerous roads. Csoma de Kőrösi prophetically described his life’s journey, “Both to satisfy my desire, and to prove my gratitude and love for my nation, I have set off, and must search for the origin of my nation…avoiding neither dangers that may perhaps occur, nor the distance I may have to travel.”

Csoma de Kőrösi’s journey

Having taken up residence in an ancient monastery in Ladakh (between Kashmir and Tibet) to study Tibetan, one evening by candlelight Csoma de Kőrösi discovered a passage in a commentary on the Kalachakra tantra that he believed not only pinpointed his ancestral homeland, but identified it as none other than Shambhala. He 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 [in current day Uzbekistan], and probably the land of the Yugurs.” Csoma de Kőrösi believed that the Kalachakra tantra was his esoteric passport to his native soil in East Turkistan. He was not of the view that the Shambhala he was studying described a ethereal cosmology, a contemplative playground, or some sort of Buddhist metaphor—he believed that these tantric scriptures gave the latitude and longitude map to Shambhala, which was none other than the land of the Yugurs, or Uigyurs, from which flowed his ancestral lineage.

Upon completion in 1837 of the first Tibetan-English dictionary and grammar, after eleven years in Ladakh, Csoma de Kőrösi moved to Calcutta (Kolkata) to work for the Asiatic Society and study Sanskrit and related dialects, still preparing himself linguistically for his journey via Lhasa to his believed homeland to the north. He felt further study of Sanskrit was the key to opening the meaning of many of the scriptures found in the great monastic libraries in Lhasa—which would provide further clues to the ancient Uighur Kingdom. By this time, Csoma de Kőrösi had mastered eighteen languages, and while Tibetan was in his repertoire, he still had not set foot in Tibet proper—although Ladakh is often included geo-culturally as Western Tibet.

In late March 1842, Csoma de Kőrösi left Calcutta on foot, traveling through the Terai jungle to Darjeeling in the Himalayas. There he established a connection with Dr. Archibald Campbell, the British Superintendant of Darjeeling, who set up the diplomatic arrangements for him to travel through Tibet. But his travels through the jungle had taken their toll and by the first week of April, he was running a high marsh fever, likely malaria. Dr. Campbell wrote of Csoma de Kőrösi, “…all his hopes of attaining the object of the long and laborious search were centered in the discovery of the country of the ‘Yoogors’…to reach it was the goal of his most ardent wishes, and there he fully expected to find the tribes he had hitherto sought in vain.”

On 11 April 1842, Csoma de Kőrösi passed away peacefully. Dr. Campbell wrote that 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.” He was buried in the old cemetery with a simple cross but in recent years a large pillar was raised above the grave and commemorative plaques have been affixed nearby. Elsewhere around the world, reminders of his life can be found, like the statue of him seated in meditation posture, resting in a Tokyo museum. Additionally there are other tributes and memorials elsewhere in the world, especially in Hungary.

Cementary Csoma de Kőrösi

Today the cemetery in Darjeeling is divided by a road leading to the main vegetable bazaar in one direction and to the Himalayan Mountain Institute in the other. Csoma de Kőrösi’s gravesite is situated beside the busy avenue. Though most gravesites at the cemetery are dilapidated, his countrymen and admirers have maintained Csoma de Kőrösi’s grave over the years.

Most recently, in November 2012, one hundred and seventy years after his death, a delegation from Hungary came to erect near his gravesite a totem pole donated by the people of his hometown. ”The memorial pole symbolizes relations between Hungary and Darjeeling,” the Speaker of the Hungarian Parliament said during the ceremony.  “The name Darjeeling was known to us much before the days of internet and mass tourism not because of it being a British Hill Station, or for the Himalayas or its tea but as the place where De Kőrösi breathed his last. He was a renowned oriental scholar who introduced Tibetan culture and literature to the West.”




Thanks to Ken Rodgers of Kyoto Journal for his insights


This entry was posted in India, Kyoto Journal, Tibet and tagged Csoma de Kőrösi, Darjeeling. Bookmark the permalink.