Xuanzang: A Buddhist Pilgrim on the Silk Road
His journey from 629 to 645 CE, a full 16 years, gives us a unique view of the Silk Road in a time of vast changes throughout Asia. A year after his departure, the Khanate of the Eastern Turks fell, removing China’s greatest threat to its northwest borders. Only a few years after Xuanzang witnessed the grand gathering of the Western Turks near Lake Issik Kul, the Great Khan of the Western Turks was assassinated, bringing about the breakdown of the once powerful Western Turkish empire. As these Turkish empires weakened or were destroyed, the Tang emperor Taizong was able to begin establishing suzerainty over the oases kingdoms of the Taklamakan desert. And in India, only 4 years after his Great Debate before the mighty King Harsha, the king died and with his death, the whole of north India descended into chaos while Buddhism declined ever more sharply after his passing.
Xuanzang traveled an astonishing 10,000 miles over three of the highest mountain ranges in Asia, on both the northern and southern Silk roads and through regions that are now Kyrgizstan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan on his way to India and back home to China. In the years when Xuanzang had just returned to China, and the Emperor Taizong was consolidating his power in the East, the first three successors of the Prophet Muhammad had overrun Syria, Iran, Palestine, Egypt and the entire Persian empire. India at first lay beyond the wave of 7th century Islamic conquests. However, Sind, the lower half of the Indus valley, was conquered by Arab forces primarily as a rival trade base. But the major advances didn’t come until three centuries later
Important as relay stations on the Silk Road between China, Iran and Rome, these ancient caravan kingdoms were also stages on the route of Buddhist pilgrims such as Xuanzang from China to Afghanistan and India. On his outward journey Xuanzang stopped at Hami, Turfan, Kharashahr, Kucha and Aksu on the northern Silk Road. At each of these oases he would visit with kings, replenish his caravan with horses and camels; preach Buddhist doctrine to merchants and warriors as well as his fellow monks on their way to India. Along with Marco Polo, Xuanzang would be the most famous traveler on the Silk Road. He has, however the distinction of having traveled both on the northern and southern Silk roads which even Marco Polo did not do.
Several months after Xuanzang visited Hami,the kingdom reverted back to China. Like many another oasis it was caught between the depredations of Turkic nomads from the north and Chinese conquerors to the south and east. Xuanzang’s reputation preceded him. When Xuanzang was still at Hami, the king of Turfan sent an escort to conduct him to his kingdom, some 200 miles to the west. The king of Turfan was a powerful monarch with great influence throughout the Taklamakan desert, and happily for Xuanzang, he was also a devout Buddhist. The king’s subjects in the ancient kingdom of Turfan were neither Chinese nor Turks nor Mongolians, but an Indo-European people speaking a dialect of the Tocharian language. The government’s institutions however, were based on Chinese models. Reflecting this composite culture, modern excavations around Turfan have brought to light Christian, Nestorian, Manichean and Buddhist manuscripts, sculptures and paintings. Bezeklik monastery in the nearby mountains contained sixty-seven (some say fifty seven caves) dating from the fourth to the fourteenth century.
The king was so attracted to Xuanzang that he tried to detain him by force. Xuanzang staged a hunger strike; the king relented. Once convinced of his determination, the king equipped him with gold, silver, rolls of taffeta and satin, 30 horses, and 24 servants. More important, he gave him 24 letters to be presented to the kingdoms he would pass through. Finally, he commissioned one of his officers to conduct him to the Great Khan of the Western Turks. Xuanzang was overcome by his generosity. Well he might have been, for the Empire of the Western Turks at that time extended from the Altai mountains in the former Soviet Union to what is now Afghanistan and Pakistan.
From Turfan the pilgrim and his now large caravan traveled to Kharashahr Yanqi) and thence to the flourishing kingdom of Kucha. Xuanzang was impressed with the wealth and cultural richness of its civilization as well as its size. A Kuchan orchestra had been introduced at the Chinese court and during the whole of the Tang period took part in imperial fetes. An authentic portrait of the King and Queen of Kucha, originally from the Kizil monastery, reveal an elegantly dressed royal pair and a king with red hair and light skin like most of his subjects, clearly someone of Indo-European origin. The king, not a very prudent man eventually renounced Chinese suzerainty in favor of an alliance with the Turks. In 648 C.E, long after Xuanzang’s stay, the Chinese invaded his country and took the king prisoner.
Beyond Aksu, the next oasis, Xuanzang crossed the Tian Shan range to Kyrgyzstan. Heavy snows delayed his start and should have provided a warning; in his 40 mile crossing, he lost one third of his men and animals. On the other side of the mountains, Xuanzang and his sadly depleted caravan rested at Lake Issik Kul, “the warm lake”, so-called because it never freezes. At Tokmak in 628 C.E., Xuanzang met the Great Khan of the Western Turks who was at the height of his powers. Xuanzang gave him the letter and gifts from the Turfan king. Although he had achieved hegemony in part of the Tarim basin, the Great Khan’s relations with the Tang Emperor in Chang’an were friendly and he welcomed Xuanzang and his party.