Saturday, 27 April 2019

X is for...Xikes!!!...Xrumbs!!! ...Xood Xrief!!

Like Q, there's no X in Bengali so I thought there won't be much choice today, can’t be picky or anything, but even so…managed to find some nice numbers. Quite surprised frankly, phew! 

Starting off today with this lovely track – Tomar jonno (For you). For you. It's from X-Factor, a fusion rock band from Bangladesh.

Next is a modern rendition of Karar Oi Louho Kopat (Those Steel Prison Doors, 1924) by the Bangladeshi group Xodiac. The original was written and composed by Kazi Nazrul Islam (1899-1976) during the Independence Movement against the British, reportedly while Nazrul was himself incarcerated. It is an incredibly powerful revolutionary song and has been sung by heaps of professional artistes as well as in rallies and protest marches by ordinary people. Forget the exact meanings of the lyrics, the internal rhymes and the robust marching beat can be felt by everybody. The song played an important role in the both the Indian Freedom Struggle and Bangladesh’s Liberation War decades later. Nazrul, Bangladesh’s National Poet,  combined both Hindu and Islamic imagery seamlessly in many of his compositions, drawing upon his own vast knowledge of both faiths and the syncretic traditions of Bengal. Enjoy!

Finally, here’s Chronic Xorn featuring Lakkhichhara with Paliye Berai (I’m on the run) in a live performance. Both bands are from West Bengal, and both have been featured earlier in this A-Z series.

X is for… eXactly Xilch...n...Xero in Bengali  

What do you do when you can’t dredge up an X-word from your own alphabet? You call upon your neighbours for help. That’s what I’m doing, and I’ve gone to them in the past too…they’ve never turned me down yet. China has Xplorers and poetry and pilgrims and monks for the most challenging of the Challenge letters. Ask and you shall receive.

So. Today I’m talking about Xuanzang, a Chinese traveller/monk who literally helped write Bengali history. Xuanzang, also written Huan Tsang, (602-664) was born in Henan province of China during the beginnings of the Tang dynasty. Born into a scholarly, erudition-crazy family, he was given a Confucian education. He had a keen interest in Chinese classics and the ancient sages. Encouraged by his elder brother who was a monk, Xuanzang became a monk himself at thirteen, was ordained at twenty and his interest turned to Buddhist subjects. He travelled in his early years in China’s different provinces to collect and study old Buddhist manuscripts. However, he came across many discrepancies and conflicting ideas in them which his Chinese teachers could not resolve. Xuanzang therefore decided he would travel to India, to the very fountainhead of Buddhism, study and figure things out for himself.

But…not so fast! The then Tang Emperor came to know of his wish and promptly forbade his trip on security grounds, since the Tang were at war at the time with the Gokturks, the Eastern Turks. Xuanzang was not discouraged though, he made his plans in secret and fled, travelling by night and hiding by day, without guide or companions, facing the hardships of the road and the Gobi desert alone.  In 629 he finally reached the western border of the Chinese Empire, the start of the Silk Road, where the local ruler invited him to the court in Turfan. Though the ruler’s plan was to detain Xuanzang indefinitely as the ecclesiastical head of the court, the monk was able to persuade the king to let him leave. Xuanzang was sent on his way with letters of introduction to all the kings and kingdoms en route, down to the formidable Turkish Khan on the borders of India, so that he was no longer a fugitive fleeing the country, but a scholar and pilgrim.

Xuanzang reached India in 630. He travelled widely within the country to various Buddhist monasteries and centres of learning. In all he spent some 16 years in India spanning the length and breadth of the land from what is now Pakistan to modern day Bangladesh, Assam, Bihar and West Bengal. His entire itinerary is super interesting but may not be relevant here, so I’m going to restrict the focus to Bengal/the Delta region alone. He reached Bengal in roughly 638 and spent around half his time in India in travelling the various regions of the Delta.

Credit. 7th century Bengal.
He arrived in Bengal during the reign of Shashanka, one of the early rulers of great importance. Shashanka is thought to have been in power from roughly 600 to 625, a major political figure of his time. Xuansang's account of this kingdom form a significant source in understanding Bengal's history. However,  Xuanzang painted Shashanka as anti-Buddhist, recording his religious persecution of specific Buddhist leaders. Though Xuanzang himself studied in Nalanda with thousands of other Buddhist scholars in Shashanka's domain and noted the flourishing presence of other Buddhist monasteries within the kingdom. Therefore, several eminent historians believe that Xuanzang was partisan (he favoured Harshvardhan, Shashanka's rival and a Buddhist as opposed to Shashanka who was a Shaivite Hindu).

Okay, let's forget the partisanship issues, what did he actually say about Bengal? He recorded that Shashanka's kingdom was “rich in all kinds of grain-produce.” And that it was thickly populated. The people valued learning and scholars. There were around 20 Buddhist monasteries close to the capital with a 3000 strong community of Buddhist monks and scholars. (How this is possible if Shashanka was anti-Buddhist beats me!) He also remarked on the presence of Jains and Jain temples. 

Passing from the northern areas to southeast and into the lower coastal region, Samatata, he observed “the land lies low and rich and is cultivated with many crops.” That the climate was mild and the people agreeable. Here too they valued scholarship and learning. There were 30 Buddhist monasteries with 2000 priests.

In Tamralipta, to the west of Samtata, Xuanzang found Buddhists and non-Buddhists living side by side (early evidence of religious tolerance in Bengal). There were 10 monasteries and a sangha of 1000 Buddhists there, and Brahmanical temples there numbered around 50. “The coast of the country is in a recess of the sea; the land and water embrace each other. Wonderful articles of value and gems are found here in abundance, and the people of the country are very rich.”

The main impression of Bengal  he creates is that of a prosperous, populous agrarian economy, keen on education and scholarly pursuits. Xuanzang also, very helpfully, gives the exact areas and distances between the kingdoms and their capital cities which I am not recapping. Read more about his travelogue here.

Xuanzang went back home to China in 645, he was received by the Emperor with great honour  and was offered an imperial position. He declined the job and went into  a monastery where he, with the help of a team of translators, translated the 600-odd Sanskrit texts he had collected from India. Many original Buddhist texts which were subsequently lost in India, were recovered from their Chinese translations that Xuanzang did. He also translated Lao-tzu’s works into Sanskrit and sent them to India.

On the request of the Emperor, he wrote his travel experiences in the book Great Tang Records of the Western Region, which became one of the primary sources for understanding the early medieval history of South and Central Asia. His influence on Chinese Buddhism was far reaching. He died in 664. Read more about his contributions to Buddhist philosophy here.

Posted for the A-Z Challenge 2019


  1. There is lot here, but suffice it to say, thank goodness for those translations!

  2. What a fascinating man. As always many thanks.
    And yes, I suspect you are right about his partisanship. So Buddhist monasteries and 3000 monks close to the capital of a king who was against them does sound unlikely.

    1. A minor flaw in an otherwise great traveller and historian...

  3. X marks the spot...and the spot is a moving X. So much history is linked. Very interesting.

    1. I've always been fascinated by those linkages.

  4. And he also became the protagonist of Journey to the West :) What a remarkable life!

    The Multicolored Diary

  5. interesting how different alphabets and languages lack equivalents for other languages/alphabets.

    Joy at The Joyous Living

    1. Thank goodness for that diversity...otherwise I would've been in a (Chinese corn crab) soup :)

  6. You've certainly managed to ace your X post. Xuanzang sounds like a most interesting man, from his unauthorized trip to begin with to his translation work and travel writing. That's a lot of ground to cover.

    1. He also made lasting, scholarly contributions to Chinese/Buddhist philosophy, which I've not covered here in any intellectual bigwig of his times, apart from a traveller.