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In the steps of a monk
The Dhamma Times, 8 July 2004

A Tang Dynasty monk’s historical journey from China to India during the 7th century is recaptured in a photo exhibition which traces the epic journey through unchartered frontiers.

By Catherine Siow

The Star, Malaysia - Traversing turbulent rivers and vast deserts, scaling lofty mountains and passing through desolate lands with no traces of human habitation, 7th century Chinese monk Hsuan Tsang made his journey in 627 AD from Changan, the capital of the Tang Dynasty (618-906 AD), to India for religious purposes. His detailed travel journal is believed to be among the earliest reliable sources of information about distant countries whose terrain and customs had been known, at that time, in only the sketchiest way.

Hsuan Tsang (602-664 AD) travelled over land mostly on foot and horseback along the Silk Road, west towards India. The Buddhist scholar’s pilgrimage (627-645 AD) contributed enormously to the cultural flow between East and West Asia. Among the various travelogues, Hsuan Tsang’s Hsi Yu Ki or Records of the Western World (popularly known as Journey to the West) is considered the most valuable book source for the study of ancient Indian history and culture during the 7th century.

In later centuries, Hsuan Tsang was immortalised as a saint and his journey popularised in fables and vernacular literature. However, for the historian and explorer, he contributed a precise and colourful account of the many countries along the Silk Road.

Italian explorer Marco Polo, whose travel writings fired the imagination of Europeans for centuries, was believed to have used Hsuan Tsang’s travelogue as a guide during his travels in the 13th century.

Sunset at Suoyang City which is located to the west of the Hexi Corridor. It is an ancient city on the vital passage of the Silk Road.

Cultural heritage

More than 1,300 years after Hsuan Tsang’s historical journey, Taiwanese magazine Rhythms Monthly embarked on a project to retrace Hsuan Tsang’s 19-year pilgrimage. Rhythms Monthly is a unit of Tzu Chi Cultural Publications, the publishing arm of Tzu Chi Foundation, an international Buddhist organisation based in Taiwan.

“In 1998, Tzu Chi volunteers went to Afgha-nistan to distribute relief to refugees as part of the Tzu Chi International Disaster Relief Programme,” said Wong Mun Heng, a member of the Buddhist Tzu Chi Merit Society Kuala Lumpur.

“The chief editor of Rhythm Monthly, Wang Chih-hung, was very impressed with the view of two giant Buddha statues at the Bamiyan canyon. He then recalled that in the book Journey to the West, Hsuan Tsang mentioned this scenery. That gave him the idea of retracing the route undertaken by Hsuan Tsang.”

The Rhythms team, comprising journalists and photographers from Taiwan, Hong Kong and Italy, started work in 1998 and took five years and 10 expeditions to 11 countries across Asia to complete a book, Retracing the Journey to the West in Tang Dynasty, to preserve and promote Hsuan Tsang’s significant contributions. The book (in Chinese) contains over 2,000 photographs of places Hsuan Tsang has journeyed to. Some 200 photos from the book will be showcased at an exhibition organised by the Buddhist Tzu Chi Merit Society Kuala Lumpur at Berjaya Times Square in Kuala Lumpur from July 9 to 18.

“Thanks to Hsuan Tsang who documented his journey to the West, modern-day archaeologists and academicians have his work to refer to,” said Wong. “By retracing the route, we can learn how civilisations have changed over the years. More importantly, it was to put on record a fair impression of Hsuan Tsang.

“Unlike how he was portrayed in the fictional version of Journey to the West, Hsuan Tsang was very much a man of courage and wisdom as he dared to venture into unchartered frontiers, overcoming numerous obstacles and challenges,” said Wong.

Morning market at Dai Lake, Kashmir, where only men can be seen selling vegetables.

“He was also a linguistic expert and excellent diplomat as he crossed over 130 kingdoms of diverse cultures, customs and languages. The people whom he met included the common man in the street, learned monks and kings.”

Rare finds

In retracing Hsuan Tsang’s journey, the Rhythms team visited 11 countries which included historical landmarks in Western China, five Central Asia nations (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan), Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal, India and Bangladesh.

The photo exhibition covers six main themes starting with Hsuan Tsang’s determination to make the journey in 627 AD from Changan, crossing the Gobi Desert, traversing Central Asia, sighting the giant Buddha statues in the Afghan Bamiyan Valley, entering India through the Khyber Pass (northern Pakistan), and visiting the scenic Kashmir Valley and holy places in India.

“Among the rare sights captured on photo are the two giant Buddha statues in Bamiyan. The two standing figures, said to be among the most valued treasures in the history of Buddhism, were carved out of the precipitous sandstone cliffs on the north side of the valley. The larger of the two stood at 53m and was believed to be 1,500 years old. It was the tallest Buddha statue in the world until it was destroyed by the Taliban regime in 2001,” said Wong.

“In Records of the Western World, Hsuan Tsang gave a detailed description of the two statues which were decorated with dazzling precious stones. Last year, Rhythms took a picture of the sandstone cliffs, this time minus the two Buddha statues. The Bamiyan Valley, known as the Valley of the Gods, now lies in ruins. Refugees fleeing the ravages of war occupy caves hewn out of the cliffs that once served as niches for Buddhist statues,” Wong added.

The Retracing the Journey to the West in Tang Dynasty photo exhibition (July 9-18) at Berjaya Times Square, Kuala Lumpur, is open daily from 11am to 9pm. Admission is free. The book, which comes with a 25-minute VCD, will be on sale during the exhibition. For details, call 03-78809048 or visit www.tzuchi.org.tw.

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