A tale from Taxila

Xuanzang who came to our part of the world in 631 CE, was a remarkable man and a raconteur of the first order.


Salman Rashid March 04, 2011

Xuanzang, the Chinese Buddhist master, who came to our part of the world in 631 CE, was a remarkable man and a raconteur of the first order. His book Si-Yu-Ki: Buddhist Records of the Western World, is a mesmerising account of that far-off age. It also shows the man as a person of the most soulful piety and gentleness — the latter being understandable, he being a Buddhist and acquainted with the teachings of Confucius.

Xuanzang set out of Chang’an (modern Xian) in the spring of 630 CE and travelled through Xinjiang and Afghanistan to what is now Pakistan. For sixteen years he travelled around the subcontinent on a mission to collect the holy books of Buddhism for he believed that in his native China the texts had been corrupted through a series of faulty translations.

On his way back, while passing through the city of Khotan in Xinjiang, the pilgrim noticed cultural affinities with India and wrote, “their written characters and their mode of forming their sentences resemble the Indian model; the forms of the letters differ somewhat; the differences, however, are slight.”

Then Xuanzang proceeds to tell us a rather peculiar tale. Kunal, the eldest son of Asoka, had his eyes put out when he was his father’s viceroy in Taxila. The king was outraged. He ordered the expulsion of the local ‘chief of the tribes’ to the ‘north of the snowy mountains’ where they were to live in a ‘desert valley’. There, the chief eventually glorified himself as king of Khotan.

Indeed, the name Khotan, according to Xuanzang, was actually the Sanskrit word Ku-stana. He tells us that the king, having reached old age without a son and fearing his line would end, prayed to the idol of his god. The head of the idol opened and there emerged a baby boy. The infant would, however, not suckle at any breast.

Fearing that the boy would starve to death, the king again prayed to his god to provide a means of nourishment for the miracle child. Once again, miraculously, the ground in front of the idol split to reveal a breast that delivered up milk to the child. And so Ku-stana — Breast of the Earth — became the capital city of the exiles of Taxila.

When Si-Yu-Ki was first translated by Professor Samuel Beal in 1884, the account of an Indian tribe living in Khotan with all its allied yarns was taken as a fairy tale. Twenty years later, a most remarkable man called Aurel Stein — archaeologist, historian and linguist par excellence — went snooping and digging around Khotan. North of the city, on the fringes of the Takla Makan desert, he found the remains of a number of ancient cities. Therein he discovered a vast treasure trove of artefacts that opened up a wonderful window into that world of two thousand years ago.

Among various other relics, Stein found wooden slats with diamond-shaped handles that we, whose memory goes back to the late 1950s, remember as the takhti on which we practiced Urdu calligraphy. Hundreds of these pieces, together with other documents on leather, were found. The script, as Xuanzang tells us, was indeed an Indian script: Kharoshti. This was the very one that was used in the cities of Taxila, Pushkalavati (whose ruins near Charsadda are being laid waste by rapacious idol-sellers) and others as far back as the 8th century BCE. The documents of Khotan dealt with matters of governance and commerce. There were also among them land deeds and letters written between common people.

Now, Stein’s reading of the takhtis shows that the language was the common Prakrit spoken in northwest India. That is, it was akin to modern Punjabi and Hindko and that Xuanzang was not wrong when he noticed the ‘Indian model’; that there were indeed people of subcontinental origin living in Ku-stana, the name Stein found during his visit to Khotan.

From Xuanzang’s account and Stein’s findings, we understand that some upheaval did take place in Taxila during the reign of Asoka’s son Kunal. Legend records that Kunal’s eyes were eventually restored by a Buddhist priest called Gosha. But all told, we see some intrigue occurring in Taxila, an intrigue that called for a large number of schemers to be exiled.

Published in The Express Tribune, March 5th, 2011.

COMMENTS (24)

SKChadha | 10 years ago | Reply @ Muhammad Ali: Bro, there are problems in every society and religion. To me such sectarianism exists in every religion, cast and creed. I have nothing against Islam and consider it as a beautiful religion. The problem is in comparison, quotes and misquotes in furtherance of a particular view. Just give a search on Wikipedia and you will get all these sects. As you feel that I have misconception about Pakistan, brother you also have many misconception about India or its secularism. For me, bench mark of secularism is not fighting with own people or with people of similar ideology. For me secularism is treating all religions equally and with same respect. I respect whatever secularism Pakistan has and also suggest that don’t undermine the secularism of India. It is admired world over and to some extent by my Pakistani friends in heart. India doesn't need anybody's certificate for it. Balthakray is an ideologue who is less liked and more disliked in India for his utterances. The entire nation, political force and media stand against him for his divisive utterances. And mind it, they are mainly for Marathi Manus (his vote bank). I assure you that Balthakaray cannot occupy the political space in Maharashtra without support of other parties. Your comment of comparing him with Taliban is misplaced.
Muhammed ale | 10 years ago | Reply @ chadha I did not comment on your religion as there are far more loopholes in it than Islam! just like so called secular Indian society and I'm living in Pak for past 19 years but believe me I'm new to 90% of all these sects which you have mentioned,also if there are such sects than it doesn't matter or even if the religion is not the same that's also fine with me and with majority of the pakistanis, like Pakistani Hindu is more important than a Saudi Muslim because Pakistan comes first; however, unfortunately people like you have lots of misconception about pakistan; which is emerging as a truely secular society as our army is having a war with talibans and is sucessful to eradicate them from this pure land and each and ever Pakistani support this Nobel war but can you have such war against "balthakra" the Indian Taliban with national consensus?????no think about it!
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