Assam In The Eyes Of Hiuen Tsiang

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Hiuen Tsiang

By Avinibesh Sharma

The period between 7th and 12th century in Indian history was one of momentous socio-economic changes. Hitherto considered to be a Dark Age, a period of stagnation and decay, several scholars have however dispelled this notion by asserting in the light of recent research that it was a dynamic period which witnessed some remarkable developments. Regional case studies have been undertaken but they do not encompass a vital part of the country which played a pivotal role during this period especially in terms of trade. It consists of modern Assam and some of its neighboring areas. Unfortunately, this period of Assam history has even escaped the attention of the historians native to the region. It is not to say that there hasn’t been any research, but the scale of research has not been satisfactory to gain nationwide attention. It may be attributed to the lack of proper utilization of the sources whether epigraphic, literary or archaeological. 

One of the remarkable accounts of this period of Assam history is that of the great Chinese traveler Hiuen Tsiang (Hiuan-tsang,Hsuan Tsang,Tang Sheng,Hiouen-Thsang). He came to India chiefly for the purpose of studying Buddhist philosophy and stayed on for about fifteen years studying both in the prototype of a state Buddhist University at Nalanda and in the numerous kingdoms which he visited. Illustrious as he was as a great historian and a philosopher, he was one of the most learned geographers and travelers. He visited practically all the principal kingdoms of India, recorded in detail what he saw and collected information about kingdoms of India which he could not visit. The famous account of his travels, Si-yu-ki (The Records of the Western Countries) is a very valuable literary source for studying the history of ancient and early medieval India. The Si-yu-ki records conditions in 138 kingdoms, including Assam (KIA-MO-LU-PO=Kamarupa, ancient Assam) which he visited in A.D. 642-43 at the invitation of the illustrious king Bhaskaravarman (c. 594-650 A.D.) of Kamrupa, an ally and friend of King Harsha of Kanauj. In the Si-yu-ki the pilgrim described his association with Bhaskara and gave an account of the land and her people. His was an account based largely on personal observation, though on some points he allowed himself to believe in legends which, however, showed the strong hold of tradition on the minds of the people. The accounts of the Chinese traveler are important for any study of the history of the people of Assam in those times. To gain an insight into the conditions of Assam in the first half of the seventh century, however, both the Si-yu-ki and the Life of Hiuen Tsiang by Hui-li are important: indeed they supplement each other.

Hiuen Tsiang recorded that proceeding east 900 li or so from Pundravarddhana and crossing the “great river” he came to the country of Kamarupa. The huge river is mentioned as Ka-lo-tu in T’ang shu and has been identified by historian Kanaklal Barua with the river Karotoya. The country was about 10,000 li or about 1,700 miles in circuit. Its eastern frontier was bounded by a series of hills and was contiguous to the south-west of China. Thus, it is quite evident that Bhaskara’s kingdom extended to the confines of China and Burma. On personal enquiry the pilgrim learned from the residents of Kamarupa that the south-west borders of the Chinese province of Szeuchuen were distant about two months’ journey from Kamarupa. In the south-east of Kamarupa there were herds of wild elephants roaming around in numbers, indicating that the Kapili and the Dhansiri valleys were probably included in the valley. The tribes of hills in the eastern region were akin to those of the ‘Man people’ (man lo, south-west barbarians, as named by the Chinese). In the Life Of Hiuen Tsang it is recorded that the rulers of Kamarupa had the sea route to China under their protection. It can be inferred from the fact that after the Allahabad assembly organized by Harsha was over, Bhaskara while enquiring of the pilgrim which route the latter would choose if he preferred to return to China, offered to the pilgrim to send official attendants to accompany him if he selected the southern sea-route (through the delta of the Ganges and the Brahmaputra opening to the Bay of Bengal).This probably indicated that the southern sea-route from Tamralipti was then under the control of Bhaskara. Thus, Kamarupa as described by Hiuen Tsiang included portions of Bihar, Northern and eastern Bengal, and nearly the whole of modern Assam. 

The capital of the country referred to was the old Pragjyotishpura or modern Guwahati, which was about 30 li or a little over 5 miles in circuit. There is no mention of any other principal city though improved villages in the form of towns existed. Thus, rural areas were abundant and with local crafts necessary for the sustenance of an agrarian economy. Despite the existence of hills, ’the country was low and moist’. The crops were regular and jack fruits (panasa) and coconuts (Na-lo-ki-lo) were cultivated on a fairly large scale helped by the fact that the climate was temperate, as we are told. There must have been extensive plantations of various fruit trees in this genial climate of which two varieties were enumerated by the pilgrim. Besides, the fertility of the land also contributed to the growth of rich crops. There was a developed system of irrigation, for water drawn from the river or reservoirs flowed round the towns. Some crafts appear to have been in existence: we have it in the authority of the Life of Hiuen Tsiang that Bhaskara had given a cap of fur or skin to the pilgrim on his return journey to China for protection against rain or sun.

Hiuen Tsiang says that the manners of the people were simple and they were honest. They were men of small stature and were dark yellow in complexion. As regards their nature, they were very impetuous and wild; their memories are retentive, and they are earnest in study. Debo Prasad Barooah says that Hiuen Tsiang possibly recorded his impressions relating to certain tribal traits in the character of the seventh-century folk. But he was careful enough to point out the scholastic proclivity native to the population. Their cultural achievements were indeed remarkable and we are told by the pilgrim that people were lovers of learning and that talented men from distant lands came to study here. Evidently the settlement of Brahmanas by land grants and other Aryans under the patronage of the rulers went a long way in creating an educational climate. We have it from the Life of Hiuen Tsiang that a Brahmana scholar from Kamarupa went to Nalanda to enter into a debate with the Buddhist scholars there. It is important to note that during that time indigenous method of research, debating, was very popular in the country and scholars of different schools of thought often disputed in public whereby the truth or otherwise of contending theories was established. The grants of Bhutivarman, an ancestor of Bhaskaravarman, inform us that the art of writing in Assam was known as early as the sixth century A.D., if not earlier.

Religion represented a phase in the culture of the people and on this issue Hiuen Tsiang’s accounts throw much light. It is known that with the spread of Aryan culture Kamarupa became a noted centre of Brahmanical learning and religion. Thus, Hiuen Tsiang says that the people adore and worship the devas. There were as many as 100 Deva temples. There were different sectaries existing with ‘myriads of professed adherents’. There was a preponderance of the Brahmanical religion with all its sects and practices and the influence of Buddhism was minimal.

The King was the supreme authority as was wont with the age. Monarchy was hereditary as evidenced by the accounts of the Chinese pilgrim. The king appears to have been advised by a council of ministers : the Life of Hiuen Tsiang records that when Bhaskara accompanied by his ministers, went to Harsha, the former held a meeting with them. Hiuen Tsiang records that the title of the king was Kumara. In the Chinese Records, the king is referred to as Kumara-raja Bhaskara. Thus, it is reasonable to hold that Kumara was a prefix added to raja and perhaps it had nothing to do with Bhaskara’s name or surname. Possibly, Bhaskara’s early succession to the throne accounted for the use of the title Kumara.

The king was a lover of learning and this is confirmed by another statement of Hiuen Tsiang that though the king was not a Buddhist, he had much respect for shramanas of learning. Not being a bigot, Bhaskara sent a message of invitation to the Nalanda Sangharama when he learnt that a shramana from China (i.e. Hiuen Tsiang) came to India to study Buddhism. Learning taught the king modesty and so, on his very first meeting with the pilgrim, Bhaskaravarman said : “Although I am without talents myself, I have always been fond of men of conspicuous learning. Hearing, then, of your fame and distinction, I ventured to ask you here to visit me.”The king paid warm tributes to the Chinese Master of Law for having come to the country braving dangers and difficulties.

The accounts of Hiuen Tsiang in the Si-yu-ki on Kamrupa end when Bhaskara and the pilgrim set out to meet Harsha at Kajangala. However, the two allies later met enlivened by the presence of the Chinese pilgrim at Kanauj, Prayag and Allahabad. After the Allahabad assembly was over, the pilgrim started on his journey and thus with pangs of separation in their hearts, the two ally kings and their honoured guest took leave of each other.

As Debo Prasad Barooah says,”The sun of Kamarupa in ancient times reached its full meridian splendor during the age of Bhaskaravarman. Hiuen Tsiang’s accounts are but an index to the fair degree of civilization Assam attained in the past under an enlightened ruler.” The accounts of the pilgrim have more than a mere historical interest. They revive our interest in a forgotten past and inspire us to do always better for singing tomorrows.

1. ‘Early History of Kamarupa’, 1933 – Kanak Lal Barua 
2. ‘Yuan Chwang in Assam’, the Journal of the Assam Research Society – Debo       Prasad Barooah    
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