Wednesday, April 14, 2004

From Sikkim I moved on to New Delhi. My first stop here was the tomb of Humayun, who as you probably recall from your readings in Indian history was the son of Babar, founder of the Moghul Dynasty, and father of the better known Moghul ruler Akbar. Babar’s mother was a lineal descendant of the Mongolian Chingis Khan and his father was a descendant of Tamurlane. Humayun died in 1556 and his tomb was probably built in the 1560s at the instigation of his widow Bega Begum. The temperature here was a marrow melting 102 degrees F. Found some great bookstores and air-conditioned coffee shops around Connaught Circle, but the heat hammers you the moment you step outside. Am heading for cooler climes as soon as I can arrange transportation.


View of Humayun's Tomb



Another view of Humayun's Tomb

Tuesday, April 13, 2004

From Darjeeling I took a shared jeep to Gangtok, the capital of Sikkim, which as you probably remember was a independent kingdom until 1975, when it was absorbed into India. Sikkim is famous, for among other things, its flowers, especially its orchids. Photos of some of the local beauties:


Sikkimese Beauties



Sikkimese Beauties



Sikkimese Beauties



Sikkimese Beauties



Sikkimese Beauties



Sikkimese Beauties

Sunday, April 04, 2004

I am now at Darjeeling, the famous old English hill station in the foothills of the Himalayas now most famous perhaps for its tea.


Tea Gardens near Darjeeling



Tea for sale at the market

Although my main reason for coming here was to escape the heat of the lowlands - Darjeeling is at an elevation of just under 7000 feet - and stock up on tea, I also wanted to make a pilgrimage to the grave of the Hungarian traveler, seminal Tibetologist, and world-class eccentric Alexander Csoma de Koros, who died here in 1842. Csoma de Koros had devoted his entire life to the pursuit of arcane knowledge. As the Russian Shambhalist Madame Helena Blavatsky noted, “a poor Hungarian, Csoma de Koros, not only without means, but a veritable beggar, set out on foot for Tibet, through unknown and dangerous countries, urged only by the love of learning and the eager wish to shed light on the historical origin of his nation. The result was that inexhaustible mines of literary treasures were discovered.” Among the written works unearthed were the first descriptions of the Buddhist realm of Shambhala to reach the West.


Monument over the grave of Alexander Csoma De Koros

Korosi Csoma Sandor, later better known as Alexander Csoma de Koros, was born in Hungary on 4 April 1784 to a family of so-called Szeklers, a semi-military caste of the Hungarian Magyars who considered themselves descendants of Attila’s Huns. For centuries they had guarded the frontiers of Transylvania against the non-Christian Turks to the south. Csoma was expected to take up management of the family estate but at an early age began exhibiting symptoms of wanderlust. As his cousin Joseph Csoma recalled he had a restless disposition, someone who “like a swallow, is impelled on a distant journey when the autumn arrives,” and added “as boys, we could never compete with him in walking, because when he happened to reach the top of a hill, that did not satisfy him, but wished to know what was beyond it, and beyond that again, and thus he often trotted on for immense distances.”

Despite his proclivity for wandering Csoma was not one to run off half cocked. There was a tradition of learning and scholarship in the family - one of his uncles was a distinguished professor and his cousin a Protestant pastor - and Csoma felt it necessary first to ground himself with a thorough education. A conscientious and determined student, at the age of fifteen he entered Bethlenianum, a then-famous Protestant school in the town of Nagyenyed, and by 1807 he was enrolled in an advanced course and tutoring students of his own. Fired up by Professor Adam Herepei’s lectures on Hungarian history and by a growing sense of national consciousness in Hungary, Csoma and two other students took a vow to someday track down the origins of the Hungarian people believed to be somewhere in far off Asia. The two others apparently soon forgot their pact; Csoma would remain on his quest for the rest of his life. “He deliberately prepared himself for the task,” noted his biographer, “by systematic scientific studies continued over many years.”

Already fluent in Latin, Greek, Hebrew, German, French, and Romanian (and possibly Turkish), he won a scholarship to famed Gottingen University in Germany, where in addition to taking up the study of English he fell under the sway of anthropologist J. D. Blumenbach and theologian and Orientalist J. G. Eichhorn. A chance remark by Eichhorn about “certain Arabic manuscripts which must contain very important information regarding the history of the Middle Ages and of the origins of the Hungarian nation when still in Asia” inspired Csoma to study Arabic. In addition to learning languages he plunged into the university’s famous library. Here he apparently perused a work by the seventh-century Greek historian Theophylact Simocatta which claimed that in 597 the Turks defeated a people known as the Ugars. “On this supposition,” noted his biographer, “certain writers have come to the conclusion that, as there is a similarity to the sound of the words Ugor, Ungri, Hungar, Hongrois, &c., this long-forgotten tribe might possibly be the ancestors of the Hungarians of the present day.” Historians Joseph de Guignes, F. J. T. von Strahlenburg, and others also made tantalizating references to the Huns and a people in Central Asia known variously as the Ouars, Oigurs, or Yugras; i.e., today’s Uighurs, the sizable minority group now centered in Xinkiang, China’s westernmost province. (Note: my friend Rahila, whose photos I posted earlier, is a Uighur from Xinjiang.) F. J. T. von Strahlenburg claimed, quite erroneously as it turned out, that the Huns were “formerly called Oigur.” It was speculations such as these which lead Csoma to believe that ancestors of the Hungarian people were to be found somewhere in Central Asia, most probably among the people now known as Uighurs.

His scholarly apprenticeship now complete, he was ready to embark on his quest. By early February of 1819 he had returned to Hungary where he confided his plans to an old mentor, Professor Heged¸s. After a few months studying Slavonic languages in route to Moscow (he would need them, he pointed out, “for consulting Sclavonian [sic] authors on the ancient history of the Hungarians”), he would head east to Irkutsk, the largest city in East Siberian (where coincidently I happened to have lived for three years), and then turn south and attempt to enter western China. He would undertake this monumental journey on his own. “If I wished to start for London, I could do so with safely with a walking-stick in my hand, and nobody would hurt me,” the professor felt obligated to admonish, “but to travel in Central Asia is hardly a problem for a single individual to solve.”

Brushing off this advice, Csoma bid Heged¸s farewell on February 20. “The distant time,” the professor recalled afterward, “has not effaced from my memory that expression of joyful serenity which shone from his eyes; it seemed like a beam of light, which pervaded his soul, seeing he was wending his steps toward a long-desired goal.” Another man, a Count Teleky, happened to encounter Csoma on the road soon after his departure and noted that he was “clad in a thin yellow nankin dress, with a stick in his hand and a small bundle.” The curious count asked, ““Where are you going, M. Korosi?’” Csoma replied, “‘I am going to Asia in search of our relatives.’” Along the way he would stumble upon the traces of Shambhala.


Csoma’s route through Siberia did not pan out. After nine months studying Slavic languages in Croatia he headed for Bucharest, where he hoped to polish his Turkish. His further progress to Constantinople, where he planned to turn north to Odessa and hence to Moscow was thwarted by an outbreak of the plague. Instead he took a ship to Alexandria, Egypt, where he thought he could burnish his Arabic; again a plague outbreak intervened. His ship, after several weeks of wandering the eastern Mediterranean looking for a plague-free port, finally landed at Latakai (now Al Ladhuqiyah) in Syria. He walked to Aleppo and on to Mosul, somewhere along the way switching over to Asiatic dress, and then rafted down the Tigris to Baghdad, where he joined a caravan to Teheran. Befriended by the British consul, Major Henry Willock, he spent four months in the Persian capital studying the language. In a letter from Teheran he reiterated his quest: “Both to satisfy my desire, and to prove my gratitude and love for my nation, I have set off, and must search for the origin of my nation according to the lights which I have kindled in Germany, avoiding neither dangers that may perhaps occur, nor the distance I may have to travel.” Csoma finally left Teheran on March 1, 1821. “Mr. Willock favoured me with Johnson’s dictionary, and I travelled hereafter as an Armenian,” he noted in a curious non-sequitur.

Now operating under the nom d’occasione “Sikander Beg”, Csoma pushed on to the mysterious cities of the old Silk Road in Central Asia which had seldom been visited by any European travelers since the end of the Pax Mongolica. He reached Bukhara, where Russians captured on the southern fringes of the Russian empire were still being sold as slaves in the market-place, on November 18 but left after only five days, “affrighted by the frequent reports of the approach of a numerous Russian army,” as he put it. Indeed, the first Russian diplomatic mission to Bukhara in recent times had arrived only a year before, but had been forced to leave without rescuing any of their enslaved countryman. He continued on through Balkh, the city once razed by Chingis Khan’s troops, and then Bamian, site of two immense statues of Buddha, one 175 feet high and the other 120 high, carved out of the living rock of a cliff face. The English adventurer William Moorcroft - whom we shall soon meet - and his companions have been credited with being the first Europeans to see, three years later in 1824, the world-famous Bamian Buddhas (just recently destroyed by the Taliban), but Csoma appears to have visited them first, although he only mentions the statues briefly in a letter written several years later. Hurrying on, he arrived on Kabul, capital of Afghanistan, on January 6, 1822.

Csoma never bothers to enlighten us on how he, a European Christian traveling alone, managed to pass unscathed through these notoriously dangerous lands. He could have made his fame and fortune as an explorer and travel writer had he bothered to describe in print this portion of his wanderings. (Travels to Bokhara by Alexander Burnes, one of the first popular travel accounts of the region, was not published until 1842, and then become a huge best-seller; Burnes himself received the much coveted Gold Metal of the Royal Geographical Society and was eventually knighted.)

But the single-minded seeker was not to be side-tracked; intent on his quest to reach the Tarim Basin, land of the Uighurs and the putative home of the Hungarian people, Csoma left Kabul thirteen days later and by mid-March 1822 had reached Lahore in what is now Pakistan. Traveling via Amritsar and Srinagar, on June 9 he became one of the first half dozen or so of Europeans to reach Leh, the main city of Ladakh. The road to the city of Yarkhand (now Shache), on the southern edge of the Tarim Basin was, he discovered, “very difficult, expensive, and dangerous for a Christian.” This was somewhat of an understatement. No European had ever taken the trade route to the north which crossed at least five treacherously difficult passes, including the 18,605 foot Karakorum Pass, through the Karakorum and Kun Lun mountains to the Tarim Basin, and none would do so until thirty-four years later, in 1856, when the German brothers Schlagintgweit, Herman and Robert, completed the crossing on a surveying mission for the East India Company. And even they did not reach Yarkhand, the first major city in the basin. The following year their brother, Adolph, did reach Yarkhand via the same route, but he soon got caught up in a civil war raging in the area and was murdered on the outskirts of Kashgar. So it’s no wonder Csoma got cold feet.

Perhaps also he had simply out of money. Until then he had lived on the stipends of well-wishers back in Hungaria and donations of others he had met on the road. In any case, he turned his back on the Tarim Basin and started back to Srinagar. It would be another twenty years before he would resume his quest to find the original home the Hungarian people, which he still believed to be somewhere in the Tarim Basin.

In the town of Dras, a little more than half way back to Srinagar, Csoma had a chance encounter which would change his life. Veterinarian, Superintendent of the East India Company’s Stud, and seminal Great Gamer William Moorcroft (who eventually, as noted earlier, visited Bamian in 1824) was passing through, ostensibly on a trip to locate breeding stock for the Company’s stables but also gathering assorted commercial and military intelligence of interest to his British employers. Moorcroft was on his way to Leh and Csoma, obviously at loose ends, decided to turn around and accompany the veterinarian-cum-adventurer. In Leh Moorcroft had come into possession of a letter which an alleged Russian agent and inveterate intriguer, one Agha Mehdi (a.k.a., Mekhti Rafailov), had been carrying to Ranjit Singh, the Sikh ruler of Punjab and Kashmir. The unfortunately courier had died in the mountains of Karakorum, “of a sudden and violent disorder,” as Moorcroft phrased it, and the letter had fortuitously fallen into the Englishman’s hands. Written in Russian and signed by Count Nesselrode in St. Petersburg, the letter understandably aroused intense curiosity in Moorcroft, who suspected some Russian mischief in what was considered the English sphere of influence. Moorcroft’s Hungarian traveling companion, who had taken such care to acquire Slavonic languages, had no trouble translating the letter into English for Moorcroft. He also prepared a translation into Latin which was forwarded to Calcutta, Moorcroft having assumed that Latin would thwart the agents of Ranjit Singh should the missive fall into their hands while on its way thither. Realizing that he was in the presence of the linguistic prodigy, Moorcroft soon came up with a proposal to further utilize Csoma’s considerable talents.

The British in India were by that time intensely interested in Tibet. The 1774 journey of George Bogle, the first Englishman to reach the country, during which time he spent five months as the Panchen Lama’s guest at Tashilhunpo monastery in Shigatse, and the 1783 visit of Samuel Turner to Lhasa, the first European to reach the Tibetan capital since the 1661 sojourn by the Austrian Jesuit John Grueber, had opened the doors, but little further progress had been made in establishing trade, diplomatic, or cultural relations. One immediate problem was an almost complete ignorance of the Tibetan language. British scholars who were assiduously studying the languages and cultures of the sub-continent had not yet applied themselves to Tibetan. The only existing Tibetan dictionary in a European language was a compilation by the Capuchin friar A. A. Georgi entitled Alphabetum Tibetanum which had been published in Rome in 1762. Encouraged and sponsored by Moorcroft, Csoma returned to Srinagar and spent five long winter months perusing this work. His studies aided by a Tibetan who also spoke Persian, a language in which he was proficient, Csoma finally decided was the Georgi’s tome was sadly deficient.

Impressed by the zeal with which the Transylvanian traveler had attacked this task, Moorcroft further proposed that Csoma prepare his own Tibetan dictionary. “I have known this gentleman for five months most intimately,” Moorcroft wrote to his superiors in Simla, “and can give the strongest testimony to his integrity, prudence, and devotedness to the cause of science, which, if fully explained, might, in the opinion of many, be considered to border on enthusiasm.” This seemed to be an understated comment on Csoma’s single-mindedness. An obsession with the origins of the Hungarian people had lured him all the way from Europe to Kashmir, and now, Moorcroft apparently thought, this same intensity could be directed toward a study of the Tibetan language, a goal in Moorcroft’s view certainly more beneficial to the aims of the East India Company. “As well in pursuance of original plans of his own for the development of some obscure points of Asiatic and of European history,” Moorcroft wrote in his superiors (his italics), “. . . Mr. Csoma will endeavor to remain in Tibet until he shall have become the master of the language of that country, and be completely acquainted with the subjects its literature contains, which is likely, on many accounts, to prove interesting to the European world.” Thus it was on the recommendation of the veterinarian, horse trader, and inveterate gadabout Moorcroft that the career of the first great European Tibetologist was launched, and in turn it was due to Csoma’s efforts that the first scholarly accounts of Shambhala reached the West.


With funds from the Asiatic Society of Bengal and from Moorcroft himself Csoma returned to Leh in May of 1823 and from there repaired to the monastery of Yangla in the valley of the Zanskar River, where he would devote sixteen months to intense study of the language. His chief instructor was a lama elaborately named BandÈ Sangs-rgyas-phun-tshogs, who in addition to being the chief physician of Ladakh had spent six years traveling in Nepal, Bhutan, and Tibet, where he had visited Tashilhunpo monastery in Shigatse and other monasteries in Lhasa. “During my residence in Zanskar,” Csoma would write, “. . . I learned grammatically the language, and became acquainted with many literary treasures shut up in 320 large printed volumes, which are basis of all Tibetan learning and religion.” Included in these finds was set of commentaries known as the Tangyur, which was comprised of 224 volumes with a total of 76,409 leaves. Tucked away in these volumes, Csoma wrote, were eighteen leaves which contained “passports for such pious men who desire to visit Kalapsa in Shambhala.” Apparently these “passports” also contained directions to Shambhala. According to Csoma:

The mentioning of a great desert of twenties days’ journey, and of white sandy plains on both sides of the Sita (Sihon, Jaxartes), render it very probable that the Buddhist Jerusalem (I so call it), in the most ancient times, must have been beyond the Jaxartes, and probably in the land of the Yugurs.

Csoma goes on to say that in “Tibetan books the name of the Yugurs is written Yoogor, and their country sometimes is called Yoogera.” At this point he must have had some idea of what Shambhala was, since he characterized it as the “Buddhist Jerusalem”, and he seemed to think it was in the land of the “Yugurs”, which he believed was the putative home of the Hungarian people, but he had little more to say on the subject.

What he had learned was imparted in an 1825 letter to a government official which offered a precis of his activities in Yangla and thus did not come to attention of the scholarly world. Not until nine years did he reiterate his early investigations of Shambhala in a learned article for the journal of the Asiatic Society.


Csoma would spent the next eleven years involved in one way or another with Tibetan studies. In 1825 the government of India put their imprimatur on his activities and granted him a modest monthly stipend of fifty rupees, and in return he promised to produce a Tibetan dictionary, a grammar, and short accounts of Tibetan literature and history. He returned to Zanskar in August of 1825 only to find that the lama who had helped him previously had lost interest in the collaboration. He was able to amass a huge collection of Tibetan manuscripts which in November of 1826 he brought back to government headquarters at Sabuthu, near Simla. From 1827 to 1830 he retired to a cottage in the village of Kanum on the Sutlej River in Upper Bashahr where he again immersed himself in the study of Tibetan language and Buddhist texts, aided here by one Sans-rgyas-phun-tshogs, a lama from the nearby monastery. By then Csoma had inured himself to his eremitic existence. A Dr. Gerard, who came to Kanum to vaccinate the locals against small pox, left a telling portrayal of the scholar’s life: “The cold is very intense and all last winter he sat at his desk wrapped up in woolens from head to foot, and from morning to night, without an interval of recreation or warmth, except that of his frugal meals, which are one universal routine of greasy tea . . .” Although the area abounded with grapes, apricots, and other fruits, Csoma would not eat them, holding to the “prudent conviction that they could not make him any happier. . .” Gerard also met Sans-rgyas-phun-tshogs, the lama assisting Csoma. A man of “great erudition,” Gerard noted, he “exhibits a singular union of learning, modesty, and greasy habits; and Mr. Csoma in this last respect vies with his learned companion . . . “

Csoma, according to Gerard, who was awed by the Hungarian’s single-minded determination to complete his appointed tasks, showed “no interest in any object around him, except for his literary avocations,” adding that the Hungarian “. . . told me, with melancholy emphasis, that on delivering up the Grammar and Dictionary of the Tibetan language, and other illustrations of the literature of that country, he would be the happiest man on earth, and could die with pleasure on redeeming his pledge.” Perhaps this was not quite the truth, since Csoma clearly did not consider his Tibetan studies an end in themselves, but simply as a stepping stone into Central Asia, the putative home of the Hungarian people. His next goal, he confided to Gerard, was to reach Shigatse and Lhasa, where he wanted to peruse monastery libraries for information about the ancestors of the Hungarians and take up the study of Mongolian language, which he believed he could learn from lamas in the these Tibetan cities. For, as Gerard noted, in his own italics, “his great aim and unceasing anxiety is to get access to Mongolia and make himself acquainted with the language and people of that strange and very ancient country” In Mongolia, he apparently believed, he would finally find the clues he needed to piece together the ancient history of the Hungarian people.

In the meanwhile he was occupied with opening, as Gerard put it, “vast mines of literary riches.” Not everyone, however, agreed with this assessment of the Tibetan texts unearthed. A certain well-heeled French gadabout named Victor Jacquemont heard rumors about, in his words, “that incredible Hungarian original, M. Alexander de Csoma”, while traipsing through India in the years 1828-31 as a “Traveling Naturalist to the Museum of Natural History, Paris”. In a letter to acquaintances back in France Jacquemont reported that Csoma “had been living for four years under the very modest name of Secundoeur Beg, that is to say, Alexander the Great, dressed in the Oriental style,” adding with typical hyperbole that “M. Csoma is the only European in the world who understands the [Tibetan] language.” Jacquemont eventually called on Csoma at Kanum where he had “the honor, notwithstanding my unworthiness, to inhabit a temple celebrated in Tibet for the literary treasures it contained.” Here Csoma showed the footloose Frenchman several hundred volumes of Tibetan texts. In a letter Jacquemont wrote:

At my request, M. Csoma translated for me the title of several, and the nineteen first volumes only treat of the attributes of the Divinity, of which the first is the incomprehensibility, which, in my opinion, may dispense with endeavoring to discover the others. The remainder is a medley of theology, bad physic, astrology, fabulous legends, and metaphysics. This abominable trash has not even the merit of originality. It appears, like most of the Tibetan books, to be nothing but a translation from the Sanskrit . . .

A perusal of just the titles of the texts in the Kanum library, the supercilious Frenchman opined, “would be quite sufficient to effect a radical cure of even the most dreaming German enthusiasts with regard to Tibetan researches.” He concluded, “Lord preserve us from the Tibetan language. I feel quite indignant at seeing this theological, cosmogonical, and so-styled historical trash fill up the greatest part of the works which treat on India.”

If Jaquemont saw the passports to Shambhala he did not comment on them, which is perhaps just as well.


His work in Kanum finally completed, in 1830 Csoma returned to Calcutta where he hoped to prepare his Tibetan dictionary and grammar for publication. First, however, he was saddled with the task of cataloging a huge cache of Tibetan manuscripts which the British Resident in Kathmandu and Buddhologist Brian Hodgson had collected in Nepal. Hodgson had lived in Nepalese capital of Kathmandu from 1820 to 1846 and during his early years there had sent back to the Asiatic Society at least 218 Sanskrit manuscripts and two complete sets of the Tibetan Kanjur, the vast compendium of the Buddha’s teachings which often exceeded 108 volumes. The director of the Society, H. H. Wilson, had acknowledged the receipt of the manuscripts and then forgotten about them.

Straightening out Hodgson’s cache took eighteen months of concentrated effort. Somehow Csoma also found time to prepare for the Asiatic Society of Bengal a three-page article entitled “Note on the Origins of the Kala-Chakra and Adi-Buddha Systems” in which he summarized the information he had gathered about Shambhala while in Yangla. Published in the Society’s journal in 1833, this brief notice finally brought the Legend of Shambhala to the attention of scholarly Europe:

The peculiar religious system entitled the Kala-Chakra is stated, generally, to have been derived from Shambhala (in Tibetan . . . “de-jung”, signifying “origin or source of happiness”), a fabulous country in the north, the capital of which was Calapa, a very splendid city, the residence of many illustrious kings of Shambhala, situated between 45 degrees and 50 degrees north latitude, beyond the Sita or Jaxartes, where the increase of the days from the vernal equinox till the summer equinox amounted to 12 Indian hours, or 4 hours, 48 minutes, European reckoning.

The Kala-Chakra was introduced into Central India in the last half of the tenth century after Christ, and afterwards, via CashmÌr, it found its way into Tibet; where, in the fourteenth and fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries, several learned men, whose works are still extant in that country, published researches and commentaries on the Kala-Chakra system . . .

Csoma noted that according to one of these learned men it was a wandering pandit, or holy man, named Tsilu who brought the Kala-chakra teachings, apparently from Shambhala, to Nalanda, the great Buddhist center of learning in central India. Upon arriving at Nalanda, this Tsilu, (“Tilupa” in most Western literature) placed symbols for the so-called “ten guardians of the world” over the entrance gate and below inscribed six tenets of the Kala-Chakra. A “principal” of Nalanda, a man named Narotapa, along with 500 resident pandits disputed with Tilupa but eventually “fell at his feet” and accepting his teachings. Csoma adds in a footnote that the Kala-Chakra system contains commentaries and teachings on “mystical theology”, philosophy, astronomy, astrology, and “prophetic stories on the rise, progress, and decline of the Mohammedan faith,” but does not elaborate on any of these subjects.

He is fairly specific about the location of Shambhala, placing it “beyond the Sita or Jaxartes” between 45 degrees and 50 degrees longitude. “Jaxartes” is the name given by ancient Greek historian-geographers to the river now known as the Syr Daria, which begins at the confluence of the Naryn and Qoradaryo rivers in the Fergana Valley of current day Uzbekistan and flows northwestward through Kazakhstan before debouching into the Aral Sea. Including the Naryn, which begins in Kyrgyzstan, the river system measures in length 1,876 miles, the longest in Central Asia. Only the lower reaches of the Syr Darya, below the city of Qaraghandy, extend northward of the 45_ parallel. In this area the river flows through the northeastern outskirts of the Qizilqum Desert. North of the Syr Daria - the region “beyond the Sita or Jaxartes” - the desert grades into the Kazakh steppe; thus the Qizilqum Desert straddling the lower Syr Daria could represent Csoma’s “great desert” or “white sandy plains”, mentioned in Csoma’s 1825 letter, which must be passed through to reach Shambhala.

Then as now this is a desolate, sparsely populated area, and one singularly lacking in the mountains which are a standard feature in descriptions of Shambhala. Few if any later Shambhalists would locate Shambhala this far west. Any number, however, would search for Shambhala or Shambhala-like place in the portion of Inner Asia bounded by the latitudinal coordinates given by Csoma. Assuming for the sake of discussion a western limit of 60_ longitude, which runs through the Aral Sea, and as an eastern limit 120_ longitude, which passes by the eastern tip of Mongolia, this 345 mile wide and 2728 miles long swath of land would include part of the Aral Sea, into which the Syr Daria (Csoma’s Jaxartes) debouches; the lower reaches of the Syr Daria, a large swath of desert-steppe and Lake Balqash in what is now Kazakhstan; the Chinese Altai Mountains between Kazakhstan and China; the Zungarian Depression in what is now Xinkiang Province of China; the Mongolian Altai between Xinkiang and Mongolia, and a wide swath of Mongolia from the fringes of the Siberian taiga in the north to the edge of the Gobi Desert in the south. We shall have to return to many of these areas when we examine the Shambhalists who followed in the footsteps of Csoma.


The Essay Towards a Dictionary, Tibetan and English was published in early 1834. In his Preface to the dictionary, Csoma:

“begs to inform the public, that he had not been sent by any government to gather political information; neither can he be accounted of the number of those wealthy European gentlemen who travel at their own expense for their pleasure and curiosity, but rather only a poor student, who was very desirous to see the different countries of Asia, as the scene of so many memorable transactions of former ages; to observe the manners of several people, and to learn their languages, of which, he hopes, the world may see hereafter the results; and such a man was he who, during his peregrination, depended for his subsistence on the benevolence of others.”

He was quick to point out that although “the study of the Tibetan language did not form part of the original plan of the author, but was only suggested after he had been by Providence led into Tibet [actually Ladakh] . . .”, he hoped that the language would “serve as a vehicle to his immediate purpose; namely, his researches respecting the origin and language of the Hungarians.” The dictionary itself contains a definition of Shambhala: “the name of a fabulous country or city in the north of Asia”; and also Tibetan renderings for Kapala, the “the fortress of Shambhala”; and for “a passport for visiting Shambhala”. The last line of the last page of the tome announces THE TIBETAN DICTIONARY IS FINISHED [capitals in the original], which might well have summed up Csoma’s attitude toward the work, and his hurry to get on with what he considered his real task: seeking the origins of the Hungarian people. But there still remained the Tibetan grammar, which was finally published in 1835. In the preface he expressed the belief, later taken up by several generations of scholars, that Tibet served as a kind of refugia for Buddhist texts:

“Insulated among inaccessible mountains, the convents of Tibet have remained unregarded and almost unvisited by the scholar and the traveller: nor was it until within these few years conjectured, that in the undisturbed shelter of this region, in a climate proof against the decay and the destructive influences of tropical plains, were to be found, in complete preservation, the volumes of the Buddhist faith, in their original Sanskrit, as well as in faithful translations, which might be sought in vain on the continent of India.”

He hoped that his grammar would make it easier to study the unalloyed texts of “a religion professed by millions in the East,” and added: “My selection of the English language, as the medium of introduction of my labours, will sufficiently evince to the learned of Europe, at large, the obligations I consider myself under to that nation.”

The bulk of the book, devoted to the intricacies of Tibetan grammar, need not detain us here. In the Appendix, however, we find some crucial information about Shambhala in a the form of a “Chronological Table” supposedly prepared in 1686 by the famous scholar and politician Tisri (identified as Sangs rgyas rgya mtsho by John Newman), who served as a regent of the Tibetan government in Lhasa and was rumored by some to be the illegitimate son of the 5th Dalai Dalai. From this chronology and Csoma’s appended notes we get our first rough outline of the Buddhist conception of Shambhala.

I will list here only the entries that pertain to Shambhala and the Kalachakra. (According to Shambhalist John Newman, Csoma erred by two years in his Western calendar dates; hence two years must be added to the dates given below. )


“ . . . the reincarnation or birth of [Buddha]” - 962 BC

Most histories of the Buddha now date the Buddha’s birth as several centuries later: 528 BC is a commonly given date. Since the dating of various events in the Legend of Shambhala begins from Buddha’s lifetime this discrepancy is an issue which later generations of Shambhalists would have to address.

“. . . [Buddha] taught the Kalachakra . . .” - 882 BC

There are two versions of when the Kalachakra was taught by the Buddha. The first maintains that it was taught during the full moon of the fourth month in the year of the Buddha’s death at the age of eighty. This is the variant reported by Csoma. Another version claims it was taught by Buddha one year after his enlightenment, at the age of thirty-five, on the Full Moon of Caitra, the first month of the year according to what would become the Kalachakra calendar. Most Shambhalists now seems to favor this latter interpretation. The current Dalai Lama would also seem to hold to this latter view, although he also avers that it would make more sense that the Kalachakra, being the pinnacle of his teachings (in the opinion of some) it would have been taught at the end of his teaching career and not at the beginning.


“. . . the time the [Mula-Tantra] was collected . . . by Zla-bzang” - 881 BC

According to a note by Csoma, Zla-bzang in his 99 year traveled from Shambhala “in a miraculous manner” and received the Kalachakra teachings from the Buddha at the Shri Dhanya kataka stupa, which he locates at “Cattak in Orrisa” (most Shambhalists now place the Dhanyakataka Stupa at Amaravati in the Guntur district of the state of Andhra Pradesh). He returned to Shambhala, compiled the Mula Tantra, and died two years later. According to the Mula Tantra, Csoma tells us, the Buddha prophesied that after Dazang 25 successive kings would reign in Shambhala, each for 100 years. The first six will bear the title of Dharma Raja (“a religious king or patron of religion”) The next, or seventh king, will hold the title of Kulika Kirti (“the celebrated noble one”) and his wife and queen would be called Uma or Tara. The remainder of the kings of Shambhala will have the title of Kulika (“the Noble or Illustrious”)

Csoma seems to have erred here. It is now accepted that there were seven Dharma Rajas, including the first, Zla-bzang - or Suchandra, as he is now more commonly known - and then twenty-five Kulika kings, for a total of thirty-two. Also, according to later scholars, the term Kulika is a mistranslation - the correct word is Kalkin.

“This work,” Csoma also notes about the Mula Tantra “is the source of all the subsequent voluminous compilations, increased modifications, and interpolations” of the Kala Chakra teaching,. including “many stories on the rise, destructive progress, and final demise of Muhammadanism, and the glorious re-establishment of Buddhism in the north.”

“It would be interesting,” Csoma continues, “to ascertain how the [Kalachakra] doctrine . . . was brought [from India] beyond the beyond the Jaxartes to Shambhala, or what reason the Buddhists had inventing this story.” Here Csoma introduces a question which would bedevil later generations of Shambhalists: did the Buddha in his lifetime actually teach the Kalachakra to the King of Shambhala, and did the teachings remain in Shambhala until they were introduced into India centuries later, as many traditionalists, including the current Dalai Lama, maintain, or was this story, as Csoma hints, merely an “invention” dreamed up at a much later date, and if so, for what purpose? Indeed, this debate rages on.

“. . . the death of Zla-bzang” - 879 BC

The one hundred year reigns of the subsequent Dharma Raja kings and Kalkin kings date from this time. If the Buddha and thus also Zla-bzang lived centuries later the chronologies based on this date would then be mistaken. As mentioned, later Shambhalists have had to address this issue.

“. . . rgya-mtsho rNam-rgyal (a king) arrived in Shambhala” and “the infidels (or Muhammadans) entered Makha (Mecca) - 622 AD

Csoma notes, “This pretended king’s arrival in Shambhala, in 622, has some coincidence with Yezdejird, the Persian’s king taking refuge in the same country; for it is affirmed, that the prince, upon the fall of Seleucia, and the conquest of Persia by the Arabs, in 636 retired to Transoxana or Ferghana.”.

Yazdegird (Csoma’s Yezdejird) was the ruler of the seventh century Sassanian empire based in what is now Iraq and Iran. In 1637 Islamic armies from Arabia invaded the Sassanian heartland in Iraq and by 1642 had conquered much of northwest Iran. At some point Yazdegird fled east to Merv, on the current-day border between Iran and Turkmenistan, where he was murdered in 651. Apparently Yazdegird did not in fact go to Transoxana (the region between the Syr Daria and Amu Daria) or Ferghana (the upper Syr Daria in what is now Uzbekistan). It is interesting, however, that Csoma suggests that the historical Yazdegird somehow got conflated into a “pretended” king of Shambhala, and that he appears to equate Transoxiana (as it is more commonly spelled) and Ferghana (Fergana) with Shambhala. in his JASB article he had placed Shambhala beyond, or north of the Syr Daria; now he has included a much wider swath of Central Asia, one in which several strains of the Legend of Shambhala would resonate. In any case, Csoma introduces here one persistent strain of Shambhalic thinking: that the legend of Shambhala and its kings were based on actual historical places and people which for reasons unclear were relegated into the realm of myth. (see for example Tibetologist GuiseppeTucci, who speaks of Shambhala as a country which although “originally had a geographical reality, has become, as we have said, a mythical country.” and ur-Shambhalist Edwin Bernbaum: “There is of course the possibility that Shambhala existed at some point in time as a physical place . . . as time went by it faded into the idea of a purely mythical kingdom . . . Shambhala may well have been a kingdom there that we know under a different name or an unknown country whose name survives only in legend.” )

As for the year 622 AD, it was not the year the “Muhammadans” entered Mecca, as the Chronology states, but instead the year the Prophet Muhammad fled from Mecca to Medina, about 275 miles away, where the community-state of Islam soon emerged. In 628 Muhammad concluded a treaty with the Meccans which allowed his followers to enter Mecca on pilgrimages, and by 630 he had managed to take control of the city without a significant struggle. Although the dates would appear to be wrong, the mention here of the “Muhammadans” is an early indication of the continuing obsession with Islam in many Kalachakra texts and in the Legend of Shambhala.

“. . . the Kala-chakra was introduced into India” - 965 AD

Most sources assert that the Kalachakra was brought from Shambhala to India and introduced at Nalanda Monastery in 966 or 967 ad by the mahasiddihi Tsilupa (Csoma’s Tsilu, as mentioned in his JASB article).

“. . . the Kala-chakra was introduced into Tibet, and . . . the 1 year of the cycle of 60 years began” - 1025 AD

It is now commonly asserted that the Indian pandit Shribhadra (a.k.a. Shri Bhadrabhodhi], traveled to Tibet in 1026-27 and worked with Tibetan translator Jyojo Dawai Ozer on translations of Kalachakra texts. The introduction of the Kalachakra into Tibet would seem to date from then. Most sources also credit Jyojo Dawai Ozer with initiating the use of the Kalachakra calendar, which uses a 60 year cycle based the names of twelve animals in combination with five elements. This dating system, with the first year of the first cycle dating from 1027 a.d., is still in use in Tibet today.

From this summary it can be seen that although the Chronology, or Csoma’s translation of it, contained what are now recognized as errors, it does represent the first outline of many of the basic themes and assertions of the Legend of Shambhala. As Shambhalist John Newman points out, Csoma’s contributions “remained the sum total of western knowledge” about Shambhala and the Kalachakra “for the better part of a century . . .”


One would have thought that upon the completion of the Dictionary and the Grammar Csoma would have at long last started out for Tibet and whence to the land of the Uighurs, the putative home of the Hungarian people; but no, he apparently thought that he still had not sufficiently prepared himself. In a letter to James Prinsep, Secretary of the Asiatic Society of Bengal (which, in a curious example of synchronicity, had been founded on 4 April 1784, Csoma’s birthday), he pointed out that “since I have not yet reached my aim, for which I came to the East, I beg you will obtain for me the permission of Government to remain yet for three years in India, for the purpose of improving myself in Sanskrit and in the different dialects; and, if Government will not object, to furnish me with a passport in duplicate, one in English and one in Persian, that I may visit the north-western parts of India.” The passports were granted and Prinsep arranged to have his stipend continued for at least three years.

Csoma finally turned up in the town of Titalya, in Bengal, where he remained from March of 1836 to November of 1837. A Major Lloyd who was stationed in Titalya befriended Csoma and reported that “all the time he was there he was absorbed in the study of Sanskrit, Mahratta, and Bengali languages,” adding that “he seemed to me to be miserably off.” Lloyd, apparently aware of Csoma’s interests, urged him to continue on to Lhasa via Sikkim, but “he [Csoma] always said that such an attempt would be at the risk of his life.” As far back as his days at Kanum Csoma had stated that reaching Lhasa was one of his goals, but again, as in Leh, where he had turned around rather than proceed into East Turkestan, home of the Uighurs, he got cold feet.

By the beginning of 1838 Csoma was back on Calcutta. Here he took a room in the Asia Society’s building and began work as the Society’s librarian. But he had not forgotten about Tibet. When Major Pemberton offered him a position on a government mission to Bhutan he turned it down on the grounds that there was no way to reach Tibet from Bhutan and thus the trip would be a dead end. Likewise he turned down an invitation from the British Resident in Kathmandu and Buddhologist Brian Hodgson to visit the Nepalese capital, asserting that there was no way to get to Tibet from Nepal. There were indeed routes to Tibet from Nepal and Bhutan, although whether they were open to foreign travelers at the time may be open to question. Had Csoma actually given up his quest to get to Lhasa, perhaps out of fear for his safely, as intimated to Major Lloyd, and was he now simply making excuses? In any case, he seemed to be highly conflicted about his dreams of reaching first Lhasa and then the land of the Uighurs.

Meanwhile Csoma remained embowered in the Society’s library in Calcutta. “I saw him often during often during my stay in Calcutta,” noted one visitor to the library, “absorbed in phantastic thoughts, smiling at the course of his own ideas, taciturn like the Brahmins . . . His room had the appearance of a cell, which he never left except for short walks in the corridors of the building.” A fellow Hungarian, an artist by the name of Schoefft who visited the library at this time, made a thumbnail scetch of Csoma and observed, “the truth must be told, that I never saw a more strange man than he.”

Henry Torrens, Secretary of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, also met with Csoma while he was ensconced in the Society’s library. Invariably the conversation came around to the “origin of the Huns.” “My constant request at the close of these conversations used to be that he would record these speculations. He invariably refused, alluding darkly to the possibility of his one day having it in his power to publish to the world something sounder than speculation.” Indeed, Torrens observed, “His exceeding diffidence on the subjects on which he might have dictated to the learned world of Europe and Asia was the most surprising trait in him.”

All the while (despite his diffidence) Csoma had still not lost sight of Lhasa and East Turkestan, the land of the Uighurs. He was fifty-seven years old at the beginning of 1842 and he must have realized that he ever wanted to reach his elusive goals he had to start soon. In a letter to the Secretary of the Society dated 9 February 1842 Csoma announced that he was about to “leave Calcutta for a period to make a tour in Central Asia . . .” Although he had declared earlier that he intended to spend ten more years in Asia and then return to Hungary he may have had some presentiment that the long-postponed trip to Tibet and Inner Asia would be his last. In his February 9 letter he included what in effect was a will, leaving all his belongings to the Asiatic Society, “in the case of my death on my intended journey”.

When he left Calcutta is unknown, but he reached Darjeeling, in the foothills of the Himalayas, on 24 March, apparently traveling on foot. On his way he had passed through the Terai, a belt of malarial jungle abutting the mountains. Most travelers hurried through the Terai in a single day to avoid contracting malaria. Csoma it seems had spent one or more nights in the jungle. In Darjeeling he met Dr. Archibald Campbell, the Superintendent and Government Agent of the Darjeeling hill station. To Campbell he announced that he hoped to enter Tibet through Sikkim (a route he earlier had maintained was impossible). “Could he reach Lassa [Lhasa],” Campbell wrote, “he felt that Sanskrit would have quickly enabled him to master the contents of its libraries, and in them he believed was to be found all that was wanting to give him the real history of the Huns in their original condition and migrations.” To this end he asked Campbell’s assistance in getting travel permits for Sikkim and on to Lhasa from the Sikkim Raja. Messengers were send to the Sikkimese capital, and given Csoma’s now unquestioned stature as a student of the Tibetan language Campbell was confident that permission to make the trip would soon be forthcoming. Csoma was ecstatic. “What would Hodgson, [British Resident in Kathmandu, Brian Hodgson, mentioned above], Turnour [George Turnour, 1799-1843, Buddhologist and translator of the Mahavamsa, a massive history of Buddhism in Ceylon], and some of the philosophers of Europe not give to be in my place when I get to Lassa?” he exclaimed to Campbell.

By April 6 Csoma was ill with fever. His stay in the Terai had apparently caught up with him. Yet the next day when Campbell called on him he had rebounded, and the two had an animated conversation. Csoma, noted Campbell, preferred “to luxuriate in remote speculations on his beloved subjects rather than in attempting to put an end to them by discovery.” Campbell continued:

“He [Csoma] gave a rapid summary of the manner in which he believed his native land was possessed by the original ‘Huns,’ and his reasons for tracing them to Central or Eastern Asia. This was done in the most enthusiastic strain, but the texture of the story was too complicated for me to take connected note of it. [Italics in the orginal] I gathered . . . that all his hopes of attaining the object of the long and laborious search were centered in the discovery of the country of the ‘Yoogors.’ This land he believed to be to the east and north of Lassa and the province of Kham, and on the western confines of China. To reach it was the goal of his most ardent wishes, and there he fully expected to find the tribes he had hitherto sought in vain.”

Csoma rattled off the various names by which these tribes were known in European and Mid-Eastern languages - Hungers, Ungurs, Oongar, Yoongar, Oogur, Woogur, Voogur, Yoogur, etc. - (today’s Uighurs) and declared that it must have been these people who “gave their name to the country now called Hungary.” This turned out to be his last declaration on the subject which had subsumed his life. By April 9 “he was confused and slightly delirious, his countenance was sunken, anxious, and yellow, and altogether his state was bad and dangerous,” according to Campbell. He finally died at 5 a.m. on April 11, “without a groan or a struggle.” According to Campbell the Transylvanian traveler’s final effects consisted of “four boxes of books and paper, the suit of blue clothes he always wore, and in which he died, a few sheets, and one cooking pot.”


Csoma was, as David Roberts observed in a biographical essay, “the first great European student of the Tibetan language and of Tibetan Buddhist culture” who while on his death bed “still dreamed of getting to Lhasa - and then on to Central Asia. Perhaps, beyond the mountains, beyond the great desert, he might find the mysterious kingdom of Shambhala.” In fact, Csoma was not attempting, at least consciously, to find Shambhala. His writings place Shambhala “beyond the Jaxartes” or perhaps in Transoxiana or the Ferghana valley, while he himself was determined to reach Lhasa and then East Turkestan, home of the Uighurs, and perhaps later Mongolia. In his last conversations with Campbell just days before his death he made no mention of Shambhala, and other than the very brief notices and speculations about Shambhala in his letters and scholarly works he seemed to have little interest in the subject. No matter, Csoma has become indelibly connected with the Legend of Shambhala. “In 1819,” writes Elaine Brooks in her 1987 In Search of Shambhala, “Alexander Csoma de Koros, a Hungarian scholar, set off alone to search for the origins of the Hungarian people. Eventually he reached Tibet where he spent the rest of his life studying in monasteries, translating texts on both the Kalachakra and Shambhala. So the first news of Shambhala reached the West.” In fact Csoma never reached what is now known as Tibet, although Ladakh where he did study was sometimes called Middle Tibet or Western Tibet, and it was certainly an area heavily influenced by Tibetan culture. And he spent not the rest of his life but roughly four years studying in the monasteries of Yangla and Kanum. In any case, his role as a seminal Shambhalist was in bringing to the attention of the scholarly world a basic outline of the Buddhist concept of Shambhala and inspiring further investigations by future generations of Shambhalists.

The tragedy of Csoma’s quest is he was wrong in his life-long belief that the Uighurs were somehow connected with the origins of the Hungarian people. The irony is that some later Shambhalists would identify the ancient Uighur kingdom of Khocho, centered around the Turfan Depression, as one of the prime candidates for the physical location of Shambhala, which Csoma believed to be somewhere to the west. If the Uighur kingdom of Khocho was synonymous with Shambhala then Csoma was indeed on a quest to reach the mystical Buddhism realm; lost in his monomania about the origins of the Hungarians he himself was simply not aware of it. Or perhaps the land of the Uighurs had become his own personal Shambhala, the ultimate repository of his most deeply felt yearnings and unfulfilled dreams.
There are a few more places on the Gangetic plain I want to visit before the heat becomes completely unbearable. My first stop is to be the town of Rajgir, which I had also visited in 2002. Then I had stopped just briefly at place near Rajgir called Vulture’s Peak, where the Buddha taught numerous sermons, but I did not have a chance to visit Nalanda, site of what in its time was the greatest university in the world, some eight miles north of Rajgir. A little research revealed that if I hired a taxi I would be able to drive to Rajgir, visit both Vulture’s Peak and Nalanda, and then drive to Patna, the capital of Bihar state, all in one day, while if I went by public transpiration it would take probably three days at best. From Patna I would decide where to wander next. Since the city iwas a transportation hub there were numerous options.

My “taxi,” a tiny ramshackle van driven by a teenaged borderline hooligan, picked me up the at Root Institute at six in the morning. Rajgir is only thirty-five miles as the crow flies from Bodhgaya but amazing it usually takes at least two and half hours to drive there. We careened down the notorious Bodhgaya-Gaya road, now looking fairly benign in the first light of day, dodging chickens, bullocks, and staggering men who had apparently spent the night sampling the product of the toddy palm. Near Gaya we crossed the now bone-dry Phalgu River - the Neranjara, which flows by Bodhgaya, and Mohana rivers join just upstream from here to form the Phalgu - and head northeast. The plain here, covered with wheat and rice fields interspersed by scattered toddy palms and scrub brush, is perfectly flat except for sudden extrusions of rocky hillocks and spiny ridges rising several hundred feet to at most perhaps a thousand feet above the level surface. Every few miles there’s a small town with a trash-strewn main street just wide enough for two cars to pass in opposite directions and in several of these places we get hung up in gnarly traffic jams of huge lorries, jeeps stuffed with at least a dozen passengers inside and another dozen or more on the roof, lumbering buses, horse and bullock drawn carts and wagons hauling immense loads of fodder, and of course wandering cows. Between towns we creep along on the road at ten or fifteen miles an hour. The road resembles a relic of some ancient civilization uncovered by archeologists. Scattered chunks of asphalt seem to indicate that this was a paved highway at some point in time, but now the road is one almost continuous pothole.

After about two hours of this some higher than usual ridges loom out of the haze to the north. Approaching closer they soon take on the appearance of actual mountains, their sides covered with outcrops of light-color rock, loose boulders, and scattered stands of brush. These are the southernmost of the ring of mountains that surround the ancient city of Rajgir, known in the Buddha’s time as Rajagaha or Rajagriha. The city itself is one of the oldest continually inhabited places in India and in the Buddha’s time it the capital and largest city of the kingdom of Magadha, one of several states which made up the so-called Middle Land, the central Ganges valley where Buddhism was born and first flourished. The famous Buddhist poet Asvaghosha (1ST-2ND century a.d, court poet of Kaniska, ruler of the kingdom of Kusana, and author of a well regarded biography of the Buddha) famously described the city as “distinguished by five mountains, guarded and decorated with peaks and supported and purified by hot springs.” Although the mountains that encircle the town are traditionally five in number, as pointed out by Asvaghosha, there are actually seven: their names vary enormous but they are often designated as Vaibhara, Vipula, Sona, Udaya, Ratna, Chhatna, and Saila. The two before us now are Udaya and Sona. The road soon passes through a narrow defile between these two, and on either side of the defile can be seen a huge stone wall, over ten feet high and twelve to fifteen feet thick, inevitably described in the literature as “cyclopean” (although Charles Allen in his Buddha and the Sabibs opts for “near-cyclopean”), which once served as part of Rajgir’s fortifications. The mountains which surround the old city themselves form a natural fortress and the various gaps between were them closed by these walls. After passing through the gap between the two mountains I can see off the right a huge white stupa on the summit of Chhatna mountain and just below it a flat-topped knob of rock known as Gijjharkuta, or Vulture’s Peak. It was here at Vulture’s Peak that the Buddha himself once lived and where he first expounded many of his teachings.


“Delightful is Rajagaha, delightful is Gijjharkuta . . . “ intoned the Buddha himself. After his renunciation of his title and princely way of life, but before his Enlightenment, Siddhartha Gautama, the future Buddha, had come here to commune with the many ascetics who lived in caves and huts in the mountains surrounding Rajagaha. King Bimbisara, the ruler of the kingdom of Magadha, saw Siddhartha begging for alms in the streets of Rajagaha and was struck by his noble countenance. He learned that Siddhartha was living near Ratna mountain and went to visit him. King Bimbisara was so impressed by Siddhartha’s speech and demeanor that he offered him a position in his court. Siddhartha turned down this offer but promised that if he ever achieved enlightenment he would return to Rajagaha.

After achieving Enlightenment beneath the Bodhi Tree the Buddha, along with a thousand of his followers, did return to Rajagaha. King Bimbisara himself greeted the Buddha upon his arrival and eventually granted him a tract of park land known as the Veluvana, or Bamboo Grove, not far from the city, where the Buddha and his followers took up residence. Bimbisara, who was five years younger the Buddha, became a lay follower of the Buddha and a zealous proponent of Buddhism.

The Buddha spend the second, third and fourth rainy seasons after his Enlightenment in the Rajagaha area, returning again thirteen and fifteen years later and making his final visit a year before he died. He delivered numerous teachings here, more than any other single place except for Savaithi, site of the famous Jetavana Vihara, located near the present day town of Balrumpur in the state of Uttar Pradesh. Many of the teachings were presented at Vulture’s Peak.


A few miles before the city of Old Rajgir we turn off on the road to the left which leads to Vulture’s Peak. The road, pleasantly lined with trees now dripping with bright red flowers, ends after a mile or so at a parking lot lined with tea stalls and souvenir shops. Several big buses are in evidence and milling about are tightly bunched flocks of tourists from France, Germany, and Japan; a smattering of Tibetan pilgrims (presumably one-time refugees now living in India); two large contingents of monks and pilgrims from Taiwan and Thailand; and numerous Indians, many with small children in tow. There is chair lift leading straight to the stupa on top of the mountain, but Interestingly most of those in line for the ride are teenagers and young adults who could well walk, while many elderly people, some of whom are even hobbling along with canes, are climbing the mountain on foot. Since I am most interested in Vulture’s Peak, and not wishing to appear a sloth, I join this procession of pedestrians.


Bimbisara’s Road, looking down towards the parking lot

A wide, flag-stone paved path leads up the front side of the mountain first to Vulture’s Peak and then on to summit stupa. This path is built on the foundations of a road constructed originally by King Bimbisara so that he could travel to Vulture’s Peak to visit the Buddha. The path from parking lot to the peak is still today called Bimbisara’s Road. Visiting here circa 637 a.d., the peripatetic Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang observed: “In the middle of the road there are two small stupas, one called ‘Dismounting from the chariot,” because the king, when he got here, went forward on foot. The other is called ‘Sending back the crowd’ because the king, separating the common folk, would not allow them to proceed with him.” Three hundred feet from the start of the path at the parking lot is a small brick platform, measuring perhaps twelve by twelve feet square, which once supported the so-called “Dismounting from the chariot.” stupa Xuanzang does not mention beggars, but today there are a dozen or so, mostly ancient crones, perched along the side of the path by the stupa platform. My original thought that many of the oldsters were walking up the mountain because they were too poor to pay for a chairlift ticket was belied by the amount of money they gave to these beggars, a sum which far surpassed the cost of a ride on the chairlift. Many were toting big bags of rupee coins which they appeared intent on emptying before they got to the top of the mountain.


Base of “Dismounting from the Chariot Stupa”


Fifteen hundred and eighty feet from the parking lot and 205 vertical feet higher is another small brick platform which marks the former location of second stupa mentioned by Xuanzang. Here the path forks, with the left branch turning sharply up the mountain to the summit stupa and the right branch turning slightly to the right and leading to Vulture’s Peak, which from this vantage point appears as a rocky crag a quarter of a mile or so away.


Base of “Sending back the Crowd Stupa”, with Vulture’s Peak behind


There are a couple path side vendors here and while I am bickering with one who has just tried to sell me a packet of incense containing just three incense sticks instead of the twenty-five indicated on the carton (“It is tradition to light only three,” he ingeniously suggests) two pairs of porters trot by carrying two aged and very obese Taiwanese monks in wickers b baskets suspended from stout lengths of bamboo resting on their shoulders. The Chinese pilgrim Fa Hien, during his 399-414 sojourn from China to Indian and back, was carried up to Vulture’s Peak in just such a contraption, although in his day the porters were bhikshus, or monks. He also bought “incense . . . flowers, oil, and lamps,” according go his account, but does not mention whether or not the vendors tried to rip him off.

Monk being carried in a doolie


According to Fa Hien, “before you reach the top [of the peak], there is a cavern, facing the south, in which Buddha sat in meditation. Thirty paces to the northwest there is another, where Ananda was sitting in meditation, when the deva Mara Pisuna, having assumed the form of a large vulture, took his place in front of the cavern, and frightened the disciple. Then Buddha, by his mysterious supernatural power, made a cleft in the rock, introduced his land, and stroked Ananda’s shoulder, so that his fear immediately passed away. The footprint’s of the bird and the cleft for (Buddha’s) hand are still there, and hence comes the name of ‘The Hill of the Vulture Cavern.’”


Perhaps the “Hill of the Vulture Cavern” mentioned by Fa Hien


Just before the top of the peak there are two caves, apparently the ones referred to by Fa Hien, although admittedly the first faces north and not south. (Both Fa Hien and Xuanzang often got their directions confused.) I pop into this one, the lesser visited of the two, and after lighting three candles and a couple of sticks of incense, spend about twenty minutes collecting my “tots,” as the teacher at the Root Institute retreat, Antonio Satta, called them in his thick Italian accent.


Interior of the first cave



This meditation completed I proceed to the second cave, indeed some thirty paces further on. Here there are twenty or so pilgrims gathered, and a Taiwanese monk is giving a lecture on this famous spot through a hand-held loudspeaker. This is the Sukarakhata, or Boar’s Grotto, which supposedly had first been fashioned by a wild boar which rooted out a hole from under a large overhanging rock. This hole was enlarged and improved upon by wandering ascetics seeking a quiet shelter and retreat. According to some accounts the Buddha himself delivered two discourses here called the Sukarakhata Sutra and the Dighanakha Sutra, although he of course did not have the benefit of a hand-held loudspeaker.


The Boar’s Grotto Cave

Fa Hien was overcome with emotion here. “I, Fa Hien, was born when I could not meet the Buddha; and now I only see the footprints which he has left and nothing more,” he wrote, adding that the thought so saddened him that he had to struggle to hold back his tears. He relates further that he remained overnight in front of this cave, spending part of the time chanting the Surangma Sutra, and only returned to the city the next day.

Xuanzang also visited these caves. Although his account is somewhat garbled they are apparently the “stone houses” he refers to. At least a nearby sign in English and Hindi says, “These caves may represent the stone houses on the Gridhrakuta Hill [Vulture’s Peak] seen by the Chinese pilgrim Hiuen Tsang in the 7th century a.d.” He also recounts a slightly different version of Ananda’s confrontation with Mara, which according to him took place on a “great and extraordinary stone” above one of the “stone houses” His account of the location is very confusing, but he may be referring to a huge protrusion of rock just above the Boar’s Grotto:

“When the venerable Ananda had entered Samadhi in this place, Mara-raja, assuming the form of a vulture, in the middle of the night, during the dark portion of the month, took his place on this rock, and flapping his wings and uttering loud screams, tried to frighten the venerable one. Ananda, filled with fear was at a loss to know what to do; then Tathagatha [the Buddha], by his spiritual power, seeing his state, stretched out his hand to compose him. He pierced the stone wall and patted the head of Ananda, and with his words of great love he spoke to him thus: ‘You need not fear the assumed form which Mara has taken’ Ananda in consequence recovered his composure, and remained with his heart and body at rest and peace. Although years and months have elapsed [in fact, over 1100 years] since then, yet the bird traces on the hole in the rock still remain visible.”


Big Rock above the Boar’s Grotto Cave

Xuanzang also relates that Sariputta, one of the two chief disciples of the Buddha (Mahamaudgalyayana was the other), achieved enlightenment in one of these caves, and some accounts maintain that this took place here at this second cave. A Taiwanese woman in her sixties who strikes up a conversation with me says also that this is what the monk tour-guide with the loudspeaker has just related. He also claims that Bimbisara’s royal treasure is enclosed in the huge rock just above the Boar’s Grotto and that to this day no one has been able to break into the rock and claim it, a legend I have not seen anywhere repeated in print.

From the cave the trail passes by a brick platform which marks the foundation of a temple which apparently existed in Buddha’s day but has long since disappeared and then turns into a stone staircase leading to the top of Vulture’s Peak itself. On the summit, which is just over a half mile as the crows flies from the parking lot and 369 vertical feet higher, is a flat paved area the size of a tennis court surrounded on three sides by a low brick wall. You must take off your shoes to enter this area. In the middle of the enclosure is an altar laden with prayer scarves and flowers. In front of the altar thirty or forty Thai monks chant a sutra. Just as I arrive the two elderly monks who have been carried here to the top by porters and are now being sheltered by the sun by two young monks holding umbrellas approach the altar and add big bundles of flowers. The Taiwanese woman who spoke to me earlier is kneeling just behind the monks and she bids me to sit down beside her. In front of us is the view the Buddha himself enjoyed while he was giving some of his most famous teachings.


The top of Vulture’s Peak



View of Vulture’s Peak from above



Monks at Vulture’s Peak