Hiuen Tsang [602 CE - 664 CE]

Hiuen Tsang or Xuanzang was a chinese buddhist monk who travelled over land from China to India during the reign of King Harsha Vardhan to obtain Buddhist scriptures. Candidates can know in detail about King HarshaVardhana on the linked page.

Candidates must not get confused with the names – Hieun Tsang, Xuanzang, Hiiuwn Tsang. All stand for the Chinese scholar and traveller to India. The most common name used for academic purposes is Hieun Tsang. 

Information on Xuanzang/ Hiuen Tsang visit to India is relevant for Civil Services aspirants under the Indian History part of UPSC Prelims exam.   

Hence, this article aims to share the facts related to Hiuen Tsang’s life for candidates preparing for the IAS Exam. It will also provide UPSC Prelims Notes PDF on Hiuen Tsang at the bottom of the page.  

Given below are the links that give information on the account of various foreign travelers who visited India – 

Aspiring Civil Services candidates can know more about other Foreign Envoys who visited India on the linked page. 

Hiuen Tsang/ Xuanzang Early Life

  1. Hiuen Tsang was born on April 6th in AD 602 in Chenhe Village, Goushi Town to Chen Hui. He was the youngest of the four children in the family.
  2. Chen Hui, father of Xuanzang was a conservative Confucian. He was a magistrate of Jiangling County during the Sui dynasty. He withdrew into seclusion and gave up his office to escape the political turmoil that gripped China towards the end of the Sui dynasty.
  3. Along with his brothers and sister, Hiuen Tsang received early education from his father, he learned classical works on filial piety and several other canonical treatises of orthodox Confucianism.
  4. His ancestor Chen Shi was a minister of the Eastern Han dynasty and his great grandfather was Chen Qin who during the Eastern Wei served as the prefect of Changzhi, Shanxi (then Shangdang).
  5. Chen Kang was Hiuen Tsang grandfather, he was a professor in the Taixue (Imperial Academy) during the Northern Qi.
  6. Although Xuanzang was a Confucian, he expressed his interest in becoming a Buddhist monk like one of his elder brothers.
  7. For five years he lived with his older brother at Jingtu Monastery in Luoyang, supported by the Sui state, after the death of his father.
  8. During this time Hiuen Tsang studied Mahayana as well as various early Buddhist schools.
  9. Hiuen Tsang along with his brother fled to Chang’an (capital of Tang Dynasty) when the Sui dynasty collapsed in AD 618. 
  10. The two brothers reached Chengdu Sichuan in the south, lived in Kong Hui Monastery for two to three years and studies about Abhidharma-kosa Sastra (Verses on the Treasury of Abhidharma is a key text on the Abhidharma written in Sanskrit verse by Vasubandhu in the 4th or 5th century. The text was widely respected and used by schools of Buddhism in India, Tibet and East Asia).
  11. Hiuen Tsang requested to take Buddhist orders at the age of 13. He took the monastic name Xuanzang, he was fully ordained as a monk in AD 622, at the age of twenty. The boy monk traveled extensively in China in pursuit of Buddhist learning, particularly the Vijnanavada school.
  12. He decided to go to India and study in the Buddhist cradle because of the discrepancies and contradictions in the texts.
  13. Hiuen Tsang left his brother and returned to Chang’an to study foreign languages. He began his Mastery in Sanskrit in AD 626 and also studied Tocharian. He also showed interest in the metaphysical Yogacara school of Buddhism.

You can also read about Sir Thomas Roe [1581-1644] a foreign traveler from England.

Check out the following links for assistance in comprehensive preparation of the upcoming UPSC Civil services exams –

Hiuen Tsang Visit to India – UPSC Prelims Facts

  1. In AD 627, Tang China and the Gokturks were at war and the Emperor Taizong of Tang had prohibited foreign travel.
  2. Hiuen Tsang managed to slip out of the empire through Liangzhou (Gansu) and Qinghai in 629 by persuading some Buddhist guards at Yumen Pass. 
  3. He traveled across the Gobi Desert to Hami City (then Kumul), followed by Tian Shan to the west. 
  4. In AD 630 he met the king of Turpan, a Buddhist who equipped him further for his travels. His work ‘journey to the west’ (Si-Yu-Ki) depicted the hottest mountain in China, the Flaming Mountains that are located in Turpan.
  5. Hiuen Tsang escaped robbers to reach Karasahr (an ancient town in the Silk Road) while moving towards the west. He then reached the non-Mahayana monasteries of Kucha.
  6. He crossed Central Asia (covering Kyrgyzstan, Tashkent, Samarkand in Uzbekistan). He also crossed the Pamir Mountain (a mountain range between Central Asia, South Asia, and East Asia, at the junction of the Himalayas with the Tian Shan, Karakoram, Kunlun, and Hindu Kush) and the Iron Gate. 
  7. Further he reached Amu Darya (river in Central Asia and Afghanistan) and Termez, where he encountered more than a thousand Buddhist monks. On his arrival to Afghanistan he saw various Buddhist sites and relics, especially the Nava Vihara, the westernmost vihara in the world (as described by Hiuen Tsang)
  8. In Afghanistan he met the monk Dharma Simha and found over 3,000 non-Mahayana monks, including Prajnakara, a monk with whom Hiuen Tsang studied early Buddhist scriptures. He also acquired the important text of the Mahavibhasa, which he later translated into Chinese.
  9. Accompanied by Prajnakara, Hiuen Tsang reached Central Afghanistan and saw tens of non-Mahayana monasteries and two large Buddhas of Bamiyan carved out of the rockface.
  10. Resuming the travel they reached Kabul and spotted over 100 monasteries and 6000 monks, mostly Mahayana.
  11. In AD 630, Xuanzang reached the old land of Gandhara (then north-west Indian sub-continent) now part of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Here, he met the first Jains and Hindu of his journey.
  12. On leaving Adinapur (now Jalalabad in Afghanistan) he saw various Stupas, crossed Khyber Pass and reached Gandhara capital Purushapura (Now Peshawar in Pakistan). Here he saw the Kanishka Stupa. 
  13. Crossing Swat Valley, he reached Uddayana where he got to see 1,400 year old monasteries that had previously supported 18,000 monks. 
  14. Continuing towards Burner Valley and Shahbaz Grahi he crossed the Indus River at Hund and reached Taxila. In Taxila, hiuen Tsang found most of the Sangharamas (temples and monasteries) ruined and desolated due to fighting amongst local rulers.
  15. Xuanzang reached Kashmir in AD 631 and found that there were over 100 monasteries and over 5,000 monks in the area. 
  16. In between AD 632 and early 633, Hiuen Tsang wrote about the Fourth Buddhist council and studied with various monks which included 14 months with Vinita Prabha, 4 months with Candravarman, and “a winter and half a spring” with Jaya Gupta. 
  17. Xuanzang visited Chiniot and Lahore and then in AD 634 he arrived in Matipura (known as Mandawar today near Bijnor in Uttar Pradesh). At Matipura Monastery, Xuanzang studied under Mitrasena.
  18. Some of the places he visited in India include Jalandhar in Punjab, Kullu in Himachal Pradesh, Bairat in Rajasthan, Mathura in Uttar Pradesh. Mathura during this time, despite being hindu dominated place, had 2,000 monks of both major Buddhist branches.
  19. Xuanzang crossed rivers Yamuna, Shrughna and Ganges to reach south to Kannauj, the grand capital of the empire of the northern Indian King Harsha Vardhan.
  20. Here, Hiuen Tsang spotted 100 monasteries of 10,000 monks (both Mahayana and non-Mahayana), and was impressed by King Harsha’s patronage of both scholarship and Buddhism. He spent time in the city studying early Buddhist scriptures.
  21. Cities Xuanzang visited in AD 636 during Harsha’s era were, Givishan (Kashipur), Ayodhaya, the homeland of the Yogacara school), Koshambi. He then returned northward to Shravasti in Uttar Pradesh and then to Terai in Nepal. His last stop before reaching Lumbini (the birthplace of Buddha) was Kapilavastu. 
  22. In AD 637, Hiuen Tsang started from Lumbini and headed to Kushinagar, Sarnath, Varanasi, Vaishali, Patiputra (Patna), and Bodh Gaya. He also visited Champa Monastery in Bhagalpur.
  23. He spent about five years at Nalanda, the then great Indian University in the state of Bihar. Hiuen Tsang studied logic, grammar, Sanskrit, and the Yogacara school of Buddhism during his time at Nalanda. It was at Nalanda, Xuanzang met the venerable Silabhadra (expert of yogchara teaching and personal teacher of Hiuen Tsang). When Xuanzang was studying Buddhism in India at Nālandā University, he discovered ten commentaries on Vasubandhu. He drew upon these commentaries, especially the commentary of Dharmapāla, when writing his own detailed explanation of the Triṃśikā-vijñaptimātratā, which became the Cheng Weishi Lun. The Cheng Weishi Lun, Hiuen Tsang’s great philosophical treatise, is “the fruit of seven centuries of Indian Buddhist thought.
  24. From Nalanda, Hiuen Tsang traveled towards Bangladesh and found 20 monasteries with over 3,000 monks studying both the Hinayana and the Mahayana. In the Vasibha Monastery he found over 700 Mahayana monks from all over East India.
  25. He then travelled to Andhra Pradesh (then Andhradesa) and visited viharas in Amravati and Nagarjunakonda. In Amravati he studied the ‘Abhidhamma Pitaka’ texts. He continued traveling to Kanchi, the imperial capital of Pallavas, and a strong center of Buddhism.  Before returning to Nalanda he travelled to Nasik, Ajanta, Malwa, Multan and Pravata.
  26. On the invitation of Assamese king Kumar Bhaskar Varman, Xuanzang went east to the ancient city of Pragjyotishpura in the kingdom of Kamarupa (now Guwahati).
  27. Before going to Kamarupa he visited Sylhet (modern city of Bangladesh) and gave a detailed account of the culture and people of Sylhet.
  28. At the request of the king Harshavardhana, Hiuen Tsang was escorted back to kannauj to attend a great Buddhist Assembly. The assembly was attended by neighbour kings, Buddhist monks, Brahmans, and Jains. 
  29. King Harsha also invited Hiuen Tsang to Kumbh Mela in Prayag where he witnessed king Harsha’s generous distribution of gifts to the poor. He was then given a grand farewell by the king.
  30. Traveling through the Khyber Pass, Hindu Kush, Kashgar, Khotan, and Dunhuang Xuanzang returned to China and arrived in the capital, Chang’an, after 16 years, on the 7th day of the first month of AD 645.
  31. Xuanzang retired to a monastery and devoted his energy to translating Buddhist texts until his death in AD 664 on 5th February in Yuhua Palace (presently Tongchuan, Shaanxi).

Visit the following relevant articles for assistance in the preparation for the exam –

Xuanzang Additional Notes

  1. Hiuen Tsang returned to China with “over six hundred Mahayana and Hinayana texts, seven statues of the Buddha and more than a hundred Buddhist relics, he brought with him some 657 Sanskrit texts and three copies of the Mahaprajnaparamita Sutra.
  2. The force of his own study, translation, and commentary of the texts of these traditions initiated the development of the Faxiang school in East Asia. Read in detail about the Faxian/Fa-Hien [337 CE – 422 CE] on the linked page. 
  3. Xuanzang’s closest and most eminent student was Kuiji who became recognized as the first patriarch of the Faxiang school.
  4. Xuanzang was known for his extensive but careful translations of Indian Buddhist texts to Chinese. His translation of the Heart Sutra became and remains the standard in all East Asian Buddhist sects. 
  5. In AD 646, Xuanzang completed his book Great Tang Records on the Western Regions is the longest and most detailed account of the countries of Central and South Asia.

Hiuen Tsang’s Recordings on Visit to India

Xuanzang was known for recording the events of the reign of the northern Indian emperor, Harsha.

  1. He Praised emperor Harsha and described him as a laborious king. During his reign, the kingdom was free from revolts and was well governed, Traitors were given death sentences while offenders were tortured or given physical punishments. The burden of taxation was less and the main source of income was land revenue. However, travelling was not much safe during the time.
  2. Harsha divided his kingdom in 4 parts; one was for administrative routine of the state; second was distributed among government employees; the third was given to scholars while the fourth was given in charity to Brahamanas and the Buddhist monks.
  3. Xuanzang wrote that the army of Harsha consisted of 60,000 war-elephants, 50,000 strong cavalry chariots and 1,00,000 strong infantry. 
  4. He described Harsha as a perfect devotee of Buddha but Hinduism was more widely popular in India at that time as compared to Buddhism. There was complete tolerance among people of all religious faiths and people changed their religions voluntarily
  5. He described the city-life of India that the houses were constructed with woods, bricks and dung. People wore cotton, silk and wool. 
  6. The streets were circular and dirty. Prayag was an important city while Kannauj was beautiful. Shravasti and Kapilavastu had lost their religious importance and Nalanda was the center of buddhist learning. 
  7. Education in India was given between Nine to Thirty years of age which was mostly religious. Education was provided orally and their script was Sanskrit.
  8. Indians were lovers of education, literature and fine arts. 
  9. He also described that the Caste system was rigid with no purdah system and women were also provided with education but the practice of Sati also prevailed.
  10. People were simple, honest and observed high morality. They avoided meat, onion and liquor in their food and drinks. 
  11. Xuanzang described that Indian used all types of jewellery and ornaments and praised the quality of Indian Pearls and ivory. 
  12. He said that Indians had brisk trade with foreign countries and had prosperous ports and sea coast in the East as well as West. India exported cloth, sandalwood, medicinal herbs, ivory, pearls, spices etc. to foreign countries and imported gold, silver and horses. Hiuen Tsang described India as a rich and prosperous country.

FAQ about Hiuen Tsang

How many years did Hiuen Tsang stay in India?

According to historic records, Tsang started his travel at the age of 28 years in 629 AD and travelled in India for 16 years.

Who were the two famous Chinese Travellers came to India?

The two prominent Chinese travellers who had been to India and had left their account are Fa Hien and Huen Tsang.

Aspirants can visit the UPSC Syllabus page to familiarise themselves with the topics generally asked in the exam. For further assistance visit the following links –

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