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    Xuanzang  (b. c. 600 CE; d. 664 CE) 

    Map Academy

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    A Chinese Buddhist monk who travelled across the Silk Road and parts of South Asia, Xuanzang was known for his translations of several Buddhist manuscripts from Sanskrit into Chinese. Since the nineteenth century, chronicles of his travels in South Asia have gained historical significance, particularly for archeological activity in the region.

    Xuanzang was born in the Henan province of central China to a family of scholars and received a Confucian education. He later converted to Buddhism and travelled to Chang’an (present-day Xi’an) — the capital of the Tang dynasty — and Sichuan, where he began studying Buddhist scriptures. After finding multiple discrepancies and contradictions in the available texts, he decided to travel to the Indian subcontinent to study Buddhist scriptures, defying a decree by the Tang ruler Taizong (r. 626–49 CE), who had forbidden the visit on grounds of national security. In 629 CE, he left Chang’an, travelling through parts of modern-day China, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan before arriving in northern India c. 633 CE. In India, he travelled to important Buddhist pilgrimage sites in the Gangetic plains, including Shravasti, Vaishali, Kaushambi, Bodhgaya, Rajgir and Pataliputra. He also spent a few years at the Nalanda mahavihara, where he studied Sanskrit as well as Buddhist and Indian philosophy.

    In 637–38 CE, he visited Kannauj, where he met the Pushyabhuti dynasty ruler Harshavardhana (r. 606–47 CE) and established diplomatic relations between the Tang court and the Indian kingdom. Xuanzang also travelled to southern, western and central India, visiting Kanchipuram and parts of present-day Maharashtra and Gujarat, including Valabhi in Saurashtra and the Ajanta caves.

    He began his overland trip back to China in 643 CE, arriving in Chang’an in 645 CE with 657 scriptures, including several Mahayana texts, which he began translating into Chinese. He was only able to translate around seventy-five of these scriptures over the remainder of his life. He also translated Dao de jing (Tao-te Ching) by Laozi (Lao-tzu) into Sanskrit and sent the manuscript to India. He died in 664 CE in Chang’an.

    Xuanzang was a proponent of the Yogachara school of thought, known in China as Weishi (‘consciousness only’). His treatise Chengweishilun (“Treatise on the Establishment of the Doctrine of Consciousness Only”) is considered an important text of the school and enjoyed popularity during the medieval period in China and Japan. 

    The accounts of Xuanzang’s travels, Datang-Xiyu-Ji (“Records of the Western Regions of the Great Tang Dynasty”), along with those of other Chinese pilgrim-travellers such as Faxian and Yijing, served as a key reference during the development of archeology in South Asia during the colonial period. The first translation of Datang-Xiyu-Ji was published in French in 1853 (Histoire de la vie de Hioun-Thsang et de ses voyages dans l’Inde, by Stanislaus Julien) followed by English translations, the earliest being Samuel Beal’s Si-Yu-Ki: Buddhist Records of the Western World from the Chinese of Hiuen-Tsiang (A.D. 629) (1884). These were instrumental in spurring interest in the exploration of Buddhist sites in British India, most notably Alexander Cunningham’s work at the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) which involved retracing Xuanzang’s journey to rediscover historical Buddhist sites. The chronicles were also frequently referenced for contextualising Buddhist ruins across India and present-day Pakistan. More recently, sites in Vadnagar and Taranga in Gujarat have been linked to Xuanzang’s observations of Buddhist centres in the region, confirming that the region was an important Buddhist hub. 

    Xuanzang’s chronicles also provide insights into the political and economic life of South Asia in the seventh century through details such as the rulers of various territories, climate, food, systems of measurement, natural and manufactured products, Buddhist and Brahmin education and legal, economic and social practices. 

    In 2007, a memorial hall dedicated to Xuanzang was inaugurated at the Nava Nalanda Mahavihara in Bihar, which houses the relic casket of a bone believed to belong to Xuanzang. Temples in honour of Xuanzang are also situated in China and Taiwan. Xuanzang’s account of a 304-metre long reclining Buddha in Afghanistan inspired a series of archeological explorations from 2004 onwards around Bamiyan, and although archeologists were able to locate fragments of a smaller reclining Buddha in the vicinity, the statue described by Xuanzang is yet to be found.

    In 2020, Cardiff University and the Bihar Heritage Development Society announced the Xuanzang Trail Project to map Buddhist sites in Bihar through a critical examination of Xuanzang’s texts and archeological exploration. In 2022, the project had found remains of stupa structures as well as other antiquities near Bodhgaya and Patna. 


    Cheung, Han. “Xuanzang’s Posthumous Journey.” Taipei Times, November 22, 2015. Accessed February 23, 2023.

    Hammer, Joshua. “Searching for Buddha in Afghanistan.” Smithsonian Magazine, 2010.

    Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. “Xuanzang (Hsüan-tsang) (602—664).” Accessed April 11, 2023.

    “Mapping the Buddha’s life: Reconstructing the Xuanzang Trail.” Cardiff University, December 15, 2022. Accessed February 23, 2023.

    Nava Nalanda Mahavihara. “Xuanzang Memorial Hall.” Accessed February 23, 2023.

    Raj, Dev. “Bihar: Scholars Retrace Footsteps of Hiuen Tsang.” Telegraph, June 4, 2022. Accessed February 23, 2023.

    Sen, Tansen. “The Travel Records of Chinese Pilgrims Faxian, Xuanzang and Yijing.” Education About Asia 11, no. 3 (Winter 2006): 24–33.  

    Sharma, Ritu. “Three-day Vadnagar International Conference: Relics from Vadnagar, Taranga Confirm North Gujarat As a Major Buddhist Centre.” Indian Express, May 20, 2022. Accessed February 23, 2023.

    Trautmann, Thomas R., and Carla M. Sinopoli. “In the Beginning Was the Word: Excavating the Relations Between History and Archaeology in South Asia.” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 45, no. 4 (2002): 492–523.

    “Valabhi.” In Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed April 11, 2023.  

    “Xuanzang.” In Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed February 22, 2023.


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