Through the medieval eyes of a traveller



Dr.Hemant .K. Parija
He is a well known academician, scholar and historian. He is currently busy preparing
a 3 volume first ever, comprehensive history of Odisha with two other scholars. The first
of the volumes is already in press.

I n 626 AD, in the Chang’an monastery in China, a young ‘bhikshu’ had a dream. “You must go Xuanzang”, said the voice in his dream. “You must go to India and bring my books of knowledge to China and spread the teachings of Buddhism to the people of this great land. For it is due way too long and should be done now, by you.”

The next morning a deeply religious and pious Xuanzang obviously disturbed but excited by the dream seeks an appointment with the Emperor Taizong, of the Tang province which had adopted Buddhism as the state religion. An exemplary ruler known for his great administration, Emperor Taizong was the Chinese equivalent of Chandragupta Maurya.

“You wish to travel to a foreign land risking your life?” said the Emperor. “Yes my lord, I am thoroughly aware of the risk I am taking but I must go there because if we are to follow Buddhism we must go the greatest seats of learning in India (Gandhara and Nalanda) and receive this knowledge from the land, which gave birth to Buddhism. I must bring back the scrolls and texts from their universities to China. I must learn their language so as to enable proper translation of these canonical texts, because I strongly believe that knowledge is more important than all the riches and military might put together,” replied Xuanzang.

The Tang Emperor smiled and then thundered “Give this man Xuanzang all that he needs for the journey. Give him the royal seal of the Tang, let the name of the Emperor Taizong be known in the heavens and earth. Let him bring back the knowledge of Buddha from India and spread in our great land. Xuanzang prepare for the journey and chronicle it well !”

Thus began the journey of Xuanzang popularly known as Hiuen-Tsang to India, the seat of knowledge for all Buddhist literature. Tsang read heavily about the accounts of Fa-Hien, the first traveller to have documented his journey to India some 200 hundred years ago. He spoke of Ashoka and also of a land that he conquered “Oddiyana”, which made him take up Buddhism.

His journey would take him about 15 years across the Gobi Desert into Turfan, through Tashkent and onwards t o Samarkand. Continuing through the Pamir mountains he crossed the Termez, followed by Afghanistan and Lahore as well.

Finally in the year 637 AD, eight years after his journey began he reached Pataliputra the former seat of the Gupta empire. By now Hiuen- Tsang was very learned not just about Buddhism but also Hinduism and Jainism which he had encountered on his way through their precepts, tenets and teachings. He eventually reached Nalanda only to be advised by the monks there to head all the way down to Sinhala, the modern day Sri Lanka.

While Tsang wanted to take the sea route, a South Indian priest advised him to take the land route till the southern tip of India before taking up the sea route journey to Sri Lanka, for the fear of bad weather and ‘Yakshyas’. This change in route was a boon for the historians of Odisha since it meant that he would pass by the state, continuing to chronicle his experiences, which would go on to become a priceless reference document for the modern world.

Somewhere in 639 or 640 AD, he entered into Odisha which had been divided into four distinct political units referred by Tsang as U-cha(Odra), Kong-Yu-to (Kongoda), KIe-ling-kia(Kalinga) and Kiao-sa-lo(Kosala).

The following is a summary of his account of the four states:-

U-cha(Odra): About 700 Li (140 miles) southwest from Karnasuvarna, U-Cha w a s 1000Li (200 miles) in circuit and its capital was 20 Li (4 miles) in circuit. Spanning from modern day Midnapur district in West Bengal to Puri district in Odisha, the soil of this state was fertile yielding large fruits. The climate was hot and people were tall and dark in complexion. There were about 100 Buddhist monasteries and about 10,000 Buddhists. He witnessed 10 Buddhist stupas built by Asoka in 3rd century BC. Hindu temples numbered about 50. He noticed a famous monastery (Sangharama) on a great mountain called Pu-sie-po-ki-li ( p r o b a b l y Pushpagiri). He also mentions a city called Che-li-ta-lo (Charitra) on the eastern coast used by sea faring traders.

Kong-yu-to(Kongada): About 240 miles south west of Charitra, after passing through a vast forest he reached Kong-yuto. It roughly comprised of the southern part of Puri district, Khurda and Ganjam and a part of Gajapati districts. Kong-yuto or Kongadawas about 200 miles in circuit and its capital, about 4 miles. The climate was again hot and the people were tall, dark and valorous. Though their language was the same as that of Odra the dialect was somewhat different.There were no Buddhists but more than 1000 Jains, he came across over 100 Deva temples. The people used cowrie shells and pearls for commercial transactions and the land produced dark coloured elephants, which were capable of long journeys.

Kie-ling-kia (Kalinga): Going another 300 miles southwest he reached the state of Kieling-kia, which was about 1000 miles in circuit while its capital was about 4 miles. As per today’s map the concerned districts would be Srikakulam, Vijayanagaram and Vishakapatnam in Andhra Pradesh and the southern part of Ganjam district of Odisha. People there followed a regular seedtime and harvest. Fruits and flowers were in abundance. It also produced dark wild elephants while the climate was hot and the people were rude and head strong. Their language and manners differed somewhat from central India. There were not more than 10 Buddhist monasteries and only about 500 monks. The Deva temples numbered more than 100.

Kiao-sa-lo (Kosala): 360 miles north-west from Kalinga, passing through dense forests and mountains. He reached the state of Kiao-sa-lo which was about 1200 miles in circuit, while the capital was about 8 miles. Sambalpur, Bargarh, Sonpur, Bolangir, Nuapara and Kalahandi districts of Odisha, Raipur and Bilaspur districts of Chattisgarh depict the corresponding modern day geography. The people were tall, brave, prosperous and dark while there were over 100 Buddhist monasteries and about 10,000 Buddhist monks. The Deva temples numbered seventy. Although the king was a Kshyatriya, he had great respect for Buddhism.

Hiuen-Tsang’s notes on his epic journey ‘The Great Tsang Records’ is the longest and most detailed account on Central and South Asia that have helped define the archaeological history of Odisha, West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh that captures how the various identities and geographies of modern day Odisha were bound by a common string of language and customs. ❏

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