Wednesday, February 12, 2020

A Foot Journey to Retrace Bodhisattva Xuanzang

This summer I am undertaking a foot journey through northern India for retracing the footsteps of Bodhisattva Xuanzang. My objectives for the walk: (1) To create awareness about the neglected state of sacred sites where Buddha walked and the need to transform the sites into Living Heritage; (2) To create awareness about the contribution of Xuanzang to the Buddhist pilgrimage legacy. I believe that without the accounts left by Xuanzang, we would have never known in such detail about the footsteps of the Buddha. Therefore, this walk is my personal tribute to the world citizen, Xuanzang.

 Please consider supporting the Retracing Bodhisattva Xuanzang Project
 How your financial support are going to be utilised  
Walking in the Footsteps of Bodhisattva Siddhārtha in Uruvelā with students of Loka School, Aurangabad.
(Pic: Charlotte Leech, 2020)
Map depicting route of the foot journey (Retracing Bodhisattva Xuanzang).

Who is Xuanzang 
Xuanzang was a 7th century Chinese monk and scholar who travelled over 10,000 miles from China to India and back crossing the Gobi desert, Hindu Kush mountains and Indo-Gangetic plain to reach Nālandā in Bihar (India). No one ever attempted such a journey before or after him. Xuanzang left detailed and vibrant accounts of his travels which were translated from the Chinese language for the first time in the 19th century by European scholars, and became the primary source of information about Buddha and his teachings. Xuanzang’s writings were the key to rediscovering the footsteps of the Buddha. 
Image of Master Xuanzang at Xuanzang Memorial, Nālandā.
(Pic: Alok Jain, 2007)

Why Xuanzang travelled to India

In the 7th century when Xuanzang journeyed to India, Chinese subjects were forbidden from leaving the country without official permission. Xuanzang was denied permission to leave China, but as his mind was made up to reach India, Xuanzang braved the king’s wrath and left the country secretly. 
He began his journey from Xian in China, walked through hundreds of kingdoms in Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent, finally arriving in Nālandā in Bihar. The purpose of undertaking this long and difficult journey was to collect the true teachings of Buddha from the prominent Buddhist monasteries in India and venerate the sacred places associated with Buddha. 
Xuanzang spent 16 years on this trip during which he meticulously recorded all that he saw. On returning to China safely, Xuanzang dedicated his remaining life to translating the Buddhist scriptures he had collected in India and compiling his diaries into a travelogue. Xuanzang presented his travelogue to the emperor. It was titled Ta-Tang-Hsi-yü-chi (Records of The Western Lands of the Great Tang Period). This travelogue was a masterpiece, providing the first ever written account of the lands and peoples lying to the west of China. 
Xuanzang's Journey from Xian to Nālandā

During Xuanzang’s journey, Buddhism was a thriving religion in India. Hundreds of monasteries flourished all across the Indian subcontinent serving as centres for Buddhist learning and training for monk-hood. Monasteries were supported by patronage from local kings and devotees. Devotees visited the sacred places associated with the Buddha and performed rituals at these places. The sacred places were connected by roads forming an elaborate pilgrimage network.

How Xuanzang’s travel accounts led to the discovery of the true origin of Buddhism
Within a few centuries of Xuanzang’s journey, Buddhism started declining in the Indian subcontinent due to the arrival of Turkish rulers from Central Asia who brought with them a different religion. Over time, all tangible and intangible Buddhist heritage in India got lost. Sacred places associated with Buddha like Lumbīnī (birthplace of Buddha), Mahābodhi (place of Enlightenment), Migadāya (place of delivering first sermon) and Kuśinagara (place of attaining Mahāparinirvāṇa) lost their significance. All the sacred places assumed new names like...Vaiśālī and Śrāvasti where important events of Buddha’s life had taken place acquired new names Kolhuā and Sāhet respectively. 
Mahābodhi Temple, Bodhgayā, in Ruins. (Pic: Sir Charles D' Oyly, 1824)

Ignorance about the birth of Buddhism in India and the strong presence of the Dhamma (Dharma)for more than fifteen centuries in the land of its origin prevailed until the 19th century. Some Western scholars placed Buddha as an African god observing the curly hair and large earlobes in his statues. Other scholars thought Buddhism to have originated in the East Asian region as the majority of people in these countries practiced Buddhism. 
In the mid-19th century CE when the Oriental world became an obsession with Western scholars, the travelogues of Xuanzang and Faxian (Fahien, also a Buddhist monk-scholar who journeyed to India two centuries before Xuanzang) were translated for the first time. When subjected to interpretation and investigation, these ancient travelogues indicated that Buddhism originated in India and that  there existed  an elaborate pilgrimage to the sacred places associated with the Buddha called ‘In the Footsteps of the Buddha’.  Monks, nuns and lay devotees from India and East Asian regions as far as Japan undertook this pilgrimage to earn good merits and deepen their understanding and practice of the Dhamma
Map depicting the Sublime Wandering of the Buddha in the Gangetic Plains
With the help of Xuanzang’s writings, British scholars, particularly Sir Alexander Cunningham (1814-1893), identified most of the prominent Buddhist pilgrimage sites such as Mahābodhi, Sankāshya, Śrāvasti, Vaiśālī, Nālandā and Sārnātha. Exploration and identification of other Buddhist sites continued under the Archaeological Survey of India after its establishment in 1861. Chinese literature considers Xuanzang’s travelogue as one of its five classics. For the world, Xaunzang’s travelogue is an infinite treasury for discovering the footsteps of the Buddha. 
How I first learnt about Xuanzang
In 2007, a memorial hall dedicated to Xuanzang was opened at Nālandā. Known as Xuanzang Memorial, the project was conceived in 1957 jointly by India and China but due to the complex relations between the two countries, the project was completed nearly five decades later. I had the opportunity to be present at the inauguration of the Xuanzang Memorial. This chance encounter with the name and reputation of Xuanzang was the beginning of my interest in Xuanzang. 
Aerial view of Xuanzang Memorial, Nālandā. (Pic: Yves Guichard)
I started learning about Xuanzang by reading the works of early explorers like Alexander Cunningham (1814-1893), Alexander Meyrick Broadley (1847-1916) and Aurel Stien (1862-1943) who identified the sacred sites of the Buddhist pilgrimage based on Xuanzang’s travelogue. These scholars had a lot of difficulty in interpreting Xuanzang’s work because the places and events described were historically very remote. In fact, Xuanzang’s travelogue itself was more than thirteen centuries old. During this time, the Chinese language had undergone change, places and routes described in the travelogue had disappeared, and the landscape of the Indian subcontinent had changed tremendously. In spite of these impediments, early scholars did an incredible job in identifying  hundreds of places mentioned by Xuanzang correctly. 
Sir Alexander Cunningham, DG, Archaeological Survey of India, with his team of sappers. (Pic: ASI Archive)
How my interest turned to passion
Like the early explorers, I too was attracted to the jigsaw puzzle of identifying places in the Buddhist pilgrimage mentioned by Xuanzang. I started by cross-examining the identifications made by Cunningham, Broadley, Stien, Kittoe and others, and plotted their identifications on map using GIS technology (Read more: 
In 2010,  Nava Nalanda Mahavihara (Deemed University), Nālandā started a project for the Revival of the Ancient Buddhist Pilgrimage in Bihar. With the support of Dr. Ravindra Panth, Director, Nava Nalanda Mahavihara and Dr. Dipankara Lama, Assistant Professor, several publications and exhibitions were developed to create awareness of the Buddhist pilgrimage and the contribution of Xuanzang in preserving the pilgrimage legacy.   
Sharing Travels of Xuanzang with Hon'ble Prime Minister of India Shri Narenda Modi Ji. On occasion of "Global Hindu-Buddhism Initiative (5th Sept, 2015, Bodhgayā). (Pic: Manish Bhandari)
During his travels, Xuanzang had visited the places where Buddha’s four prominent disciples Sāriputra, Mahāmoggallana, Mahākassapa and Ānanda had attained nirvāṇa. Nava Nalanda Mahavihara (NNM) organised events and workshops to facilitate the revitalisation of these places by engaging the local communities.  The events were the first step towards transforming these sacred sites into ‘Living Heritage.’ (Read more: 
1st Sariputta World Peace Walk, Giriyak, Nalanda, 23rd Nov, 2010. (Pic: Alok Jain)
Some of my writings on revival of Buddhist pilgrimage legacy include: 
  1. Online permanent exhibition: “Xuanzang Memorial” (2016), Google Cultural Institute.
  2. Book: The Pilgrimage Legacy of Xuanzang (2016), Nava Nalanda Mahavihara, ISBN: 978-93-83205-03-5.
  3. Book: A Journey through Bihār to Vihāra (2016), Nava Nalanda Mahavihara: Nalanda, ISBN: 978-93-83205-01-1.
  4. Brochure: “The Sublime Wandering of the Buddha in Magadha” (2014), Tourism Department, Government of Bihar, circulated at the International Buddhist Conclave, Bodhgayā, 26-28 September, 2014.
  5. Brochure: “Engaged Buddhism” (2013), Nava Nalanda Mahavihara: Nālandā.
  6. Book: Xuanzang: Footsteps that Time Cannot Erase (2011), Nava Nalanda Mahavihara: Nālandā, ISBN: 81-88242-19-5.
  7. Booklets:  “The Buddha Path”, “Contributions to the Saṅgha- The Legacy of Ven. Sāriputta and Ven. Mahā Moggallana”, “Pālipūtra Karuā Stūpa” for International Saṅgha Conference, 5-7 January, 2013, Patna.
My Exhibitions include:
  1. Echoes of the Footsteps of the Buddha: International Buddhist Conclave, Nālandā (February 2010).
  2. A Journey through Bihār to Vihāra: Displayed at International Saṅgha Conference, Patna (January 2013), International conference on Buddhist heritage of Odisha at Udayagiri (February 2013), and on occasion of the visit of Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung at Bodh Gaya (October 2014).
  3. Cetiya Cārikā- The Dhamma Pilgrimage. Hon’ble Prime Minister of India Shri Narendra Modi inaugurated it on occasion of ‘Global Hindu-Buddhism Initiative’ (September 2015).
  4. The Pilgrimage Legacy of Xuanzang: Displayed at Xuanzang Memorial, Nālandā (2016).

Why I am retracting Xuanzang
Xuanzang’s travelogue is the only text that mentions names of places, kingdoms, people, events, dates and so on. His travelogue basically documents of his own journey, therefore, it contains details like distances, directions and time taken in travelling. Besides this, Xuanzang also writes about the significance of places, building structures, and religious rituals. For example, the ancient temples, pillars and stupas at Sārnātha, Lumbīnī, Śrāvasti, Vaiśālī, Bodhgayā, Nālandā and Rājagṛiha would have been only brick structures for us, if we did not have information about their religious significance from the writings of Xuanzang. Today, we take this information for granted. However, it was the words of Xuanzang which restored meaning and sanctity to these archaeological remains. 
Furthermore, although the teachings of Buddha have been preserved for more than twenty-five hundred years by the Buddhist saṅgha (of all the countries practising the teachings of the Buddha), it is Xuanzang alone who preserves the sacred geography of Buddhism. Xuanzang’s travelogue is the single most important resource for reconstructing the Buddhist pilgrimage and identifying sacred places associated with the Buddha. Despite these contributions, Xuanzang is not known widely in the world. 
After working for several years in facilitating the revival of the Buddhist pilgrimage in Bihar, I have now come up with the idea of redoing the journey of Xuanzang personally on foot to throw fresh light on the  routes and sacred places of the Buddhist pilgrimage and create awareness about the importance of Xuanzang in preserving the Buddhist pilgrimage legacy.
What is my foot journey all about
Xuanzang made an epic journey of over 10,000 miles from China to India and back. My foot journey covers a small section of this trail in the Gangetic plain, which also happens to be the sacred geography of the wanderings of Buddha. 
My journey starts from Adi Badri, an ancient Buddhist site in Haryana and ends at Nālandā in Bihar, which was Xuanzang’s final destination in his journey. The walk would take me through Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar in India and parts of southern Nepal covering a distance of roughly 2000 kilometres. I start my walk on 1st March this summer and would be walking for the next 6 months roughly.
My walk will be supported by a team of professionals for mapping, documenting, photography and filming the walk: Surinder Talwar (filmmaker), Alok Jain (photographer), Pankaj Badra (music director), Rajinder Sharma (Pauly, cinematographer), Sanjay Mathur (GIS), Rajesh Kumar (GIS), Dr. Aparajita Goswami (content development), Caixia Che (Chinese content development),Vikram Sasane (sketches). 
Patrons and Advisors:
Ven. Thomas Dhammadipa, Ven Tsering tenzin-Ananda,  Ven. Dr. Pannyalinkara, Ven. Phramaha Phan Thaekrathoke, Ven. Saddha Yongjun 
Ven. Tathaloka Bhikkhuni, Ven. Bodhicitta
Dr. Ravindra Panth, Shri Mohan Deshmukh, Dr Victor Wee Eng Lye, Dharma Acarya Shantum Seth, Dr. Yojana Bhagat, Bikram Pandey Kajji Nuwakott, Dr Swati Chemburkar, Dr. Arun kumar, Justin Kelly

Objectives of the Walk:
            A.       To shed light on the less-known subject of the wandering of the Buddha in the Indo- Gangetic plain. 

The present Buddhist pilgrimage is limited to only the Eight Great Places. There are many more places in the Gangetic plain that according to Xuanzang are associated with the wandering of the Buddha. Through my walk I will create awareness about many such lesser known sites mentioned by Xuanzang, relive the stories of how archaeologists and explorers discovered the ancient Buddhist landscape highlighting the crucial role of accounts of Xuanzang in these discoveries and document the current status of unidentified sites and sites that have multiple identifications.

During his travels, Xuanzang came across many Buddhist places in the Indo-gangetic plain, some flourishing and others neglected. From the time of Xuanzang till now, most of these sites have become obscure because the tradition of Buddhist pilgrimage in the Gangetic plain was lost at the turn of the 2nd millennium. Through my walk, I will also retrace Xuanzang, visit the places mentioned in Xuanzang’s travelogue and document their current situation including the understanding of locals about the Buddha and Xuanzang.  

B.    To explore Walking Pilgrimage Paths for facilitating the Cetiya Cārikā

I hope that through my foot journey, I will be able to explore the possibility of Walking pilgrimage trails connecting sacred Buddhist sites and hence facilitating the revival of the ancient tradition of cetiya cārikā (walking pilgrimage).

C.   To highlight community efforts in Buddhist heritage preservation  

Through my walk I will document examples of community participation and individual efforts in preservation, promotion, and revitalisation of Buddhist heritage sites in the Indo-Gangetic plain, interact with local people living by the heritage sites and facilitate awareness amongst them towards the historical significance and sacredness of those sites, and document the neo-Buddhist communities what teachings of the Buddha means to them and their interaction with the footsteps of the Buddha.   

 Story chronicled by Dr. Aparajita Goswami


Pathfinder said...

Wonderful! Congratulations! This is great work in your life. All blessings and success to you in your mission Deepak ji.

Anonymous said...

Reading about  Buddha   is one of my favorite pastimes. This type of post is very relaxing.

Manish Singh said...

Amazing blog. Very informative.

Rahul said...

Simply no words, Deepak. Love to read your commitment. Simply Awesome. It has indeed come a very long way. Read plenty of your notes and blogs and it's amazing to see your immersion in unraveling the Buddhist imprints in India. Kudos...!!

Rahul P Sharma

Antique Buddha said...

I've been curious in Buddhism for a long time and came to your website. Your piece was quite informative and well worth reading. Thank you for sharing.

Rahul said...

Nice Post
You are providing good information and I like your post. We have also shared some blogs related world travelling and tourism travelling blogs which gives the best information regarding travel and tourism across the world.

Anonymous said...

wahai semua penganut agama Buddha,

YIP KUM FOOK (MCA Gombak) adalah kesilapan yang paling besar kerana dia menghalau sami dari Kuil Buddha (SAMNAK SAMBODHI) Taman Desa Jaya, Kepong, Kuala Lumpur ... dia tidak tahu bahawa kuil itu diasaskan oleh Sami Buddha ini, dia hanya menjadi presiden kuil, dan sekarang ramai orang bercakap tentang apa yang dia lakukan dengan Sami Buddha.

Buddha adalah 2500 tahun yang lalu tetapi tidak pernah mendengar yang baru seperti itu, dia boleh berbuat seperti itu, semoga anda menghina dan memberontak kepada Buddhisme dan anda adalah relatif dan memusnahkan Buddha dalam kehidupan terdahulu... anda adalah jawatankuasa kuil tetapi tidak pernah tahu tentang ajaran Buddha sama sekali, jika anda tahu apa yang Buddha ajar, anda tidak akan melakukan perkara sedemikian atau perkara tersebut

YIP KUM FOOK (MCA Gombak) dan pasukan dia sangat gembira kerana mereka berjaya mengeluarkan Sami Buddha dari kuil Buddha tetapi anda tidak tahu apa yang akan berlaku di belakang, semua yang anda(mereka) lakukan akan tercatat dalam fikiran orang dan semuanya tidak dapat dipadamkan dari fikiran orang

kini kuil menjadi tempat pembuangan malang olih jawatankuasa, dan juga ramai penganut yang mengetahuinya, jadi penganut cina tempatan tidak berjalan di kuil, hanya penganut Myanmar sahaja yang masuk, mereka masuk kerana Sami Buddha Myanmar bermastautin di kuil.. jawatankuasa kuil mengupah mereka untuk menjaga kuil

Rakyat Desa Jaya, Kepong

Mukta Singh-Zocchi said...

So nice, Deepak! I'm reading this in July 2023. Hope the initiative has warmed up to more exciting participation. I'm looking forward to living through yr walking pilgrimage by reading the later posts. All the best

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing your incredible travel insights and experiences in your blog post. Your storytelling skills, coupled with practical tips, have not only educated but also entertained. It's evident that you're a true traveler at heart.

manishsmo said...

Your journey sounds both inspiring and significant. Retracing the footsteps of Bodhisattva Xuanzang and raising awareness about the sacred sites where Buddha walked is a noble endeavor. Xuanzang's detailed accounts have indeed provided invaluable insights into Buddhist history and heritage. Your walk will not only honor Xuanzang but also highlight the importance of preserving these historical and spiritual sites. Best of luck on your journey, and may it bring the awareness and transformation you seek! If you need any assistance or have stories to share, feel free to reach out.