Dialogue  July-September  2008, Volume 10  No. 1

Kashmir and Central Asia in the First Millenium

Lokesh Chandra

Kashmir has been celebrated throughout Asia as the vale of wisdom, adorned by galaxies of scholars, and a land that humbles even Indra’s domain:

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Eminent poets blessed by the grace of Sarasvati made Kashmir the envy of the Sanskritic world. The light of Buddhism and its artistic glories, meditational enlightenment and enchanting murals of the cloisters of Kashmir inspired artists to illumine monastic interiors in the sands of Central Asia, in the snows of Tibet and the sprawling monasteries of China . To paint was to evoke. In the eleventh century (to be precise, in A.D. 1052) Somendra the son of the polymath Kœemendra, bemoaned the fading glories of Buddhist convents: “Gone are the monasteries in the flow of time whose cloisters were painted with charming murals of Buddhist avadanas in golden hues and which held the eyes in rapture”. These murals found a new life in Tibet .

As the prime land of Buddhism , it was natural that Kashmir play a pivotal role in its dissemination to Central Asia . Hsüan-tsang relates that Arhat Vairocana from Kashmir first preached Buddhism in Khotan and established a Buddhist monastery there. The Tibetan Annals of Khotan too confirm it. The local traditions prevalent in the early part of last century and archaeological evidence suggests special relationship of Khotan with Kashmir in Buddhism and other importations from India (Stein 164). When Vairocana was practicing meditation, the King of Khotan came to see him, being informed of

* Prof. Lokesh Chandra, M.A., D. Litt., former Member of Parliament.

his n strange appearance and dress. The Arhat exhorted him to follow the Dharma. The King offered to believe in Buddha if he could see him. Sung-yün says that Vairocana inspired the King to build a stupa of the ‘turned-up bowl’ shape to gain blessings. This simile of the upturned bowl survived till late in Iranian literature: “the inverted bowl they call the sky” in Omar Khayyam. The Tibetan Annals of Li-yul (=Khotan) point out that Vairocana invited the Någa king Hu-lor to bring from Kashmir a caitya which contained the relics of the Seven Tathågatas.

The ‘Records’ and ‘Life’ of Hsüan-tsang record an ancient tradition that an Arhat of Kashmir fell dangerously ill and asked for a peculiar cake of rice. His saintly teacher obtained this for him from Khotan, whereupon the Sramanera, who much relished the dish, prayed to be reborn in that country. Having obtained his wish and become king of Khotan in his new birth, he crossed the snowy mountains and attacked Kashmir . Before retiring to Khotan the king presented himself the Buddha statue to which he had paid worship in his former birth, and took it homewards with his army. When the statue arrived at P’o-ch’ieh-i it refused to be moved further. Thereupon the king constructed a convent around the statue and placed upon its head his own diadem adorned with precious stones. This legend is of interest in several respects. It proves that Kashmir was credited with having supplied to Khotan statuary of ancient date, a fact throwing light on one of the channels through which Khotan art derived its unmistakable connection with the art of Gandhara (Stein 118).

The legend of the foundation of Khotan has been preserved in the Tibetan Annals. It opens characteristically with the Buddhist adaptation of a legend popular in Kashmir . Khotån was converted into a lake by its Nagas because of ill-treatment to «œis by the people. When Buddha visited Khotan he predicted that after his nirvna the lake would dry up and become a country. It has a parallel in the draining of the lakes believed to have once occupied the present valleys of Kashmir as told in the Nilamata Puråµa. There are other correspondences between the legendary lore of Kashmir and Khotan. Anthropological affinities between the people of Khotan and Kashmiris have been pointed out by Stein (165).

The queen of king Vijayasa¶gråm of Khotån came from Kashmir (Stein 582).

Scholars of Kashmir travelled to the farthest limits of Central Asia , namely, to Tun-huang. In A.D. 284 Dharmarakœa was staying at Tun-huang. Dharmarakœa has the honour of contributing more than anyone else to the conversion of China to Buddhism. During his sojourn at Tun-huang he got a copy of the Yogacår-bhømi from a layman of Kashmir whose name is given in Chinese translation as Cheng-jo (Zürcher 66). Dharmarakœa translated this work into Chinese in collaboration with his Indian guest. In A.D. 300 a monk from Kashmir brought a manuscript of the Bhadrakalpåvadån to Dharmaraksa who belonged to a Yüeh-chih family of Central Asia (Zürcher 67). 

The years A.D. 380-385 were characterised by the translation of several important scriptures into Chinese. Some scholars came from Kashmir, a stronghold of Sarvstivåd school of Buddhism . Others came from the Buddhist kingdoms of Central Asia , like Dharmanandin from Tukhåra and Kumårbodhi from Turfån. The Kashmiri and Central Asian masters worked together under Chu Fo-nien who was well-versed in Sanskrit and in several Central Asian Languages (Zürcher 202) 

The Biography of Shih Hui-yüan (334-416) states: “Later there was Sa¶ghadeva, monk from Kashmir , who possessed an extensive knowledge of the pictures. When in the sixteenth year of the T’ai-yüan era (391 A.D.) he arrived at Hsün-yang.” Hui-yüan asked him to make a second translation of the “Heart of the Abhidharma” and of the San fa-tu lun (Zürcher 246).

On 27 May 412 A.D. Buddhabhadra the dhyån-master from Kashmir performed the solemn inauguration of a chapel in which a painting of the “shadow” of Lord Buddha was consecrated. He gave a detailed description of this painting as it was in the mountain cave at Nagarahår (modern Jelalabad). Hui-yüan wrote the eulogy on the Buddha shadow. It was seen by Fa-hsien in A.D. 399, by Sung-yün in A.D. 520, and by Hsüan-tsang in A.D. 630. The Buddha after having converted the Någa-king Gopåla left at the latter’s request his “shadow” (a reflection of his body) on the wall. All descriptions emphasize the remarkable phenomenon that the image was clearly distinct if seen from some distance, fading away and eventually disappearing when one approached the wall (Zürcher 224).

Kumårajðva was born in Kuchå of a Brahman father and a Kuchean princess. The Kucheans were an Italo-Celtic people whose Kuchean language had words like nyø for new, oxo for ox.  Kumårajðva followed his mother into the Buddhist sa¶gha, at the tender age of seven. They travelled together to Kashmir to study Buddhist texts under one of the most famous masters of the Buddhist world, Bandhudatta. After three years in Kashmir , mother and son went to Kashgar to study the Vedas, astronomy and mathematics. At Kashgar, Kumårajðva studied Mahåyån Søtras and became a Mahayanist. After an year at Kashgar, Kumårajðva returned to his native kingdom. He invited Bandhudatta to Kucha from Kashmir and succeeded in converting him to Mahyna. In 401 Yao Hsing despatched armies to Liang-chou to bring Kumårajðva to his capital Ch’ang-an. Under his patronage Kumårajðva carried on translation activities in the Hsiao-yao Gardens with a thousand monks in daily sessions. Some of the greatest classics of Chinese Buddhism are the translations of Kumårajðva. Yao Hsing felt that Kumrajðva’s extraordinary brilliance and understanding should be transmitted to off-spring, so he assigned ten girls to live with Kumårajðva and installed them in separate quarters. Kumårajðva complied with the ruler’s wishes, but he realized his own short-comings, for it is recorded that when he preached he warned his audience to take only the lotus that grew out of the mud and to leave the mud alone (Chen 83).

There was an old tradition about Lao-tzu’s activities in India, localised at the Court of Kashmir, as recorded in the Hsiao tao lun (A.D. 570, Zürcher 299, 302). Whatever the varacity of this tradition, it goes to show that Kashmir occupied a prominent place in the cultural life of China .

Hsüan-tsang (602-664) halted at Srinagar , the capital of Kashmir . He dined at the palace, to meet the great Buddhist philosopher Sa¶ghayœ[as, who was getting on for seventy. Inspite of his poor health, the philosopher arranged a strenuous program for Hsüan-tsang. In the morning he lectured on Abhidharma-koœa, in the afternoon on nyya and in the evening on grammar and logic. The introduction of Indian logic into China was Hsüan-tsang’s most important achievement. The evening lessons in Kashmir , extending over two years, had become a new starting-point in Chinese thought.

The T’ang Annals furnish geographical data on Kashmir which they transliterate as Ku-shih-mi (Stain 6).

In A.D. 693, Cintåmaµi (Chin.Pao-ssu-wei) of the kœatriya caste from Kashmir arrived at Loyang where he died in A.D. 721 at the age of more than a hundred years. He founed a monastery on the Lung-men Mountain and translated nine Sanskrit works into Chinese (Hobogirin 148).

The Chinese considered it vital to retain hold over ‘Little P’o-lu’ to keep the route to Kashmir absolutely safe and open for food convoys. The T’ang Annals have preserved a letter addressed to the Chinese Emperor by Muktåpðæa (Chin. Mu-to-pi) on his accession to the Kashmir throne in A.D. 733 (Stein 13). 

The complete defeat of Kao Hsien-chih by the Arabs in A.D. 751 led to the rapid decline of the Chinese Imperial power in the ‘Western kingdoms’ of NW India. It also forced them to abandon active relations with Gilgit, Kashmir, Kabul and Udyåna (Chavannes 295).

In A.D. 759 the Chinese pilgrim Wu-k’ung visited from Gandhåra (present Peshwar district) and stayed there till A.D. 763. Wu-k’ung correctly described Kashmir as enclosed on all sides by mountains and three roads opening through them secured by gates or watch-stations.

In 781 Pråjña arrived in Canton , and worked in Ch’ang-an till 785. He was born in Kashmir in A.D. 744. In 790-92 he visited Central Asia . On return he resided at Loyang till his death in A.D. 810 (Hobogirin 253). In 806 he taught Sanskrit, Indian Buddhism and Någari calligraphy to Kobo Daishi the greatest personality in the cultural history of Japan . Kobo Daishi created the Japanese syllabary (alphabet) and democratised education by bringing it to all persons irrespective of their birth or rank. The Tripitaka Master Pråjña had told Kobo Daishi on the eve of his return home: “I was born in Kashmir and was initiated into Buddhism while still young and went on a pilgrimage all over India . With the pledge to transmit the torch of the Dharma, I came to China . I wish to sail for Japan , but circumstances do not allow me to fulfill my intention. Take with you the new Avata´saka Søtra, and Œa»-Pårmitå Søtra, both of which I have translated, and these Sanskrit manuscripts. I sincerely hope that these will help create conditions in which to propagate Buddhism so that people will be saved” (Hakeda 149, Kobo Daishi’s Memorial to the Japanese Emperor dated A.D. 806).

In A.D. 982, Deva[nti (Chin. T’ien-si-toai) of Kashmir arrived in China with Dånapål. Till his death in A.D. 1000 he translated 17 Sanskrit works into Chinese, including Tantric texts (Hobogirin 283).

In the 13th century, the Ilkhanid Mongols in Iran , were in close touch with Kashmir . They invited Buddhist monks from Kashmir before the conversion of King Ghazan to Islam in A.D. 1295 and the consequent destruction of Buddhist vihras in Iran . Pangs of memories brood over the loss of Mongol identity as recorded by Rashid al-Din (1247-1318) who was commissioned by King Ghazan: “ After a year had passed, he once summoned me and said: “Thanks to God, we have become Muslim. Two or three generations have already passed since the arrival of my uncle Hulegu from Mongolia . The Mongols, who will be born after us, will have forgotten the languages, the words, the soil, the regions, and will not even remember their ancestors. Many tribes are living in Mongolia and some are of Mongol stock, while others are not. All of that you shall learn and describe”. I replied, when he gave me this order: “An individual may accomplish a duty, but you are charging me with a great task”. The Khan said: “Nobody can accomplish this work, but you. We possess books which are written in the Mongol language. There are people, who remember the events which have not been described”. Hence, I received the assistance of six Mongols, who were familiar with the ancient Mongol language” (Zamcarano 2). The Buddhist monk Kamala[›rð was at the Mongol court in Iran and he supplied a detailed account of Buddhism to Rashid al-Din for his World History Jami al-Tawarikh. The Fatih albums at Istanbul and Berlin have a direct connection with Buddhist scroll-paintings from China . The manuscript of the World History of Rashid al-Din contains illustrations of Buddhist themes (Gray 34).

Mongols speak of Kashmiri beauty to this day. During my visit to Ulanbator in 1957, Madame Indri the wife of the-then Deputy Prime Minister narrated how the Mongols speak of her son: “He is as handsome as an Indian”, evidently reminiscing of the 13th century when bakshis or bhiksus from Kashmir manned the Imperial Mongol court and monasteries in Iran and elsewhere.  


Chavannes 1903, Edouard Chavannes, Documents sur les Tou-kiue (Turcs) occidentaux, St. Petersbourg.

Ch’en 1964, Kenneth Ch’en, Buddhism in China , Princeton .

Gray 1978, Basil Gray, The World History of Rashid al-Din, London .

Hakeda 1972, Yoshi to S. Hakeda, Kukai: major works, New York .

Hobogirin 1978, Paul Demieville, Hubert Dutt, Anna Seidel, Hobogirin: Repertore du Canon Bouddhique Sino-Japanais, Edition de Taisho, Tokyo .

Stein 1907, M. Aurel Stien, Ancient Khotan, Oxford .

Zamcarano 1955, C.Z. Zamcarano, The Mongol Chronicles of the Seventeenth Century, Wiesbaden (0tto Harrassowitz).

Zurcher 1972, E. Zurcher, The Buddhist Conquest of China , Leiden .


Dialogue A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati

Astha Bharati