In this article we will discuss about the views of the Chinese traveller Hiuen Tsang on India during the rule of emperor Harsha Vardhana.
The Chinese traveller Hiuen Tsang visited India during the period of emperor Harsha. When he went back to China, he wrote a detailed description of India during the reign of Harsha in his book ‘Si-yu-ki’ or ‘Record of the Western Countries’.
His description has been accepted as the best available source of knowing the administrative, social and cultural condition of India at that time. However, his account of India is not entirely dependable. At several places it is confused, while mostly it is biased because Hiuen Tsang used his description as a means to glorify Buddhism and Harsha as its follower.
The primary aim of the visit of Hiuen Tsang to India was to gain knowledge of Buddhism and collect its religious texts. As he did not get the permission of the Chinese emperor to visit India, he slipped away from there in 629 A.D. He crossed the desert of Gobi, visited several places in Central Asia like Kashagar, Samarkand and Balkha and reached Afghanistan. He met and found worshippers of the Sun, a large number of Buddhist monks and followers, Stupas and monasteries at different places.
From Afghanistan he reached Taxila via Peshawar. The journey from China to India was covered by him in about a year. Then he stayed in India for nearly fourteen years. From Taxila, he went to Kashmir and then visited several places in India like Mathura, Kannauj, Sravasti, Ayodhya, Kapilvastu, Kusinagara, Sarnath, Vaisali, Pataliputra, Rajagraha, Bodha-Gaya and Nalanda.
He remained at the University of Nalanda for about five years. He, then, proceeded to Bengal and visited South India as well, as far as Kanchi. He had been a guest to Bhaskara Varman, ruler of Kamarupa. From there he was called to the court of Harsha. Harsha called a religious assembly at Kannauj to honour him. Hiuen Tsang presided over that assembly.
He also participated in one of the religious assemblies called by Harsha at Prayag after that. He left India in 644 A.D. through the same route by which he had entered. He took back many images of Buddha and copies of different Buddhist religious texts. When he reached back China he was received with honour by the Chinese emperor. Then he wrote the description of India at the instance of the Emperor.
Hiuen Tsang described the city-life of India. The information we gather from his account is that the houses were of varied types and were constructed with wood, bricks and dung. The city-streets were circular and dirty. Many old cities were in ruins while new cities had grown up.
Prayag was an important city while the importance of Pataliputra was replaced by Kannauj. Sravasti and Kapilvastu had lost their religious importance. Instead, Nalanda and Valabhi were the centres of Buddhist learning. Hiuen Tsang described Kannauj as a beautiful city.
He described that Indians used cotton, silk and wool for their garments and these were of varied types. He described Indians as lovers of education, literature and fine arts.
According to him, Indians received education between nine and thirty years of age and, in certain cases, all their lives. Mostly the education was religious and was provided orally. Many texts were put in writing and their script was Sanskrit. Debates and discussions were the most important means of providing education and also that of establishing superiority over rivals in knowledge.
Hiuen Tsang praised emperor Harsha and his administration very much. He described him as a laborious king who travelled far and wide and contacted his subjects personally to look after their welfare and supervise his administration. According to him, Harsha used to spend 3/4th of the state-income for religious purposes.
He described that the kingdom was well-governed; it was- free from revolts; there were a few cases of law-breaking; offenders were given physical punishments and tortured as well to extract the truth from them while the traitors were given death sentence or turned out of the kingdom. The burden of taxation was not heavy on the subjects; they were free from the oppression of the government servants and were, thus, happy. The state used to record its every activity.
He, however, described that travelling was not very much safe at that time. The main source of income of the state was land-revenue which formed 1/6th of the produce. Hiuen Tsang described that Harsha divided his income into four parts.
One part of it was spent on administrative routine of the state; the second part of it was distributed among government employees; the third of it was given to scholars; and the fourth part of it was given in charity to Brahamanas and the Buddhist monks.
Hiuen Tsang wrote that the army of Harsha consisted of 60,000 war-elephants, 50,000 strong cavalry chariots and a 1,00,000 strong infantry.
He described Harsha as a perfect devotee of Buddha. He agreed that Hinduism was more widely popular in India at that time as compared to Buddhism.
Hiuen Tsang described the social condition of India in detail. He wrote that caste-system was rigid. There was no purdah-system and women were provided education. However, the practice of sati prevailed. In general, the common people were simple and honest.
They used simple garments and avoided meat, onions and liquor in their food and drinks. They observed high morality in their social and personal lives. The rich people dressed well, lived in comfortable houses and enjoyed all comforts and amenities of life.
Hiuen Tsang also wrote about the economic condition of India at that time. He gave a long list of Indian fruits and agricultural products. India produced the best cotton, silk and woolen cloth at that time and prepared all sorts of garments from them. He praised very much the quality of Indian pearls and ivory.
The Indians prepared and used all types of jewellery and ornaments. He wrote that India had a brisk trade with foreign countries and there were prosperous city- ports on its sea-coast both in the East and the 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.
Hiuen Tsang wrote about the religious condition of India as well. He described that Brahamanism, Buddhism and Jainism were all popular religions in India. There was complete tolerance among people of all religious faiths and people changed their religions voluntarily.
Though he did not write that Buddhism was on decline, yet, his description of cities indicates that Buddhism was, certainly, on decline and Brahamanism was progressing. Hiuen Tsang gave description of religious assemblies also which were organised by Emperor Harsha at Prayag (Allahabad) and Kannauj.
Thus, Hiuen Tsang has given such a detailed description of political, social, religious and economic life of India as has not been given by any other Chinese traveller. The description, certainly, helps us in making an assessment of the conditions of India during the reign of emperor Harsha. However, historians do not accept his description as entirely dependable because he wrote with a positive favour for Buddhism. Therefore, it needs to be corroborated and checked with the help of other contemporary sources.