The history of Harsha remains incomplete without a reference to Hiuen Tsang. Among all the foreign travellers who visited in ancient times, no one is more famous or more celebrated than this Chinese pilgrim. Rightly has he been described therefore as the “Prince of Pilgrims”.
He is known as the Chinese “Master of the Law”. India is much indebted to this Chinese for the valuable accounts he left behind with many details of political, religious and social conditions of those days.
His biography, written by another Chinese, is also another valuable source for Indian history.
Hiuen Tsang was born in China in 600 A.D. Becoming a Buddhist monk at the age of twenty, he longed for knowing more and more of Buddhism to satisfy his spiritual hunger. But without a visit to India, he knew, his desire for learning would remain unfulfilled. When he was about 30, he secretly left China for an adventurous journey towards India. Passing through Tashkand, Samarkand and Balkh, he finally reached Gandhara in 630 A.D.
In India, he wanted to visit all the sacred places connected with the life of Buddha, as well as to learn of Buddhism through study. During his travel he covered many more places and observed keenly the social, religious, political, cultural and” economic conditions of the country.
Hiuen Tsang visited Kashmir and the Punjab. He proceeded to Kapilavastu, Bodh-Gaya, Sarnath, and Kusinagara. He studied in the University of Nalanda. He also travelled through the Deccan, Orissa and Bengal. He went almost to every part of India. Harsha came to admire him for his deep devotion to Buddha and his profound knowledge of Buddhism. He honoured him in his Kanauj religious Assembly, and also invited him to attend the Prayaga Assembly. After attending those two magnificent functions, Hiuen Tsang prepared to leave for China in 644 A.D., after having spent long fourteen years of his life on the soil of India.
The emperor was sorry to part with the pilgrim. But he made elaborate arrangements for his safe return. A king named Udito of Jalandhar was authorised by Harsha to take Hiuen Tsang under a strong military escort to the frontiers of India. Beyond the frontiers, the pilgrim was accompanied by Harsha’s official guides who carried the letters of authority from emperor to produce them in other countries. It is understood that Harsha, in his letters, requested the foreign rulers to “provide carriages or other modes of conveyance to escort the Master even to the borders of China. Thus helped, Hiuen Tsang finally reached home in 645 A.D. by way of the Pamirs and Khotan.
Hiuen Tsang took with him from India 150 pieces of the bodily relics of Buddha; a large number of Buddha images in gold, silver and sandal wood; and above all, 657 volumes of valuable manuscripts, carried by twenty horses of his escort party. Back in his home in China, he set himself to translate some of those manuscripts into the Chinese language, assisted by several scholars. About 74 Buddhist works were translated during his life time which proved of immense value to the people of China. Hiuen Tsang died in 664 A.D.
Hiuen Tsang was indeed an ancient ambassador of peace between China and India. Harsha, too was a man of international vision like Asoka. Coming to hear of the prestige of Chinese Emperor from his pilgrim friend, Harsha sent an ambassador to the Chinese Court in 641 A.D. in the person of a Brahmin. Two years later, 643 A.D., the Chinese Emperor sent a mission to Harsha. A second Chinese mission also came in that very year to India. Within the next years, a third mission also came from China. But when it reached India, Harsha was no more.
Regarding Hiuen Tsang’s praise of Harsha and of the Indian people in his Travel Accounts, it may be said that the Chinese pilgrim was writing the memoirs of his Indian days in far-away China, without any compulsion or pressure from anybody to give a favourable account of the rulers and peoples of another country. He was writing what he saw, and what he honestly felt, as well as of what he had heard.
As a true Buddhist, and a pious pilgrim to a holy land, he could not have been dishonest or untruthful in his writings. He had no reason to flatter anybody when far out of sight. He had also no reason to seek anybody’s favour for his Travel Accounts. He was, in fact, describing the condition of Buddhism in India as he saw. That was the subject of his prime concern. Other episodes came in as side descriptions. On the whole, Hiuen Tsang’s accounts have been accepted as truthful and trustworthy. His writings have thrown immense light on an important era of the ancient Indian history.