Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Xuanzang in Chakwal —

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Late in the year 631 of the Common Era, a Chinese traveller made his way from Taxila to the town of Singhapura. He tells us that this 'kingdom' was 'about 3500 or 3600 li in circuit.' Now, the Chinese linear measure of li equals one-sixth of a the English mile which would make this a truly vast kingdom six hundred miles (1000 km) around. But the traveller also states that on the west, Singhapura was bordered by the Sindhu River. Clearly, the traveller was grossly over-estimating the extant of Singhapura.

He also notes that that the country, a tributary to Kashmir, surrounded by 'crags and precipices', was extensively farmed and reaped abundant produce. Of the people, Xuanzang writes that they 'value highly the quality of courage; moreover, they are much given to deceit.' Singhapura, Xuanzang notes, was a cold country. But he also tells us that he travelled 700 li (116 miles or 185 km) southeast from Taxila to reach it.

Such a distance would place Singhapura square in the heart of Punjab, far away from the hills. But Xuanzang is categorical in his mention of the 'crags and precipices' that hem the country. So, which kingdom is our traveller speaking of?

First of all, we must remember that on his way back after travelling across India, as the pilgrim was negotiating the Sindhu River between Taxila in Punjab and Hund in Pukhtunkhwa, one of his boats capsized.

Himself on an elephant, he watched in horror as the boat went under with its load of Buddhist scripture, Buddha relics as well as seeds of flowers that he was carrying home to remind him of the fragrances that his spiritual guide would have known. The express purpose of Xuanzang's visit to India was to collect authentic religious books in order to correct the corrupted copies current in China in his time. This loss was thus a great setback for him. The people of Hund were good and kind folks whose king was not ready to let the pious pilgrim's object be defeated. He hosted Xuanzang in royal apartments while men were sent out around the country to collect copies of the books lost to the river together with as many Buddha relics and flower seeds as possible.

Going back to the boat lost to the mighty Sindhu, I suspect among the cargo that went under, there was one volume of the several of a diary that our pilgrim had so meticulously kept during his travels. This one dealt with his journey from Taxila to Singhapura and back. Though he may have immediately again written up his impressions, Xuanzang got the distance mixed up: he put down the to and fro length of the journey as one way.

With that in mind and also the 'crags and precipices' that surround Singhapura, if we draw a line on the map southeast from Taxila, we land straight in the heart of the Salt Range near Kallar Kahar. We can safely say, then, that our pious pilgrim was talking of a place in present day Chakwal district. So let us examine what else he has to tell us of this kingdom.

Xuanzang writes that 'not far to the south of the capital is a stupa built by Asoka-raja' that had been greatly damaged even at that time. Next to it was a monastery that, much to our writer's sorrow, was 'deserted and without priests'. It has to be remembered that Xuanzang was following just a hundred years after the great ruin brought down by the marauding Huns on the Buddhist countries of what are today Afghanistan and Pakistan. All along his itinerary through Afghanistan across Peshawar valley and Swat to Taxila, Xuanzang had seen similar signs of desecration.

One day on his Singhapura sojourn, Xuanzang went '40 or 50 li' farther to the southeast. Here the normally solemn writer breaks into rare eloquence of purple descriptions of water tanks 'secretly connected together' with walkways in-between having balustrades. The water teemed with 'dragons and various fishes', its surface aflame with lotus flowers in four colours and a 'hundred kind' of fruit trees all around. 'The trees are reflected deep down in the water, and altogether it is a lovely spot for wandering forth,' Xuanzang waxes.

Here our pilgrim found another monastery devoid of Buddhist priests but taken over by Svetambra (White-clad) and Digambra (Sky-clad or naked) 'heretics', that is, Jains. His piety and staunch Buddhist belief appalled Xuanzang to see that while they had given up pure Buddhism, '[Their] laws...are mostly filched from the principles of the books of Buddha.' Near the monastery, the pilgrim also found a stone stupa, again built on the orders of Asoka. It was, he reported, sixty metres tall.

Now, Singhapura is forgotten. But archaeologists tell us that it lay just outside the village of Dulmial on the highroad between Kallar Kahar and Choa Saidan Shah and made famous by the 12-pounder Alfred Broome cannon that sits outside it. Exactly a kilometre and a half to the south (as Xuanzang tells us) lies the sacred pond and temple of Ketas. Today the temple complex is holy to worshippers of Shiva who believe that the limpid pond was created by the god's tears when he wept for his dead wife Sati.

All but lost amid the several buildings, is a low mound that visitors scarcely ever notice. This is the base, the last vestige, of Asoka's stupa that Xuanzang told us of. The surrounding Hindu buildings have all been raised over and lost monastery. But the pilgrim also mentions a very scenic place about 50 li (13 km) to the southeast. Draw another line on the map and you get to the orchards of Gandhala right outside the village of Choa Saidan Shah. And the distance from Ketas is exactly thirteen kilometres to the southeast!

The thick vegetation rings with birdsong and in the rank undergrowth insects sing. A little rill of clear water (strange that it is still more or less unpolluted) winds its way through the trees reflecting them exactly as Xuanzang had noted. Though there are no dragons which were surely a figment of our pious traveller's imagination, the water still swarms with fish.

And there, all but lost in the thick vegetation, is a mound very like the one at Ketas. Rifle through the shrubbery and you will find bits of carved limestone that once decorated this stupa that Asoka had ordered in stone. It is recorded that several figurines were found from this site and removed to the Lahore Museum sometime in the early years of the 20th century. Since they are not on display, one wonders what became of them. For its part, the Department of Archaeology satisfied itself by installing a blue sign notifying this as a protected site.

Xuanzang is our milestone to the past. Had it not been for his remarkable travelogue that fortunately survived to be translated into European languages in the 19th century, we may never have known of the lost city of Singhapura. Nor too would we have known that the mounds of Ketas and Gandhala are the remains of stupas built on the orders of Asoka.



posted by Salman Rashid @ 11:30,


At 28 June 2014 at 13:09, Blogger Lahoremassagist said...

Chakwal from Xuanzang to Salman Rashid

At 28 June 2014 at 13:46, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Cheers, Nayyar.

At 28 June 2014 at 14:25, Anonymous Amardeep Singh said...

What is the name of his travelogue that is translated in English?

At 28 June 2014 at 15:07, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Buddhist Record of the Western World, Tr by Prof Samuel Beal. Lazim. Must read.

At 21 July 2014 at 14:30, Anonymous Anonymous said...

informative. you rock sir g..... rashid idrees dvocte.

At 27 January 2018 at 19:07, Blogger Unknown said...

Great ! admire your research.

At 27 January 2018 at 19:09, Blogger Unknown said...

very useful for me as I trace the route of xuanzang..
best wishes


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Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

The Apricot Road to Yarkand

Jhelum: City of the Vitasta

Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

Salt Range and Potohar Plateau

Prisoner on a Bus: Travel Through Pakistan

Between Two Burrs on the Map: Travels in Northern Pakistan

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Riders on the Wind

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