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Fa-hien


Fa-hien (337-c.422 AD) was the first Chinese Buddhist pilgrim to leave an account of his travels to Central Asia, India and Sri Lanka. The name of this monk may correctly be pronounced as Faxian but is also written as Fa-hsien. A native of sanxi (Shansi), he left home at the tender age of three to join the Buddhist Samha. After his novitiate, Fa-hien wanted to go to India to search for the treatises of the Vinaya Pitaka, the monastic rules of buddhism. He departed for India in 399 AD.

Travelling through Central Asia and Northwest India, Fa-hien reached northern India and then visited the holy Buddhist sites located in the Ganges valley: Kapilavastu, the birthplace of Buddha; Bodhgaya, the site of Buddha's enlightenment; Sarnath, where Buddha preached his first sermon, and Kusinagara, the place of Buddha's nirvana. He spent much of his time visiting and describing mid-India or Magadha. Fa-hien did not visit peninsular India, and left India by sea to return to China after visiting Sri Lanka. His is the only firsthand account of that island from a Chinese Buddhist pilgrim. Fa-hien returned to China in 414 AD after enduring many hardships at sea.

It took Fa-hien six years to reach Central India from Changan (then the capital of China); his itinerary there extended over another six years; and on his return it took him three years to reach Qingzhou (Ch'ingchou) in modern Shandong, a coastal province in east China.

Fa-hien's pilgrimage to India inspired for generations other Chinese monks who defied the hazards of travel by land or sea to reach the desired Holy Land of the Buddha in search of the Ultimate Truth (Dhamma).

Towards the end of his travels he entered Bengal through the bordering kingdom of Champa, his destination being tamralipti (Tamluk, in modern Midnapore district, West Bengal), the famous international port of the time, from where he ultimately intended to go to Sri Lanka, the other Buddhist land, by the sea-route.

However, before doing that he lived in Tamralipti for long two years, copying Buddhist sacred books and drawing pictures of Buddhist images. Fa-hien does not record any details but only informs us that there were twenty-four Buddhist monasteries and a large number of monks at Tamralipti. [Haraprasad Ray]