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A wanderer and a scholar

A wanderer and a scholar

Trans World Features (TWF) | 22 Sep 2014, 08:39 pm
In search of roots from Hungary to the plains of central Asia, and then landing in India to stay on, the astonishing journey of scholar Csoma Koros fascinates Ranjita Biswas on a visit to Budapest

It is strange but true that while travelling in a foreign land you suddenly come across a ‘home’ connection, which sometimes becomes absolutely a new discovery. So was it personally for me when the name of Csoma Koros popped up while visiting Budapest, the beautiful Hungarian capital. At the entrance of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences there was this statue of the scholar. At the Hungarian Geographical Museum  which features the great explorers of the past, a picture of  Csoma’s sculpture with a tuberose garland and the Asiatic Society building on Kolkata’s Park Street in the background was even more intriguing. Yes, this famous Hungarian scholar had a long connection with India and lived in Kolkata working in the Asiatic Society during British colonial days as a librarian.

While many western scholars of that period are household names in India today, this Hungarian scholar’s pioneering work as a foremost Tibetologist and Oriental scholar is hardly known, except perhaps among the academic circle. So it was exciting to discover about him. In fact, he lies buried in Darjeeling. He was on his way to Lhasa from Kolkata but malaria got the better of him and it proved to be his last journey. His grave is a place of pilgrimage today; in Japan a pagoda is dedicated to him. During his visit to Hungary  Dalai Lama spoke of Koros as a saint.

Csoma Koros was the first western scholar to outline (1836-39)  the content of the 325-volume Tibetan Buddhist canon Kanjur that describes the religious tenets t Buddha had expounded. He was the first scholar to publish and comment on the Sanskrit-Tibetan dictionary, the Mahavyutpatti. In 1834 he published his Tibetan-English dictionary and also the first grammar of the Tibetan language in Kolkata.

The journey of Körösi Csoma Sándor, better known as Alexander Csoma de Körös later, was long indeed. He was born in 1784 in KÅrös, a small town in Transylvania, now part of Romania. His family belonged to a semi-military class of the Hungarian Magyars who considered themselves to be descendants of Attila the Hun. The Huns from central Asia had invaded vast swathes of eastern Europe in the fifth century and stayed on in Hungary making it their hub for invading other parts of Europe.

Though not wealthy, Csoma could have led  a reasonably comfortable life managing the family estate but wanderlust and scholarship led him to explore untrodden paths. As his cousin Joseph Csoma recalled later, he was someone who "like a swallow, is impelled on a distant journey when the autumn arrives."

Csoma’s family had a tradition of learning and at 15 years of age, his father sent him to Bethlenianum, a famous Protestant school in Nagyenyed. He was a brilliant student and learnt various languages quickly. In his senior years, he was inspired by his professor’s lectures on Hungarian history. A voracious reader, he came across the old Hun-Avarian-Hungarian theory tracing the roots to Uyghur (now in western China), Csoma decided to set on a journey to trace the trail. He even learnt Arabic and Turkish in order to facilitate his journey to central Asia.

His long route to  Asia is dotted with place names familiar to us today- Sofia, Alexandria, Cyprus,  Aleppo, Mosul  etc. but it was quite arduous those days to  travel by foot, caravan and rickety boats.  At last, via Bamiyan, Kabul and Peshawar  he arrived in Lahore in 1822. From there Csoma traveled to Kashmir via Amritsar and Jammu and continued further to Leh.
He planned to reach central Asia  taking an old trading route but this itinerary was costly and dangerous for a Christian, so he turned back to Leh. Here he met the British officer William Moorcroftt. This proved to be a fortuitous encounter  for Csoma. He received from Moorcroft a copy of the very first book on Tibet, the Alphabetum Tibetanum by Agostino Antonio Giorgi, which tweaked the interest of the scholar to launch his Tibetan studies. Biographers of Csoma speculate that perhaps he  hoped to find new sources about the history of ancient Hungarians in the Tibetan literature. He stayed on in Leh and began to learn the Tibetan language.

Harsh living conditions, inclement weather and all did not matter to him as he was taught by his Tibetan teacher  whom he referred as “the lama” in his letters. Some British officers helped him and he later offered his services to the Asiatic Society of Bengal.
In 1831 he was in Kolkata where he prepared the publication of his works, and meanwhile found employment at the Asiatic Society of Bengal, cataloging the large number of Tibetan books sent by the British ambassador in Nepal. He also wrote regularly in Asiatic Researches. Finally in 1834 he published his masterpiece, the Tibetan grammar and dictionary.

As for Tibetan culture and literature, he noted that its foremost significance was that it had faithfully conserved the Buddhist literature already lost in India.

After publishing his magnum opus, Csoma decided to go on a study tour of India and  to master Sanskrit and other Indian languages for a couple of years. He learned Sanskrit and Bengali, in the same modest conditions under which he studied earlier in the monasteries of Tibet.

In 1842, however, Csoma was restless again, to travel and discover  new horizons. He intended to go to the Tibetan capital of Lhasa, and from there to Northern China, the land of the Uyghurs and Mongolians. It was not to be.

The grave of Csoma in Darjeeling has a memorial set up by the Asiatic Society of Bengal. It is included in the list of monuments of historical maintained by the Archeological Survey of India. The Hungarian government has placed a tablet  with words of Hungarian statesman and writer Count Istvan Szechenyi : “A poor lonely Hungarian, without applause or money but inspired with enthusiasm sought the Hungarian native country but in the end broke down under the burden.”

Csoma Koros may not have been able to achieve his goal  of reaching Central Asia looking for his illusory roots,  but he opened up a unknown civilization and scholarship in Tibetan studies to the western world at that time. In the process Indology also got a boost in his native country. Csoma Koros’s life-work (1784-1842) remains a landmark in the history of Hungarian Indology.

(Photographs by author )

A wanderer and a scholar

Trans World Features (TWF)
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