In 399 CE, a 62-year-old Chinese monk, Fa-Hien (or Fa-hsien), decided to travel to India because he had heard that he would find what he had long been seeking, not enlightenment exactly but something rather necessary for it: well-bound books on the Buddha’s teachings. His copies of the Vinaya Pitakas (The Books of Discipline) were crumbling and he’d been unable to find replacements in China.
No long-distance trip was simple or straightforward in his time. But what followed for Fa-Hien was unusual even then. His quest resulted in an epic, 15-year journey that took the monk across the Gobi desert, along the Silk Route, through India, and eventually all the way to Sri Lanka. Along the way, he recorded what he saw, and because he had a curious mind and a way with words. He ended up creating the first contemporary eyewitness account of life on the Indian subcontinent.
Not since the travel logs of the Greek mariner Periplus in the 1st century CE had there been such a work, full of unique and now-long-forgotten minutiae.
Fa-Hien was 77 years old by the time he returned to China and finished compiling his account. This translation, A Record of Buddhistic Kingdoms: Being An Account by the Chinese Monk Fâ-Hsien of his Travels in India and Ceylon, first published in 1886, is an early translation by James Legge of the Chinese monk’s travels . It remains a riveting account of life in the Gangetic plains, a rather mind-boggling 1,600 years ago.