Hyecho's Journey

Hyecho's Journey


I traveled for about one month to the northwest across the mountains from Kashmir and arrived at Gandhara. The king and military are all Turks, while the local people are comprised of Hu and also some Brahmins....

In the northern part of this country, everyone lives in [the mountains], though they are barren, with neither trees nor grasses. Their clothes, customs, language, and climate are all different from other places. They wear a combination of woolen and fine-wool clothing, along with boots and trousers. The land is suitable for barley and wheat, and there is no millet, sorghum, or rice at all. Commoners eat primarily barley flour and bread....

Though the king is a Turk, he reveres the Three Jewels deeply. The king, queen, princes, and generals each build temples and give offerings to the Three Jewels. Every year, the king holds two Great Assemblies where he donates things that he personally used and loved, including even his wife, elephants, and horses. However, for his wife and elephants, he would order the monks to set a price so that he could purchase them back again. Besides these things, the monks would sell off the donated camels, horses, gold, silver, clothing and furniture, and share the proceeds. The king is very different from the Turkic king in the north. His children behave in the same way, building monasteries, having feasts and assemblies, and giving donations.

—Hyecho's journal

The Khyber Pass in the 1920s
The Khyber Pass in the 1920s. Image is in public domain (PD-1923).


Among the most popular genres of Buddhist literature are the jataka or “birth” stories, stories of the Buddha’s former lives as a human or an animal. Hyecho knew many of these stories and knew that several of the most famous took place in Gandhara. He refers specifically to the Buddha’s former life as Chandraprabha, a benevolent king renowned for his great generosity. When an evil sorcerer heard of the king’s virtue, he decided to put him to the test by coming to his court and requesting the kings’ head. His ministers offered him a pile of heads made from precious jewels, but the sorcerer persisted. The king immediately agreed to give the sorcerer his head, giving him a knife to do the deed. When the sorcerer could not bear to do it, the king cut off his own head and died, but only after vowing to achieve buddhahood for the sake of all beings.


The Takht-i-Bahi monastery
The Takht-i-Bahi monastery (1st c BCE to 7th c CE) was abandoned decades before Hyecho travelled through Gandhara. Courtesy of Asif Nawaz via Wikimedia Commons.

The mountainous Gandhara region of what is today northwestern Pakistan and northeastern Afghanistan has long been an area where peoples, goods, and ideas from India, Central Asia, and points west intersected. An area where many faiths thrived, Gandhara was a center of Buddhism from the late first millennium BCE through the late first millennium CE. A place of important teachers, great art, and impressive monasteries and stupas, it is the setting for several important jatakas, or tales of the Buddha’s former lives. Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, and other faiths also were practiced by the region’s diverse and cosmopolitan population.

Given its strategic location near the Khyber Pass, one of the few routes that allowed access across the mountains to the west, control over Gandhara was frequently contested. Numerous local and foreign kingdoms fought over and ruled the region throughout its history. Many of Gandhara’s great Buddhist sites were destroyed by invaders from Central Asia during the fifth century and were in ruins when Hyecho arrived nearly 300 years later. When he visited Gandhara, it was under the control of the Central Asian Kabul Shahi dynasty, whose leaders ruled from their seat in the Afghan city of Kabul. These rulers were devout Buddhists and Hyecho observed that Buddhist monasteries and monks received generous support from the king and his family.

Even as kings and armies fought over its control, the large Peshawar Valley was home to farming and herding communities. As he traveled, Hyecho observed these more humble residents and the landscapes they inhabited, noting the distinctive customs and language of mountain dwellers who lived on a simple diet of barley bread. He described agricultural fields of barley and wheat and the wide variety of livestock (including five hundred royal elephants, countless sheep, horses, camel, donkeys and mules). And he commented on the dangers of travel along treacherous roads with many bandits.


Long a center of Buddhism, Gandhara was also paramount in the development of Buddhist art and architecture. Its artists drew from the many traditions imported via the trade routes that crossed the region, integrating them into local styles that radically impacted Buddhist art elsewhere in South and Central Asia. While this region is most famous for its so-called Greco-Buddhist art, the result of trade and invasion, Gandharan artists continued to experiment over many centuries, making significant contributions to the history of Buddhist art.

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Buddha with halo

Buddha with halo
  • Gandhara region, Pakistan, 6th century
  • Brass
  • H: 29.2 cm
  • Edith Perry Chapman Fund, 1948
  • The Metropolitan Museum of Art
  • 48.66a,b
  • Image courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

This small brass image is said to have come from the site of Sahri-Bahlol, a Gandharan settlement in the far northwest of modern Pakistan. It is one of a number of similar small images that were likely the personal possessions of monks and devotees. The movement of small portable images facilitated the spread of artistics influences from Gandhara. Dating to the late sixth century CE, a halo enclosing the head and body was attached as a separate piece to the standing Buddha, who makes the gesture of “[have] no fear” (abhaya mudra). Diverse stylistic influences are visible in this small figure and point to the dynamic cosmopolitan world through which Hyecho traveled. A Gandharan style robe is draped over the Gupta influenced portrayal of the body of the Buddha, while his hairstyle shows the influence of Swat and Kashmir. The halo, however, connects this piece to the famous monumental Buddhas of Bamiyan, created in Afghanistan in the same period.


Mold and impression of a seated Buddha

Mold and Impression of a seated Buddha
  • Gandhara region, Pakistan, 5th-7th century
  • Terracotta
  • H: 12.1 cm
  • Samuel Eilenberg Collection, Gift of Samuel Eilenberg, 1987
  • The Metropolitan Museum of Art
  • 1987.142.387a,b
  • Image courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

In contrast to large and elaborate stone and bronze images endowed by rulers for monasteries and temples, small mass-produced images served as objects of veneration and remembrance for individual worshippers and pilgrims. This terracotta mold, less than five inches high, was used to produce clay images of a seated Buddha figure sitting on a lotus throne with hands in the “turning of the wheel of dharma” (dharmachakra mudra), a gesture of teaching. Artisans throughout South Asia manufactured mass-produced images for worship and ritual offerings; their productions are found at pilgrimage sites such as Bodh Gaya. Did Hyecho acquire such objects to commemorate his arduous journey?


Carved architectural fragment with figure of dancing ascetic (Shiva?)

Architectural fragment with figure of dancing ascetic
  • Kashmir Smast Cave, Northwest Frontier Province, Pakistan, 9th-10th century
  • Wood
  • H: 31.7 cm W: 54.3 cm D: 11 cm
  • Sir Harold Arthur Deane Collection
  • The British Museum
  • 1889.0703.9
  • Image © The Trustees of the British Museum

Although this wooden panel likely postdates Hyecho’s time, it provides a rare example of late first millennium wooden architecture from Gandhara. Found in the Kashmir Smast caves, a large limestone cave complex in the Sakra mountains of the Gandhara region (modern Northwest Frontier Province, Pakistan), this carved wooden beam depicts an ascetic figure (possibly Shiva) dancing to music played by the musicians at his feet within a Gandharan-style trefoil arch. The row of dentils, the small rectangular blocks resembling teeth along the base, is an element from classical Western architecture that first entered the Gandharan idiom following the invasion and occupation by Alexander the Great in the third century BCE, and persisted in Gandharan art and architecture for several centuries. The wooden relief’s possible subject matter—an ascetic Shiva—suggests the caves of Kashmir Smast were the site of Hindu worship and patronage in a Gandharan milieu.


Goddess Hariti

Goddess Hariti
  • Gandhara/Northwest Pakistan (probably Swat), 6th-7th century
  • Steatite
  • H: 23 cm
  • Purchased from Mrs. McGrath
  • Victoria and Albert Museum
  • IM.65-1911
  • Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

This small stone figurine depicts Hariti, an ancient goddess associated with fertility, who was absorbed into the Buddhist pantheon. According to Buddhist lore, Hariti was dangerous demoness, who fed her many children by abducting and killing the children of others. Only after the Buddha kidnapped one of her sons, causing her great pain, did she understand the suffering she caused other mothers. Converted, she vowed to protect children and women in childbirth. In addition to her role as protector, Hariti is associated with prosperity in Buddhist traditions. Attributes of this image are also associated with Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of good fortune. Wearing a crown and numerous bangles, the goddess sits on a throne as a pair of elephants anoint her from above while a child drops coins at her feet. Pilgrims Xuanzang and Yijing record seeing images of Hariti in Buddhist temples across India; it is likely that Hyecho did too.