Hyecho's Journey

Hyecho's Journey


The king, chiefs, and commoners are extremely reverent of the Three Jewels. There is a ‘Dragon Lake’ here, and a Dragon King, who makes offerings to [one thousand] arhats daily. Though nobody has seen the holy monks eat this food, when it has occurred, rice and bread can be seen floating from below onto the water surface, so by this it is known and these offerings continue to this day. When traveling, the king and the biggest chiefs ride elephants. Minor officials ride horses and the commoners walk. There are many monks and monasteries here, and they practice both Mahayana and Hinayana.

—Hyecho's journal

The Hindu Shankaracharya Temple
The Hindu Shankaracharya Temple, a former Buddhist temple, on the summit of Takht-i-Suleiman (Throne of Solomon), near Srinagar in Jammu and Kashmir, 1868. By John Burke © British Library Board (Photo 981/1(1)).


Although it is renowned for its masterpieces of Islamic art and architecture, and its famous Muslim kings and Sufi poets, Kashmir, located in what is today northern India, was once a great center of Buddhist learning and art-making. Hyecho would likely have known the story of Kumarajiva (334-413), the greatest translator in the history of Buddhism. His father was a Buddhist monk from Kashmir who traveled north to the land of Kucha—a Central Asian location also visited by Hyecho—where he became the court chaplain. The king was so impressed that he convinced the monk to marry his sister. Their child was Kumarajiva. When he was seven, his mother decided to become a nun and took her son to Kashmir to study the dharma. He was a prodigy, eventually mastering the texts of both Hinayana and Mahayana. His fame was so great that he was eventually kidnapped and taken to China, where the emperor convinced the monk to marry. He was given the title of National Teacher, producing translations of many of the most important Mahayana sutras and shastras in a fluid style that has been revered for centuries.


Dhamek stupa and monastery ruins
Dal Lake, Srinagar, Kashmir, India, 2012. Courtesy of Colin Tsoi via Flickr.

By the time Hyecho entered the beautiful valley of Kashmir, its position as a great cultural center of Asia was well-established. Renowned for its innovations and accomplishments in literature, philosophy, arts, and religious thought, Kashmir was a destination for learning and the source of influential developments in these spheres. The impact of Kashmiri thinkers, teachers, and artists was far-reaching, not only across India, but throughout Asia. While today Kashmir is well-known for its contributions to Hindu philosophy and Sanskrit literature, Muslim mysticism and Islamic architecture, from the third century BCE through the eighth century CE, Buddhism was a dominant religious and cultural force in the valley.

A century before Hyecho arrived in Kashmir, Xuanzang observed one hundred monasteries with five thousand monks, as well as four stupas said to have been built by King Ashoka. Xuanzang was apparently so taken by the intellectual stimulation he found in Kashmir that he spent two years immersed in studies at a monastery there. Hyecho, however, was not so impressed, complaining, “It is very cold here, not at all like the places I have spoken about up to now. There is frost in autumn, and snow in winter; monsoon rains in the summer bring with them the blooming of all sorts of plants and their verdant leaves, which then die and scatter in fall.”

Over the subsequent decades and centuries after Hyecho, Hinduism then Islam eclipsed Buddhism, as epitomized by the conversion of an early Buddhist temple to the Hindu Shankaracharya Temple, which sits atop the renamed, Takhti-i-Sulaiman, “Throne of Solomon.” Still, Kashmir persisted as a source of Buddhist learning and innovation, particularly in the traditions of tantric Buddhism, or Vajrayana, and its artistic expressions. By the tenth century, Kashmiri teachers and artists were integral participants in the revival of Buddhism in the new kingdoms of Western Tibet.


Located at the intersection of empires, the nexus of cultures, and the confluence of religious traditions, Kashmir was a place where established religious and artistic ideas circulated and intermingled, giving forth new ideas that were thus sent out into the world. The art of Kashmir, both Buddhist and Hindu, is evidence of these interactions and inventions, and proof of the massive impact this small valley had on the history of art and religion across Asia.

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Descent of the Buddha from Tusita Heaven

Descent of the Buddha from Tusita Heaven
  • Kashmir, India, 8th century
  • Ivory, with traces of polychrome
  • H: 6.3 cm W: 4.5 cm D: 0.7 cm
  • Victoria and Albert Museum
  • IS.8-1978
  • Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Despite this sculpture’s tiny size—it stands only six centimeters—its luxurious material amplifies the value of this holy Buddha image. Across Asia, ivory was desired for its rarity and exoticness, and treasured for its auspiciousness and purity. Kashmir was widely known for its elephants. In his journal, Hyecho remarks, “The king has three hundred elephants”—likely a reference to the elephant-mounted cavalry of King Lalitaditya (r.724-760), who rode one on his expeditions.

Even at this small scale, ivory can be carved with the refined qualities of Kashmiri stone and metal sculpture. Likely the central panel of a triptych mounted in a portable wooden shrine, this piece depicts one of the Buddha’s great miracles: his descent from the Heaven of the Thirty-three, where he taught the Dharma to his mother, who died shortly after his birth and was reborn there. Although his bejeweled ladder is missing, the Buddha is shaded by parasols held by his escorts, the gods Indra and Brahma.



  • Kashmir, India, 8th century
  • Brass with silver Inlay
  • H: 16.9 cm W: 9.8 cm D: 7 cm
  • Gift of Florence and Herbert Irving, 2015
  • The Metropolitan Museum of Art
  • 2015.500.4.6
  • Image courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Although Hyecho records observing only Mahayana and Hinayana in Kashmir, by the eighth century the valley was already a hotbed for tantric Buddhism, or Vajrayana. These traditions rely on ritual manuals called tantras, which emerged in northern India beginning around the sixth century. The tantras prescribe powerful methods that employ intensive meditative and ritual practices, frequently utilizing cosmic diagrams (mandalas) and efficacious utterances (mantras). So potent are these practices that they require initiation by a guru and, when performed correctly, bestow buddhahood in this lifetime.

The pantheon of buddhas and bodhisattvas common to other Buddhist traditions is expanded in Vajrayana. Integral to tantric practices are wrathful deities and divine couples in sexual union, as well as buddhas such as Vajrasattva, who embody the indestructibility of buddhahood as reflected in the term vajra, or thunderbolt. This Vajrasattva, with the silver-inlaid eyes and three-point crown typical of Kashmiri bronzes of this period, holds a vajra scepter in his right hand. As a ritual implement, the vajra represents compassion and the bell, held in his left hand, represents wisdom—the two elements necessary for attaining buddhahood.


Lakshmi, goddess of good fortune

  • Kashmir, India, 560-600
  • Chlorite
  • H: 36.5 cm
  • The British Museum
  • 2016,3059.1
  • Image © The Trustees of the British Museum

Artistic and religious ideas from surrounding areas circulated throughout the valley of Kashmir, creating fertile ground for experimentation, innovation, and the development of uniquely Kashmiri traditions. When Hyecho traveled through this area, he would have encountered both Buddhist and Hindu manifestations of Kashmiri ingenuity. Famous for its contributions to tantric and devotional traditions of Hinduism, Kashmir is also well-known for producing exquisitely refined art to accommodate the worshippers of Shiva, Vishnu, and the various Hindu goddesses, like Lakshmi, who is depicted here.

This sculpture of the goddess of good fortune displays the remarkable way in which Kashmiri artists incorporated elements of the artistic styles of its neighbors, transforming them into a distinctively new form. The pleated drapery of her robe and the cornucopia-topped scepter point to the Roman-inspired sculpture of Gandhara, while her three-crescent crown is derived from Persian models. Her direct, outward gaze, her lotus pedestal, and her lustration by male attendants, however, indicate an inventive step toward a Kashmiri style of Hindu sculpture.


Standing bodhisattva, possibly Vajrapani

Standing bodhisattva
  • Cave 17, Dunhuang, Gansu Province, China, Tang dynasty, 9th century
  • Ink and colors on silk
  • H: 55 cm W: 14.5 cm
  • The British Museum
  • 1919,0101,0.103
  • Image © The Trustees of the British Museum

Because Kashmir was an important crossroads of trade, center of Buddhist learning, and destination for pilgrims, Kashmiri art and artistic ideas dispersed across Asia, carried in the minds and arms of those who traveled there. This painting of a bodhisattva was discovered at the Silk Road outpost and significant Buddhist site, Dunhuang, located in far northwestern China. Certain elements in this piece, however, point to the Kashmiri roots of its painting style. The bodhisattva’s three-point crown and bejeweled ornaments, his tightly-wrapped, striped dhoti, and the floral scarf tied around his waist are features executed in Kashmiri style. The bright white pigment that colors his large, almond-shaped eyes evokes the silver-inlaid eyes of Kashmiri bronzes. While it is possible that it was painted in a Kashmiri style at Dunhuang, the type of silk and the dimensions of the banner indicate that it was likely painted closer to Kashmir—potentially in the kingdom of Khotan—and brought to China. One wonders if Hyecho would have noticed the echoes of Kashmir as he traveled onward, arriving at Dunhuang months later.