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Travels of Alexander Csoma Korosi in Search of Ancestral Roots

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By Bhushan Parimoo

The name Sandor Korosi Csoma popularly known as Alexander Csoma Koros in most of the English speaking world is an unheard name in Kashmir. Csoma Korosi was a Hungarian who, however, belongs to humanity. Inspired by the zest to explore and know the origin of his Hungarian roots in Asia, this ascetic scholar and traveller walked alone through most Euroasia in pursuit of his dream. In this endeavour no Hungarian contemporary saw or got to know more countries, more landscapes, people, languages, religions, cultures or customs than Sandor Korosi. He was the first voluntary ambassador of Hungary and thus spread the word about his country to places no Hungarian had visited ever before. His immense scholarship, and great learning coupled with multifaceted abilities to explore and in the process learn more than fifteen dead and living languages. It is such like qualities and attainments that set him apart as one of the Europe’s greatest sons.

 

In doing so, Csoma’s journey began from Nagyenyed in Hungary to the foothills of Himalayas in Darjeeling in India where he ultimately died. His journey passed through the Mediterranean, Enz, Rhodes, and Cypress Africa into Middle East to Kashmir into Ladakh and Tibet.

Attracted to his extraordinary journey of courage, endurance, I feel duty bound to share this great sage-scholars life briefly described herein and more importantly convey the message that this icon of humanity who visited Kashmir and even stayed there and yet his peregrinations have remained almost unknown to Kashmiris. No account of Csoma’s life and labours is complete without an account of his travel and work in Kashmir and Ladakh.

Sandor Korosi Csoma was born in village Koros now in Romania on March 27, 1784. His father’s name was Andras Csoma and that of his mother Krisztina Getse. Between 1799 and 1815 Csoma studied at the Bethlen College in Nagyenyed. It was here under the tutelage of his teachers like Adams Herepey and Frenec Benko that he was fired with the zest to plan a visit to Asia to look for the ancient homeland of the Hungarians.

Between 1816 and 1817 Csoma enrolled at the University of Gottingen in Germany where his studies further convinced him to trace his roots in inner Asia among the ethnic relatives that inhabited the region. To support his studies his father even sold some family assets to pay for his education. In 1819 Csoma began learning Slav languages and travelled to Croatia.

After these initial indulgences, Csoma crossed the Danube to enter the territories of Ottoman Empire. By 1820 he had entered Turkey. There he boarded a ship to leave Europe once for all never to return. On route he landed at Alexandria in Egypt. Further journey took him to Cypress and Syria. From there Csoma arrived in Beirut and Tripoli to set on a foot journey to Aleppo where he remained guest of a fellow Hungarian.

From Aleppo, Csoma travelled to Mardin, Mosul and Baghdad. By late 1820 he had passed Tehran, Kermanshah and Hamadan. In 1821 he came down to Mashad and late in the same year he undertook the difficult journey of crossing Kara Kum to arrive in Bokhara. After a treacherous hill journey, Csoma continued his journey via Balakh and Bamian and crossed the Hindu Kush Mountains to reach Kabul. Leaving Kabul in early 1822 and heading more eastwards Csoma met Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s two French army officers Allard and Ventura, who offered him a paid court position. But the ascetic traveller denied the offer to continue his onward journey in search of his dream.

Csoma left Lahore and proceeded to Kashmir by middle of 1822. Doing so he passed via Amritsar and Jammu and then crossed the Banihal Pass to arrive in Srinagar in April 1822. In Kashmir he halted his travel for few months in the hope to get permission to travel to Yarkand. During this interlude Csoma traveled to Ladakh via Sonamarg, Zozila, Dras and Kargil.

However, by mid-June that year he anticipated journey across Karakorum to Yarkand to be hazardous without money and political support Csoma returned to Lahore. Fortunately there Csoma met the British military veterinary doctor William Moorcroft to return to Leh in his company.

It was Moorcroft at Leh that brought monk Giorgi’s incomplete Tibetan grammar into Csoma’s notice and he began planning to obtain financial support from the British for its completion and as a result support his dream journey to locate his ancestral roots. During the years 1822 and 1823 Csoma stayed with Moorcroft in Srinagar again to return to Leh. This time Moorcroft gave him a letter of recommendation for the king of Ladakh Tespi Namgyal who granted him the permission to study Tibetan language and Buddhism at the remote monastery of Zangla. Here Csoma now studied under Lama Sangye Puntsog. Later another monk named Kunga Chosleg introduced him to ancient manuscripts and other Tibetan scriptures.

During his wanderings at the time through Zanskar, Tsarap, Kargyak and Shingo, the British suspected him of undesirable movements and placed restrictions on his further travel. However, to confirm the suspicion the British Agent in Ladakh

Captain Kennedy ordered him to write down the account of his travels. After submitting his report the authorities allowed him further stay in the region and in 1825-1826, Csoma now moved to Phutkal where he examined many Tibetan manuscripts. This led to his correspondence with Hayman Wilson who headed the Asiatic Society at Calcutta at the time.

Between 1826 and 1827 Csoma completed the English Tibetan dictionary following which he met Lord Amherst the Viceroy on the mediation of Captain Kennedy.  After completing the dictionary, Csoma returned to British India and traveled to Calcutta, Benaras, Delhi Agra and Ambala. Between 1831 and 1833 the Asiatic Society further employed him to work on the Tibetan dictionary and subsequently became a member of the Society on recommendations of luminaries like Prinsep, Mill and Trevelyn.

In 1836 Csoma travelled through Sikkim and a year later returned to Calcutta to stay in the accommodation provided by the Asiatic Society. Between 1837 and 1842, Csoma performed academic and administrative duties at the Asiatic Society and now planned for his dream destination to reach Lhasa in search of his ultimate goal to find clues of the origin of the Hungarian people.

But fate denied this great sage-scholar, who mainly subsisted on cups of tea and dollops of butter and believed that money and scholarship must never bed together, his dream. In March 1842 he was struck by malaria that resulted in his death. He passed away at Darjeeling on April 11, 1842.

Given the passion to pursue his goal it needs further research to find as to why Sandor Korosi Csoma chose to arrive at his dream destination Lhasa via Kashmir and Ladakh instead taking the direct route from Yarkand.

(The author is a Jammu based environmentalist)