In 1842 a Hungarian painter travelling in India arrived at Calcutta, where he looked up a fellow countryman. The artist didn’t know the man he wanted to meet except by reputation: his name was Alexander Csoma de Körös, and he was the librarian of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, a British scholarly institution in the capital of British India. As expatriates linked by a common language they tentatively became friends. Soon, naturally, the artist sought to draw his new friend’s portrait. The artist’s usual line of work was heroic portraits of kings and rulers; now he was applying all the professional delicacy and skill he could muster to executing a small drawing of a librarian, and the task proved immensely difficult. His problem was that Alexander Csoma de Krös would not consent under any circumstances to having his likeness drawn, yet the artist felt an urgent obligation to record what he looked like since there was no portrait of him in existence. By 1842, this excessively modest man had become a national hero in Hungary, and a legendary figure in British India. He was 58 years old and was known to be about to set off an a journey from which he might never return. The job needed to be done, and without delay. But how to do it?
“The truth must be told,” the artist wrote to a friend in Hungary, “that I never saw a stranger man than him.” He lived in a single room in the Society’s headquarters, where he slept on the floor on a mat, surrounded by boxes containing the books and manuscripts that represented his life’s work. Alexander Csoma de Kõrös was the author of the first dictionary and grammar of the Tibetan language, and of pioneering studies of Tibetan literature, and is revered even now as the founding father of Tibetan studies. After years of hardship in Buddhist monasteries in the Himalayan provinces of northern India, lands that are culturally Tibetan but not part of the forbidden kingdom itself, Csoma was rewarded by his patrons in the Government of India with the post of librarian of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, where he continued to work on philological studies of the massive body of Tibetan literature, an entire literature that Csoma introduced to the west.
The tragedy of Csoma’s life was that the superhuman effort that made this monolithic work of scholarship possible had crushed him psychologically and emotionally. He lived in the centre of the bustling city of Calcutta as if he were still in a monastery in the Himalayas, enclosed in his cell-like room like a hermit, living on nothing but rice and tea, absorbed in his study of a language no other European could understand. He would allow himself to leave the room once a day, to take a short walk in the corridors of the building. Before retiring, he would order a servant to lock his door for the night from the outside.
The artist, August Schoefft, contrived to sketch Csoma by stealth, drawing him while his attention was elsewhere and he was unaware of what the artist was doing. The picture shows Csoma in profile, the upper body only: a man of compact build, with short hair and a sharply-pointed nose. The dominant feature is the eyes, which gaze ahead with a steady yet fierce concentration. He is clean-shaven, a concession to British custom: in the Himalayas he wore a beard. Without Schoefft’s timely transgression, there would be no portrait of Csoma at all: he died later the same year on a malarial plain near Darjeeling, shortly after beginning the most ambitious journey of his life, an attempt to enter the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, and travel over the Himalayan plateau to the desert plain of western China where he hoped to find the primitive ancestors of the Hungarian people.
Csoma’s life shows that the need to travel is a curse, an affliction; it is a flight from an inner demon, an incurable loneliness. His life was thoroughly miserable, yet his accomplishment was thoroughly magnificent. The marvel of it is that although he spent eight years in the monasteries of the Himalayan provinces, in poverty and unbearable loneliness, he never set out to be a Tibetologist at all. The ultimate goal of his travelling, the vanishing point which he never reached, lay even further in the distance.
Kõrösi Csoma Sándor -- its gallicised form, Alexander Csoma de Kõrös, was one of the several variants of his name that he used in the course of his life, and is the name by which he has come to be known in English -- was born in Transylvania in 1784, a province of Hungary that since 1920 has been part of Romania. The precise date of his birth is unknown, but the parish records of his local Calvinist church show that he was baptised on April 4th, 1784. His surname denotes the village in which he was born -- Kõrös, in south-eastern Transylvania, in the county of Háromszék. This was an isolated village of 300 to 400 people, a collection of squat wooden buildings with thick walls and steeply pitched roofs, surrounded by pine forests. It lay at the foot of the snow-capped mountains of the eastern Carpathian range, and was swept by the gales of an ice-cold wind known as the nemere. The limited subsistence that agriculture could provide in this harsh climate was supplemented by forestry, animal husbandry, trading, and the manufacture of sieves.
Like all the rest of the inhabitants of Kõrös, Csoma’s family were Székeleys, a branch of the Hungarian people that had lived in this region for hundreds of years and traditionally served as frontier guards, defending the marches of this easternmost outpost of Christian Europe from the threat of the neighbouring Ottoman Turks. The Székeleys are known today for the very pure and beautiful form of the Hungarian language that they speak, for their disinclination to marry non-Székeleys, and for their quiet, serious dispositions. They were the last Hungarian-speaking people to drop the ancient, rune-like letters in which their language was written in favour of the Latin alphabet. In their legends they are the descendants of the warlike Huns of Attila, the ancient conquerors of Europe.
Csoma’s parents, András Csoma and Ilona Gocz, produced three sons and four daughters; of these, only two sons and two daughters survived infancy. Alexander grew up with two older sisters, Julia and Krisztina, and a younger brother, Gábor. The family owned a small farm, which gave them a comparatively high status in the village, most of whose inhabitants were landless peasants, but the demands of farming locked every member of the family, young and old, into an inescapable cycle of hard work.
This hardscrabble existence was not the only burden on the Székeleys of Kõrös. Throughout Csoma’s life, Hungary had ceased to exist as an independent nation-state, and was subject to the Austrian crown. In 1764 the Empress Maria Theresa decreed that the traditional role of the Székeleys as frontier guards be institutionalised: the Székeleys were ordered as a group to serve in perpetuity in the Austrian army as infantrymen in the frontier guard. Any adult male who was not studying for the priesthood was obliged to serve, until the age of 50 and at his own expense. Csoma’s father and brother were both to fulfil this duty: as one of the prominent men of the village, András Csoma held the rank of corporal, and Gábor would fight in the campaign against Napoleon.
The Székeleys were governed by a regional military prefect who had complete authority over everything they did or wanted to do: he could order a man not to marry, bar him from further education, even ban him from smoking. The Székeleys of Transylvania seethed with resentment against Austrian despotism, and in the year of Alexander’s birth had risen up in rebellion against it, provoking ruthless and bloody retribution by Austrian troops. Alexander became accustomed to the harshness of military rule. He and his brother grew up expecting to spend the best part of their lives patrolling the defiles and passes in this mountainous country, constantly exposed to the elements and to the risk of a fatal skirmish with an unknown enemy from across the border with Ottoman Wallachia. The examples of physical endurance, long marches, self-denial and self-discipline were imprinted on him in childhood.
The young Alexander showed an aptitude for walking long distances. His cousin Jószef Csoma recalled that “as boys, we could never compete with him in walking, because when he happened to reach the top of a hill, that did not satisfy him, but he wished to know what was beyond it, and beyond that again, and thus he often trotted on for immense distances.”
He was a clever child, and at the age of six he entered the village school, which was run by the Calvinist church. Here he showed academic ability, and when the time came the rector recommended him for secondary education. For the boy’s family this was both a blessing and a curse: a blessing because a secondary education could set Alexander on course for a secure life in the Calvinist priesthood, sparing him military service; a curse because it meant one less able body on the family farm, and the expense of supporting the boy at school. There was no question of the family being able to afford school fees. This meant that there was only one institution in Transylvania that was open to him: the Bethlenianum College of Nagyenyed, a charitable institution set up by an enlightened Transylvanian prince, Gábor Bethlen, in 1622 for the purpose of training young men for the Calvinist priesthood. The school admitted students on academic merit alone, rich or poor.
The town of Nagyenyed (now called by its Romanian name Aiud) was nearly 200 miles from Kõrös, so Alexander’s father accompanied his son on the long journey through the Carpathian mountains, after reluctantly agreeing to his son’s determination to pursue his studies at the famous school. They made the journey together on foot, and spent a single forint on the way. Alexander was 15 when he entered Nagyenyed. He was to spend the next sixteen years in this school, but never became a priest. At Nagyenyed his personality was definitively formed into the shape that it bore for the rest of his life, and here the vocation was born which brought him to the monasteries of the Himalayas and beyond.
Nagyenyed now seems like a very strange institution indeed. It was an economically self-sufficient, all-male, enclosed microcosm, in which a social pecking order was formalised beneath the Latin terminology of a Roman republic. It now seems strikingly similar in many ways to the Himalayan Buddhist monasteries in which he would later spend eight years learning the Tibetan language. The college was a cluster of buildings built around a courtyard, overlooked by a tall wooden steeple. Inside was a hive-like world of precisely-defined ranks and castes. The youngest boys, who bore the Latin title plebes, were not considered to be students at all. They paid older students to teach them elementary courses in such subjects as Latin, Greek and mathematics. Younger students without private means were styled gratistae: they were given tuition and lodging in exchange for their working as servants in the house, gardens or bakery, running errands, cutting and hauling firewood and laying fires. For this they received a daily ration of a loaf of bread weighing 600 grammes. This was the only food the college provided. Students who could afford to bought meals for themselves from the market and at houses in the town.
Certain older students were called principists, because they received a royal stipend. They wore a long coat with braid and a fur or tri-corn hat. Those who had passed a strict examination were called academites, and in token of this status wore a kind of toga. The 900 or so students all slept without distinction in crowded dormitories in weather-beaten old buildings, each containing about 25 boys, some on beds, others on sacks of straw. The rules of the dormitory were enforced by a student prefect called a primarius, who had the power to send violators guilty of serious offences like drunkenness to the college’s own jail. Every morning at six o’clock a great bronze bell was rung, rousing students to a day that began with lessons an hour later.
Anyone who has endured an English boarding school will shudder with horror at the notion of remaining incarcerated in such a place until the age of 31. It is the stuff of a recurring nightmare, yet that is what Csoma did. The school became his home; he hardly ever left it because he had nowhere else to go. Because his family lived so far away, he only went home twice in the sixteen years he spent at Nagyenyed -- the first time to attend his father in his last illness, the second time for the funeral of his mother. During vacations he would lodge at a local Calvinist presbytery, or at farms around the school where he would hire himself out as a labourer. His sixteen years at Nagyenyed, dodging the blows of prefects, competing for food, struggling to sleep in uncomfortable dormitories, ascending the academic ranks by iron-willed hard work, left Csoma essentially unable to take part in any human relationship except those of student and teacher, and of patron and beneficiary. To anyone with whom he was not involved in one or the other of these relationships, he appeared uncommunicative, eccentric, even (as the testimony of some of those who met him later in his life suggests) a bit mad.
Csoma began his life at Nagyenyed at the bottom of the heap, as a student-servant. At first he stood out because he was five years older than most of his contemporaries, but by the end of his first year he was acknowledged as the best student in his class. What he lacked in quickness or fluidity of mind he made up for by sheer assiduity. One of his classmates recalled that even when he was working as a servant, sweeping, taking rubbish to the dump, he was always carrying a book. “Our teacher would call us to the window, point out Csoma with his book, and warn us that that servant boy was using all his available time for studying, and not wasting his time with foolishness, as we were.” He persevered with his studies with such success that he was released from service as a gratista after only three years.
This young man from the Székeley country was more than just a diligent student. He seemed to have conquered his own human nature. He wore the same suit of black wool all year round. In the bitterest winter he never complained of the cold, and on the hottest day of summer he never sweated. His memory was photographic: he remembered everything he read, and everything he heard in lectures. The only thing that seemed to matter to him was work, and everything else in life was either dispensed with or reduced to the bare minimum. He avoided sports (though he excelled at the individualistic contests of swimming and wrestling), and remained aloof from conflicts with his fellow students. Emotionally, he was completely neutral, without affect. Anger, sadness or happiness were alike absent from his features and his speech. He spoke very little, and then only after careful reflection. He governed himself according to his own ascetic rule, choosing to sleep on the floor, testing the endurance of his sturdy constitution by fasting for as long as he could from food or water. Asked why he did this he replied, “Everyone bosses me about, so I will boss my stomach about.” He lived on the college loaf, supplemented by curd cheese, fruit and vegetables, and never ate meat, or sweets, or drank alcohol. When his family sent him scones from home he would sell them to the other students, and carefully hoard the money.
In 1807, at the age of 23, Csoma passed the examination which
admitted him into the ranks of senior students, the academites. Now he
was able to earn his own money as a student-teacher. He was so successful
in this that he was able to accumulate a small fortune in fees. In his
last years at the college he was saving 400 forints a year. If one reckons
a Hungarian forint of the late eighteenth century as having the spending
power of somewhere between five and ten pounds sterling (at this time,
a pair of boots cost two and a half forints, a pound of beef cost half
a forint, a month’s full board for a student cost four forints), then Csoma
was salting away a sum worth between £2,000 and £4,000 a year,
As a senior student, Csoma was required to study ancient Greek, Latin and Hebrew, but he also acquired French, German, Romanian and Turkish. (The latter he taught himself from grammars in the college library.) At this point and under different circumstances one can imagine Csoma proceeding sedately into a dignified and comfortable career as a professor of philology, parsing biblical Hebrew for the next generation of seminarians. But the political climate in Hungary at this time set his life on a very different course. A movement for the liberation of the Hungarian nation from Austria had come into existence, inspired by the example of the French Revolution and American independence, and by the writings of the French and British moral philosophers of the Enlightenment. The movement’s leaders were the Hungarian nobility and the country’s professional elite, which included the professors of Nagyenyed. It expressed itself in a revival of Hungarian culture and the Hungarian language. Intellectually, the movement was preoccupied with the question, Who are we? Who are the Hungarians? Simply to pose the question was an act of defiance against the Austrian empire, which saw the Hungarians as no more than vassals.
It was a good question. The Hungarians are a mystery in Europe, a totally distinct people, apparently completely unrelated to any of their neighbours, with a language that is written in the Latin alphabet but otherwise seems to bear no resemblance whatever to any other European language, apart from loan words. The non-Hungarian who visits Budapest as a tourist, for example, is dismayed to find himself in what in all respects but one looks like a familiar European metropolis. The difference is that he feels that he has been stricken by total dyslexia. Nothing that is written is even slightly familiar. The police car that zooms by in any other European city bears a name on its side that is roughly comprehensible: ‘polizei’ or ‘polis’ or ‘policia’. You can pretty easily tell that such words mean ‘police’. In Hungary, the word is ‘szobarend’. The hotel where he lodges is ‘szálloda’. The street that he walks is ‘utca’. How do you tell which is the ‘in’ door and which is the ‘out’ door when they are labelled ‘bejárat’ and ‘kijárat’? How do you know which toilet to use when they are inscribed ‘férfi’ and ‘nõ’? There are no Latin or Greek or even Germanic roots to give one a clue as to what a word might mean.
This linguistic isolation inspired the cultural nationalists of Csoma’s day to seek to explain it by looking for the origin of the Hungarian people. They were alone in Europe, they thought, so they must have come from outside Europe. A number of theories were debated, which all had in common a belief that the Hungarians came from somewhere in Asia. The most popular theory was one that proposed that the Hungarians were the descendants of the Uighur people of central Asia. Another theory held that the Scythians – a vaguely defined legendary central Asian people – were the ancestors of the Hungarians. There was much discussion of the account of an aristocratic Hungarian traveller, Sámuel Turkoly, who claimed in 1725 that he had discovered a Mongol people who spoke Hungarian in the vicinity of the Caspian Sea, and a town named Madzhar, which sounds like Magyar, the Hungarian word for Hungarian. All these theories showed the proto-Hungarians as heroic, warlike, conquering horsemen, which filled the aching void of pride that the Hungarians felt as oppressed subjects of Austria. Another theory in the mix was one that has come to be accepted as true: that the Hungarian language is closely related to Finnish. This theory was proposed in 1769 by a Jesuit scholar named Janos Sajnovics, who noticed the similarity with Finnish on a trip he made to Lapland to collect astronomical data. This theory was rejected by the noblemen who led the national revival movement: they preferred a kinship with Asian warriors on horseback to being linked to the Finns, whom they saw as wretched and impoverished inhabitants of the frozen northern wastes. The theory was all the more disreputable among Hungarian patriots for being the only line of inquiry into their national origins that the Hapsburg rulers would permit: they spurned the link with Finnish as a “kinship smelling of fish oil.”
Csoma learned of this intellectual ferment in the course of a series of lectures given by a Nagyenyed professor, Adam Herepei. These ideas about ethnicity and linguistics, despite their nationalist bias, were radically new: until then, there had been no progress from the medieval view that their language was related to Hebrew. Csoma was evidently fascinated by these lectures. His own people, the Székeleys, had their own version of the origin of the Hungarians, which was completely in tune with what the nationalists were proposing: they believed they were the descendants of Attila the Hun, the Scourge of God. As a boy in Kõrös, over meals of potatoes and sweetcorn, or sitting around the campfires of the frontier guards, Alexander had absorbed these legends, with their images of heroic horsemen from the east. In the firelight they cast long shadows in the boy’s mind. Now he was hearing them again, this time as scholarly theory.
Inspired by Herepei’s lectures, Csoma and two of his friends made a vow: they would devote their lives to searching for the primitive Hungarians of Asia. It was a vocation concocted in Csoma from a unique compound of experience: rural hardship, military discipline, obsessive scholarship, romantic nationalism, and the enclosed, oppressive world of an all-male community. Only Csoma kept the vow. He was, after all, twenty years older than the fellow-students with whom he made it.
In Csoma’s remaining years at Nagyenyed, he remained determined in his purpose to carry out this vow once his education was complete. This process was prolonged by his duties within the college. He was appointed lecturer in poetry in 1811, and remained at the school for an additional year after he had passed his final exams to serve as elected senior prefect of the student body, a strange choice for a man of 30, but which shows the extent to which at this stage of his life the college was the only world he knew.
Csoma passed his final examinations in 1815, and was awarded a travelling scholarship to pursue further studies at the University of Göttingen in Germany. Despite the considerable savings he had amassed from teaching fees, Csoma made the long journey to northern Germany on foot, travelling via Vienna, Prague, Dresden, Leipzig and Halle. Obtaining an Austrian passport to make the journey involved clearing a series of bureaucratic hurdles, and it was only granted on the condition that Csoma show that he was contracted to enter the priesthood on his return. Why he chose to go on foot can be partly explained by his inclination to asceticism, and partly by a desire to save his money to support himself in Göttingen, but Csoma’s finances are always a mystery. He was adequately supported by his scholarship, which was provided by a British charitable foundation, but he also had a tendency to hoard money as an austerity for its own sake. At Vienna he lodged with a Hungarian friend from Nagyenyed, Sándor Ujfalvy, who records that, “When evening came, he put his travelling cape on the floor beside the bed that had been prepared for him, and he used his trousers as a pillow, stretching out on the floorboards. When I protested, he told me that he was planning to go on a long journey and that he had to get used to hardship.”
Ujfalvy records a side of Csoma’s personality that the majority of recollections of him overlook. Most of them politely refer to his modesty, thoughtfulness and quiet disposition, but Ujfalvy spotted the grandiose ambition in Csoma’s character, a desire for glory and a conviction of his own superior destiny. Csoma stayed with Ujfalvy in Vienna for five days. “When it was time to say goodbye,” he wrote, “I asked him smilingly why he was going to Göttingen, because in my opinion he already exhausted every science.” If the remark was intended as flattery, this was not how Csoma understood it. “He replied scornfully, ‘I am not led [to Göttingen] by my conviction. I want to satisfy the prejudice of people.’” That is, Csoma felt he had indeed exhausted every science, and was attending the famous university merely as a necessary formality. Indeed, he thought it a waste of time. “I shall not stay there long. For me,” he explained to Ujfalvy, “time is more precious than for others. I have no time for carousing.”
At Göttingen, Csoma expanded his study of history and geography, and acquired more languages. He improved his German and his French, studied English, Arabic and Turkish, and established a working knowledge of Italian and Spanish from his prior knowledge of Latin and French. He lodged in the house of a baker, and spent most of his free time reading in the university library. At Göttingen, Csoma was delighted to find that the question of Hungarian origin, which was a subject of nationalistic interest in his own country, was a matter of intellectual curiosity not just to Hungarians but to scholars in the emerging disciplines of oriental studies. Here Csoma was able to study in detail the theory of Hungarian-Uighur kinship. Everything he read was oriented towards the goal he had set himself at Nagyenyed, of travelling to Asia in search of his proto-Hungarian ancestors.
He became a devoted student of the orientalist Johann Eichhorn, one of the first scholars to apply textual criticism to the Bible. Csoma discussed his projected journey with him, and Eichhorn assumed a paternal interest in the Hungarian’s personal welfare. Eichhorn advised Csoma that the works of medieval Arab geographers were likely to contain revealing information about the central Asian peoples who were the object of his research. These works were unknown and unstudied in the west, and were accessible only in the libraries of the Ottoman capital, Constantinople. When the time came for him to set out on his journey to the east, Csoma intended to spend time in Constantinople reading these texts.
Csoma’s departure from Göttingen in September 1818 was overshadowed by a crisis that haunted him for the rest of his life. At Nagyenyed, Csoma was well known for his carefully acquired reserves of money, and was often approached for loans by fellow students. These requests he granted on the most scrupulous terms: he insisted that the money be repaid by a certain date, and must not be used for immoral purposes. In the orderly world of Nagyenyed, this trust was never broken. Shortly before his departure from Göttingen, Csoma was asked for a loan by a fellow Transylvanian, a seminary student who needed the money to meet the expenses of his homeward journey. Csoma lent him the money, 100 gold pieces, even though this left him without enough to make the journey himself. He took his fellow countryman’s word that he would remit the money as soon as he returned home.
The deadline came and went, and Csoma never received his money. Besides being stranded in Germany without funds, Csoma was devastated by this act of negligence. His mentor Eichhorn was obliged to contact the student’s church in Transylvania to request compensation, which was eventually forwarded. But Csoma psychologically never recovered from the episode. His conduct in financial transactions with individuals was governed by an obsessive precision that he was to carry with him into the howling winds of the Himalayas where it became pathological. Even at his poorest, Csoma always insisted on paying for anything he was given, and in being correct to the last penny, regardless of the effect on the other party’s feelings. It kept his relations with people correct but severely distant. Above all, he had a powerful aversion to the feeling of being beholden to others. On the maintenance of this strict code of behaviour depended not only Csoma’s self-respect, but the integrity of his psyche. His friend Ujfalvy recorded an exchange with Csoma about this, in which Csoma complained, “That I was duped and made a fool of by a fellow student, and worse, by a fellow Transylvanian – this so affected my temper that I fell victim to a heavy hypochondria, and it was only the spirited efforts of Eichhorn that were able to shake me out of it. I feel that this wound will remain with me for ever; because of this I will be less inclined to do good deeds in future, and less inclined to feel glad feelings.” At 34 years of age, his unworldly and childlike faith in human nature was shattered, releasing a nascent reclusiveness that was to become his greatest strength.
Csoma returned to Transylvania only for a few months. If he went to his native village, there is no record of it. (It may have been impossible to go there because of an epidemic.) He wrote later that “my parents were dead, and my only brother did not want my assistance.” Gábor had inherited the family farm and presumably did not need the help of his elder brother in running it. There is, however, a record of Csoma’s visiting Nagyenyed, where the professor who had taken the greatest interest in him, Sámuel Hegedus, told him that two appointments had been offered to him, one as a private tutor in a nobleman’s family, the other as a Calvinist minister and schoolteacher, and that when a professorial chair at Nagyenyed became vacant, he would be offered it. Csoma turned down these positions, explaining loftily that “my inclinations for philology, history and geography induced me to seek for a wider field for their further cultivation.” The time had come to begin his journey.
He expected to return to Nagyenyed as a hero, who was about to embark on a mission to connect the Hungarians with their former glory. It is hard to underestimate the degree to which Csoma was motivated by this patriotic ideal: a rosy vision in which he would embrace his lost compatriots on a windswept central Asian plain and exclaim, “At last I am among Hungarians!” Instead, his former colleagues warned him of the danger of the undertaking, and one of his old friends called him “a fanatic and a fool.”
Hegedus too did his best to dissuade his former pupil from undertaking his plan to wander off into the east in pursuit of a chimerical object, but once he realised that his efforts were useless he discussed with Csoma the precise itinerary he should follow. Csoma’s destination was an enormous area, located in what is now westernmost China and the central Asian republics of the former Soviet Union. Hegedus advised that he should enter central Asia via Russia, travelling from Odessa to Moscow and taking a caravan from there into the northern parts of China. Travelling through Russia would also enable him to research old Slavic histories. In order to read these, Csoma spent a few months prior to his departure studying ancient Church Slavonic in Croatia and the Transylvanian city of Temesvar. In Croatia, while he was about it, he also managed to pick up Serbo-Croat, bringing the total of languages he knew by this point to thirteen.
Csoma resented the aspersions that his project attracted, and complained to Ujfalvy, “I have been attacked from all sides that I should relinquish my plan, for it might prove unfeasible and a produce of unreason. Am I to give up all the desires I have cherished in my bosom since my early years? For them I mastered thirteen living and dead languages; I trained my body through endless privations and mortifications. I have struggled against their prejudices long enough: my patience is running short.”
The real obstacle hindering his departure was difficulty was in obtaining a passport. Once again, the threat of compulsory military service hung over him: as a Szekeley who had clearly not entered church ministry he was obliged to remain in Transylvania to serve in the border guard. After an unsuccessful attempt to secure a passport in the regional capital, Kolosvar (now called Cluj), he applied for and received a laissez-passer issued to Transylvanian merchants travelling into Romania. This document would get him over the border of the Hapsburg dominions, but once on the other side he was without valid papers of any kind. It was a risk he decided to take.
The day before he left, he came to his old professor Hegedus to say goodbye, with (Hegedus wrote) “an expression of joyful serenity which shone from his eyes,” and the two toasted his fortunes with “a farewell cup in old Tokay.” The following morning, November 19th 1819, Hegedus watched him as he set off through the fields, “lightly clad, if he intended merely taking a walk.” The professor watched him disappear into a point on the horizon. He was carrying a rucksack and maybe 200 forints, half of which had been given to him by a Hungarian government official he had met in Cluj, who had promised to pay him that sum every year for the duration of his journey.
Without a valid passport, Csoma abandoned his plan to head for Moscow and aimed instead for Constantinople. Travelling eastward from Nagyenyed to Bucharest, then a city in the Ottoman province of Wallachia, took him six weeks. On January 3rd, 1820, he crossed the Danube into Macedonia, where he met a caravan of Bulgarian cotton traders returning home with unladen horses and travelled with them on horseback to Sofia, a journey that took two weeks. Around this time he learned that an epidemic was raging in Constantinople, so in order to avoid it he changed his plan and took ship across the Mediterranean to Alexandria, travelling via the port of Enos (now Enez in European Turkey).
At Alexandria, he wrote, “my plan was to stop for a certain time either at Alexandria or in Cairo, and to improve myself in the Arabic, with which I was already acquainted in Europe, but on a sudden eruption of the plague I left Egypt, and proceeding on a Syrian ship I came to Larnica, in Cyprus, thence to Sidon, Beyruth, and then, on another vessel, to Tripoli and Latakia, whence, travelling on foot, on the 13th of April I reached Aleppo in Syria.”
What is truly astonishing about Alexander Csoma de Kõrös and his journey is that if he had not been compelled by a British official in India in 1825, six years after he set out, to write this account of his activities and movements since leaving Hungary we would have no record whatever by Csoma’s own hand of his thousands of miles of gruelling travel, and of his bitterly hard sojourn in the Himalayas. Unlike today’s traveller who sets out with a diary, a camera and a book contract, he had no intention of attaining celebrity for a contribution to the literature of travel. The account he wrote consists of eight printed pages of terse narrative, in legalistic numbered paragraphs, as if he were forcing them out with the greatest difficulty and reluctance.
Csoma omits to say that his indirect route to the Near East across the Mediterranean was made necessary by a French naval blockade on British shipping, which closed all but a few ports; or that in the squalid port of Alexandria, where an outbreak of plague had broken out, Csoma met an Austrian, Josef Schaffer, who gave him food and lodging, and introduced him to an inexperienced but well-intentioned Austrian sub-consul who endorsed Csoma’s now invalid laissez-passer with a visa. Luckily for Csoma, the document was in Hungarian, which the sub-consul could not read. He had at last slipped under the bureaucratic net of the Austrian empire and was now free.
Nevertheless, Csoma was careful to draw as little attention to himself as possible as he made his way eastwards. At Aleppo, he put aside his European clothing and adopted, he wrote, “a simple Asiatic dress,” and gave his name as ‘Skander Beg,’ which was Alexander in Arabic, followed by an honorary title. His European identity was proving an encumbrance, so he dropped it. Henceforth, he would create a new identity as the conditions of travel demanded: through Persia and Afghanistan he travelled “as an Armenian.” When he appeared at the gates of the British hill station in Himachal Pradesh after his first extended period in the Himalayas, his appearance in a modified form of Indian attire was so peculiar that the officer in charge suspected him of being a Russian spy and ordered him put under house arrest until he could receive instructions from on high about what to do with him.
He spent about six weeks in Aleppo, and then joined a caravan heading for Iraq. A caravan was a group of people travelling together for safety across deserts or hostile regions. An individual travelling with a caravan would typically buy one or two camels to carry himself and his luggage, and then sell the animals at the end of the journey, but Csoma records that he travelled with the caravan on foot, walking while others rode. On foot, in disguise, in infernal heat, with little money, sleeping (one can only presume) in bug-infested caravanserais, eating intolerable food: the journey would have put to the test the skills of physical endurance he had taught himself in boarding school. He travelled by caravan as far as Mosul, then went down the Tigris to Baghdad by boat, a distance of about 200 miles, and wrote not a word about it.
In Baghdad, he stayed with a Hungarian merchant, who introduced him to the secretary to the Resident of the East India Company, who functioned as the British ambassador. Henceforth, and for the rest of his life, Csoma sought, received, and depended on the consular protection and patronage of British officials. He had hoped to make contact with the Resident, Claudius Rich, who besides being in a position to give Csoma money and a useful letter of introduction was a brilliant scholar and linguist who had made the first survey of the site of Babylon in 1811 at the age of 24 . Csoma wrote to him in Latin “giving him intelligence of my arrival and design, and begging his protection.” But Rich was away, exploring Kurdistan, and his secretary gave him the money he needed to continue his journey, and a new Asian costume, on Rich’s behalf, so Csoma did not wait for him. The funds he received in Baghdad enabled him to improve his means of transport, for he records that he travelled with a caravan in European clothes and on horseback – rather than on foot – through the barren, snow-covered Zagros mountains into Persia, and reached Tehran on October 14th, 1820.
Csoma spent longer than usual in Tehran. His patrons here, the British representatives, Henry and George Willoc, gave him quarters in the embassy where he could study at his leisure and make plans for his onward journey. “Through their complaisance,” Csoma wrote, “I sojourned four months in the capital of Persia, became acquainted grammatically with the Persian, improved myself a little in English, perused several treatises for my purpose, [and] examined many ancient coins of the Parthian dynasty.”
A thousand miles separated Tehran from the next British embassy, which was in India, and crossing this vast distance was to be the riskiest stage of his journey so far, and expose him to greater personal danger than he had yet encountered. Persia was politically unstable, the weakened victim of imperial rivalry between Russia and Britain, and in the vacuum of order bandits ruled the roads. Before leaving Tehran, Csoma put his affairs in order as if he expected to die at their hands. He took the precaution of leaving with the Willocks all his books and papers, among them, Csoma wrote, “my testimonial from the University of Göttingen, my passport from Transylvania, and a certificate in Sclavonick on my progress in that language.” He was leaving behind all remaining material traces of his European identity.
He also entrusted the Willocks with two letters, both addressed to the college of Nagyenyed, with instructions that the second one be sent “in case I should die or perish on my road to Bokhara.”
The first one is a enthusiastic justification of his mission to Asia, culminating in an appeal for funds to enable him to complete it.
“As it had always been a very pleasant occupation of mine to study foreign languages and to investigate the history of nations according to time, place and environment, setting myself a specific aim, these were the fields I primarily practised myself in. The delight I found in these occupations while discovering the many secrets of times long past is indescribable,” he wrote.
“This knowledge was so much dearer to me since I acquired the absolute conviction that if God keeps me alive I can carry out and prove within a short period of time what the supporters and friends of our national language and literature have desired for so long… about the original homeland of our nation …
“May heaven bless my steps. I have already passed over several mountain ranges, great rivers and seas and through uncouth nations without the smallest change in my health. I have suffered no danger anywhere… I have spent more than two months now in the city of Tehran in Persia, and I am very much hopeful that, unless some great misfortune befalls me, although I have taken a route different from the one commonly suggested, I shall soon be able to prove that my conviction was not built on false premises.”
It ends, “Considering this, I humbly request the worthy gentlemen patrons to provide the necessary assistance to achieve my aim, and I promise that I will continue on the road that I started with the same diligence with which I left my country… After receipt of the money I will be home in a year, and then all those who value the honour of their homeland shall hear glad tidings from me in great detail.” The result of this letter was that the college raised a considerable sum to support Csoma in his mission but by the time it had been collected he was in such a remote place that the money could not be transmitted to him, even though he was in dire need of it.
The second letter is his final appeal to posterity, his adieu to his fellow countrymen from beyond the grave, and his apologia to the world. In this letter, lest his death on the road consign it to oblivion, he reveals what he had kept secret from all but a few scholarly intimates: the precise object of his travels, the place in Asia where he hoped to find the proto-Hungarians, so that if a successor should seek to take up the cause Csoma’s death left incomplete, he would be rightly guided. “The most ancient homeland of our ancestors,” he announces, is “Great and Little Bokharia,” that is, two vast, geographically separate areas now defined as being in the former Soviet republic of Uzbekistan, and Yarkand in the Tarim basin, which is north of the Tibetan plateau and is now within the Chinese territory of Hsinchiang.
The reasons he gives for thinking this are extraordinarily vague, fanciful, and unsubstantiated. “From what I have thus far seen, I am completely convinced that our ancestors occupied these territories several centuries before Christ, and that after that they moved into modern Persia, Arabia and Abyssinia.… [A]t various times, they formed different dynasties and were obliged by revolutions in Asia to cross Syria, Assyria, Georgia and Russia and so enter Europe. There are monuments to be found in the countries mentioned, and also the customs of the people there, their way of life, the traditions that exist among them and their annals that will tell the researcher what dynasties our ancestors founded, when and under what names, and why exactly they migrated to Europe.”
Henry Willock waited for a few years, and once he had ceased to hear any news of Csoma made the assumption that he was dead and sent the letter.
Csoma left Tehran on March 1st, 1821, carrying 40 gold pieces from the Willock brothers and a miniature edition of Johnson’s Dictionary that Henry Willock had given him as a present. “I travelled thereafter as an Armenian,” he wrote. (This disguise would enable him to pass as a foreigner and a Christian, but one who was a familiar sight in the region.) He travelled by caravan as far as Mashhad, in the northeast of Iran, but could not proceed “on account of warlike disturbances in the neighbouring countries,” and was forced to remain there for six months. At this point Csoma seemed to disappear. The money from Nagyenyed had arrived at the British embassy in Tehran, the enormous sum of 2,878 forints, and in order to convey it to him Henry Willock sought information about Csoma’s whereabouts from a British explorer in the area, but his enquiries yielded nothing, and the money had to be sent back to Transylvania. Rumours began to spread in Europe that Csoma had succumbed to the plague. Penniless, or close to it, for these six months Skander Beg the Armenian blended into background in this teeming city, whose narrow streets thronged with pilgrims visiting the shrines of the caliph Harún al-Rashid and ‘Ali al-Rida, the eighth imam of the Shi’a sect of Islam. How he lived here is a mystery, as he never referred to this period again. A Yoruba conception of hell is being sent on a endless journey without enough money.
Eventually he was able to join a caravan to Bokhara, capital city of the region of the same name, and one of the two places he had named in his letter to Nagyenyed as being the cradle of the Hungarians, travelling northward from Mashhad through the oasis towns of the Karakum desert, a distance of 350 arduous miles, travelling at a rate of no more than twelve miles a day. After crossing the Oxus, he reached Bokhara on November 18th, 1821, intending to pass several months there. Amazingly, he left Bokhara after only five days, “affrighted,” he wrote, “by frequent exaggerated reports of the approach of a numerous Russian army.” The threat of a Russian invasion in Bokhara induced him to press on to the second of his two destinations, the Tarim basin, north of Tibet. He joined an eastbound caravan to Afghanistan, which passed through Balkh, a village set in the vast circular ruins of the ancient capital of Khurásán, and up the winding paths through the mountains to the Bamian pass, where giant carvings of the Buddha in the rock mark the site of an early outpost of Chinese Buddhism. Seven weeks later, he wrote, “on 6th of January, 1822, I arrived at Kabool.”
He stayed in the Afghan capital for two weeks, and then, in the company of some real Armenians, joined another caravan heading through the Khyber Pass into India. At a village near its entrance he met two French army officers, Jean-François Allard and Jean-Baptiste Ventura, who were travelling with an extensive entourage of servants and horses towards Lahore. This was the capital of the Sikh empire in the Punjab, ruled by the maharajah Ranjit Singh, “the lion of the Punjab.” Ranjit Singh had lately consolidated his power over much of the former Mughal empire in northern India, and was known to be seeking to maintain his conquest by engaging European mercenaries to modernise his army. Allard and Ventura, who were seeking their fortunes in the east after the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo, were on their way to offer Ranjit Singh their services when Csoma got wind of them and ingratiated himself into their party. With their protection he stood a better chance of getting safely through the Khyber Pass, the 33-mile natural frontier between Afghanistan and India.
Csoma travelled with Allard and Ventura for three months until they reached Lahore, and then parted company with them shortly before they presented their credentials to Ranjit Singh in April. After twelve days in Lahore he made his way north. “Going by Amritsir [Amritsar, the Sikh religious capital], Jamoo, I reached Kashmir the 17th of April, where I stopped, waiting for proper season and companions, till 9th May,” Csoma wrote. What follows in his account -- “On the 9th of June I arrived at Leh, the capital of Ladak” -- gives no idea of the difficulty of the next stage of his journey. Travelling on foot with four Kashmiri merchants, with whom he communicated in Persian, he ascended into the Himalayan region, through a barren, rocky, treacherous mountainous landscape. In four weeks he covered the hundred miles from Srinagar to Leh, ascending to an altitude of 3,500 metres above sea level, a journey which would incapacitate the less hardy traveller with the splitting headache and breathlessness of altitude sickness.
About twenty miles east of Srinagar, he crossed the Zoji La Pass, which marks the cultural boundary of India and entered the Tibetan Buddhist country of Ladakh. Only a handful of Europeans before him had entered this austerely beautiful country, the highest inhabited place on earth, perched like an eagle’s nest in the thin air, surrounded by a parched landscape of snow and rock. Now he was in the land where his real life’s work was to begin.
The most alluring thing that can be apprehended by the human spirit is the image that appears at the furthest point on the visible horizon. In any realm of knowledge or experience, it is the thing you know the least about, yet which troubles you the most. Yet if you ever saw it clearly, in focus, up close, it would melt away into oblivion. It has no tangible substance; but it flickers with alluring signals of ultimate meaning: some glimpse of the beyond, or some insight into the riddle of the self. It is the vanishing point of a person’s life, the point towards which all his efforts incline, but which he never reaches.
There is nowhere on earth that comes closer to providing a physical analogue to this essential remoteness than Tibet. No one nowadays would dispute what Tibet has come to stand for in the western imagination. Its geography of mountains and monasteries symbolises not only spiritual fulfillment, but the necessary remoteness and inaccessibility, the virtual impossibility of that fulfillment. Tibet is now a destination of post-Christian pilgrimage, a Mecca for the children of Freud and Jung, and the Dalai Lama is arguably more successful as a religious leader to people in the west than as the leader of a national liberation movement in his tormented homeland. Inasmuch as his pioneering scholarship inaugurated Tibetan studies, we have Csoma de Kõrös to thank for what we know about Tibetan civilisation, and indirectly what we imagine about it.
Csoma spent twenty-five days in the Ladakhi capital, which is overlooked by an eight-storied royal palace of Tibetan design. His destination was still Yarkand, 400 miles further north, on the other side of the Karakorum mountain range on the fringe of the Tibetan plateau, and he intended to wait in Leh until he could find a caravan that was going there. In this, for the first time since he began his journey two and a half years earlier, he was completely unsuccessful. Whatever wiles he had employed to get this far, including local dress and his ability to speak the language of every country he passed through, were of no use.
There was a caravan route that covered this distance, but no one was willing to have Csoma in their party. (“I ascertained the road to go to Yarkand was very difficult, expensive, and dangerous for a Christian,” he wrote.) The reason for the refusal was both political and commercial. The political reason was that the caravan route to Yarkand passed through Tibet, which was then under the tight political control of the Manchu empire in China. Tibet’s Chinese rulers decreed in 1792 that no foreigner be permitted to enter Tibet, closing the country completely to Christian missionaries and to diplomatic visits from British India. (This isolation was preserved until 1903, when British forces under Francis Younghusband blasted their way into the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, forcing Tibet into treaty relations with Britain.) The Chinese were aware of the competition for influence in this part of the world between Britain and Russia, and were determined to protect this western extremity of their empire. The commercial reason was that the Kashmiri merchants who plied this route guarded it jealously, and saw any European approaching it, even one whose intentions were as pure as Csoma’s, as a potential threat to their livelihood.
Unable to proceed further, Csoma had no choice but to turn back the way he had come. He had a vague plan of returning to Lahore and joining Allard and Ventura: perhaps they could help him find a position as a translator at the court of Ranjit Singh. Whatever his intentions were, he was forced to make his dreary way down the vertiginous mountain tracks to Lahore and hope not to be buried in an avalanche before he got there.
Two weeks later, on the bank of the river Dras, he met William Moorcroft. The meeting changed his life.
William Moorcroft, 55 at the time, was a veterinarian specialising in horses, and held the rank of Superintendent of the Honourable East India Company’s Stud, situated at Pusa, near Calcutta. The Stud supplied horses to the British Indian army, and Moorcroft had been lured to take the job as Superintendent from his lucrative and successful veterinary practice in London by a salary equal to that of the Governor of the East India Company himself. His talents were needed to reverse a serious decline in the quality of the horseflesh the Stud was producing, which threatened to make the Company dependent upon horses imported from Britain, at enormous expense and risk to the horses themselves. Local horses lacked the needed size and strength of bone to carry a British cavalryman.
After ten years of trying without success to make any significant improvement, Moorcroft resolved that the only way to improve the breeding stock was to seek horses further afield. After prolonged lobbying of his superiors, in 1820 he set off an extended mission of exploration across northern India to central Asia in search of the ideal horse. The goal of his mission was Bokhara, which Alexander Csoma de Kõrös had sought for entirely different reasons. In Bokhara he hoped to find a legendary fair where the horses of Attila the Hun’s armies had been bought and sold.
Moorcroft had set out with nothing less than a well-equipped small army to carry out this purpose. The Company continued to pay his salary, and supplied him with an escort of Gurkha soldiers, but otherwise he met all the expenses of the expedition out of his own considerable private means. His entourage consisted of fifty men, all of whose salaries he paid himself, and numerous horses, mules and dogs, as well as, for a time, some elephants and camels. The draught animals were loaded with the expedition’s supplies, but also carried eight tonnes of manufactured goods which Moorcroft hoped to trade along the way. At night, he slept in a tent nine foot square, equipped with carpets, folding tables and chairs, a library of more than one hundred reference books, a portable writing desk and a collapsible brass bedstead which folded into a leather case.
He also carried, according to his biographer , medical equipment -- catheters, various surgical instruments, leather hernia trusses – as well as weapons, ammunition, surveying equipment, compasses, thermometers, barometer tubes, stationery, personal supplies of sugar, chocolate and brandy, a comprehensive collection of fishing lines and flies, presents including kaleidoscopes, silver and plated articles like teapots, soup tureens and sugar basins, telescopes, watches, cut glass chandeliers, pistols, scissors and penknives.
He was granted leave to be away for a year. He died five years later, a hundred miles short of Bokhara, without ever having found the kind of horses he was looking for, but having accomplished one of the great journeys of exploration.
William Moorcroft was a man of enormous personal energy and wide-ranging practical interests. The voluminous letters and reports that he wrote in the course of his five-year journey, often with the ink freezing on the page, are the most complete description in English until that time of the countries he explored, recording flora, agriculture, medicine, meteorological data, and local commerce and politics. But his expedition had an extraordinary further dimension: it was also a courageous His expedition was also a courageous and highly irregular freelance diplomatic and trade mission, in which he hoped to open up new markets for British manufactured goods in the little known countries neighbouring British India, and through trade bring them into the British orbit, at Russia’s expense. Half a century before the Great Game began, and to the dismay of his superiors who came to think of him as a meddlesome crackpot (finally ordering him to desist and come home), Moorcroft was convinced that Russian ambition in northern India and central Asia were a present danger to British imperial interests.
Like Csoma, Moorcroft had just failed to gain access to the road across the Karakorum Range to Yarkand, hoping to travel there en route to Bokhara. He had spent two years in Leh, engaged in tedious and ultimately fruitless negotiations with Chinese officials, Kashmiri traders and representatives of the powerless Ladakhi monarchy for permission. Like Csoma, he faced the dismal prospect of turning back and finding another route.
And like Csoma, he was thoroughly fed up, when, on July 16th, 1822, as his party made its way along the precarious track that ran along the river Dras to Leh, to make one final attempt at getting permission to enter Yarkand, he encountered the Hungarian scholar coming towards him in the opposite direction. Besides having failed in his attempt to enter Yarkand, Moorcroft had lost his precious folding brass bedstead in this river two weeks earlier when a horse slipped into it, and was growing weary of a monotonous diet of “ill-boiled rice, pulse and an occasional dish of turnip tops.” Csoma was on foot and alone, and looked like a faqir, in an Armenian costume which was no doubt the worse for wear after his two journeys through the mountain passes to Leh.
Csoma wrote, “On the 16th of July 1822, I was agreeably surprised to find Mr. Moorcroft ”
Moorcroft wrote, “Mr. Csoma as an Armenian …introduced himself to me in July last on the western frontier of Ludakh.”
Csoma immediately joined Moorcroft’s party, and travelled with him for a total of nearly eight months. Their personalities and circumstances could not have been more different, yet in this remote setting they formed a solid bond of trust and mutual respect. For Csoma, sharing the amenities and company of Moorcroft’s entourage would have been a blessed relief after all that he had endured so far. As for Moorcroft, his practical mind seized on the benefits the talents of a scholar like Csoma could bring to British strategic interests, as he saw them.
Moorcroft gave him a volume from his library: it was the only book in existence in a European language on the language and culture of Tibet, the country that both of them had tried and failed to enter. The Alphabetum Tibetanum was published in Rome in 1762 by a Catholic priest, Antonio Giorgi; it was an incoherent, 900-page miscellany in Latin into which had been stuffed everything that the author had been able to glean from Catholic missionaries about the Himalayan kingdom. Most of it was wrong: it informed its readers, for example, that the religion of Tibet was Manicheism. In giving Csoma the book, Moorcroft suggested to Csoma that a man of his talents, who already knew thirteen languages, could learn one more without too much trouble, and to travel to the Tibetan monasteries that lay outside the borders of the forbidden kingdom in order to compile an accurate dictionary and grammar of the Tibetan language.
In putting this proposition to Csoma, Moorcroft wrote, “I suggested the obligation he would confer on the Literate of Europe by devoting a portion of his time” to such a project. In commending the undertaking to him in this way the shrewd Moorcroft hit a psychological bull’s-eye: it appealed directly to Csoma’s ardent desire for scholarly fame. Csoma later justified his decision to take up Moorcroft’s challenge by saying that in studying the language and literature of Tibet he hoped to find references in the Tibetan texts to central Asian peoples that would prove his case about the origins of the Hungarians, but once embarked on his massive study of Tibetan language and literature the references in his work to his favourite theory are all but absent from his writings.
Moorcroft had his own ideas about the merits of compiling a dictionary and grammar of Tibetan. It would be a valuable work of intelligence about this obscure country, which in Moorcroft’s view was crucial to British mercantile and political interests, especially given his suspicion that the Russians were trying to get there first.
His proposal to Csoma was not an abstract recommendation: he gave Csoma substantial support in carrying it out. When they parted the following year -- Csoma heading northward again to the monasteries of Ladakh and the neighbouring kingdom of Zanskar, Moorcroft west toward Bokhara – Moorcroft gave Csoma money and detailed letters of introduction to take with him.
Csoma returned with Moorcroft to Leh, where Moorcroft had a house at his disposal. Here Csoma made himself useful by translating a letter in Russian which had come into Moorcroft’s possession. The sender was the Russian foreign minister, Count Nesselrode, addressed to the maharajah of Punjab, Ranjit Singh. Moorcroft had obtained it by roundabout means: the letter had been carried by a Russian spy, Agha Mehdi Rafail, who unlike Moorcroft had travelled the length of the Ladakh-Yarkand caravan route gathering intelligence about the trade that passed along it. Agha Mehdi had died on his return journey across the Karakorum range, and the letter was among his effects when the caravan with which he had been travelling reached Ladakh, and one of Moorcroft’s retainers had somehow acquired it. Csoma translated the letter into Latin; it was a tentative proposal to the ruler of Punjab to establish political and trade relations with Russia. Moorcroft, no doubt feeling his suspicions justified, sent the letter directly to his superiors in Calcutta.
Moorcroft made his final departure from Ladakh in September 1822, leaving Csoma behind in Leh with his lieutenant George Trebeck and a dozen horses. Trebeck had been instructed to await the return of another member of Moorcroft’s party who was coming from India with 15,000 rupees in pearls and corals to use as money, a fresh Gurkha escort, muskets and ammunition. Once Moorcroft had left, Csoma began to make arrangements for carrying out his new plan of learning the Tibetan language, “being desirous,” he allowed, “to be acquainted with the structure of that curious tongue.” With Trebeck’s help he found a local who spoke Persian who was willing to teach him the rudiments of colloquial Tibetan. In about two months, that is by the time Trebeck was ready to rejoin Moorcroft’s party in December, Csoma had acquired a basic knowledge of the language.
Csoma spent the next five months with Moorcroft in Srinagar, the Kashmiri capital, which belonged to the realms of Ranjit Singh. The Punjabi ruler had provided Moorcroft with a house in Srinagar, partly out of hospitality and partly to keep an eye on him: he understandably suspected Moorcroft to be a British spy. While Csoma spent the winter studying the Alphabetum Tibetanum, Moorcroft immersed himself in his usual activities of acquiring and writing up vast compendia of information about local geography and natural products, and tending to the health of the people who crowded at his door in need of urgent medical attention. His patronage of Csoma’s proposed Tibetan grammar and dictionary was simply a branch of his project to contribute a mass of knowledge about these regions to the general (that is, British) good.
In May of the following year, 1823, when the route to Leh was passable, Csoma took leave of Moorcroft for the last time and set off once again for Ladakh. He carried 300 rupees that Moorcroft had given him and letters of introduction to the kalon, or prime minister of Ladakh, Tsewang Dhondup, and to Lama Sangye Phuntsog, the abbot of the monastery of Zangla, a few days’ journey from Leh in the neighbouring sub-kingdom of Zanskar.
In sending Csoma to these two particular Ladakhis, Moorcroft showed a keen understanding of local politics. The fragile little kingdom of Ladakh was fearful of an invasion and conquest by Ranjit Singh. By assisting a scholar who was evidently sponsored by the British, as Csoma was, the Ladakhi government would demonstrate a desire for good relations with the British government of India, and could then depend on it for protection in the event of an invasion. The prime minister, Tsewang Dhondup, was one of those in the Ladakhi ruling elite who favoured this pro-British policy. When Csoma arrived bearing Moorcroft’s letter Dhondup received him hospitably and arranged for him to lodge in the royal palace. The choice of Zangla was clever too: the village was so remote that Csoma’s presence there would not attract attention. And if Ranjit Singh did invade Ladakh, his forces would concentrate on taking the capital, Leh, and its tributary Zanskar would probably be left alone. (The predicted invasion eventually took place in 1834.)
At about the same time, Moorcroft also wrote to the political department at Calcutta announcing the arrangement he had made with Csoma, and attesting to his character, his “prudent conduct” and the “patient fortitude” with which he was pursuing his “laudable and patriotic object”. The entire grammar and dictionary, he wrote, would take Csoma a mere twelve months to complete, and would then become the property of the Honourable Company. The text would be deposited with the Imam of Leh, a Shi’ite Muslim and a trusted friend of Moorcroft’s, who would see that it was safely conveyed to Calcutta. (In making this stipulation Moorcroft is apparently assuming that having completed the grammar and dictionary Csoma would continue his journey onward to Yarkand.) Moorcroft then goes on to list books that Csoma would find useful in his work, requesting that they be sent to him by the Asiatic Society of Bengal (which was not an independent scholarly institution but a branch of the Indian government). These included a Latin-Greek dictionary, a Latin grammar, a compendium of Greek and Roman mythology, a dictionary of Sanskrit (“if not very ponderous”), and “any map of Asia that is good and not very large.” At the end of the letter is appended four lines in formal Latin by Csoma pledging to carry out the project. It is signed, “Alexander Csoma de Koros, Philologiae Studiosus.”
After a few days in the palace of Leh, Csoma set off for Zanskar. The kalon gave him a Ladakhi passport, and, to fortify him in his work, “about eight pounds of tea.”
Csoma made the journey from Leh to Zanskar in nine days, on foot, equipped with nothing more than the clothes he was wearing and his few belongings, mostly books (including the large quarto volume of the Alphabetum Tibetanum, his only key to the Tibetan language). His route followed the course of the Zanskar river, a wide flat valley of rock and gravel surrounded by mountains, curving southwestwards from Leh. In summer the Zanskar river flows swiftly with snowmelt from the mountains and glaciers, so if Csoma slipped he risked being carried off by the current and drowned. At one point he had to cross this torrent on a rope bridge 220 feet long. In this landscape, a harsh sunlight hurts the eyes as it reflects off the brown mountains with their talus slopes. Geologically, the land is a former sea-bed, millions of years old; the raw rock looks like it has only lately been exposed to the sky. Eventually, at an altitude of 3,500 metres/11,000 feet, he came to the village of Zangla, the tiny capital (populated now by 700 people) of the tiny kingdom of Zanskar, perched on a fastness of rock at a bend in the river.
The highest building in Zangla was the fortress-monastery, a stumpy building of several mud brick stories presiding over the village. Here Csoma presented himself, bearing his letters of introduction to the abbot, Sangye Phuntsog. He was the first European ever to visit Zanskar. Speaking Persian (the lingua franca from here to Persia), Csoma was somehow able to enlist Phuntsog’s assistance in the enormous task of teaching him classical and vernacular Tibetan, and introducing him to Tibetan literature. He was able to offer Phuntsog a fee for his services, albeit a mere pittance, and there was no doubt a political value in helping a representative of the British, but one has to assume that a learned lama in this isolated place would have seen helping so serious a foreign scholar, who had come such a vast distance, to learn his language and religion (for Tibetan literature is almost entirely religious) as a meritorious and worthwhile end in itself.
Sangye Phuntsog was certainly well qualified for the task. He had spent seven years studying in the Tibetan capital Lhasa and centres of Buddhist scholarship in Bhutan and Nepal. Like Csoma, he had made his pilgrimage to these places on foot, covering a total of about 4,000 miles. He had a thorough knowledge of the encyclopaedic literature of Tibetan Buddhism, but was also trained in medicine, astronomy and astrology. Unusually for a lama, whose vows pledged him to celibacy, he was married, and lived outside the monastery. His wife was the widow of the king of Zanskar, which gave him membership in the little kingdom’s royal family as well as political office: he was the chief physician of the entire kingdom of Ladakh and the minister responsible for relations with the supreme ruler of Tibetan Buddhism, the Dalai Lama. Personally, he was noted for the emotionless serenity of his disposition, the shabbiness of his dress and the greasiness of his habits.
Csoma spent the next sixteen months with Phuntsog, studying Tibetan manuscripts and laying the foundation for his dictionary and grammar. Their collaboration locked the two men together in an ordeal of learning that lasted, in its first phase, sixteen uninterrupted months, an effort as remarkable in the annals of scholarship as in the extremes of human endurance.
From June 1823 to October 1824, Csoma and Phuntsog remained virtually immured in a room in the Zangla fortress-monastery. In this tiny cell, nine foot square, reached through a door forty inches high at the top of a rickety, ladder-like flight of stairs, with very low ceilings and a single window eight inches square, Phuntsog and Csoma sat together over the unbound leaves of the two vast encyclopedias in which the whole of Tibetan literature is collected, the Kanjur and the Tanjur. At first the room was heated by a small brazier in the floor, but since the chimney was unknown in Tibet at this time lighting the fire filled the room with smoke, which stung Csoma’s eyes and made him unable to read, so he insisted that it not be used. He preferred to withstand the cold and preserve his eyesight for reading.
Month after month they passed in this unheated cell, studying the ancient pages in the few hours of daylight that penetrated the cell’s tiny window. They sat together huddled under sheepskin cloaks. When winter set in, the room was so cold that Csoma could only extend his hand from under his cloak for long enough to turn the page they were reading. Student and teacher would vie over whose turn it was to turn the page, each nudging the other with his elbow through his cloak to goad the other into performing the unwelcome heat-losing chore. They lived on tsampa, the national staple of Tibet, which is usually and incorrectly described as tea, but is in reality a kind of soup made of water, tea, salt, yak’s or sheep’s blood, butter and barley flour. Csoma ate no fruit and no meat because he couldn’t afford it. There was no water for washing, and no bed to sleep on. For four months in the depths of winter they did not leave the room once. It is a marvel that the two men did not die of exposure.
Of all the hardships Csoma had endured up to now, this was the most severe. Accounts of his later relations with Europeans, once he had left Tibet and returned to India, make it clear that, when viewed in terms of normal psychology, the experience of those sixteen months had crushed him: he seemed to inhabit another plane of existence. From this point on, he could only relate to the handful of people -- all Tibetan lamas -- who had made the same intense pilgrimage of esoteric learning that he had. In this voluntary, penitential self-immurement, like that of a medieval Christian mystic bricked up in his hermit’s cell, the final metamorphosis of Csoma’s character took place. In the room at Zangla, all remaining traces of the European Csoma were abandoned, and the Buddhist Csoma was born. He acquired his final new name, in Tibetan, to add to Skander Beg: Phyi-glin-gi-grwa-pa -- the foreign pupil.
In 1933, nearly a century after his death, the Tokyo Buddhist University in Japan declared Alexander Csoma de Kõrös a Bodhisattva, an enlightened being who postpones his entry into Nirvana in order to help others on their path to enlightenment. A shrine was dedicated to him, with a bronze statue of Csoma sitting in the lotus position, conventionally represented in the likeness of a Buddha, with not a trace of his European origins to be seen in his features. In the same spirit, the main Buddhist institution in Hungary is named after him, the Alexander Csoma de Kõrös International Institute of Buddhology.
This apotheosis of Csoma into the Buddhist pantheon begins in the marvel of his sixteen months in the cell at Zangla. The experience is like a Buddhist religious parable: the foreign pilgrim who leaves his homeland on foot in search of knowledge, and devotes himself to the study of the teachings of Buddha as the disciple of a learned priest, while subduing his carnal desires in asceticism and self-discipline, concentrating his mind on the objects of religion through extreme introversion. His survival without a fire resembles the miracle of generating body heat by intense concentration that, according to Tibetan Buddhism, an adept in advanced tantric practices can perform after prolonged austerities and meditation.
More important for his elevation to the rank of bodhisattva was that he spread the teachings of Buddha to a portion of mankind that had hitherto known nothing about them. Csoma’s accomplishment was to introduce -- in a thorough, reliable, systematic way – an entire written culture to the west, one that was hitherto completely unknown. It was the scholarly equivalent of discovering a new continent. In this respect, his work can be considered the last great feat of European discovery. His own account of what he did is typically sparse: “During my residence in Zanskar, by the able assistance of that intelligent man [the lama Phuntsog], I learned grammatically the language, and became acquainted with many literary treasures shut up in 320 large printed volumes, which are the basis of all Tibetan learning and religion.”
Csoma made the fundamental discovery that Tibetan Buddhism originated in the Buddhism of India, and that the corpus of Tibetan literature, contained in these two vast encyclopaedias, mostly consists of translations from Sanskrit, the language from which Tibetan is derived. These translations preserved early Buddhist texts whose Sanskrit originals were in many cases lost.
In order to encompass this mass of material, Csoma asked Phuntsog to compose summaries of the main subdivisions of the Tibetan encyclopaedias, on the sciences and the religious system of Buddhism. Phuntsog accordingly wrote short treatises on Tibetan language and literature, medicine, and astronomy and astrology. The modesty with which he approached the task is reflected in the opening invocation to his treatise on literary techniques, in which he wrote, “This is the essence of linguistics, metrics and poetics. Merely a brief summary devoid of self-sufficiency, not counting on appreciation or fame, nor on deep interest from the wise.”
Eventually Csoma’s demands proved more than Phuntsog could satisfy on his own, so he enlisted the aid of two other senior lamas from neighbouring monasteries, who wrote texts on logic and Buddhist religious doctrine. The texts that the three lamas wrote have come to be known as “the Alexander books,” written in the form of a dialogue in which Csoma asks basic questions and the lama does his best to answer.
The “Alexander books” immortalise Csoma de Kõrös in Tibetan literature. In one of them – ‘The ship penetrating into the sea of learning systems’, on Buddhist doctrine -- he is referred to as “The Rumi Skander Beg, who is like the vast, open skies in his unshakeable fortitude and his demonstrated insight in the sciences.” The books preserve the voice of the Hungarian, now speaking through the medium of the lamas’ Tibetan prose, in the role of the earnest disciple. “What is the analysis of the word Buddha, and why was he given this name?” Csoma the disciple asks. “Which are the philosophical schools presently taught in Tibet? Which are the heretic sects incompatible with Buddha’s teaching? Which of the sciences and virtues to be found in India, China and Mongolia are advocated, especially in Tibet?”
By the time he left Zangla, Csoma had made detailed descriptions of the contents of the two Tibetan encyclopedias, copied a wide selection of specimen pages, and catalogued a basic vocabulary of 40,000 Tibetan words.
The monastery in which Csoma and Phuntsog worked and lived in these austere conditions is now abandoned and partly ruined. Their room has been visited and described by a few twentieth-century Himalayan explorers, who have made the journey with thermal sleeping bags, winter tents and primus stoves. Most of these explorers have been Hungarians, for whom the cell has become a national shrine, a monument to discomfort in the name of science, and they have affixed plaques recording their visits, and honouring Csoma, to its now crumbling walls.
However, even Bodhisattvas have their limits. In October 1824, as the temperature dropped, Csoma and Phuntsog apparently agreed that they could not stand another winter in that miserable cell, and resolved to continue with their work in more comfortable surroundings. They arranged to pass the winter in the village of Sultanpur in Kulu, a region on the other side of the mountain where the climate was less harsh and where Phuntsog’s family owned a house. Csoma made the journey to Kulu alone; Phuntsog promised to join him later, after he had attended to some unspecified personal business in Zangla, but before the road to Kulu was closed for the winter by snow. Csoma waited for him in Sultanpur for ten days, and then the expected snow came. The road was now closed, and he realised that he and his teacher were now separated for the winter. Stuck in Sultanpur with nothing to do, Csoma conceived a new plan: rather than waste his time where he was, he would travel a hundred miles south and two miles down through the Himalayan passes to India, to the East India Company frontier station at Sabathu in Himachal Pradesh, and present his credentials.
In 1830, a young French aristocrat and naturalist named Victor Jacquemont, travelling in northern India on a mission for the Natural History Museum of Paris to explore the Himalayan regions, wrote an admiring description of Captain C. P. Kennedy, the commanding officer at Sabathu, in a letter to his father.
“My host happens to be the political agent who exercises control over
the only Tartar and Tibetan states over which the English power extends...
With his thousand Gurkha infantrymen he is such absolute master of these
mountains that since his accession to power he has not once been obliged
to resort to force. He deposes the kings of these regions when they slay
too many of their subjects: it only costs him a word to the Resident at
Delhi, under whose orders he is in political matters. With an independence
equal to that of the Grand Turk he acts as judge over his own subjects
and, what is more, those of the neigbouring Rajas, Hindu, Tartar and Tibetan,
sending them to prison, fining them, and even hanging them when he thinks
Kennedy was the founder of Simla, the picturesque summer resort which from 1865 until the end of the Raj served as the administrative capital of India during the hot summer months. His taste for luxury and the style he brought to military life in this distant outpost of British power greatly appealed to his aristocratic guest.
“This man, the first among all artillery captains in the world, is a nice fellow, one hour of whose time after breakfast is occupied by the duties of his virtually royal state, and who spends the rest of his time showering marks of friendship upon me. He has the reputation of being the most rigorous of dandies and the greatest of sticklers for form, and of having the most stinking pride of any of the princes of the earth. But he shows me none of this: nobody could be more of a good fellow. In the morning we go for an hour or two’s gallop along the magnificent roads he has made.... On our return there is a choice and elegant breakfast... At sunset fresh horses are at the door and we ride around again picking up the pleasantest and gayest of the rich, leisured people or alleged invalids [the climate of Himachal Pradesh was thought conducive to convalescence] whom we meet. They are people of the same kind as my host, bachelors and soldiers, but soldiers employed in every kind of department; from my point of view the most interesting people in the whole of India. We sit down at half past seven to a magnificent dinner and rise from table at eleven o’clock. I drink Rhine wine or claret or nothing but champagne, with Malmsey at dessert, while under the pretext of the cold climate the others stick to port, Madeira and sherry; I do not remember drinking any water for a week.”
Into this rarefied world of horses, champagne and social gaiety staggered an emaciated Hungarian, in ragged clothes and wrapped in a blanket. He had been travelling for a month, on foot and alone.
Captain Kennedy’s immediate response on setting eyes on this extraordinary visitor, who spoke heavily accented English, carried no recognizable passport but claimed to be Hungarian, and who was dressed, as far as he could tell, like an Indian beggar, was to order him to change into smarter clothing. Csoma reappeared wearing the only European clothes he still possessed, a Hungarian national costume, consisting of baggy trousers and a long tailed coat with a waistcoat underneath. Csoma wore this incongruous outfit every day throughout his stay at Sabathu, in hot weather and cold.
Csoma expected, on his arrival at Sabathu, to be welcomed as a prodigal son, returning to his British patrons to show, with abundant evidence, that he had diligently fulfilled the contract he had made with their representative, William Moorcroft. Instead, to his dismay, his appearance was met with puzzlement, amusement and suspicion. No one knew who he was or what to do with him. Instead of being feted, he was held under a form of house arrest.
On November 28th, 1824, two days after his arrival, Captain Kennedy wrote to the regional headquarters at Ambala, “an European traveller, who gives his name as Alexander Csoma de Körös, a subject of Hungary, has arrived at this post. He is particularly introduced to my notice by Mr. Moorcroft, whose letter I herewith enclose. Mr. Csoma de Körös remains here at present… I request your instructions regarding this gentleman’s movements.”
He received the following answer. “Be good enough to detain the European
traveller at Sabathu until instructions of the agent to the Governor-General
at Delhi can be received regarding him.” Regional headquarters did not
know what to do with him either, so the question was referred higher still,
to the office of the Governor-General of India himself, Lord Amherst.
When Lord Amherst at last replied (from Calcutta, a thousand miles away), he conveyed the instruction that Csoma be requested to give a thorough account of himself and his travels and activities. Then they would decide what to do with him.
Two months after Csoma’s arrival at Sabathu, Captain Kennedy asked him to write an account of everywhere he had been since leaving his native Hungary and to state the purpose of his journey. The result was the eight-page letter addressed to Captain Kennedy, in legalistically numbered paragraphs, that is the only primary record of Csoma’s life.
After describing his five years of travel and study, which he does with the colourless accuracy and conciseness of a biologist describing something seen on a microscope slide, disdaining to offer anything but what is required of him, a tone of self-pity slips out when he writes that “At my first entrance to the British Indian territory I was fully persuaded that I should be received as a friend by the Government, because I supposed that my name, my purpose, and my engagement for searching after Tibetan literature, were well known in consequence of Mr. Moorcroft’s introductions.”
It did not occur to him in his beetle-browed unworldliness that William Moorcroft had been away “on deputation to Upper Asia” for nearly five years, and was not in a position to make contracts on behalf of the Indian Government, despite his enthusiastic recommendation of Csoma to them. As far as Captain Kennedy and his superiors were concerned, even if they knew Moorcroft other than by hearsay, his patronage of Csoma’s project – if what the Hungarian had written was true -- was just another of his impractical enthusiasms.
Csoma’s letter was precise and comprehensive, but from the point of view of the British authorities it did not answer the original baffling question: why was an Austrian subject of unknown origin compiling a dictionary of Tibetan, a language none of them had ever heard of, and claiming to be doing so for the British?
One paragraph in particular raised the anxiety that Csoma might be a spy, either for Ranjit Singh or for Russia. Csoma had volunteered the information that he had translated the letter that the Russian foreign minister had written to Ranjit Singh, delivered via the Russian agent Agha Mehdi Rafail. The authorities in Delhi were suspicious of the chronology of events as Csoma described them. Had the agent really died in 1821, as Csoma claimed, a year before Csoma came into possession of the letter, or more recently? “If the former,” the British Resident in Delhi wrote, “it will be desirable to learn how Csoma de Koros has been engaged all this time.”
After deliberating for five months, Captain Kennedy and Lord Amherst agreed that Csoma was telling the truth about himself and was not travelling “with a view to obtain political information.” Like Moorcroft, they saw the sincerity of Csoma’s loyalty to the British and that his work on the Tibetan language was of real value.
“It may not be improper to state,” Kennedy wrote to Lord Amherst, “that Mr. Csoma appears a very unassuming and diffident man. He is now subsisting upon Mr. Moorcroft’s bounty and expects through his kindness to be able to submit his researches to the Asiatic Society. I am induced to think his finances are at a very low ebb, and his long detention here may involve him in pecuniary embarrassments; indeed his present means are already so much reduced that when he leaves this frontier his future dependence must rest with a charitable hand.”
Csoma was consequently informed that word had come from Calcutta that his detention was now at an end, that he could return to the monasteries of Ladakh to continue his research, and that the Governor-General had ordered that he be given a regular stipend of 50 rupees a month to support him.
The decision made him indignant rather than grateful: his word had been doubted, his time had been wasted, and he had been forced into undignified proximity with the carousing bachelors of the Sabathu officers’ mess, who must have seemed to him like figures in a Hogarthian depiction of Hell. He later complained that he had been “treated at Sabathu like a fool, caressed and ridiculed at the same time.” His thin skin had been pierced, and like the episode fifteen years earlier when a fellow student had cheated him, the injury to his amour propre remained open and raw and unforgiven.
Still, Csoma now at least had the official patronage of the Indian Government and adequate means to continue his study of Tibetan. With this encouragement, on June 6th, 1825, he set off again into the mountains. This time, however, he had no clear idea where to go. Unlike two years earlier, when he carried Moorcroft’s letters of introduction to the kalon of Ladakh and to the lama Phuntsog, now he had no assurance that he would be welcomed anywhere. He had lost contact with his former teacher since the latter had mysteriously deserted him at the end of their sixteen months in Zangla. He had no choice but to depend on his own ability in the Tibetan language to find a new monastery in which to work.
After a few days’ travelling eastward from Sabathu, in rainy weather, he somehow learned that the monastery at Kanum, close to the border with the forbidden country of Tibet, had an extensive library of Tibetan manuscripts, so Csoma decided to make his way there. On the way, he was able to engage a porter to help him carry his boxes, through the intervention of a local vizier to whom Csoma presented a letter from the British authorities at Sabathu.
Kanum, when he got there, proved to be a dead end. There was indeed a monastery, which did contain an ample stock of manuscripts, which Csoma inspected, but no one there knew how to read them. In a letter to his new patron, Captain Kennedy, Csoma expressed his disgust and disappointment with the lamas at Kanum, who were not the kind of Tibetans he was expecting to find at all. They were, he wrote, “half Hindus; they detest and hate the Tibetans on account of their eating beef. In general they are very ignorant, nor can they speak the Tibetan language properly.”
Faced with this setback, Csoma decided that he had no choice but to try to renew contact with Phuntsog. He left Kanum and trekked northwards back into Zanskar, reaching Phuntsog’s home village of Tetha. Here he learned that Phuntsog was away, but was expected back soon. Csoma waited six weeks for the lama to return, and together they made a new arrangement to continue their collaboration.
This time, relations with Phuntsog were difficult. One can only speculate why he failed to join Csoma at Kulu the previous year, compelling Csoma to go to Sabathu, with disastrous results. A political reason is the most probable explanation. Csoma’s presence in Zanskar may have become awkward for Phuntsog, who was, after all, the Ladakhi minister responsible for relations with Tibet. If the Tibetan government learned that a foreigner was working on cracking the code that kept the country a secret from the rest of the world, Phuntsog would be seen as an accessory. From the Tibetan point of view, learning their language was akin to espionage. This theory is supported by the fact that Phuntsog proposed that they continue their work in a monastery even more remote than the one at Zangla: here he could continue to help Csoma, which was his own government’s tentative pro-British policy, but the work could proceed virtually in secret.
This was Phugtal, where Csoma spent a miserable and frustrating year. The monastery was built into the side of a mountain like an eagle’s nest, a cluster of tiny whitewashed houses clinging to an almost sheer rock-face. The only practical justification for building a human habitation in this vertiginous location was that it had a reliable supply of water: a cave above the monastery’s buildings contained a spring. This time Phuntsog’s help was fitful; he would leave Csoma alone for weeks at a time, and when he was present he would not give Csoma’s questions his full attention: it must have been hard enough for Phuntsog to deal with the relentlessly inquiring Csoma at the best of times, but now the foreign pupil was still evidently a liability to him.
Life at Phugtal was as hard as at Zangla: again, he went without a fire to avoid the smoke, and lived on nothing but greasy tea with tsampa, but now he was without his only human companion for much of the time. To make matters worse, he learned at Phugtal that his friend and patron Moorcroft and the two other Europeans in his party had died of fever on the way to Bokhara. The emotional and psychological burden must have been intolerable. He wrote a sour and dismissive reply to a letter from the secretary of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, Horace Wilson, who had written to request his opinion of an unsigned essay on the Tibetan language that had lately published in the Society’s journal. The article had so many errors in it, Csoma wrote, that it was all but worthless. He must have been devastated to learn that another scholar was presuming to encroach on his sovereign philological territory. Csoma did not know that the article was by Wilson himself. After a year of crushing loneliness and disappointment, living like a snail on this dank mountain cliff, Csoma again decided to return to Sabathu and declare his results to the British. He had acquired some new manuscripts, and had made progress on his grammar of Tibetan, but was far behind in his work on the dictionary and in his studies of Tibetan literature.
“I think it sufficient to state,” he reported, in a letter he wrote to Kennedy on January 28th, 1827, shortly after his return to Sabathu, “that I was disappointed in my intentions by the indolence and negligence of the lama to whom I returned. I could not finish my planned works as I had proposed and promised. I have lost my time and cost.” Amazingly, he had come back with a surplus of 150 rupees.
Any suspicions that Csoma had about the origin of the mysterious article on the Tibetan language that Horace Wilson had published were sickeningly confirmed at Sabathu. During his absence at Phugtal the Indian Government had come into possession of a dictionary of Tibetan that had been compiled by a Baptist missionary and had published it, instead of waiting for Csoma’s. Since Csoma’s dictionary was incomplete, and a finished one now existed to serve the Government’s purposes, Csoma’s services were no longer required, and his stipend was stopped.
Faced with the alarming prospect of his only means of support being
cut away from under him, Csoma pleaded for British patronage to continue,
at least while he finished the other parts of his project, the grammar
and his survey of Tibetan literature. “I humbly beseech you,” he wrote
to Kennedy, “to have the kindness to take me under your protection and
patronage this year.” In the same letter he allowed himself to express
his wounded pride and disappointment with a carefully-calibrated dig at
his antagonist Horace Wilson: “From Dr. Wilson’s letter and the Quarterly
sent to me I observe, there is nothing yet known of the Tibetan language
and literature, and they seem also to be not much interested in them.”
He did not remain in this limbo for long, for the inadequacy of the dictionary soon became apparent. It was entitled A dictionary of the Bhotanta or Boutan language, and was a hastily edited translation of a Tibetan-Italian dictionary compiled in 1731 by Capuchin monks in Bhutan, and had been published without having first been proofread by anyone with knowledge of Tibetan. Scholars agreed with Csoma that the dictionary was of little practical use.
Csoma had been vindicated a second time in the eyes of the British. By April 1827, he was back on their payroll, and was held in such high favour that Kennedy introduced him to the Governor-General, Lord Amherst, who thereafter took a benign interest in the Hungarian scholar the Government of India had acquired. As ever, Csoma remained aloof from the worldly pleasures of Sabathu. A bemused Captain Kennedy wrote to Horace Wilson, “He declines any attention I would be most happy to show him, and lives in the most retired manner.”
With his patronage restored, Csoma made plans for a third trip into
the Tibetan provinces. Shortly before his departure, Csoma made a small
contribution to the history of relations between British India and Tibet
when he translated, at Kennedy’s request, a letter in Tibetan from the
Chinese-controlled Tibetan government. It had been sent to raja of Bashar,
the Indian province adjoining Tibet, with the instruction that it be forwarded
to the British. The letter shows how fearful the Tibetan government was
of any British entry into Tibet, and explains why neither Csoma nor Moorcroft
were able to penetrate its frontier. Csoma’s translation was sent by Captain
Kennedy to the regional headquarters at Ambala, and from there to Delhi.
The letter sternly points out that peace had existed between India and Tibet because the border between them had been kept firmly closed. Now this equilibrium was being threatened by the British, “a bad and small people,” who were trying to enter Tibet via Bashar. As military disinformation what follows may seem crude, but it shows how vast was the distance separating Tibet from the rest of the world at this time.
“When in the early part of last year the news reached the golden ears of his majesty, the Great Lama of Lhasa, that the officers of Bashar were called by the British to make some arrangements for going to the upper countries [i.e., Tibet], it was believed at Lhasa that the British would invade the territories of the Great Lama that lie next to Bashar. Some persons were sent immediately to take notice of the motives of the British. The Emperor of China took it very ill that the territories of the Great Lama should be invaded by any foreigner and ordered some of his troops to go to defend the country; so did also the regent of Tibet make preparations for the war. When the explorators had reported that the British had not entered their territories, all further operations ceased.
“The British should hold within their own territories and not enter those of the Great Lama. There is no occasion for making peace or treaty with them. If the British desire to make alliance, they should go by sea to the Emperor of China. Also, the people of Bashar should not rely so much on the wealth riches, arts, sciences and expertness of the British as to undertake to spy for them, because if any of them should enter the territories of the Great Lama, they must perish certainly. They must know that there is a great difference between them, the Emperor of China being thirty pakstat (120 English miles) higher than themselves.
“If the British are resolved to make war, they must know the great forces which we are capable of opposing to them. The Emperor of China rules over the four elements, has one thousand million cities or towns and innumerable troops, of which some have heads like those of dogs, some like those of hogs, and others like those of pigs. Besides this, there are many large countries in Tibet. And on his highness the Great Lama’s prayers there will come down a shower of arms.
“His Majesty the Great Lama of Lhasa desires to prevent warlike operations, since a war would certainly involve all the six nations of Asia in great calamities. But if the British will not hold within their own boundaries and are preparing for war, the officers of Bashar are requested to give a detailed answer to be sent to the Great Lama of Lhasa.”
Reaching Lhasa was to be the last great challenge of Csoma’s life, and he was to die in the attempt. This letter, with its extraordinary instance of psychological warfare, shows how difficult and dangerous this challenge would be was. Entering the forbidden kingdom of the Dalai Lama seems to have been the only journey that Csoma really feared to make. Recording a later conversation, when Csoma he was in what is now Bangladesh learning Bengali and related languages eight years later, the commander of the frontier station at Jalpaiguri, Major Lloyd, wrote that Csoma “seemed to have a great dread of trusting himself into Tibet, for I repeatedly urged him to try to reach Lassa through Sikkim, but he always said such an attempt could only be made at the risk of his life.” Yet that is also the journey that, fifteen years later, he ultimately felt compelled to make.
Csoma’s longest and most productive period in the Tibetan provinces was the three years he spent, beginning in the summer of 1827, at Kanum, the half-Hindu, half-Tibetan village close to the Tibetan border to which he had made an abortive visit two years earlier. The arrangement was probably agreed between the Indian and Ladakhi governments, because once again Phuntsog was engaged as Csoma’s tutor, and this time he was fully committed to their collaboration. Here Csoma’s physical conditions were positively luxurious compared to what he had endured at Zangla and Phugtal. Instead of suffering the squalor of the monastery, Csoma rented a small cottage in the village, with a fire, and a chimney (the only one in the village), and a servant. The climate at Kanum was milder too, and the village prettier. It was surrounded by a green landscape of pine forests and groves of apricot trees. Looking up at the village from the valley of the Sutlej river, one would see rows of houses packed tightly together on the mountain slope, overlooked by the monastery where the precious Tibetan texts were stored.
He even had the occasional European visitor. The first of these to write an account of his visit was Dr. James Gerard, doctor to the Gurkha corps, who was on a mission in the Sutlej valley to introduce inoculation for smallpox. Gerard knew Csoma already from Sabathu, where the Hungarian scholar had lodged with him during his period of detention, and was one of the few Europeans, following the death of Moorcroft, with whom Csoma was on friendly terms. Gerard extensively described Csoma’s life at Kanum in a letter to the office of the Governor-General. This letter, which was later read out at a meeting of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, was then published in the Indian Government Gazette and afterwards in newspapers throughout Europe. It told the pilgrim-scholar’s story publicly for the first time, and brought Csoma a measure of fame, especially in Hungary, where he was thought to have died.
“Mr. Csoma himself appears like one of the sages of antiquity,” Gerard wrote, “living in the most frugal manner, and taking no interest in any object around him, except his literary avocations.” His monthly salary of 50 rupees supported three people: he gave half of it to Phuntsog, four rupees to his servant, and sustained himself on the remainder that was not taken by rent (one rupee) and the cost of writing materials. Even though the region abounded in apricots and other fruit, he abstained from eating them, “from a prudent conviction that they could not make him happier, and might injure him.”
Csoma’s physical conditions might have been better at Kanum, but by this time his years of solitude and austerity had taken a heavy toll on what we would now call his mental and emotional health. He stubbornly maintained the prickly pride that kept him aloof from the entanglements of personal obligation, but could not in the end support the ensuing loneliness, which crushed him. “In his conversation and expressions he is frequently disconsolate,” Gerard wrote, “and betrays it in involuntary sentiment, as if he thought himself forlorn and neglected. … Yet he told me, with melancholy emphasis, that on delivering up the Grammar and Dictionary of the Tibetan language, and other illustrations of the literature of that country, he would be the happiest man on earth, and could die with pleasure on redeeming his pledge.”
After two years in Kanum, the governing council of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, having heard Dr. Gerard’s description of Csoma’s progress and circumstances, agreed to augment his Indian Government stipend with a further 50 rupees per month from their own funds. Csoma wrote back, as promptly as the slow postal service permitted, rejecting the offer and returning the banker’s draft representing the first installment of money. Horace Wilson, to whom it was addressed, must have been flabbergasted to read this letter, which for a person in Csoma’s circumstances was more than just an expression of wounded pride: it was the gesture of a mind in incandescent pain.
“In 1823, in April [a full six years earlier], when I was in Kashmir, in the beginning of my engagement with the late Mr. Moorcroft, being destitute of books, Mr. Moorcroft, on my behalf, had requested you to send me certain necessary works. I have never received any. I was neglected for six years. Now, under such circumstances and prospects, I shall want no books. If not prevented by some unforeseen event, next year I shall be ready with my papers. Then, if you please, you shall see what I have done and what I could yet do.”
None of this hindered his phenomenal scholarly industry. The irreversible psychological warping that he suffered as he deciphered these strange scriptures was an occupational hazard of scholarly genius, like the obesity of St. Thomas Aquinas, or the boils on the bum of the judicious Hooker. At the time he wrote this letter to Horace Wilson he was ploughing through the entire canon of Tibetan literature: these obscure, prolix and repetitive texts – in which is collected in a labyrinthine system of classification everything that that the Tibetan world knew and believed -- despite the fact that the unlettered lamas in the monastery of Kanum regarded Csoma with suspicion, and would not let him borrow more than three of the unbound, block-printed volumes at a time.
One of the oddest encounters in the annals of exploration took place the following year, when Csoma was visited by Victor Jacquemont, the young French naturalist who had earlier been the guest of Captain Kennedy at Sabathu. Kennedy had suggested that the Frenchman pay Csoma a visit, so in July 1830, Jacquemont arrived at Kanum to call on the hermit scholar with accompanied by a retinue of sixty-one Gurkha soldiers, servants and porters. Jacquemont was as unlike Csoma as it was possible to be: a Byronic figure with a caustic Voltairean wit, he had launched his career as a writer and naturalist from the literary salons of Paris, where he was made the friendship of Prosper Merimée and Stendhal. Ranjit Singh had been so charmed by him that he offered him the office of viceroy of Kashmir.
Kennedy had evidently warned Jacquemont to treat Csoma with extreme delicacy, so after arriving at Kanum and setting up his camp he composed a carefully polite letter requesting permission to visit him in his cottage. To Jacquemont’s surprise, Csoma appeared at his tent almost immediately. The figure Jacquemont beheld wore a Tibetan hat (made of felt, pointed at the top, with flaps at the sides) a floor-length sheepskin overcoat over a dressing gown of heavy blue wool and undyed cotton drawers. Csoma looked, the Frenchman wrote, “like a Tartar shepherd.” He took his shoes off at the threshold, revealing silk stockings with leather soles. Seeking to put Csoma at his ease, Jacquemont dismissed his servants, but even after that Csoma refused to sit down. This obliged Jacquemont out of politeness to remain standing himself, so their conversation proceeded with both men standing up, which, Jacquemont wrote, “was not very agreeable for a man exhausted with fatigue by a painful march across the mountains.”
Their conversation was all about whether Csoma should sit down in Jacquemont’s presence. Csoma refused Jacquemont’s invitation on the grounds that it conferred on him a distinction of rank he did not warrant. Jacquemont proposed that as Europeans in this remote setting they were both equals. “He persisted nevertheless in this ridiculous affectation, without even discussing the reason for it,” Jacquemont wrote. “It all seemed a bit mad. Tired of standing, I gave him permission to retire, after the Asiatic fashion,” that is, dismissing him as if he were an inferior.
Jacquemont returned Csoma’s visit the following morning. He found Csoma sitting at a rough wooden table transcribing Tibetan, surrounded by books and papers arranged with the greatest neatness and precision. Csoma was not displeased by the Jacquemont’s appearance, but again insisted on standing up. This was possible for him under the cottage’s low ceiling because Csoma was only about five feet tall. For Jacquemont, the conjunction of the low ceiling, his own greater height, and the rigid etiquette he was forced to observe meant that he had to stand with his head bowed and brushing against the ceiling. Eventually, he gave up and sat down on a couch.
Csoma took Jacquemont to the monastery at Kanum, and showed him the Tibetan encyclopaedias in their heavy wooden caskets. Jacquemont was impressed by Csoma’s powers of scholarship, but snorted with derision at the content of the texts themselves. He wrote to his father, “It’s enough to put you to sleep standing up: there are about twenty chapters on the kind of shoes that lamas should wear. Among the other extravagant platitudes of which these books are filled, it is forbidden to priests to take a cow by the tail when fording a rapid river. It also contains learned dissertations on the properties of the flesh of gryphons, dragons, unicorns, and on the admirable virtues of the horn of the winged horse.” All of this sounds potentially fascinating, of course, but to Jacquemont, the founder of Tibetan studies was just “that incredible Hungarian eccentric.”
Jacquemont found Csoma “tired, disgusted and totally fed up with everything” after three years in Kanum. The dictionary and grammar of Tibetan were nearly finished, and he had completed his survey of Tibetan literature. Phuntsog had been relieved of his duties, and now he was longing to return to India and oversee the publication of his work, and at last reap some reward for his sacrifices in the notice of the scholarly world and of his fellow-countrymen in Hungary. A few months after Jacquemont’s visit, Csoma wrote to Captain Kennedy to make arrangements to travel to Calcutta with his boxes of printed Tibetan texts and manuscripts, the fruit of eight years’ labour.
There is no record, of course, of how Csoma accomplished the 1,100 mile journey from Kanum to Calcutta, bringing with him his store of literary treasures, except that Kennedy sent him 500 rupees for the purpose, which must have enabled him to travel in greater comfort than he was used to. He arrived in Calcutta in April 1831, where he was appointed to the post of librarian at the Asiatic Society of Bengal, and given a room in the Society’s headquarters, a large building in what is now downtown Calcutta. If he thought that here at last he could find recognition and solace, he was mistaken: his old adversary, the Secretary of the Asiatic Society, Horace Wilson, who had argued that there was no benefit in paying Csoma solely to complete his Tibetan works, insisted as a condition of his employment that he devote himself not to his own projects but to cataloguing the hundreds of Tibetan books that had been sent to the Society by the British Resident in the Nepalese capital Katmandu, B. H. Hodgson. Csoma accepted this but typically refused to accept the modest salary the Society offered him, preferring to subsist at poverty level on the savings he still had after his three years in Kanum.
Csoma completed his grammar and dictionary of Tibetan in Calcutta, where they were published in December 1834. They were printed in two volumes, using a Tibetan font which had to be made specially. The dictionary’s title page read, “Essay towards a dictionary, Tibetan and English. Prepared, with the assistance of Bandé Sangs-rGyas Phun-tshogs, a learned láma of Zangskár, by Alexander Csoma de Körös. Siculo-Hungarian of Transylvania. During a residence at Kanam, in the Himálaya mountains, on the confines of India and Tibet. 1827 -- 1830.”
The principal structures of his life’s work were now complete and offered to the scholarly world. This world, moreover, would now know that the keys to the language of Tibet had been made available to it by a “Siculo-Hungarian of Transylvania.” At the long-awaited moment of his scholarly debut, he could not resist addressing himself to his fellow-countrymen. For them, the Tibetan dictionary and grammar were a down payment on the fulfillment of the patriotic vow he had made in Nagyenyed; for in these volumes (Csoma wrote in his preface) “the Hungarians will find “a fund of information … respecting their origin, manners, customs, and language.” He could not forego the chance to wave the flag of his still unproven theory of the Asiatic origin of the Hungarian people.
The publication of the Dictionary and Grammar meant that he had at last discharged his duty to his British patrons, and was now free. To Alexander Csoma de Kõrös, freedom meant replicating the conditions of the Himalayan monastery, the environment that had been his Calvary and Golgotha. He needed to be alone in a room, away from other Europeans, devoting himself single-mindedly to the study of a new language, undistracted by things of the material world, and continuing to live according to his self-imposed vow of poverty. His new plan was to study Sanskrit and the Indian languages derived from it in West Bengal, the region north of Calcutta in what is now Bangladesh. In November 1835, Csoma requested two British passports, one in English, identifying him as “Mr. Alexander Csoma, a Hungarian philosopher, native of Transylvania,” and one in Persian, giving his name as “Molla Eskander Csoma az Mulk-i Rum.”
He spent two years in West Bengal: even in his fifties, his taste for hardship was still strong. Reporting on this phase of Csoma’s travels, the British Resident in this region, Major Lloyd, wrote (in a familiar tone of incomprehension), “He would not remain in my house, as he thought his eating and living with me would cause him to be deprived of the familiarity and society of natives, with whom it was his wish to be colloquially intimate; I therefore got him a common native hut, and made it as comfortable as I could for him, but he still seemed to be to be miserably off.” Csoma lived in this hut for two years, mastering Sanskrit, Marathi, and Bengali. This brought the number of languages he now knew to seventeen.
Csoma spent the last five years of his life at the Asiatic Society of Bengal, producing a stream of articles about Tibetan literature. His life there settled into the eccentric routine that the court painter August Schoefft witnessed when he met Csoma in 1842. He lived in his room in the Asiatic Society’s Calcutta headquarters like a Himalayan hermit, sleeping on a mat on the floor, with his books and manuscripts arrayed around him like a defensive wall, living on tea and boiled rice, absorbed in his thoughts. His face was now chafed and weather beaten, and he wore a characteristic uniform of a loose jacket of coarse blue cotton with large pockets, an Indian embroidered waistcoat and brown trousers. To the rare person that managed to enter his rarefied sphere of existence he would hold forth at length about his favourite theory, of the probable origin of the Hungarian people among the Uighur tribes of the region of western China north of the Tibetan plateau. He would offer as proof abstruse grammatical parallels between Hungarian and Sanskrit which he alone – as the only person on earth who knew both languages – could see. It was impossible – then -- to say if his theory was right or wrong: he had ascended to heights of learning where no one could follow him.
The only way to prove to the world that his theory was right was to resume the journey he began in 1819, and from which he had been sidetracked by his obligation, as he saw it, his duty of honour, to William Moorcroft. This was to be the last great journey of his life, the fulfillment of his vow to his fellow students at Nagyenyed and to the Hungarian nation, the mystical goal of finding the origin of a people without an origin, an exile people of whom Csoma was the supreme example. He would cross the feared border into the kingdom of Tibet, and make for the capital, Lhasa, where he would complete his Tibetan studies, and search for information about the proto-Hungarians in the libraries of the Dalai Lama. Then he would cross the Himalayan plateau to Yarkand in the plains of western China. His put his affairs in order like someone about to die. He bequeathed all his materials on Tibet to the Asiatic Society of Bengal (they were later transferred to the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in Budapest, where they are now preserved in a room dedicated to him), and requested that no letters be forwarded to him on his journey, unless they originated from Hungary. He was now, at last, beholden to no one and free from all obligations except to himself and his dream of patriotic glory.
He set off in February of 1842, travelling north, heading towards Darjeeling. In the latter half of March he crossed a belt of sub-Himalayan swampy jungle which was known to be malarial, and where he probably, unwisely, slept overnight. He reached British station at Darjeeling on March 24th, where within a few days he developed malaria.
Three weeks later, Dr. Archibald Campbell, the Superintendent of the station at Darjeeling, wrote to the Government secretary, “It is with much regret that I report the death at this place, on the 11th instant (April 1842), of Csoma de Körös, the Hungarian traveller and Tibetan scholar. He fell victim to a fever, contracted on his journey hitherto, for the cure of which he would not be persuaded to take any medicines until it was too late to be of any avail.”
As he lay on his deathbed, Csoma fantasised feverishly about the discussions he would soon be having with the learned lamas of Lhasa, disputing with them in the pure classical Tibetan of the Buddhist scriptures, and cackled with glee as he imagined the envy his triumph would inspire in the hearts of rival scholars in Europe. At one point he rallied, sat up in bed, and was able to speak more coherently. He proudly showed Campbell a copy of the Indian Government Gazette which contained Dr. Gerard’s account of his visit to Csoma in Kanum. Csoma was delighted by the description of himself sitting huddled under a sheepskin cloak in his tiny freezing cell in the monastery of Zangla, the image which established him as the heroic hermit-scholar in the eyes of the world. Campbell was surprised to discover, as he tended Csoma with bowls of weak soup, “how sensitive he was to the applause of the world.”
Csoma’s talk soon inevitably turned to the origin of the Hungarians in central Asia. Campbell got the impression that Csoma wanted at least one person to hear his theory in full before he left this plane of existence. Campbell listened with interest, but, he confessed, “the texture of the story was too complicated for me to take connected note of it.”
The rally was short-lived, and Csoma’s condition took a turn for the worse. He became delirious and incoherent. A doctor persuaded him to take some medicine, and rubbed his temples with blistering fluid. This gave temporary relief, but on the night of the 10th of April he became comatose, and eventually expired at five o’clock the following morning. He was buried the next day in the Station’s burial-ground. The sage’s earthly sufferings were now over. The body whose cravings he had conquered in systematic austerities had at last fallen away, and he began the final journey to nirvana.
He never made it to Yarkand, the imagined seat of his ancestors. If he had, he would certainly have been disappointed. There is nothing at Yarkand. It is a small caravan town in the desert, a cross-roads to nowhere. Csoma knew that in rational terms his theory about the Hungarians coming from there was indefensible in the face of the stronger theory about the Finno-Ugric language group, which links Hungarian to Finnish and some minor languages in Russia. He even, according to Victor Jaquemont, discussed the Finno-Ugric theory with him, and cited linguistic examples in support of it.
Scientific rationality wasn’t the point. Csoma’s theory wasn’t really a theory at all. It was a personal myth, a private heaven in which everything that was meaningful in his life would come together in a single unified picture. This blissful vision e blissful vision of it animated all Csoma’s efforts, his heroic accomplishments of scholarship, endurance and travel. In Csoma’s myth of Yarkand, he played the part of the redeemer, guiding his oppressed people back to the haven of their original homeland, an idealized Buddhist Hungary situated in the remotest spot on earth, beyond the planet’s highest mountains. The more distant a thing is, the more sacred it is. Yarkand was simply the blank page on which this luminous myth was inscribed.
Csoma was, as all who met him agreed, a very strange man. A contemporary psychiatrist might have diagnosed him with a variant of narcissistic personality disorder. According to the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition, the standard handbook, “The essential feature of narcissistic personality disorder is a pervasive pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration and lack of empathy that begins by early adulthood and is present in a variety of contexts,” all of which describes Csoma exactly. But most people suffering from this disorder have not done what Csoma did. Without his extraordinary achievements, Csoma could simply be considered mad, or somewhere close to it on the spectrum of mental states. The marvel of his life is that only a personality like his could have achieved what he did. For the superhuman task of compiling the first dictionary and grammar of the Tibetan language, and introducing Tibetan culture to the west, he was perfectly well adjusted, and every Hungarian now reveres him, just as he had hoped.
God alone is omniscient.