Kőrösi Csoma Sándor – or as he signed his English letters, Alexander Csoma de Kőrös – was born in 1784, or, according to the most recent research, perhaps in 1787 or 1788 1 in Transylvania, in the village of Kőrös, part of Háromszék county (today Chiurus, Romania). He began his studies in the village school. Upon completion of these studies, he did not enter the almost life-long service of border-warden, compulsory for men in this frontier zone of Transylvania, but rather – thanks to the intervention of his father – he was allowed to continue his education in the Bethlenianum of Nagyenyed (today Ajud, Romania), the renowned Protestant college of Transylvania. Csoma was sent there by his father to study, more than 300 km from his native Kőrös. probably in order to take advantage of the free education offered by the college.
Csoma began his lower-level studies in 1799, during which time he acquired a good command of Latin and Greek. Those students that were provided a “free” education – the so-called gratistae – in reality paid for it with some form of manual labor for the college. Although the family of Csoma was not among the poorest, nevertheless he had to make provision for his own subsistence, which in his case consisted of acting as a servant to his more wealthy fellow students, and by teaching over the holidays in the school of the nearby Szászváros (today Orăştie).
At the age of 22, having passed his exams successfully, Csoma continued on with advanced classes, and became a highly esteemed citizen of the college, a so-called academita or patricius. Thanks to his academic excellence, Csoma’s financial situation also improved markedly. He won a scholarship from the Prince of Transylvania, thus becoming a so-called principista, and was also appointed a teacher of the lower-level classes. He continued his ‘academic’ pursuits for seven years, studying three years of philosophy and four years of theology. It was certainly in this period that he became acquainted with the various theories concerning the origins of Hungarians: the old Hun-Avarian-Hungarian theory and the idea of the Uyghur relations, popular at that time, both of which had adherents among the professors. Csoma, likely basing himself on their notions, developed his idea that he would find the ancient Hungarian homeland and the Hungarians “left behind” somewhere in Central Asia or among the Uyghurs. when he embarked on his search.
As to Csoma’s command of languages, in addition to Latin and Greek he also learned Hebrew and French in the college, as well as German and Romanian in the nearby Saxon and Romanian settlements. He finished his upper-level studies in 1814, and stayed one more year in Nagyenyed as elected director of the self-governing student body of the college.
In 1815 Csoma won the so-called “English stipend” of the college, which he used, the following February, to fund a visit to the university of Göttingen. This university with its professors of international reputation and its vast library. offered Csoma excellent possibilities to broaden his knowledge. Furthermore, due to the expansion of colonies and the increasing number of travelling-scholars and adventurers, Oriental studies were becoming a specialized university subject at this time, and a number of their renowned representatives held academic chairs in Göttingen. One of them, the famous Biblical professor and Orientalist Johann Gotfried Eichhorn 2 was also responsible for overseeing the affairs of students coming from the college of Nagyenyed. It was he who taught Arabic and Turkish to Csoma, and who called his attention to the importance of the Arabic historical sources concerning the origins of Hungarians. When Csoma later set off to Constantinople to study Arabic chronicles, he was doubtless guided by what he had learned from Eichhorn.
In Göttingen Csoma encountered another version of the Uyghur theory, elaborated by the renowned Orientalist Julius Heinrich Klaproth, 3 according to which all Ugric/Oguric people, including Hungarians, are related to the Uyghurs.
In 1818 Csoma returned to Nagyenyed, where he announced the plan for his journey to the Orient. To his despair, his ideas were met with skepticism, and his friends tried to dissuade him. Nevertheless, some of them – like Mihály Kenderesi, 4 or the enthusiastic follower of the Finno-Ugric theory Sámuel Gyarmati 5 – encouraged his plans. It was Gyarmati who advised him to learn Slavic languages. With the support of Kenderesi he went to Temesvár (today Timişoara, Romania) and to Zagreb to master various Slavic dialects and the Old Slavic language. By the next year he had managed to master it: as he himself said, he was able to read it without a dictionary, and to understand a number of its dialects as well. In late 1819 he left Hungary with a temporary passport, and set off to the East to find the old Hungarian homeland.
The Journey of Csoma
Csoma relates his journey in a report of January 28, 1825 written to Captain Charles Pratt Kennedy. 6 From this we know that he left Hungary in November 1819 and went to Bucharest. At the beginning of January he continued his travel to Sofia and to Plovdiv (Philippopolis). He wanted to go to Istambul (Constantinople), but he could not enter the city due to a plague, so he went to Enez (Enos), and from there he sailed via Chios and Rhodos to Alexandria. He planned to perfect his command of Arabic, acquired in Göttingen, in Cairo, but the plague soon arrived there as well and forced him to leave Egypt.
Aboard a Syrian ship Csoma sailed to Cyprus, and from there to Beirut, then to Tripoli and Latakia. He continued his journey on foot to Aleppo, where he arrived on April 13. On May 19 he joined a caravan that went through Urfa, Mardin and Mosul to Baghdad, arriving on July 22. Csoma left the city in early September to travel to Teheran via Kermanshah and Hamadan. He stayed in Teheran four months with the support of the British Ambassador Henry Willock and his brother George Willock, 7 while improving his command of English and Persian.
In March of 1821, Csoma left the city in Persian garb, leaving his notes and books in Teheran, intending to spend the winter months in Bokhara. However, the Central Asian war prevented him from staying for months in Meshed, and when he arrived in Bokhara in the middle of November, he had to leave the city after five days. He traveled with a caravan to the southern Balkh, and from there he went to Bamiyan, Kabul and Peshawar. It was in this latter city where he met two French officers, Jean-François Allard 8 and Jean-Baptiste Ventura. 9 They continued their journey together, arriving at Lahore by March 1822. From there Csoma traveled to Kashmir via Amritsar and Jammu. He arrived by the middle of April, and waited until May 9 to continue further to Leh.
He planned to reach central Asia by journeying to go Yarkend, – perhaps along the old commercial route across the Karakorum – thus avoiding the Afghan theatre of war. However, as he wrote, this itinerary was very difficult, costly and dangerous to a Christian, and therefore after twenty-five days he turned back to Leh. On his way back, on July 16 he met the British officer William Moorcroft, 10 whom he accompanied to Leh, where they stayed together until the end of August.
This encounter triggered a decisive change in the life of Csoma. He received from Moorcroft a copy of the very first book on Tibet, the Alphabetum Tibetanum by Agostino Antonio Giorgi, 11 and it was Moorcroft who spurred Csoma to his Tibetan studies. Csoma – perhaps hoping to find new sources about the history of ancient Hungarians in the Tibetan literature that was an absolute terra incognita at that time, unable to continue his journey to Central Asia – stayed in Leh and began to learn Tibetan with the help of Persian as an intermediate language.
Csoma’s First Tibetan Journey
After acquiring the rudiments of the language, Csoma decided to perfect his knowledge “through the many and interesting volumes conserved in the monasteries”, thus he asked for the support of Moorcroft to return to Ladakh.
Diplomatic relations between the English and the government of Ladakh had just been established, and Moorcroft played an intermediary role in the process. Ladakh, fearing an eventual aggression of the combative Sikhs of Punjab, did not oppose a British protectorate, and this satisfied the English efforts of expansion. Thus the Hungarian who wanted to learn Tibetan came at the most opportune time to the British officer.
Moorcroft approved the request of Csoma, provided him with the most necessary materials, and wrote recommendations for him both to the khalon – the chief royal minister – of Leh and to the head of the settlement of Zangla, Sangs-rgyas Phun-tshogs, who would later become the teacher of Csoma. Kőrösi left Kashmir on May 2, 1823, and arrived in Leh on the first of June. Here he was given gifts and a further letter of recommendation from the khalon, who directed him to Zangla. Csoma arrived there nine days later.
Kőrösi, on the other hand, stayed in Zangla from June 20, 1823 to October 22, 1824. There he learned Tibetan amidst shockingly harsh conditions, and began to familiarize himself with Tibetan literature, guided by his teacher Sangs-rgyas Phun-tshogs, whom he simply calls “the lama” in his letters. He provides an account of his recently acquired knowledge of this literature in his second letter to Captain Kennedy, dated May 5, 1825. In it he relates of having studied several works “from the two-part collection of translations from Sanskrit” – that is, from the Bka’ ’gyur and Bstan ’gyur, called the Tibetan canon –, and makes special mention of a long Sanskrit-Tibetan glossary which is of extreme importance to his work. This was most probably the Mahāvyutpatti, a famous dictionary of terminology compiled in the 9th century, 12 which later would form the basis of Csoma’s third, posthumous monograph.
Csoma laid the foundations of his later works in those sixteen tormenting months spent in Zangla rife with privation and hardships. In this period he not only mastered the Tibetan language, but he also acquired knowledge of a remarkable part of the canonized literature, and – as is revealed by his later writings and some letters concerning him – he composed a glossary of about 30.000 words during this period.
However, he had to leave Zangla for some unknown reason. It was agreed that “his” lama would follow him a few days later, and would spend the winter with him in Sultanpour, far from Leh, where they could continue the study of the language under safe conditions. Csoma waited for several days in Sultanpour, but the lama did not arrive, and as winter was nearing, he knew well that the mountain passes would become impassable, and their meeting would have to be postponed to the following spring. Disappointed, he returned to Sabathu.
In the autumn of 1824 Csoma reported to the military commander of Sabathu Captain C. P. Kennedy in the belief that his name and purpose had already been communicated to the British authorities by Moorcroft. However, to his greatest surprise, and in spite of the very favorable letter of recommendation by Moorcroft, he was received with suspicion, and delayed for several months. As Ervin Baktay 13 points out, this precaution of the British was probably due to the espionage activity of Russians and Sikhs that became increasingly active in this period. Csoma was deeply offended by this behavior of the British, for he had worked extremely hard under inhumane conditions for one and a half years, in the belief that he had been accepted into the service of the British, according to the terms of his agreement with the governmental agent Moorcroft, and instead he was treated with hostility. As Tivadar Duka comments, he “never forgot this incident”. 14
Two months passed until the instructions of the British Indian Governor General Lord Amherst arrived, which commanded Csoma to give a report about his person, his journey and his plans. Then, on January 28, 1825 he writes to Captain Kennedy the famous letter in which he relates in detail his journey from Hungary, calls his attention to the terra incognita of Tibetan language and literature, and offers his further services to the Asiatic Society of Bengal.
The reply of the government was delayed for several months, but they approved Csoma’s request. From this time on he officially entered the service of the British, and was also granted a small monthly salary of 50 rupees. The British accepted him, and he even made a life-long friendship with Captain Kennedy, who was so reserved at their first encounter. He was also admitted to the social life of the English colony of Sabathu, and as he remembers later, as a peculiar stranger he had a number of unpleasant experiences in this rigid and petty bourgeoise milieu.
In a new letter, the authorities asked Csoma to report on the significance of his work and its expected results. He replied on May 5, 1825, relating his previously mentioned activity in Zangla. Although both this and his subsequent announcements include some ideas, especially some etymologies, that later proved to be false, nevertheless this letter is the very first notice that contains authentic notions about Tibetan Buddhism and its literature.
Apart from an allusion to his glossary of 30.000 words and a brief description of the structure of the Tibetan canon, Csoma also reports of having succeeded in acquiring a number of Tibetan books, and what is more, some of these were explicitly compiled on his request by the lamas. This means that the famous manuscripts later called Alexander Books were prepared during his first stay in Zangla. He also mentions having made extracts from a number of chronological, historical and geographical works, and finally he asks the authorities for permission to continue his studies under the guidance of his lama in Zangskar.
His request was approved by the government, and on June 6, 1825 Csoma set off again to the Himalaya.
The Second Journey to Tibet
Strangely, Csoma went first not to Zangskar, but – as he related in a later letter to Kennedy – to the province of Busahir (Kannaur) under British authority, hoping to find there an “intelligent person” who could help him to continue his Tibetan studies. Nevertheless, bitter experience taught him that this region was mostly inhabited by Hindus – or “semi-Hindus” as he calls them – who despised Tibetans and held the old Buddhist monuments of the province in contempt. Although he indeed found a copy of the Tibetan canon, due to the lack of an “intelligent person”, he had no choice but to return to his lama in Zangskar.
This Busahirian interlude suggests that Csoma may have initiated his studies with another lama besides Sangs-rgyas Phun-tshogs. It was not that Sangs-rgyas was not an erudite person, for we also know from the reports of Csoma’s friend, Dr. James Gilbert Gerard 15 that he was a learned and generally respected person. Furthermore, it is also certain that there were no personal disagreements between them: in one of the Alexander Books the lama expressly calls the “foreign disciple” his friend.
Thus Csoma continued his journey across the increasingly steep and rugged terrain through Spiti and Lahul to Zangskar, until he arrived at the village of Tetha (or Tesa). He had to wait there some six weeks until he met his teacher, who “had been away for his business in the Tibetan wastelands”. At his return they agreed in a written contract to continue their studies in the monastery of Phugtal, not far from Tetha.
However, events did not play out according to the plans of Csoma, nor as stipulated in the written agreement. As he complained bitterly in a letter written on August 26, 1826 to the secretary of the Asiatic Society of Bengal H. H. Wilson, “after my arrival I was not as lucky as I hoped when leaving Sabathu. The lama was very careless in teaching me, and he only stayed a short time with me. Since then I have been unable to find anybody else to help me to fulfill my purpose.” He also expressed his concern about being unable to produce in high quality all that he had promised, but he added that he already possessed enough knowledge and material to compose a grammar and to present a part of Tibetan literature, “in order to stimulate the scholars of the future to penetrate in the study of this branch of Asian literature”.
Disillusioned, and fearing the failure of his promise to the British, Csoma finally left Ladakh and returned to Sabathu in January of 1827.
“I have wasted precious time and money”, he writes about his studies in Phugtal to Kennedy on January 18, 1827. Nevertheless, this second journey to Zangskar was not completely in vain. In his letter he mentions having taken along “a number of authoritative, although not very voluminous printed books about grammar, chronology, astronomy and moral philosophy”, furthermore “some extracts from works on chronology, geography and history of literature”, composed for him and according to his requests by the lama.
Nevertheless, as he was unable to complete the job undertaken in due time, the British withdrew their financial support of Csoma.
In May of 1827 Kőrösi informed the Asian Society that Csoma should go to Bashir for three more years, in order to finish the compilation of his dictionary. The Governor General gave him permission, and also granted him a small monthly salary of 50 rupees.
The Third Journey of Csoma
Csoma set off for the third time in August of 1827. He went to the monastery of Kanam to continue his studies with the lama, Sangs-rgyas Phun-tshogs. This time the studies were completed without any problems and with great success, although his means were modest and the conditions were quite harsh. Csoma’s old friend Dr. James Gilbert Gerard visited him there, and reported on his experiences in a letter written to a friend in 1829.
According to Gerard’s account, Csoma lived in a small hut near the village, surrounded by books, and in perfect health. Although he still remembered the mistreatment received in Sabathu, nevertheless he trusted that the British government would be satisfied with the results of his work. Gerard also communicated Csoma’s sense of embitterment, feeling completely abandoned and forgotten, and insisted that the goverment should provide the Hungarian scholar with both finances and the books necessary for his work.
The Asian Society made every effort to fulfill Gerard’s request immediately. They doubled Csoma’s monthly pay and asked him to compose a list of the books he needed. However, to the great astonishment of the British, Kőrösi refused all their offers of support, saying that now, as he was about to finish his work, he did not need them any more.
The three years of privations in Kanam finally produced their fruit: Csoma completed what he had promised. He composed the first usable Tibetan dictionary and grammar, prepared an English version of the Mahāvyutpatti, the glossary of Buddhist terms, and compiled a great amount of material from various fields of Tibetan literature, enough for several dissertations. In the autumn of 1830 he bid a final farewell to the lama, and returned to Sabathu.
In the next year he was already in Calcutta, where he was preparing the publication of his works, and found employment as a librarian of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, cataloging the large number of Tibetan books sent by the Nepalese British Ambassador Brian Houghton Hodgson (1800-1894). In the meantime he published regularly in the recently founded annals of the Society, Asiatic Researches. Finally in 1834 he published his masterpiece, the Tibetan grammar and dictionary.
In the preface of the dictionary Csoma thanks everyone that had helped him during his journey, and presents himself as a researcher who had set off to find the origins of the Hungarian people and language, but because of his poverty was always dependent on the support of others, and it was partly this that led him to Tibetan studies. As for Tibetan culture and literature, he notes that its foremost significance is that it had faithfully conserved the Buddhist literature already lost in India.
In the same preface he also expresses his opinion– without scholarly proof– that the Sanskrit language, in its grammatical structure, although not so in its vocabulary, is akin to Hungarian, and that further research into Sanskrit might prove to be very fruitful to Hungarians. This utterance was probably intended as a message to his homeland, indicating that he had not abandoned his original objectives, and that even his previous work had been related to it in some way.
He sent 25 copies of his works to Hungary. He also sent back the amount collected for him in his homeland, augmenting it by a sum that he had managed to save. With this money he helped to establish a foundation in Nagyenyed for outstanding students, and distributed the funds between the inhabitants of Kőrös and his own relatives.
In these years two illustrious honors were conferred upon Csoma. In 1833 he was elected corresponding member of the Hungarian Scholarly Society, and in 1834, honorary member of the Asiatic Society of Bengal.
After publishing his lengthy study on the Bka’ ’gyur in 1835, Csoma decided to go on a study tour in India, to master Sanskrit and other Indian languages for a couple of years. He planned to visit Northern Bengal, Nepal and Sikkim, but for some reason he stopped in Titalia. There he learned Sanskrit and Bengali, in the same modest conditions under which he studied earlier in the monasteries of Tibet.
In 1837 Csoma returned to Calcutta, and also to his Tibetan studies: he would pursue them for the rest of his life. In these years he was visited by the painter Ágost Schöfft, 16 who painted the only authentic portrait of him. As related by the artist, Kőrösi lived in complete retirement, almost as a hermit, surrounded by his Tibetan books, and only one topic could distract him momentarily from them, a reference to Hungary.
In 1842, however, Csoma set off again. This time he intended to go to the Tibetan capital of Lhasa, and from there to Northern China, the land of the Uyghurs and Mongolians. He hoped to find some sources about the ancient Hungarians, or at least about the Uyghurs in the library of the Dalai Lamas.
In April he arrived in Darjeeling in Sikkim, where he was stricken with a disease. Languishing with a severe fever for several days, on April 11, in the early morning, he succumbed to the malaria he had caught in the tropical jungle, forever ending his long journey. His sepulchral monument stands in the cemetery of Darjeeling, on the slopes of the Himalaya.
Csoma failed to attain his original purpose, and was not aware that the Uyghurs, who were the object of his impassioned pilgrimages, are in fact a people of the Turkish tongue, who played absolutely no role in the history of the Hungarians.
Sándor Kőrösi Csoma was not able to etch his name in the history of scholarship as the discoverer of the ancient Hungarian homeland. He figures there instead as an explorer of an unknown civilization and as the founder of a new branch of scholarship, that of Tibetan studies. This is how he finally won recognition for himself, and through his tireless efforts, perhaps he won a degree of recognition for the Hungarian people as well.