Kőrösi Csoma Sándor's journey from Transylvania to Tibet (dotted line denotes his travels), photo from the book Kőrösi Csoma Sándor by Csetri Elek, 2nd edition

Great Travelers from the Past: Kőrösi Csoma Sándor

As a traveler, I am amazed by the way people traveled centuries ago. As a Székely-Hungarian from Transylvania, the first world traveler I learned about and admired was Kőrösi Csoma Sándor.

The Székely-Hungarian Sándor Csoma (March 27, 1784 – April 11, 1842) from Kőrös is not known as a traveler though. In the Western world he is known as the founder of Tibetology, and the creator of the first Tibetan-English dictionary. He is also revered in the Buddhist religion, where he is known as a “Bodhisattva”, considered the ultimate achievement a human being can aspire to.

To get there though, he traveled the world – mostly on foot – from Transylvania to Tibet.

He didn’t set out to become an Orientalist; he had no intention to author a Tibetan-English dictionary. His intention was to find the origins of his people (our people), thought to be somewhere in Asia.

Kőrösi Csoma Sándor. lithograph by Rohn Alajos. (public domain image, Wikimedia Commons)
Kőrösi Csoma Sándor. lithograph by Rohn Alajos. (public domain image)

Learning About Csoma Sándor in His Homeland (During Communist Times in Romania)

Growing up in Transylvania (in Romania now and during my childhood) as a Székely-Hungarian myself, Csoma Sándor was one of my heroes. Over the years, I read a lot about him and his travels.

Most of my childhood reading presented him in somewhat of a mystery. Books I read about him concentrated on his life before he set off on his epic journey.

I read about his childhood, his college years, and his obsession with traveling to Asia in search of our nation’s roots. I also read that “unfortunately, he never found what he was looking for”. However, I feel that he found something more instead.

He became known all over the world not as the Hungarian who found his people’s roots, but as the first Tibetologist, author of the first Tibetan-English dictionary.

Through his work, he left a legacy not only to his people, but to all humankind. He gave Europeans a glimpse into the world of Tibet and its surroundings; He gave us all a sense of belonging to a larger world than our own little countries. While doing so, he showed us that boundaries and artificial borders don’t matter. People are the same, no matter where they live, no matter what they believe in, no matter what language they speak.

A true traveler, open to new ideas, no matter where they took him, Sándor Csoma learned from everyone he came across, from every place he journeyed through. And by the time he stopped, he gained an understanding of our world in a much larger sense than he probably ever thought possible when he set off from his small village in Transylvania.

Reveared as a Boddhisattva

I read that Kőrösi Csoma Sándor is the only white man whose statue is worshiped in a Buddhist temple in Japan. The most widespread religion of the Far East reveres him as a “Bodhisattva”, considered the ultimate achievement a human being can aspire to.

Boddhisattva literally means “enlightened being”, a person who could enter Nirvana, the perfect place of happiness and peace, but chooses not to, and stays in our material world to help humankind. Such a person is revered in Buddhism as a deity.

As a Bodhisattva, Csoma Sándor is known in Tibet as Phyi-glin-gi-grwa-pa (the Foreing Pupil), in Japan as Csoma Bosatsu (Csoma the Bodhisattva), and in Vietnam as Bo tat Csoma (Bodhisattva Csoma). So, while he was Székely-Hungarian, starting his journeys in the small town of Kőrös, we can no longer claim him as only ours. He belongs to the world, connecting the Far East and the Western world.

As a child, he was one of my heroes because of the way he lived his life, because of the number of languages he spoke, and the length of his journey he took on foot. I didn’t know about his life in Tibet until recently. Now, he is my hero for everything he accomplished, for the legacy he left to all humanity, not just to our people.

And he started out in a small Székely village in Transylvania, with not much else but an insatiable hunger to learn, and an unbelievable strength of character.

Csoma Sándor – Traveling through Transylvania for Schooling

Born in a small village in Szeklerland on March 27th, 1784, in Kőrös, Csoma Sándor carried the name of his home town wherever he went, since Kőrösi means “from Kőrös” (adding the suffix -i to a town’s name means from). Proud of his hometown and his heritage, wherever he went, he introduced himself as “Siculo-Hungrois de Transylvania” – Székely-Hungarian from Transylvania.

Today, his hometown honors him, adding Csoma to its own name: it is called Csomakőrös in Hungarian. (Chiurus in Romanian).

After finishing his elementary school studies in his hometown, at the age of 15 he was admitted to the prestigious college from Nagyenyed. Here, he studied with some of the brightest Hungarian young men. (Though in no way meant to diminish all of these great people, they were all my heroes, but I couldn’t help noticing that this prestigious place of study – as all others in his time – only admitted boys. So, I couldn’t help but wonder, what would have happened if he was a girl? Or how many girls with bright minds were denied the same possibilities?…)

Traveling Hundreds of Kilometers To School – Mostly On Foot

The sixth child of a Székely small-nobleman, Csoma’s family didn’t have a lot of money to spend on his schooling. So, he traveled to school on foot, over 300 km (186 miles) through the Transylvanian countryside. Since these were large distances, especially traveling on foot (or even by horse-drawn carriage, on occasion), I imagine his trip to school being an adventure every time.

It also meant that he rarely got to visit his home. Since he had no money to pay for his lodging and tuition, he was a working live-in student, meaning he had to do chores around the dorms in order to live there.

He had little time for his studies, but still, he was always the best in his class. As a 15-year old, Csoma impressed his teachers and fellow students alike. He distinguished himself for his passion for history and languages. He also studied philosophy and theology.

Mastering Eight Languages, A Good Preparation For International Travel

While there, he mastered the classic languages, ancient Greek, Latin and Hebrew. These ancient languages were added to the ones he knew from home, Hungarian, German and Romanian, while he also learned French and English. So by the time he left college he was fluent in at least eight languages.

But while he was at this school, his lifetime goal christalized in his mind: he would set out to find the origins of his nation, believed to be somewhere in Asia. To prepare himself fot the long road, he slept on the hard floor and ate only enough for survival.

Traveling to Germany for more schooling

In 1816 he won a scholarship to the University of Gottingen in Germany. Being poor, he had no means to travel there other than on foot. He also chose this means of transportation, since he knew it would be the way he would travel through Asia, in search of our nation’s roots.

… and studying even more languages

In Gottingen he studied Oriental languages, Arabic and Turkish at first, in preparation for his great journey. In 1818 he considered his studies finished and returned to Transylvania, this time to Kolozsvár (Cluj), the capital of Hungary at the time, and the center of scientific studies of the country.

A year later, he left for Temesvár (Timisoara), and later traveled to Zagreb, where he learned Serbian and Croatian.

To review, at this point, he spoke Hungarian, German, Romanian, French, English, Arabic, Turkish, Serbian and Croatian, in addition to the classic languages, ancient Latin and Greek. That makes it eleven languages – before even setting out to Asia.

For the best traveling experiences is ideal to speak, or at least understand the language of the people whose land you’re wandering through. This is even true today, but it was especially important in the early 1800s.

Which means, his fluency in so many languages makes Csoma one of the best travelers of all times. He didn’t just passed through foreign lands, but genuinely experienced every place to its fullest, getting to know the people of the lands he crossed in his quest.

Csoma Sándor, the World-Traveler

Kőrösi Csoma Sándor's journey from Transylvania to Tibet (dotted line denotes his travels), photo from the book Kőrösi Csoma Sándor by Csetri Elek, 2nd edition
Kőrösi Csoma Sándor’s journey from Transylvania to Tibet (dotted line denotes his travels), photo from the book Kőrösi Csoma Sándor by Csetri Elek, 2nd edition

Csoma Sándor, the poliglot, left his homeland, Transylvania, on November 25th, in 1819, at the age of 35. He never made it back. His journey would take him to the “roof of the world”, among the Tibetan monks, bringing him international fame, but also death in a foreign land (though he might have considered it his own by then).

When Hungarian writers of his time talked about Csoma, they admired him, but also add, “his quest was too much for one person to bear”, focusing on the fact that he didn’t succeed in his original quest. However, I believe that he was flexible enough to change his quest over time.

He succeeded not in finding his own people’s roots, but instead, in building a bridge between worlds, between nations. He was one of the first travelers to build a bridge between the Eastern and Western civilizations, which had little connection with each other before. Going farther than he originally intended, he accomplished much more than he even dreamed of.

Because once you set off on a journey, you don’t know where it might take you. True travelers go with it, often changing direction or focus mid-way. In this way, Csoma was the ultimate traveler.

From Transylvania to the Ottoman Empire

After years of travels for studies, Csoma set off on his epic journey. He left Transylvania with a “walking stick and a sack on his back” like the wandering young men of the Hungarian folk tales.

To be fair, he had some money (not much), and a permit to cross over to Wallachia (the old Romania, also known as Muntenia), just south of the border. (Today both Transylvania and Muntenia are part of Romania).

Historical records mention that Csoma planned to go to the homeland of the Uighurs in Russia. The shortest road to get there was about 7,000 km. Though the shortest, this road was also the most difficult, considered impossible for a lone traveler without substantial funds. This did not deter Csoma. At first.

He didn’t have too much trouble getting through the European part of Russia, but this changed drastically in Siberia. At the time, the area was practically unknown, with no roads to pass through.

Even locals only traveled in the frigid winter, when the frozen ponds and swamps allowing them access through the countryside. So Csoma realized that this would be an impossible route for him. He turned back and traveled to Bucharest, where he started of towards Constantinople. The route through the Ottoman Empire was much longer, but passable.

Travels Through the Ottoman Empire

While in the Ottoman Empire, he translated and adjusted his first name, making it easier to use in the Middle East. In Muslim countries, Sándor (Alexander) is Iskandar (or Skandar), so in these areas they called him Skandar Beg (Mr. Skandar).

Csoma left Bucharest on January 1st, 1820, joining a Bulgarian caravan on their return road to Sofia. (During his journey, he often joined commercial caravans for safety.) He traveled with them to Constantinople.

However, once there, he learned that the plague was raging ahead on his route. To avoid the plague-riden areas (which didn’t allow entrance, even if he would’ve been willing to ignore the disease), he boarded a ship for Egypt.

Though this was another detour, he had no other choice, so he adjusted his itinerary.

Further through the Middle East and Asia

When his ship landed in Alexandria, he found that the epidemic was raging there, too, so he left, heading for Cyprus. Eventually, he made it to Aleppo, where he waited a few weeks to leave with another caravan that eventually took him to Baghdad. Here, he rested for a few months before setting off to the next step on his journey, Tehran.

He wandered deep into the heart of the former Persian Empire, through more and more difficult stretches of the road. Through this area, he joined nomadic caravans for safety. The taught him how to survive the harsh conditions he never encountered before.

He crossed Afghanistan, torn by a terrible civil war at the time.

He met two French officials there, whom he joined on the road to Kashmir. But past Kashmir, he would be traveling in the land of an almost unknown civilization. And, by then, he had barely any money left.

Travels through Tibet

However, when things look bleak, is when luck turns around. In Kashmir, Csoma met British explorer William Moorcroft, who would become his lifelong friend, and offer him the means to continue his journey.

Moorcroft complained about the European lack of interest in Tibetan culture. He though this stemmed from lack of communication, since the Tibetan people spoke an extremely complex language, impossible to learn.

Dictionaries and works dedicated to Tibetan grammar didn’t exist. Previous attempts all failed; The best-known at the time, the Alphabetum Tibetanum, published in Rome, was mostly useless.

The linguist in Csoma found a new calling. He knew he could learn the language others found impossible to understand. With this new endeavor, he also secured his means for the rest of his journey. Since he spoke fluent English, Moorcroft helped him get hired to write the first Tibetan-English dictionary for England.

Kőrösi Csoma Sándor's travels through Tibet (dotted line denotes his travels), photo from the book Kőrösi Csoma Sándor by Csetri Elek, 2nd edition
Kőrösi Csoma Sándor’s travels through Tibet (dotted line denotes his travels), photo from the book Kőrösi Csoma Sándor by Csetri Elek, 2nd edition

In Tibet, on the “Roof of the World”

From the summer of 1823, for a year and a half, Csoma lived in Zanskar, an ancient kingdom at the foot of the Himalayas. Here, he became the disciple of Sangye Phuntsong, a learned Lama monk, who taught him the basics of the language, and offered him works to read about the history, geography, and literature of Tibet, and the culture behind it all.

With the monks’ help, Csoma compiled the first version of the Tibetan-English dictionary. It included several thousand words inscribed in Tibetan letters and their English translation. In its final version, the Dictionary covered over 22,000 terms, and their detailed explanation.

With this dictionary, Csoma built a bridge between two worlds. Initially, his work focused strictly on linguistics, but his studies eventually extended to all aspects of the Tibetan civilization. He lived in a few different regions, spending three years in Kanam, where he had access to extremely old libraries.

Eventually, he traveled to India, where he became the head of the Library of the Bengali Asian Society. And here is where he got his only portrait painted, by the artist Agoston Shoeff.

Csoma Sándor and the Tibetan Culture

Two of his most important works, the Tibetan-English Disctionary titled “Essay towards a Tibetan and English Disctionary” and the Tibetan grammar, under the title “A Grammar of the Tibetan Lnaguage in English” were first published in 1834. They were the first works of this kind about the Tibetan language, and included over 30,000 words.

In the preface of his work, he points out that “Tibetan literature and culture faithfully preserved the Buddhist literature already lost in India.”

His Last Trip in Tibet

He took one more trip at the end of his life, setting out for Lhasa, the capital of “Greater Tibet”, but only reached Darjeeling, near the Himalayas. He died there, on April 11th, 1842, at 58 years old.

The tomb and memorial of Kőrösi Coma Sándor in Darjeeling. Creative Commons license use photo by Bodhisattwa
The tomb and memorial of Kőrösi Coma Sándor in Darjeeling. Creative Commons license use photo by Bodhisattwa

While studying the Tibetan language and literature, he learned a lot about this civilization and its religion. Buddhism must have made sense for him, since he adopted it as his own.

On February 22, 1933, less than a century after his death, Taisho university of Tokyo awarded Csoma the rank of Bodhisattva, revered and the “Bodhisattva of the Western Region of the World”. To this day he is the only white person who reached this rank.

Csoma Sándor’s Legacy – for Hungarians, Transylvanians, Travelers, and People from All Over the World

Setting off on his journey from a small village of Transylvania, through Europe and Asia, Csoma traveled the world in an age when it was very difficult. He started his journey with a clear goal, to find the origins, the ancient home of his people.

Though he didn’t find the ancient home of Hungarians, he traveled with an open mind and ultimately learned more about the world that he thought possible. On his journey, he interacted with many different cultures, learning their languages and customs, and learning something from each.

Ultimately he bridged a gap between civilizations, between the Western and the Tibetan world. His legacy to the world is so much more than the one for his own people. By creating the very first Tibetan-English dictionary, he facilitated an understanding between people of very different backgrounds and cultures. He never made it back to his home village in Transylvania, but lived his life in a culture he understood and that appreciated him.

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