In 399 AD, the vast and already ancient nation of China was in the middle of the Sixteen Kingdoms period. The Eastern Jin dynasty ruled from Jiangkang, near modern Nanjing, but their control over the land was fragmented, with a succession of Wu Hu warlords (16, to be exact) claiming the title of king and emperor for themselves. The storied Han period had concluded over a century ago: The glorious behemoth of the Tang dynasty loomed centuries into the future.

The Pamirs. Photo: Irene2005/Wikimedia Commons

He had come in search of religious texts, concerned about the dissemination of incomplete or inaccurate versions of scriptures that were making their way into his country. On his eventual return home in 413, he brought back Chinese translations of several Sanskrit texts, having studied them with scholars in India. He also visited Gaya, Kapilavastu (in modern-day Nepal) and Kushinagara—all dear to his heart as places important to Gautam Buddha’s own life. His translations are said to have been crucial in the spread and regulation of monastic Buddhism in China.

The Vajrashila of Buddha in Gaya. Photo: Ken Wieland/Wikimedia Commons

Faxian is a dry, single-minded sort of writer, perhaps less easy to read than his equally famous, more adventurous Tang-era successor Xuanzang. But thanks to him, we have not only a revered Buddhist text, but also an invaluable account of The Silk Road, and of the subcontinent which was once called Jambudvipa. Among other things, it reminds us of what India was like, several Indias ago.

An 1886 Victorian translation with extensive footnotes by James Legge can be found on Project Gutenberg

Faxian battles dragons in the Pamirs

From this (the travellers) went westwards towards North India, and after being on the way for a month, they succeeded in getting across and through the range of the Onion mountains. The snow rests on them both winter and summer. There are also among them venomous dragons, which, when provoked, spit forth poisonous winds, and cause showers of snow and storms of sand and gravel. Not one in ten thousand of those who encounter these dangers escapes with his life. The people of the country call the range by the name of “The Snow Mountains."

A Kushan-era Buddha sculpture. Photo: Karl Heinrich/Wikimedia Commons

Faxian on royal competitiveness

Going southwards from Gandhara, (the travellers) in four days arrived at the kingdom of Purushapura. Formerly, when Buddha was travelling in this country with his disciples, he said to Ananda, “After my pari-nirvana, there will be a king named Kanishka, who shall on this spot build a tope." This Kanishka was afterwards born into the world; and (once), when he had gone forth to look about him, Sakra, Ruler of Devas, wishing to excite the idea in his mind, assumed the appearance of a little herd-boy, and was making a tope right in the way (of the king), who asked what sort of thing he was making. The boy said, “I am making a tope for Buddha." The king said, “Very good;" and immediately, right over the boy’s tope, he (proceeded to) rear another, which was more than four hundred cubits high, and adorned with layers of all the precious substances. Of all the topes and temples which (the travellers) saw in their journeyings, there was not one comparable to this in solemn beauty and majestic grandeur. There is a current saying that this is the finest tope in Jambudvipa.

When the king’s tope was completed, the little tope (of the boy) came out from its side on the south, rather more than three cubits in height.

Faxian is getting tired of all this Afghan snow

The king Kanishka on a coin. Photo: PHGCOM/Wikimedia Commons

Here they stayed for the summer retreat, and when that was over, they went on to the south, and ten days’ journey brought them to the kingdom of Poh-na (Bannu), where there are also more than three thousand monks, all students of the hinayana. Proceeding from this place for three days, they again crossed the Indus, where the country on each side was low and level.