Kőrösi Csoma Sándor

Tracing Csoma's journey from Transylvania to India (photo by EPF)

 Kőrösi Csoma Sándor

Olga Vállay Szokolay

On November 24th, 2019 we celebrate the bicentennial of the start of this unique man’s journey to discover the origins and homeland of the Magyars.

Kőrösi Csoma Sándor was born on March 27th, 1784 at Kőrös (later renamed Csomakőrös in his honor, in Transylvania - today part of Covasna, Romania) into a poor Székely family, the sixth child of Csoma András and his wife, Göcz Ilona. Of his siblings only three lived to adulthood. The Székelys have been a Magyar ethnic group who believe they are descended from a branch of Attila’s Huns who had settled in Transylvania in the fifth century.

Sándor’s early schooling was at the local village school.  At age 15, he walked with his father to Nagyenyed (now Aiud), where he joined the boarding school Bethlen Kollégium. The education was free, or gratistae, in return for manual labor.  At that school he became interested in the history of the Magyars and first started to entertain the idea of discovering the homeland of his ancestors. He finished his high school studies in 1807 and passed the public rigorosum in 1815.

With a scholarship he continued at the University of Göttingen, a stronghold of academic freedom promoting Enlightenment ideals.  Being an unprecedented linguistic genius, during his Göttingen years 1816-1818 he was noted for being literate in 13 languages including Latin, Greek, Hebrew, French and German in addition to his native Hungarian, while he studied Asian languages.  Learning that certain Arabic manuscripts contained important information on the history of Hungarians in Asia, awakened his interest in the Arabic language.  He soon mastered it, along with Turkish.

Csoma possessed skills for acquiring, retaining and interpreting knowledge, with an iron will and a single-minded focus.  His mentality would lead him to feats that no one could have ever imagined for the son of a Székely border guard.

After three years in Göttingen, he returned to Transylvania and told his friends and acquaintances of his intention to journey across the Middle East and Central Asia to find the original Hungarian homeland.  Most thought the idea to be quite ridiculous.  Csoma had no financing for such trip and his previous travel experiences had been only within Europe.  He would have to cross numerous hostile territories in pursuit of what most regardeded as fantasy.  One of the few of his more optimistic friends convinced him to first learn Old Slavic.  He went to Croatia to pursue that over the next year. 

Csoma was 35 years old and still unmarried.  His parents were no longer alive. He had very little money for his journey and only a temporary Hungarian passport.  Yet his determination was best encapsulated by the answer he gave to Count Teleki’s question about his destination when they met down the road:

“I am going to Asia in search of our relatives.” 

His unprecedented, historic journey started on November 24th, 1819, when he set off from Nagyenyed. On November 28th, he left his homeland at the Vöröstorony Pass. Csoma wrote about his decision in a letter:

“I decided to leave my country eastbound and, securing my daily bread as possible, to devote my whole life to sciences that could serve the European scientific world in general, and throw particular light upon certain data that are still obscure in my nation’s history.”

Until January 1st, 1820, Csoma stayed in Bucharest, then continued via Sofia to Constantinople, planning to proceed north to Moscow, then to Central Asia with the eventual goal of reaching East Turkestan (western China).  His plans had to be changed due to the outbreak of the plague in Constantinople.  Thus, he took a ship to Alexandria in Egypt, from where the plague again made him leave in March for Cairo and Lebanon, into the heart of the Middle East: Latakia, Syria. 

Csoma continued his journey on foot.  In April he arrived at Aleppo, Syria, where he spent a month.  There he joined a caravan and, having donned Asian attire to be inconspicuous, he arrived at Mosul, Iraq in May.  From there he sailed on the River Tigris to Baghdad, Iraq.  In July he became the guest of the Hungarian/Slovak Anton Svoboda.  During their month-and-a-half together, Csoma had a chance to chat in his mother tongue again.  Svoboda gave him European clothes, and money to continue his travels.  

Arriving in Tehran, Persia in October, Csoma, with the help of British envoy Sir Henry Willock, spent four months there, perfecting his fluency in English and new-Persian.  He left Tehran in March 1821, leaving behind his passport and papers for safety, changing costumes again, from a European to a Persian one and assuming the name Scander Bey. 

In April 1821, he arrived at Mashad, Persia where he was delayed at a caravan camp for six months due to the Turkish-Persian war.  In October, he set off for Bukhara.  On January 6th, 1822 he struggled across the mountain ranges of Hindu Kush, reached Kabul (Afghanistan), from where he wandered towards India.  At the Khyber Pass he met some French officers with whom he reached Lahore (Pakistan), then Srinagar, India.  In May 1822, he took off for Inner Asia and, passing the 3,446meter (11,575’) Zoji La, arrived at Ladakh, Kashmir on the 23rd.

Continuing on the road northward to East Turkestan, a region crucial to his work, would have meant crossing mountain passes about 6,000 meters (nearly 20,000 feet) in elevation and braving bandits.  The threat of being robbed or murdered, coupled with the dangerous climatic conditions of rarified air in the Karakorum Mountains made him reconsider that route.  Thus, Csoma made a difficult decision of detouring to the walled fortress capital of Leh, where he arrived on June 19th .  There he had a serendipitous meeting with William Moorcroft, an English explorer, on July 16th, 1822.  Upon his initiation, Csoma started to be interested in the Tibetan language and literature, hoping to find proof of the origin of Hungarians in their ancient documents.

On July 26th, 1823 Csoma arrived at Zangla in Zanskar.  By recommendation of Moorcroft, he lived in the fortress of the King, albeit in a tiny unheated cell, for 15 months.  During his stay he studied under a Lama, skimmed through several thousand Tibetan books, processed the history, geography and literature of Tibet and constructed a dictionary of 30,000 words.  His main nutrition was tea with yak butter and barley. 

He left Zanskar on October 22nd, 1824 and reached Subathu on November 26th.

There he was detained by a Captain Kennedy who suspected him of being a spy.  Since Csoma had not applied for an Imperial passport and traveled only with a temporary one issued locally, he rendered himself vulnerable indeed.  Even with Moorcroft’s letter of introduction and testimony clarifying his position, it took until May 1825 before he was absolved from any suspicion.  During his detainment, Csoma was required to write his autobiography, accounting for all his travels, studies and activities that were ultimately deemed useful by the British authorities. 

From November 1825, he lived and worked at the Phugtal Monastery, then from mid-June 1827 in Kanam, under more relaxed conditions, working with a Lama. The three years spent there became the most productive period of his life’s activity.  He finished his dictionary (the first Tibetan-English dictionary), compiled the first Tibetan grammar, and prepared the manuscript of a Buddhist terminology dictionary and the outlines of several dissertations.   

He read about the fabulous Shambala country in the Uyghur (ujgur) region, which is believed in Eastern perception to be the Center of Wisdom. Csoma became convinced that his ancestors came from that area, as cultured nations, centuries before Christ.  The Royal Asiatic Society voted him a member in March 1830. 

In April 1831, he arrived in Calcutta and moved into the headquarters of the Asiatic Society, to organize the Society’s library.  As a self-appointed monk, he was living in a small cell, preparing his Tibetan-English dictionary and grammar for printing.  500 copies of both of those scientifically accurate works were first published in Calcutta on January 5th, 1834, causing him to be later recognized as the Father of Tibetology.  From 1835, he studied the Sanskrit, Bengali and Mahratta languages.  As per his original goals, he was still looking for the ancient homeland, under the alias of Molla Escander Csoma.

In February 1842, he attempted to get to Lhasa.  He sailed on the River Mahananda but continued on foot across the unhealthy, swampy region, where he contracted malaria.  He arrived at Darjeeling on March 24th.  In early April he suffered severe bouts of pain, and a high fever debilitated his body.  At 5:00 a.m. April 11th, 1842, the earthly career of Kőrösi Csoma Sándor came to an end.  He was put to eternal rest at the European cemetery of Darjeeling where his grave became a site of Buddhist pilgrimage.

To commemorate our hero’s pilgrimage and to introduce the significance of his life’s work to Romanians, Pengő Zoltán, journalist of Kolozsvár set off in September 2019, to replicate, mostly on foot, Kőrösi Csoma Sándor’s journey of about 7,000 kilometers (4,350 miles).

And restless Hungarians are still searching for their roots…

Olga Vállay Szokolay is an architect and Professor Emerita of Norwalk (CT) Community College, after three decades of teaching.  She is a member of the Magyar News Online Editorial Board.