Chinese Travelers in Afghanistan


Abdul Hai Habibi


The best written documents which shed light on conditions in Afghanistan during the time when Islam was being introduced to the country are travelogues written by Chinese travelers soon after their visits to the region.

These world travelers came to the area for two reasons. As political and administrative emissaries, which the Chinese court sent to Asian countries or Persia, or as Chinese Buddhist monks who came to visit the great Buddhist temples to procure religious information and knowledge at the religious centers of Afghanistan. From here they would go to India.

These Chinese travelers have left behind accurate information on the state of affairs of the time, without this information we would have been deprived of the descriptions  of the prevailing conditions at the time. Their travelogues have been translated into European languages which can be used as reference sources. Here I would like to present some important points from these books.


Faxian (Fa-hsien)

He is a leading Chinese Buddhist monk who left Changan in 399 A.D. to gather rare books. After traveling for 14 years he returned to Nankin in 414 A.D. He translated numerous Indian books into Chinese and wrote his travelogue, Records of Buddhistic Kingdoms. He died at the age of 86.

Faxian reached the banks of the Indus river from Kashgar traveling through the province of Gandahara, Peshawar, Banu and saw the temples of present day Jalalabad. He saw Suhuto (Swat), Gandahara, Chuhashilo (Taxila), Folusha (Peshawar), Hilo (Hada), Naki (Nangarhar), Lo-i (Ruh)[i] and Pona (Banu). He describes the famous monasteries and Buddhist centers of these places and from Banu travels to the banks of the Indus river.

The descriptions Faxian provides about famous monasteries, kings, people, their traditions and customs of these areas are most interesting, especially the temples made by Kanishka in Peshawar, Buddha’s goblet and the hilo of Zarnigar temple of Hadda which was built for the skull of Buddha.[ii] The king of the area had assigned eight persons from famous families of the land to protect the temple. He also provides descriptions on the tower which preserved Buddha’s tooth in the center of Nangarhar and the pearl of Buddhas staff[iii] preserved in this province. Such descriptions are of great importance in providing information on the area before the advent of Islam.

From the writings of Faxian it is clear there were rulers in the province and its people were followers of the Buddhist faith. Buddhist temples and guides were present all over the area and the people revered them with great respect. These monasteries were well preserved and maintained.[iv]


Song Yun

Song Yun of Dunhuang went with a monk Huisheng on a mission sent by the Empress Dowager to obtain Buddhist scriptures in India in 518 A.D. He traveled through the Taklamakan desert via the southern route passing Shanshan, Charkhlik, Khutan, then further west into the Hindu Kush, Kabul, and Peshawar. The most interesting account is his visit is to the Hepthalites (the White Hun) kingdom, which centered in eastern Afghanistan and controlled much of  Central Asia during the 5th and 6th centuries. As a result of this journey Song Yun managed to collect 170 books dealing with the Greater Vehicle  (Mahayana) and took them to China.

Song Yun followed the route taken by Faxien from Khutan to the eastern parts of Afghanistan. At this time the Hepthalites kings ruled over the land. Gulas, the Hepthalite king, (most likely Mehrakula), ruled harshly over the land with a force of 1000 warring elephants and cavalry. These people wore felt clothing and they did not know how to read and write and did not have any knowledge of the motions of heavenly bodies. Their empire extended from Tirhat in India to Lalya[v] and from Khutan to Iran. It was composed of 40 provinces and permanent soldiers were assigned to maintain security over the land.

Song Yun provides accurate accounts of the people, their clothing, the empresses and court procedures and traditions of the people and he states the Hepthalites did not recognize the Buddhist religion and they preached pseudo gods, and killed animals for their meat.

He talks about the political power structure of the land and from that we can conclude that the powerful administration of eastern Afghanistan, from the banks of the Oxus river to the Arghandab river, was in the hands of the Hepthalite administrators and they had appointed a satrap to rule over Gandahara, whose name was Lai-Lih or he was a person who belonged to this lineage. When the Hepthalites conquered Gandahara they appointed Lai-Lih as its king. During the time of the visit of Song Yun (520 A.D.) the second king of this family was ruling over the region. This monarch did not adhere  to Buddhism and believed in demons. He was a tyrant and cruel king. He battled emperor Copihen for three years. He was in possession of 700 warring elephants each of which carried 10 soldiers armed with spears and swords. His army was composed of three divisions.

Song Yun went to visit the emperor to present his credentials and unlike other kings he was not shown any kindness. He addressed the monarch harshly and left his court. Song Yun names the neighboring country Pusi, which is Persia. During this travels he also saw Chang (Odiana) which is the northern part of present day Mardan adjacent to Pulai (Balur) where people used iron chains to build bridges. The king of the region was a vegetarian. He warmly greeted Song Yun and he believed in Buddhism. He accepted the letter from the empress with respect.

During this trip Song Yun visited Peshawar and Nangarhar also and he provides interesting accounts of the monasteries of the land. After this he continued in the direction of San-tu (Indus river) and returned to China in 521 A.D.

What Song  Yun saw in Nangarhar (Na-lka-lo-hu) is the temple containing the skull of Buddha in Hadda, and the monastery of Kekalam (probably the Mehterlam of Laghman) where 13 pieces of the cloak of Buddha and his 18 feet long mast were preserved. In the city of Naki, a tooth and hair of Buddha were preserved and in the Kupala cave Buddha’s shadow reflected close to which he saw a stone tablet which was at that time considered to be related to Buddha[vi] (probably the stone tablet of Ashoka in Darunta).

Hsuan Tsang

He is the third Chinese traveler who has written his observations about Afghanistan. In terms of providing detailed information about what he saw and heard he furnishes the most detailed notes. He was born in 603 A.D. in Chin Liu of Hunan province and was a Buddhist monk of the time. At the age of 26 he left for the western lands in search of Buddhist religious notes. He embarked on his journey in 629 A.D. and returned to China in 645 A.D. after finding 124 books on the Greater Vehicle which had to be carried on 22 horses. He documented his travels in his book Si-yu-ki (Notes of the Western World).[vii]

Regarding the state of affairs during the 7th century A.D. there are only a few documents and coins left in Afghanistan. Had this traveler from Hunan not embarked on his journey it would have been extremely difficult for us to find information on that period.[viii] Hasuan Tsang provides important information on the geographical situation, religion, and political happenings of the time in Afghanistan in his travelogue. According to the chart prepared by Gangaham the dates of his arrival to different parts of Afghanistan as as follows:

Samarkand 5th March, 630 A.D. while on his way to India.

Khulm (Ho-lin)  20 March, 630 A.D.

Balkh (Po-Ho) 20 April, 630 A.D.

Bamian (Fan-Yen-Na) 30 April, 630 A.D.


Kapisa, 10 May,  635 A.D.

Laghman (Lah-Po) 15 August, 630 A.D.

Nangara Hara (Nangarhar), 20 August, 630 A.D.

Gandahara, 1 November, 630 A.D.

Auda Khand (Waihind), 1 December, 630 A.D.

Audiana (north of Mardan), January 1, 631 A.D.

Swasato (Swat River) 1 March, 631.

Taxila, 1 April, 631 A.D. After this Hsuan Tsang goes to Kashmir and India and 14 years later on his return he arrives at Taxila by way of Jalandar, 15 December, 643 A.D.

Crossing the Indus on elephant and a stop in Waihind, 25 December, 642 A.D.

Arrival at Laghman with the king, 15 March, 644 A.D.

Falna (Banu), 15 June, 644 A.D.

Aupukin (Afghan=Pakhtia), 20 June, 644 A.D.

Ghazni (Tsu-kiyu-tu) 25 June, 644 A.D.

Kabul (Autaspana), 1 July, 644 A.D.

Kapisa (north of Kabul) 5 July, 644 A.D.

Andarab, 20 July, 644 A.D.

Takhara (Takharistan), 1 August, 644 A.D.

Mankan (Munjan), 2 September, 644 A.D.

Badakshan (Ki-pu-kin), 1 September, 644 A.D.

Pamir (Koi-Lang-Tu) 25 September, 644 A.D.

Return to the border of Yarkand and Khutan, 26 September, 644 A.D.[ix]

Regarding the state of affairs of the time when Hsuan Tsang was in Afghanistan Fusha writes: “To the right of the Indus river the situation was simpler. The route which the royal caravan took, and of which Hsuan Tsang was a party, shows that in the province of Kadwasi (present day Baluchistan) a barren and lawless region existed.  Officials in charge of the caravans and the tax collectors refrained the caravans from moving through this area. This land, which was divided into ten parcels, had a king from noble descent who was a follower of the Buddhist faith and it was his friendship which did not allow the Chinese traveler to leave the area.”[x]

While Hsuan Tsang was traveling though Afghanistan the effects of Islamic conquests had not reached Afghanistan and Buddhism prevailed over all of the northern and eastern provinces of the country. Monasteries existed in all the major centers and thousands of monks were engaged in the learning of this religion. In the temple of Nawasingara (Nawbahar) of Balkh, there was a vase, tooth, broom and statue of Buddha which were all adorned with jewels. This temple contained precious ornaments and the son of Shahu Khan (Hepthalite) attacked Balkh to loot the precious bounty[xi].

Hsuan Tsang went from Takharistan to Holu (Kunduz) and met the elder son of the Hepthanlite chief. This prince was married to the sister of Kao Chang. Hsuan Tsang was in possession of letters of references from that prince. He considers 27 provinces south of the Oxus river to be the domain of the Hepthalite chiefs. Different chiefs ruled under the Huns. Their language was slightly different from that of other countries and its alphabet contained 25 letters which was written horizontally from left to right.[xii]

From the provinces south of the Oxus Hsuan Tsang arrived at Fan-yen-na (Bamian) where a separate king ruled. His kingdom from east to west extended 2000 li (600 miles) and from north to south it was 100 miles wide. He describes the two great statues of Buddha and a sleeping Buddha and other sacred relics. In ten monasteries about 1000 monks lived. They were all senior monks and were followers of the Lesser Vehicle (Theravada). From Bamian he went to Kia-pi-shi (Kapisa) which was 1300 miles in size and its people wore woolen clothes. Its king was from the Kashttriya people and he was considered a wise and brave man who conquered the adjacent lands and ruled over 10 other provinces too. He was a faithful follower of Bhuddism and every year erected a 17 feet tall silver statue of Buddha and held the religious conference of Moksha-maha-prishad. In his country there were about 100 temples with 6000 disciples who were followers of the Lesser Vehicle. Beside this followers of other faiths also had 1000 temples in the land. According to Hui Li, the emperor of Kapisa accompanied Hsuan Tsang a distance of three miles as he left the place. As explained by the traveler Lan Po (Laghman), Na-ki-loho (Nangarhar), and Kien-to-lo (Gandahara) and the lands from Peshawar to the banks of the Indus river were under the domain of the Kapisa emperor and earlier Ta-cha-shi-lo (Taxila) was also associated with Kapisa but later it became a part of Kia-shi-mo-lo (Kashmir).[xiii]

Hsuan Tsang provides detailed information on the holy places, people, traditions, clothing and culture of the land.  Upon his return from India in 644 A.D. when he arrives at Fa-la-na (present Pakthia to the eastern banks of the Indus river) he considers this province also to be under the administration of Kapisa. At this very time the northern provinces of the Hindu Kush, Andarab, Khost, and Kunduz were under the authority of the remaining Hepthalite rulers and the province of Tsu-ku-cha, whose capital was Ho-si-na (Ghazni) and another city by the name of Ho-sa-la (Hazara), had a separate king.[xiv] The king was on good terms with his subjects and he was a follower of the Greater Vehicle and was fond of religion and knowledge. He was a descendant of former kings who had ruled the area for a long period of time.[xv] Hsuan Tsang talks about the difference of language of this province with those spoken in Kapisa, and Fo-li-shi-sa-tang-na whose capital was Hopiyan (O-pi-na).[xvi] As mentioned in the Loykan of Ghazna, this language may have been Pashto.

Two other travelers

After Hsuan Tsang two other Chinese travelers came to our country and managed to go to India by way of Bactria and Kapisa. The first is Wang-hiuon-tso who was on his way to India as an emissary of the Chinese court and the second Huan-Tchao on his way to India for the second time. The first traveled in 620 A.D. and the second in 664 A.D. They passed through Bactria, Kabulistan and Gandahara on their way to India. This was the time when the attacks of Arab armies increased in the area and they were not afforded the opportunity to return back to this land on their return journey. The first returned to China by way of Nepal and the second stayed in India until his death.[xvii]

There is another document regarding these travelers. In 751 A.D. a Chinese official by the name of Wou-Kong was assigned the task to instruct the royal ambassador to return to his country. He undertook the journey on the most difficult route which directly connects Khutan with Gandahara.[xviii] There he observed that all the subjects of the emperor, empress, the prince and ministers were engaged in the rebuilding of monasteries that had been destroyed by the Hepthalites. This destruction had an adverse effect on Hsuan Tsang 120 years ago.[xix]





[i] Ruh is the land of Pashtunkhwa and the abode of the Pashtuns. According to Fereshta it is the mountain range which in length extends from Bajawar to Sebi and in breadth  spreads from Hasan Abdal to Kabul and Kandahar (History of Fereshta, Vol 1, p. 18). From this ancient document of Faxian we know this name is very old which was in use until Ahmad Shah Baba’s  ascendance to the throne. This name has been commonly mentioned in Pashto literature. In India Afghans were known as Ruhila and Ruhil Gahand of India carries this name. The Baluch and Jat people of Multan and Derajat call the Suleiman mountain Ruh, which lies to the west of these places and stands as a bulwark to these towns. In their language the word means mountain.

[ii] Had in Pashto means a bone. The Hilo mentioned by Faxian is the present day Hadda. It is possible because of the presence of the skull of Buddha it was named a place of bones.

[iii] Wahara means place of prayers and temple which is present in the name of a number of cities as a suffix such as Kandahar, Nangarhar, Binhar, etc.

[iv] See Record of Buddhistic Kingdoms of Faxian, page 15 and after  and the book of Si-yu-ki.

[v] The land north of the Kabul river from the Kunar valley to the Kashmir mountains. See the section on Kabul Shahan. 

[vi] Explanation by Si-yu-ki, second part of Sung-yen. English translation by Beil, London 1884.

[vii] Introduction to Si-yu-ki.

[viii] Iranian Civilization, p. 398.

[ix] Ancient Geography of India, 567 p.

[x] Iranian Civilization, 400 p.

[xi] Travels of Hsuan Tsang, First Book.

[xii] The language of the Koshani tablet of Baghlan which is ancient Dari and written in Greek script contains 25 letters and it is possible Hsuan Tsang referred to this language.

[xiii] Si-yu-ki, the second and third books. 

[xiv] Similar to the Zalay-e of Ptolmey.

[xv] Si-yu-ki, 12th book.

[xvi] Si-yu-ki, 12th book.

[xvii] History of Afghanistan. 2-542 p.

[xviii] The translator of Iranian Civilization has written this word as Kandahar which in reality is Gandahara. Chinese travelers did not reach present day Kandahar. The correct name is Gandahara (the Kabul river valley as far as Taxila).

[xix] Iranian Civilization, Article by Monsieur Fushe. p. 3-4.