Has any primary school child in our country ever escaped the travails of getting right the spelling and pronunciation of the famous Chinese name that has been popping up without fail in all history text books since British times ? Huen Tsang . Hyuin Zang . Hsien Tsiang etc etc.
From Nalanda to Mauryan cities to Deccani civilization, most of what we know bear the stamp of veracity, because this ubiquitous Tang Dynasty Monk from China made meticulous notes about whatever he saw on his visit to India.
When I learnt that The Wild Goose Pagoda in Shaanxi province ( China ) listed in our itinerary is a monument to that amazing textbook character, Huein Tsang, I was thrilled !
It is not known what his parents named him, but he was known as Xuan Zang ( meaning, The Venerable Tang Monk) which later got twisted on different tongues as Huen Tsang, Hyien Sang etc. Ordained into monkhood at the tender age of 13 , he was inspired by Fa-Hian's visit to India and made it his mission to travel to that sacred land to unearth the True Scriptures of Buddhism , so that his people would have the correct interpretation of what the Buddha taught. His 16 year sojourn in India ( 629 AD -645 AD) was faithfully recorded as an autobiography and it became the basis for the much loved, monumental Chinese epic " Journey To The West " authored by the Ming scholar Wu Cheng'en in 1590s. Xuan Zang died in 664 AD in Chang'an ( now Xian), but continues to be revered , as the lovable and ever popular characters from the above epic come alive in various performing arts to this day. The best known character from that epic is the Monkey King, Sun Wukong, a staple in all Opera shows.
In 652 AD, a Five Tiered pagoda with a cloister was built by Xuan Zhang's patron dynasty to house the Sutras, Relics and holy figurines Xuan Zang had brought back from India. Damaged and rebuilt many times over, this shrine is now a 210 ft. tall, seven tiered brick pagoda surrounded by a magnificent garden and plaza. The place is called The Temple of Grace ( Da Ci'en) . A massive bronze figure of Xuan Zang stands in front of the temple, sceptre in hand, robes billowing as he strikes a pose of benediction. At the entrance of the temple are The Drum Tower and The Bell Tower housing a 15 ton iron bell crafted in 1548.
Inside the shrine, the first hall, The Hall of Mahavira, has the figures of the three buddhas, 18 Arhats and of Xuan Zang. Beyond this is The Sermon Hall, serving as a room for prayers and learning. The Hall of Xuan Zang Sanzang displays the relics and collections of the venerated monk. The story of his Indian trip is chiselled in bas relief all around the walls. I was so happy to discover likenesses of Indian temples , rishis and saree clad ladies among the artworks !
The pagoda is a simple angular structure, without any ornamental work on its outer surface. Upon payment of 20 yuan, one is allowed to enter and climb the pagoda ; each landing of which has many historical items displayed . Level 7 sports a Lotus Ceiling which is inscribed with characters which can be read in many different ways to make different poems. There is also a page written by Xuan Zang which details the craft of Indian Temple builders. It is generally believed that the design of The Wild Goose Pagoda was borrowed from Indian religious architecture.
One doorway has a lintel covered with autographs of generations of meritorious scholars who passed out of the hallowed Academy. To have one's name on that doorway was considered a great honour and pinnacle of Recognition.
The North Square by the pagoda is a sprawling ( 110,000sq.ft) landscaped parkland with ponds, 22 sets of musical fountains, 8 groups of sculptures , and a Tang themed piazza. Exhibits of Tang culture are housed in the museum rooms adjoining the shrine. I believe the North Square holds the World Record for having the most number of park benches !!!
All visitors are bound to be curious about the name "Wild Goose" . The story goes that when some poor monks, belonging to a branch of buddhism that ate flesh, could not find any meat one day, they prayed to Bodhisattva. Whereupon, a huge plump goose from a flock flying overhead just fell off the sky into their kitchen . The bird's cruel end startled the monks so much that they built the pagoda in atonement and turned vegetarian.
About 8kms away, there is a smaller and humbler shrine called The Little Goose Pagoda, which however does not have any goose incident in its history but was named so only to distinguish it from the other structure !
The parkland is a lovely place to spend an evening and the museum is very educative. In one of the rooms , life size mannequins in Tang costumes are installed in the setting of a royal household. Among the many Concubines, some are seen sporting red bindi-dots on their foreheads. Our guide pointed to mine and gave a little giggle . It transpired that the red dot signified availability and the Emperor could choose his consort for the night only from among the dotted Ladies.
In a bulletin board along one of the park's avenues , we saw many photographs , old and new,of famous people who visited the Pagoda . Among them, one showing our ex-prez KR Narayanan !