Silk and spices were the known goods that traversed the Silk Road trade routes from China to India, religion is an often overlooked companion along these passages. Buddhist traders set out north from India across the Hindu Kush and Tian Shan mountains and traversing the Taklamakan desert to the far east of China. Buddhism arrived in China in the first century of the common era and shortly after monks would travel to and fro on these routes.
There are numerous named monks who travelled throughout these years but there are a few that stand out. Fa Hsien made his journey in the journey early in the fifth century of the common era and he returned home by the see route from India, through the Indonesian Islands to China. I Ching travelled to and from India by the sea route in the late seventh and early eighth century.
The most famous of these travelling monks is Xuanzang who travelled by land the land route in both directions in the early seventh century. He left China under the cover of darkness and returned a hero. During his seventeen year journey he endured sandstorms, lack of water, severe weather in the mountains, near death at the hand of bandits and hostility from rival religious sects. He visited all the holy sites of Buddhism throughout the Ganges region of India collecting texts and relics and learning the language. He returned to China to spend his remaining years translating these texts for use by Buddhists of the far east.
Within a hundred years of his travels India witnessed the decline of Buddhism, Xuanzang’s tests and translations have provided a valuable source of information on seventh century India. The Chinese Emperor established an institute in Xian where Xuanzang could translate his works with hired assistants. Monuments to him still stand in Xian.