Where was "Western India" 西天竺?

In past posts we have discussed the geographic locations of Anxi 安息(Bukhara), Jibin 罽賓 and Daqin 大秦(the Levant) during the Tang Dynasty (618–907), showing that the definitions of these place names changed over time. Anxi, for example, originally referred to the Parthian empire in the first centuries CE, but the name in Chinese remained in use for several more centuries, even after the Parthian state was toppled by the Sassanians in the early third century. During the Tang Dynasty, Anxi actually referred to Bukhara. Daqin originally referred to the eastern part of the Roman empire in the early centuries CE, but later came to specifically refer to the general geographic area of the Levant and Syria. It later referred to the Byzantium empire, which had lost its hold on the Levant. 

Here I want to discuss the geographic location of “Western India” 西天竺 in some Tang sources. The Chinese Tianzhu 天竺 is an approximate transcription of sindhu in some Central Asian language (it was not derived from Sanskrit). The name Tianzhu is attested in the Hou Han shu 後漢書 (Book of the Later Han), the history of the later Han (25–220), states the following:

The country of Tianzhu: another name is Shendu. It is located thousands of miles southeast of the Yuezhi. Their customs are the same as the Yuezhi.

At this point in time, Tianzhu refers to the territories of the Kuṣāṇa dynasty (1st – 3rd centuries CE). In a later century, the famous Chinese monk Xuanzang 玄奘 (602–664), who was proficient in Sanskrit and had studied at Nālanda, rejected this name for India:

《大唐西域記》卷2:「詳夫天竺之稱,異議糺紛,舊云身毒,或曰賢豆,今從正音,宜云印度。... 印度者,唐言月。月有多名,斯其一稱。」(CBETA, T51, no. 2087, p. 875, b16-20)
Now with consideration of the names of Tianzhu, there are numerous disputes on the matter. It was formerly called Shendu, or otherwise Xiandou [Middle Chinese: hen duwH]. Now we will follow the correct pronunciation. It should be called Yindu [Middle Chinese: jinH duH]. … “Yindu” in Chinese means moon. The moon has many names. This is one of its appellations.

Xuanzang tried to introduce new terminology and transcriptions of Indian terms into Chinese, and while he succeeded to some degree, a lot of the old vocabulary remained in use. Throughout the Tang Dynasty, the name Tianzhu was still widely used by Chinese authors. The Tongdian 通典 (the Comprehensive Chronicle), compiled in 801 by Du You 杜佑 (735–812), draws upon numerous accounts of Tianzhu. The Chinese image of India's geography at this point in time had become rather complex. The Tongdian provides the following details:

The later Han had contact with Tianzhu, which was the country of Shendu during the former Han. In the beginning, Zhang Qian [d. 114 BCE] was sent as an envoy to Daxia [Bactria], where he saw Chinese bamboo staves and fabrics from Sichuan. He asked, “Where did you get these?” The men of Daxia said, “Our merchants go to the country of Shendu and trade for them.” This is referring to Tianzhu. Some call it “Magadha” or “Brahman”. It is south of the Conglin range [Pamirs]. It is thousands of miles southeast of the Yuezhi, and its lands are over thirty-thousand miles. It is divided into “Five Tianzhus” [Indias]: Central, Eastern, Southern, Western and Northern. Each land is made up of thousands of miles with hundreds of cities. Southern India borders a great sea. Northern India meets snowy mountains [the Himalayas] and is walled in on all four sides by mountains, with a great valley at its southern face acting as an entryway into the country.1 Eastern India borders a great sea to its east. It is connected to Funan and Linyi [Southeast Asian polities] with just a small sea in between [the Bay of Bengal]. Western India connects to Jibin and Persia. Middle India is positioned between the four Indias. The countries all have their kings.

The “Five Indias” roughly correspond to modern geographical regions as follows:

Central India: Bihar and Jharkhand.
Southern India: Odisha (Orissa).
Northern India: Kashmir valley.
Eastern India: Bengal.
Western India: Sindh.

The political landscape of India described by Du You is simplistic and uninformed as a result of relying on chronologically disparate sources (the Yuezhi were extinct long before the Tang Dynasty). A point relevant to the present discussion is that he states that Western India borders Jibin and Persia. In the year 801, however, Persia did not exist as a polity any longer. The Sassanian empire was conquered by the Arabs in the mid-seventh century.2 Interestingly, Du You was actually aware that Persia no longer existed. He cites the travelogue, titled simply Jingxing ji 經行記 (Travel Account), of the Chinese author Du Huan 杜環, who traveled to the Abbasid Caliphate and returned to China in 762:

[Persia] was destroyed by the Arabs. At the end of the Tianbao reign era [742–756], it had already been over a century.

We actually have another contemporary East Asian from the eighth century who attests to the destruction of Persia by the Arabs. The Korean monk Hyecho 慧超 (704–787) traveled from China to India between 723–729. His travelogue3 has the following comment:

《遊方記抄》卷1:「從吐火羅國,西行一月,至波斯國。此王先管大𥦽。大𥦽是波斯王放駝戶。於後叛,便殺彼王,自立為主。然今此國,却被大𥦽所吞。」(CBETA, T51, no. 2089, p. 978, a27-b1)
Traveling for one month from Tokhara, you arrive in the country of Persia. The king earlier governed the Arabs. The Arabs raised camels for the Persian king. Later there was an insurrection and they killed the king, establishing themselves as rulers. Now this country has been absorbed by the Arabs.

It is clear that the Chinese by the mid-eighth century were aware that Persia as a polity had been eliminated. This is important to bear in mind when we consider the introduction of Hellenistic astrology into China around the turn of the ninth century. 

The Xin Tang shu 新唐書 (New Book of Tang), the revised record of the Tang Dynasty compiled in 1060, lists the following text and account in its bibliographical catalog (fasc. 59):

Duli yusi jing. 2 fascicles. In the Zhenyuan period [785–805] the duli diviner Li Miqian transmitted it from Western India. There was someone [named] Qu Gong who translated the text.

Although this text is not extant, we know from its fragments and later astrological manuals that it was a translation of the work of Dorotheus of Sidon (c. 75), a major Hellenistic astrologer. 

It is curious that the account here states that Li Miqian hailed from Western India because Dorotheus’ work was first translated into Pahlavī (Middle Persian) from its original Greek under the Sassanians between 222–267. Its content was later expanded sometime between 531–578. This Pahlavī version was translated into Arabic around the year 800, which was also around the same time when the Chinese translation was produced (a very curious coincidence).4 

So far as I know, there was never a Sanskrit translation of Dorotheus. Li Miqian was most likely Persian, given his surname Li. Other ethnically Persian men resident in China during these years also had the surname Li, such as the court astronomer Li Su 李素 (743–817). Li Su was actually from Guangzhou, but his ancestors came from Persia. He arrived in Chang'an sometime during the Dali 大曆 reign era (766–779). Li Miqian was clearly Persian and, therefore, most certainly translated Dorotheus from Pahlavī.

This leads me to wonder why he would identify himself, or be identified, as hailing from Western India. As we discussed in an earlier article (see here), Nestorian (East Syrian) Christian clergymen originally identified themselves as coming from Persia in the seventh century, but later from around the year 745, when China was becoming truly aware that Persia no longer existed, started identifying themselves with Daqin, even though it was under the domination of the Arabs. In other words, the Nestorian clerics in China did not want to identify with the Arab Abbasid empire. 

In the case of Li Miqian, we might imagine that he also did not want to identify with the Arab state. Instead, he chose to identify himself with the vague geographical area of Western India. We might even imagine him attempting to explain to the Chinese court through an interpreter that he was not Arab, but actually Persian, even though the Persian state was long gone. By the time he arrived, the court was well aware this fact. If he were Sogdian, he would have probably been identified with Samarkand or Bukhara, and not taken the surname Li.

Of course, I might be mistaken, and, in fact, he did come from Western India, in which case this leads to another interesting point: we would have evidence of a practitioner of Hellenistic astrology originating from the western Indosphere in the late eighth century. 

Abbasid Caliphate c. 850 (Wikimedia Commons)
At present, however, I strongly sense that the expatriates from the Near and Middle East residing in China during the eighth and early ninth centuries probably did not feel particularly inclined to identify with the Abbasid Caliphate, which ruled over territories from the Levant to the borderlands of western India. There would have been multiple religious, linguistic, ethnic and political reasons for such sentiments. This still requires further investigation.

The activities of these men in China have become of increasing interest in my present research. I continually find more and more evidence that these men transmitted a great deal of religious lore and practices, as well as scientific knowledge. The problem, however, is that identifying from where exactly they came is difficult. In the case of Indians, it is sometimes expressly stated in their biographies that they came from definite places such as Magadha, but Iranians (both Sogdians and Persians) and Syrians are seldom identified with specific polities. The Chinese knew the general geographic layout of India thanks to accounts by figures such as Xuanzang, but their knowledge of the areas west of India during the Tang was much less detailed.


1 Nepal, which originally just referred to the Kathmandu valley, was positioned in “Northern India” during the Tang Dynasty. However, this is most certainly referring to the Kashmir valley. For details on Nepal in this period see my earlier article:

2 For a reliable history of the Sassanian empire, see Iranica Online:

3 For a complete translation see vol. 10 of the “Collected Works of Korean Buddhism”. http://www.acmuller.net/kor-bud/collected_works.html. I do not always agree with this translation. I interpret Hyecho's accounts of the Near East as recorded hearsay, rather than being a record of a journey there.

4 David Pingree, “Classical and Byzantine Astrology in Sassanian Persia,” Dumbarton Oaks Papers 44 (1989): 229.

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