In 1816, a 32-year-old Hungarian scholar with a special gift for learning languages won a scholarship to study at the University of Göttingen, a prestigious research institution in Germany. This event set Sándor Kőrösi Csoma or Alexander Csoma de Kőrös on a journey that would eventually take him to the outer boundaries of Tibet and help Europe get an understanding of the philosophy and culture of the “roof of the world”.

In three years at the university, Csoma studied Asian languages and developed an interest in Central Asia. Such was his passion for the East that the Hungarian made it his mission to unearth the linguistic links between Europe and Asia. To achieve this, he plotted a path from Europe to Mongolia via Odessa, Moscow and Irkutsk in Siberia, but the plan did not work out. Instead, he set off in 1819 on a long voyage from Romania to Bulgaria, Greece, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Uzbekistan and Afghanistan until he finally reached India.

“We know now that Csoma’s original plan ‘for the development of some obscure points of Asiatic and European history,’ conceived in Hungary, was to proceed through Central Asia, as (his professor Samuel) Hegedus pointedly remarks ‘towards the borders of the Chinese empire and towards Mongolia,’ and we can trace his steps from Persia to Khorrasan and Bukhara, through Balk, Kulm, Bamian across the Hindu Kush, in that direction till he reached Kabul on the 6th of January, 1822,” Hungarian Army Officer Tivadar Duka wrote in his book titled Life and works of Alexander Csoma de Koros, which was published in 1885.

From Kabul, Csoma travelled to Lahore and then to Kashmir and Leh. He planned to continue his journey to Yarkand in what is now Xinjiang but was warned of the dangers to European travellers on the route that was notorious for bandits.

Introduction to Tibetan

It was in India that Csoma met British explorer William Moorcroft, with whom he developed a close friendship. The two travelled from Punjab to Leh together, and Moorcroft introduced the Hungarian scholar to the Tibetan language by lending him a copy of Agostino Antonio Giorgi’s Alphabetum Tibetanum. “This book Csoma studied through, and was thus induced to propose to Moorcroft that he would thoroughly master that language, if during his studies, his daily wants could be provided for,” Duka wrote. “At the time we speak of, the British power was feeling its way slowly and extending its influence towards Central Asia: doubtless the government officers on the frontier perceived the advantages that could be gained by a thorough acquaintance with the land of Tibet, which then was really a Terra Incognita to Europeans.”

Csoma's biographer Tivadar Duka. Credit: Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain]

The British paid Csoma a stipend of Rs 50 a month as he learned Tibetan. While learning the language from a Lama in Zanskar in Ladakh, he developed a great interest in Buddhism and Tibetan religious texts. After half a year in Ladakh, he wanted to move to Kullu, but was detained by a British captain near Solan. Csoma was released only after Moorcraft wrote a letter confirming that the Hungarian was a genuine scholar and not a spy.

For seven years, Csoma lived in different parts of Ladakh and areas of Himachal that border Tibet. He completely immersed himself in Tibetan studies and read the 100-volume Kangyur and the 240-volume Tengyur, the sacred texts of Buddhism that found their way to Tibet from India when the religion spread across the Himalayas.

While living in the Himalayas, Csoma, being the linguist that he was, was able to establish Buddhist links with ancient Europe. In one letter, he wrote: “In the eastern and north-western parts of Europe there are many vestiges of the ancient Buddhism and of Sanskrit words among all the peoples, who but of late, after the time of Charlemagne, were converted to the Christian faith by means of the sword.” He added, “But the most numerous monuments thereof are Sanskrit words used by Greek and Roman writers in their accounts relating to ancient Thrace (Rumelia), Macedonia, and the countries on both sides of the Danube, Serbia, Pannonia and Dacha.”

As he continued to master the Tibetan language, Csoma compiled the first English-Tibetan dictionary. It took several years and various revisions before the Hungarian felt the dictionary was ready for publication. In a letter, he wrote, “The dictionary is too large: it is yet in pure Tibetan, written by a good hand in fine capital characters of small size, arranged alphabetically. I had not yet the leisure to add the signification of each word in English. I can translate the greatest part without mistake, but for the explanation of many words, I must get the assistance of an intelligent Tibetan.” This labour of love was finally ready by 1831.

Move to Calcutta

In the spring of 1831, the Hungarian was invited by the British to live in Calcutta, where he wanted to publish his dictionary. Csoma joined the Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal and would work closely with it for the rest of his life. His work in the Himalayas attracted the attention of Sanskrit scholar and Orientalist Horace Hayman Wilson, who took an interest in the Tibetan dictionary.

A bust of Csoma presented by the Hungarian Academy of Sciences to the Asiatic Society of Bengal. Credit: Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal/Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain]

Wilson, who was an original member of the Royal Asiatic Society, requested the British authorities in Calcutta to sponsor the publication of the dictionary. In response, Chief Government Secretary George Swinton wrote, “The Vice-President in Council is disposed to think it most desirable that the Tibetan Grammar and Dictionary prepared by A. Csoma de Kőrös should be published in Calcutta, at the cost of the Government, India being the most appropriate place for the publication, and the Government being likely the only party to incur the expense.”

Before Wilson left Calcutta in 1833 to become a professor of Sanskrit at the University of Oxford, he wrote a biographical sketch of Csoma in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society. “The sketch, so far as it went, has hitherto served as the basis of all notices of Csoma’s earlier life,” Duka wrote.

Two years after he moved to Calcutta, Csoma was unanimously elected as an honorary member of the Asiatic Society. James Princep, who replaced Wilson as the secretary of the society, took the initiative to make Csoma an honorary member. While nominating the Hungarian, he wrote, “The Committee of Papers are aware of Mr. Csoma’s qualifications as a Tibetan, Sanskrit, and general linguist, and I need say nothing in recommending him to the honour proposed to be conferred on him further, unless it is to remind the members that he has spent the last two years in preparing catalogues, translations, and superintending the preparation of his Dictionary, without accepting any remuneration from the Society or Government.”

Money did not seem to be a motive for Csoma. After coming to India, he single-mindedly focused on understanding the Tibetan language, culture and customs and making them accessible to Europeans. Duka added, “The only reward which Csoma ever looked for was an appreciation of his labours by his contemporaries and posterity.”

Librarian of Asiatic Society

In 1837, the Hungarian scholar became the Librarian of the Asiatic Society, even as he continued to research Tibetan religious texts. He lived on the premises of the society.

“From the end of 1837 till the early part of 1842, Csoma remained in Calcutta, arranging the Tibetan works of the Asiatic Society as its librarian,” Duka wrote. “He published several scientific treatises and articles, and was engaged by Dr (William) Yates and other missionaries in the translation of the Liturgy, the Psalms and the Prayer-book into Tibetan.”

One of his most cherished dreams was to visit Lhasa and central Tibet. He made plans in 1842 to visit the region, with the full backing and blessings of the British, but he contracted malaria while crossing the Terai in March of that year. He made it to Darjeeling in poor health and passed away in the town.

A monument to Csoma in Darjeeling. Credit: Grentidez/Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain]

Such was his fondness for Calcutta and the Asiatic Society that he pledged to return to the city after his Central Asia expedition, but this was not to be.

He left behind a great legacy and is widely known as the founder of modern Tibetology. Csoma’s dictionary, grammar book and other publications were considered essential study materials for Tibetologists in Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries, including Russian scholar George Roerich, who managed to build on the work carried out by Csoma.

In his native Hungary, he is fondly remembered as a “pilgrim scholar.” In October 2021, a delegation of scholars from Hungary visited the room where Csoma worked at the Asiatic Society in Kolkata. The room was renovated with the support of the Hungarian Embassy in Delhi a few years ago, and has some memorabilia associated with Csoma.

Margit Köves, a visiting faculty at Delhi University’s department of Slavonic and Finno-Ugrian Studies who has been teaching Hungarian in India for more than two decades, told The Times of India that Csoma was one of the “first examples in Indo-Hungarian cooperation that continues to flourish to this day”. Bengali, Marathi and Sanskrit featured among the 16 languages that the Hungarian mastered.

More than two centuries after he set off on his adventure of a lifetime, Alexander Csoma de Kőrös’s work is celebrated in the East and the West.

Ajay Kamalakaran is a writer and independent journalist, based in Mumbai. He is a Kalpalata Fellow for History & Heritage Writings for 2021.