The Dreams To Come – Sandor Korosi Csoma: A Transylvanian Discovers Tibet (Part Three)

The foundations of everything the western world has come to know about Tibet were built upon luck, chance and fate. Such were the circumstances of the first encounter between Sandor Korosi Csoma and the British explorer and officer of the East India Company, William Moorcroft. In 1822, three years into a journey that he hoped would lead to the discovery of the original Hungarian homeland, Csoma was a financially destitute Hungarian scholar/explorer with a proposed journey to East Turkestan (western China) stalled out. After spending three and a half weeks traveling up a route that he had hoped would take him over the Karkorum Mountains, Csoma was forced to turn around due to dangerous conditions, only part of which were due to the climate. On his way back to Lahore, Csoma had a chance encounter with Moorcroft in Kashmir that would transform both his journey and life. The two men were intrigued by one another. They would spend a month together in the ancient city of Leh, during which time Moorcroft would share the only book he or any other Brit had on Tibet at that time, a Tibetan dictionary. In that moment was the genesis of what would become the life’s work of Csoma. The encounter with Moorcroft eventually leading him down a path that eventually led to the creation of Tibetology.

Portrait of a Tibetologist - Sandor Korosi Csoma

Portrait of a Tibetologist – Sandor Korosi Csoma (Credit: Ágost Schöfft)

The Barest Of Necessities – Language Learning & The Lama
The opportunity to research and learn Tibetan, a language entirely unknown in the western world, was too good of an opportunity for Csoma to pass up. An intensive study might lead to sources that could shed light on the origins of the Hungarians, perhaps even lead Csoma to their original homeland. Through his many connections, Moorcroft arranged for Csoma to stay and study in the region. The British were expanding their influence in the area. Thus, language aptitude would be critical to understanding and influencing the local populace. A man with Csoma’s linguistic skills would be invaluable. Moorcroft arranged for Csoma to study the language with Sang-rgyas Phun-tsogs in the settlement of Zangla. Phun-tsogs, a local leader, would teach Csoma the language and introduce him to Tibetan literature. For over a year, in unbearable weather conditions while subsisting on the barest of necessities, Csoma was tutored in all aspects of Tibetan language and literature. His ability to withstand near total deprivation while remaining true to his cause made him the perfect student for Phun-tsogs, the man he would come to know as “the lama”.

By the time his first period of education had ended, Csoma was the world’s leading non-native authority on the Tibetan language. He did not stop there. Despite difficulties in obtaining the services of Phun-tsogs over the next several years, Csoma continued to further his education. Moorcroft recommended to the British authorities that Csoma be supported in his endeavors. His work was of interest to the British as they were establishing a colonial foothold in the region. This was the period of what has been termed “The Great Game” in Central Asia, when the British and Russians vied for control of the area. Csoma’s broad knowledge of languages was useful to furthering their interests. In turn, the British could provide him with nominal financial support and access to a culture which was off-limits to all but a chosen few. After some initial skepticism by the authorities, Csoma was approved for service to the British.

Mysterious mysticism - Phugtal Monastery

Mysterious mysticism – Phugtal Monastery (Credit: hamon jp)

Distant Memories – From Tibet To Transylvania
At a monastery in Phugtal, Csoma would reunite for his final and most fruitful period of study with Phun-tsogs. Over the next several years he completed what would become his most famous and lasting work, the Tibetan-English dictionary. It consisted of over 30,000 words while providing guidance on Tibetan grammar. In addition, Csoma assembled a massive amount of Tibetan literature. Future western scholars of Tibet would find Csoma’s work invaluable. It opened new avenues of study into a culture that had previously been closed off to the west. The study of Tibet, its language, culture and Buddhism could now proceed scientifically. As for Csoma’s search for the original Hungarian homeland, that had been temporarily set aside, but not forgotten. He still hoped his knowledge of Tibet and its language would lead him to sources that would point the way to Hungarian roots in East Turkestan.

During the 1830’s, Csoma was made an honorary member of the Asiatic Society of Bengal. His ensuing work provided just enough in earnings to cultivate an increasingly austere lifestyle. He spent much of his time doing research, learning Sanskrit – a language he wrongly believed was distantly related to Hungarian – then returning again and again to his Tibetan studies. Amid these scholarly pursuits, he was still mindful of his native land. His countrymen remembered him as well. A collection had been taken up in Transylvania to support his work and sent to him. Csoma repaid this generosity by sending them twenty-five copies of his combined works. In addition, he returned the money that had been raised for him, along with a small sum he had been able to save during his travels. The money went to establish a foundation which would support students with elite academic credentials back in Hungary.

Tomb and Memorial of Alexander Csoma de Korosi at Darjeeling

One of a kind – Tomb and Memorial of Alexander Csoma de Korosi at Darjeeling (Credit: Bodhisattwa)

Creature Comforts – A Blue Suit & A Library Full Of Books
As he grew older, Csoma withdrew into a hermetic existence. He never gave up on his dream of discovering the original homeland of the Hungarians, but he was possessed by a fevered passion for learning. His days of intrepid travel looked to be in the past. He lived with scarcely any material belongings, other than his collection of Tibetan books. Observers noted that he always wore the same blue suit of clothes. Csoma cared nothing for material comforts. His world was enriched by the wealth of knowledge he had managed to acquire over a lifetime of intensive study. One visitor who talked with Csoma said that the only thing which interested him later in life, besides Tibet, was continuing his search for the deepest ancestral roots of the Hungarians.

In 1842, twenty-three years after he first set out from Transylvania, Csoma renewed that search. His plan was, travel first to Lhasa and then make his way into East Turkestan. The first part of this journey was from Calcutta to Darjeeling through tropical jungle. Along the way Csoma contracted malaria. Overcome by fever and chills, the man who had walked halfway around the world in the pursuit of a dream died in Darjeeling at the age of fifty-eight. He never made it to East Turkestan or found the original Hungarian homeland. Instead, he found Tibet. In the process, his path breaking work helped the western world discover a mysterious and mystical world through Tibetan language and literature. In essence, Sandor Korosi Csoma laid the foundations for all the dreams to come from his discovery of Tibet.

2 thoughts on “The Dreams To Come – Sandor Korosi Csoma: A Transylvanian Discovers Tibet (Part Three)

  1. Fascinating! I love all your articles about Hungary and the Hungarians. My husband, now deceased, was half Romanian and half Hungarian. Born in 1933. His early life (before the 1956 uprising) was spent partly in Transylvania and later Zala megye and Budapest. After 1956 he lived in Belgium. We married in 1966. I now spend spring and summer mostly in a village in Zala megye where we bought a little house. I’ve been trying to master the language for the past forty years!

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