Friday, May 17, 2013

Sándor Kőrösi Csoma

He walked from Hungary to Tibet and brought the language of Tibet to the West.  His grammar of their language is also the foundation of our knowledge of their religion because he worked from the holy books of Lhasa monks.  His name is variously rendered: Alexander Csomo de Körös is also accepted.  He called himself a “Siculo-Magyar” and I thought that (like me) he was Sicilian and Hungarian, but, in fact, “Siculo” is a latization of Szekel, the hereditary guardians of the Hungarian frontier who claim direct descent from the remnants of the Huns. 
Portrait drawing in ink facing right of man about 45 or 50 years of age, thin, but strong
Portrait by August Schoefft
from surreptitious sketches

For over a hundred years, the life story of this obscure scholar was presented in a single biography by Theodore Duka, M.D., first written in 1885 and then reprinted in a limited edition of 1000 by Manjursi Publishing House of New Dehli in 1972.  Then in 2001, Short Books of Croyden, Surrey, came out with a new work by Edward Fox, much shorter, but obviously benefiting from resources liberated by the fall of communism.  Fox’s story illuminated details of Kőrösi Csoma’s depth of character. He was consistent, principled, and self-generating. He hoarded the cash coins in gold and silver which others invested with him for his travels and research, while he lived on figs and less.  Trekking with caravans, he had passed himself off successfully as “Sikander Beg” a Persian. 

Sandor Kőrösi Csoma believed that the homeland of the Hungarians was in the Himalaya Mountains.  The theory was widely asserted in his day.  The point is still in dispute.  By our best knowledge today, the Magyars are Finno-Ugritic people, cousins to the Samoyed, Ostyak, Vogul, and Finns of northwest Asia but “influenced” linguistically if not genetically, by Turkic peoples of central Asia.  The Hungarian word for “dog” is “kutya” and would be understood directly by the Ostyaks and Voguls.  The Hungarian word for “three” is “három” which obeys rules supporting the Finnish near-cognate “kolme.”  But in Hungarian, the vowels in a word all have the same pitch, as in Turkish.  For example, a noun becomes an adjective by adding “sag.”  The word for politically or legally free is “szabad”; and “liberty” is szabadsag.  But a nice word for your brother is “tesztver” and “fraternity” is “tesztvereseg”.  The deeper “a” becomes the higher “e” to maintain the consistency of sound within the word.

Two sides of the coin.Heads facing left is the portrait by Schoefft. Tales side has Tibetan
100-forint commemorative coin
celebrating the 200th anniversary
of the birth of Sandor Kőrösi Csoma.
But all that came after the lifetime of Sandor Kőrösi Csoma: 1784 to 1842.  In his time, Hungary was suffering under the Austrian crown for their revolts, especially that of Ferenc II Rákóczi from 1703 to 1711.  However, that struggle brought sympathy and support from England, evidenced by a trust of ₤11,000 raised and held by the Archbishop of Canterbury. Hungary always had a strong Protestant minority. Csoma’s primary and secondary education was at a Calvinist school where he eventually became a lecturer in poetry. So, Csoma found ready support from British consuls and merchants as he walked from Egypt to Persia, Afghanistan, and India.
Cluster of whitewashed dwellings all connected on the ledge of a mountain
Monastary at Zanskar
(Wikimedia Commons)

He was 35 years old when he left Bucharest on November 1, 1819.  He had studied and mastered languages all his life, including formal enrollment at the University of Göttingen to attend lectures in philology.  His letters to Captain C. P. Kennedy, assistant political agent at Subathú, summarizing his journey and explaining his intentions, were in English.

Csoma spent eighteen months with the abbot of Zangla in the Zanskar region of what is today the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir in the Himalayas.  He compiled a 40,000-word dictionary and a grammar of Tibetan.  These he left with the Royal Asiatic Society at Calcutta before traveling back into the mountains where he died of a fever at Darjeeling.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for your blog and in particular noting the achievements of this most remarkable Szekler! (Apa szulettet Alsosolfava, Hargitay-mej). I had not heard of him until a fellow Szekler immigrant from Korund told me about him. I am very much interested in anything I can find out about him.


    Molnar David

    Asheville NC


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