issue 17 winter 01
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The Hungarian Who Walked To Heaven

Alexander Csoma De Koros 1784-1842

Edward Fox

Short Books 2001, $8.95/£4.99 p/b

This is a delightful short biography of an eccentric Hungarian scholar who became one of the fathers of western studies of Tibetan culture. Educated at an austere Calvinist school, when he was 31, Csoma De Koros finally set out alone on a pilgrimage to the East; his mission: to discover the roots of the Hungarian people, whom he and other contemporaries theorised to be descended from Attila the Hun. Due to a Chinese decree restricting foreign entry to Tibet, he was sadly never to reach Yarkand, where he hoped to find linguistic proof of the Central Asian origins of the Hungarian race. However, on his way, via many adventures, misfortunes and disguises, he acquired about 14 languages, became one of the first Europeans to enter Ladakh, and compiled the first relatively reliable Tibetan-English dictionary. Csoma went on to study with Lama Sangye Phuntsog in a remote monastery in Zanskar. For 16 months the two men studied the Tibetan language and the vast Tibetan Buddhist canon in freezing conditions in a tiny 9ft-square cell. Csoma spent the last years of his life working for the Asiatic Society of Bengal in Calcutta, mastering Marathi, Bengali and Sanskrit, before dying of malaria on a final courageous attempt to travel across Tibet to western China. A fascinating little book.