The Great Buddhist Emperors of Asia

by Shibani Dutta | 2018 | 86,618 words

This study deals with the patronage of Buddhism in Asia by the ruling powers and nobility. It further discusses in detail the development of Buddhism under the patronage of the royal dynasties in the religious history of Asia right from the time of 3rd century B.C. (i.e., the reign of Ashoka) to the reign of Kublai Khan in 13th century A.C....

Chapter 10 - Emperor Kublai Khan (1215 A.C.–1294 A.C.)

Mongolian general and statesman Kublai Khan is noted for his extraordinary bravery, not only in the history of Central Asia but in the history of the whole world also. His grandfather emperor Changiz Khan established the vast Mongolian empire by virtue of his outstanding courage and matching diplomacy. Kublai Khan (1215 -1294 A.C.) carried forward successfully the tradition of his illustrious ancestor. Born in Mongolia in 1215, the Mongolian leader Kublai Khan rose to power in 1260 and became the ruler of the vast Mongolian Empire. He distinguished himself from his predecessors by ruling through an administrative apparatus that respected and embraced the local customs of conquered people, rather than by might alone. Actually Changiz Khan and Kublai Khan were leaders of nomadic tribes, having no kingdom of their own. They became the rulers of vast empires by virtue of their bravery.

The term “Mongol” was not familiar at that time. These tribes were known by the name “Tartar” or “the Chinese Tartar”. They belonged to “Huna” racial stock. Mongolia lies to the north of China beyond a big desert. Siberia lies to the north of Mongolia. The geography of Mongolia is varied with the Gobi desert to the south and with cold mountainous regions to the north. The whole of Mongolia is considered to be part of the Mongolian Plateau. Landlocked Mongolia is located between Russia to the north and China to the south. The country is marked by extreme heat and coldness. Mongolia with such geographical features was the homeland of Hunas. But they did not keep themselves confined to this land mass. Finding a favourable time they used to (271) move towards green areas of Chinese villages and spread over prosperous cities. Sometimes the Chinese forces chased them away. On those occasions, they used to come back, remove their tents and huts hiding among the cowherds, and then run away in the north direction. These nomads used camps with tents and they could run away fast with their tents and herds. In spite of several expeditions, the Chinese forces could not check them, and ultimately, they built the great wall of China to check them permanently.

The Huns were a nomadic tribe whose origin is unknown. At some point of time they came to China. The Chinese forces tried to chase them away. But they came back again and again. But the Huns were not completely uprooted from their land. They themselves appeared like Turks, then they presented themselves as Khittan Juchen, and ultimately exhibited themselves with the title of Mongol. Mongols were not influenced by Buddhism before 13th century. Changiz Khan himself used to offer the sacrifice of a white horse to his Neelandhan deity. Then he invited a Tavi monk, Chang Khuchun by name, from China for discussion on religious matters on the banks of Vaksu river. But he did not accept any other religion.

Changiz Khan ruled from 1206 to 1227 A.C. Then his successor Ogitai ruled Mongolia from 1228 to 1246 A.C. Khyuk administered the country from 1246 to 1251 A.C. After that Mangu became emperor from 1251 to 1260 A.C.

Even before Kublai Khan, Mangu had convened in 1254 A.C. at his capital Karakoram, a great religious conference in which discussions were held among Buddhists, Christians and Muslims. Buddhists did not achieve any success in this conference. A year later in 1255 A.C, similar religious conference was convened where emperor Mangu himself was present. In the discussion of the conference a Buddhist scholar Fewyo defeated a Taoist scholar. After the conference, Mangu Khan ordered that the Buddhist Viharas and monasteries should be return to them. The Taoist did not participate in this discussion. Mangu Khan thought of the weakness in Taoism and accepted the victory of Buddhism. At that time, emperor Mangu uttered, “We have the fingers to the palms at our hands, the Buddha’s doctrine is palms of our hands while other religions are like the fingers”. Mangu Khan did not take any action against the Taoists. He left this matter to his younger brother Kublai[1] Khan.

Kublai Khan convened a religious conference in 1258 A.C. at Shangton to the north-west of Dolan river. 3000 Buddhist monks and 301 Taoist monks participated in this conference. 200 Confucian monks also took part in the deliberation. The Buddhist monastic order was led by the royal priest and chairman of Namo-Shahu-lin Vihara and a famous Tibetan monk Phag Pa. This monk was only nineteen years old but he took a major part in the discussion. Buddhist scholars were successful in this debate. Taoists were defeated and their 17 monks clean-shaved their heads and took refuge in the Triple Gem. After this 237 Viharas and monasteries[2] were returned to them.

Mangu was elder to Kublai and the youngest one was named Hulaku. He had won victories for his descendents in Iran and Mesopotamia. The Mongal forces entered Mesopotamia in 1251 A.C. There he exterminated Meyafaraken with the help of lamplight. Around this time, fight for succession to the throne broke out among Mongal princes. Each prince pleaded his case in a royal court session (Kurittai), called in 1252 A.C. The official powers and right over the land were decided and distributed accordingly in that royal session. Tung-Kung-Chung-Fu and Honan were given to Kublai. He was also appointed as a general of the forces to lead war expeditions for subduing the Sung Dynasty. Hulaku was asked to march towards Iran.

Kublai had to struggle hard against Sung dynasty of south China. He made elaborate arrangement for this battle in 1253 A.C. It was customary with the Mongol army to move with prior arrangements. He mobilised a big army at Shense, but did not make haste to march ahead. Mangu forces captured Tibet in that very year of 1253 A.C. Around that time Multan also came under their sway. It was in that very year, a Christian missionary Rubrik arrived at Mangu Khan’s court in Karakorum. We have a very attractive description of Mongol empire, its national highways and the capital city from the pen of this missionary.

Hulaku began his victory march in February, 1254 A.C. He moved towards Iran with a large army. By that time the Mongols had become a terror throughout the world. It was said about them, “create big skeleton like minors with mud made out of blood and soil, and destroy the villages and towns, so that there shall be no one to cry, and also no one shall dare to raise his hand against Mongols”. This policy of the Mongols was becoming successful everywhere. Kings of south-east Tibet and King Ava of Burma (Mandalay) accepted the supremacy of the Mongols. Korean administrator, too, went to the court at Hagaan (Khakan) to concede to the supremacy of the Mongols. Later on, the areas named Tong-Kin-Anam and the valley of the river came under Khan’s sovereignty. Sung rule was not completely, destroyed but the ruler was waiting for his last days in consequence of a severe defeat by Kublai Khan. Mangu Khan became envious of Kublai Khan’s success. The courtiers incited and enraged Mangu by telling him that Kublai himself was planning to become Khan (king). When Kublai Khan came to know this court conspiracy, he hurried to Mangu’s court. Mangu was pacified by the generosity and obedience of his younger brother. In the same year, he along with Kublai, went to attack the Sung state. He appointed his younger brother Hulaku as a general of the forces of Vaksha territory in China south.

Mangu Khan died on 18th February, 1259 A.C. Without waiting for the selection by Kuristai (Mangu’s cabinet) Kublai immediately proclaimed himself as a Hagaan (emperor), but did not remove Kuristai tradition. In that very year he built a palace in Shangtu, and many Buddhist monasteries. Among the Mongol emperors, Kublai was the first who gave serious thought over developing culture. He borrowed many things from the Chinese culture and civilisation, especially Buddhism. In the year of ascending to the throne, he convened at Shangtu the Kuristai which proclaimed Kublai as Khanak (emperor). He then arranged a grand feast for a lakh of soldiers and landlords for four days and thus celebrated the occasion. But a civil war broke out in consequence of an instigation caused by one of his distantly related brothers. However the emperor’s youngest brother who was far away in Iran remained loyal to Kublai and considered the territory under his rule to be a part of his brother’s external territory. As a result of this, Buddhist Hulaku dynasty could survive even in Muslim countries like Iran and Mesopotamia.

Two years later, a civil war took so serious a turn that emperor Kublai Khan himself had to rush to Mongolia. According to the travel accounts of Marcopolo, a merchant of Venice, Kublai’s own uncle was a rebel behind this civil war. Rahul Sankrityayan has, of course, identified this rebel as Kublai’s cousin (Eiragbuka). We learn from the travel accounts of Marcopolo that Nayan was ruling over a large part of Mongolian territory which was a part of emperor Kublai Khan’s Mongol empire. Nayan intended to separate his territory and establish an independent country of his own. He began to cause trouble to Kublai in various ways. He had with him three lakh cavalry men and very fast foot-soldiers. He sent a message to Tatavi administrator Kodu Khan who used to pay taxes to Kublai, saying, “I have rebelled against the emperor, and I swear enmity with him. I am going with a large force to attack Kublai. You should come to my help with an equally large force and two of us with our united forces will be able to snatch away Kublai’s empire”. Knowing that an opportune moment had come, Kodu Khan promptly replied, “I am coming”. He marched with the forces of several lakhs.

Kublai Khan was not at all moved when he came to know this sinister conspiracy. He had confidence in his own bravery and faith in the strength and courage of his soldiers. He was, not in the least, frightened. Rather he determined that “until and unless, I completely destroy and exterminate these two traitors, I shall not put off my helmet and armour”. He made war preparations within 10 to 12 days. He marched with 3 lakh 60 thousand horsemen and one lakh foot soldiers. Kublai Khan traversed a vast area with his forces. Within twenty days he reached near a place where Nayan Khan was camping along with his four lakh horsemen. He could not imagine that the forces of the emperor would reach near the battle field so soon. When Nayan Khan was arrested, he was busy enjoying carnal pleasure with his newlymarried wife. After being taken as a captive, he was put to death. His dead body was covered with a carpet and dragged here and there. The purpose of Nayan Khan being killed in this way was to shock the people belonging to the royal race. The generals of Nayan Khan accepted the complete sovereignty of Kublai Khan over the territory governed by Nayan. This territory was divided into four Subbas (divisions): 1) Chorcha 2) Korea 3) Yeol and 4) Sinakag-Tang-Kang.

Buddhism had spread in China many years before Mangolia embraced this religion. Kublai Khan, however, received Buddhism from Tibet. At the time when Mongol forces were busy conquering countries, a far-sighted and invincible scholar Sakaya Mahapandit Anantadhwaja was sent to Mongolia for spreading Buddhism. This scholar was popularly known as Sakyapan Chen. The success that the Tibetan monks achieved in their mission was beyond the reach of Muslim Mullas and Christian priests. Lodogyal Chen, the nephew and successor of Sakyapan Chen had no difficulty in becoming the royal chaplain of Kublai Khan. Emperor Kublai Khan conferred the degree of.Arya Guru. on his royal priest Phag Pa in 1260 A.C. It was with this name that he was popularly known in Tibet.

Kublai did find far-off Karakoram suitable for capital of Mongolia. Karakoram had closeness and warmth with the provinces of the parental country, and other territories. Still it was not favourable as the capital from the standpoint of administering such a vast empire. Instead of Karakoram he made Peking the capital of his empire. In the following year (Tai new 1263) Kublai Khan built a big sanatorium in his new capital for the worship of his father and fore-fathers. Marcopolo further states in his account, “Before accepting Buddhism, Tartar warriors did not consider it good to offer help to others, but after embracing Buddhism they realised, to give help to others is virtuous blessing”. About Kublai Khan Marcopolo writes, “The emperor gives a lot of help to the poor” He donates the food grains which may last for whole year. Quite near his court, there is an orphanage (here a free kitchen), and whosoever desires can go there and get hot bread. Everyday thirty thousand poor people receive meals from the royal orphanage..

Sung kingdom did not fully come under the control of Kublai. After the death of emperor Sung Li Chung, his nephew Tu Chung came to power. The Mangol had minimized their power to such an extent that there was no danger to Kublai Khan, and naturally he was not much worried about this. In 1265, Jug Tai-Khan Mubarak Sha died. Kublai made Barav a next Khan.

However, in 1267 emperor Kublai decided to exterminate the Sung dynasty. With this end in view, he attacked the remaining part of south China. The most grim battle was fought in Siyangmang Siyang Fu. In 1268, Mongol forces surrounded the territory from four sides. But his forces could not take over the capital of south China for three years. Likewise, in 1266 Kublai wrote to Japanese emperor to accept his sovereignty, but the self-respecting Japanese emperor clearly refused to do so. The mangol emperor began to make war preparations on a big scale against Japan. Since Japan was an island, only the naval forces could be used. In this battle, Mangol forces had to concede defeat. But it does not prove that the power and prestige of the vast Mangol empire had come down.

In 1271, emperor Kublai renamed his racial dynasty as Uaan. It is by this name he is known in China even today. The Uaan empire was spread in a vast land mass of Asia and Europe. This vast empire spread as far as Bulgaria, Hungary and Russia in the west, the Pacific Ocean to the east and Indo-China, Tibet and the bordering areas of India to the south.

The regime of emperor Kublai Khan was well-known not only for royal whims and victories but also in the field of arts and science. Tu-chi, a noted mathematician, obtained royal order in 1280. Thereafter he completed the expedition of discovering the source of the river Swanc Ho (Yellow river) in four mouths only. It is very interesting to note that there was no use of alphabet system for writing the Chinese language till then. People used some word signs wherein there was some advantage. But there was no facility and provision for pronunciation signs. The Mangol language used to be written in “Udrav” (Sirikavali) Script in which there were not even one and a half dozen letters. As a result of this, it was difficult to make even pronunciation. On the royal orders of Kublai Khan, a great Tibetan linguist Phag Pa was entrusted with the job of developing a special script for Mongolian dialect. The new script was developed for Mangol dialects by combining Indian script and Bhot script which was also an offshoot of.Brahmi. script. In the same year, the emperor conferred a degree of “Ta-pan-F-ang” on this great scholar.

A new approach ushered in the history of Chinese Buddhism since Kublai Khan had come into power in 1262. The emperor got.Kanjur. (Tibetan Tripitaka) inscribed in the letters of gold in 103 districts in the year 1290. Meanwhile, Kublai issued a royal order for the compilation edition and publication of the Buddhist scripture and accordingly it was published in 1297. This ten-volume collection edited by Ching Hian and others is a general glossary of Triple Gem of Tripitaka. We have a mention of 1440 translation works of Buddhist scriptures in this glossary. These Buddhist scriptures written earlier, were divided into 5586 volumes. These volumes include some Chinese and some Indian religious treatises also. It is quite evident that Kublai Khan was not only a great victor, warrior and politician but an admirer and patron of religion and philosophy also.

As Phag Pa inspired and advised the emperor, he ordered the translation of many Buddhist scriptures into Mangol language. But Kublai could not carry forward this mission for a long time. Phag Pa who was behind this noble venture passed away in 1280 at a very early age of forty-two. After the death of Kublai Khan, Jen-Chaang So Yanthu (1310-1320) gave orders for the translation of Tripitaka and other Buddhist scriptures into Mangol language. He further ordered to inscribe these translated works into letters of gold. During the period of this dynasty, the work of Buddhist scriptures were finally transcribed[3] into Chinese language.

About Kublai Khan, Marcopolo writes, “He was a medium sized powerful youth, his body was handsome, having red, white colour, eyes black and large with beautiful nose” He had four queens and for each of them there were 3100 maid servants. Under each queen there was a force of ten thousand soldiers. Whenever the empire desired to meet any of these queens, he either used to call her in his palace or himself used to go to the respective queen’s palace. The eldest son of each of the queens was considered to be an heir to the throne. The emperor had 22 sons from those queens. Seven princes are now the provincial governors who are brave and handsome.. From this description, we come to know the number of Kublai Khan’s sons, but their names are not known. According to Rahul Sankrityayan[4], the name of emperor’s grandson was Anand Khan and his son’s name was Mangol Khan. Not only this, the name of one of the daughters-in-law of Changiz Khan and a wife[5] of Jagtai was Dharmashree.

This is a well-known fact that Mongol emperor Kublai Khan paid special attention to the development of Buddhist literature. He made arrangements of libraries and ordered recitation lessons in certain days in the monasteries of Peking. In the years between 1285 and 1287, he published a new compilation of the Tripitaka. We also come to know that Kublai Khan was a devout Buddhist. In 1284 he sent one of his emissaries to Shrilanka to offer prayer to the Tooth Relic[6] shrine of the Buddha.

The credit for the invention and use of paper for the first time in the world goes to China. As per Marcopolo’s travel accounts, there was a mint and security press in Peking. Inner bark of tut tree was used for making paper. These paper sheets were cut into the sizes of currency notes on which were printed the seals and signatures of various landlords, knights and governors. This paper currency was valid all over Mangol empire. Any one refusing to accept these notes was beheaded. A 12-man expert team checked and examined the quality of the merchandise of the merchants and traders who used to carry their goods from India and other countries to Peking. The merchandise was purchased on the advice of this team of experts. The merchants were paid in paper currency. The foreign merchants and traders used to buy goods made in China with such currency notes.

At the end of every year, the general public were told to sell gold, silver and other jewellery items to the emperor and in exchange they were paid in paper currency. In this way, the emperor used to collect different kinds of valuable things which were in the possession of his subjects. If any rich man or knight was in need of gold, silver, diamond and other items of jewel, he could buy those things with paper currency. Soiled currency notes could be exchanged for new notes after deduction of three percent value. Those currency notes were considered to be the oldest currency notes[7] in the world. But according to Chinese sources, paper currency[8] was in vogue in China in the 9th century. That is to say, paper currency was introduced in China four hundred years before its introduction in Mangol empire.

The introduction of the postal system may be regarded as an achievement of emperor Kublai Khan’s era. Every provincial capital was connected with a highway and named after that province (Subba). It is learnt from authentic sources that a network of roads was built for public conveyance and transport. There was one rest house at a distance of every 25 miles. Such a rest house, called.Neem Kheen.[9] catered to the needs of even a stranger. Every rest house (sarai) was provided with a force at 200 to 400 horse-riders for sending political messages. There were rest houses at the palaces even if there were no roads and highways. It is estimated three lakh horsemen were engaged in the postal system throughout the empire. The total number of rest houses was estimated to be more than ten thousand. There used to be a castle or fort in the vicinity and at a distance of 2 to 3 miles from each rest house. Such a castle or fort was surrounded by forty houses where political messengers used to reside. A feather bag and a belt were tied around the waist of each of these messengers. Many bells were tied to that belt. When a horse-rider (messenger) used to cross three miles’ distance, the bells made sound. After hearing the sound of bells of the first horse-rider, the next horseman got alerted and ready. Thus the messages were passed on from one to the other in such a chain system. Even if the emperor was ten days away, he used to get an important message within one day only as a result of this kind of postal system. The letters were also sent in the same manner. These messengers used to maintain the time to reach a particular point according to a fixed time schedule. The functioning and effectiveness of this system was checked by an officer every month.

Some expert messengers who were entrusted with special and urgent messages and letters were posted in these highway check posts. If any provincial governor had to convey his orders or if the news of any provincial governor was to be passed on or any such urgent message was to be conveyed, these messengers used to ride on horseback up to as much as 250 miles a day. On hearing the sound of bells, a horseman-messenger posted in the next castle used to get ready instantly.

Kublai Khan must be regarded as one of the great rulers in human history. He showed natural magnanimity and imagination, and he was able to transcend the narrow nomad mentality of his ancestors and to administer a huge state with an ancient civilization. Nevertheless Kublai was not content to be a sage emperor in the Chinese fashion. Rather he aspired to be the all-embracing ruler of the entire Mongal Empire in the footsteps of his grandfather.

This great Mongol emperor died on February 18, 1294 at the age of about 80 years. He ruled for 35 years. His vast empire extended up to a large part[10] of Pujab also. During Kublai Khan’s time, Buddhism had become a national religion[11]. Later on it became a symbol of national integrity as it had been in Sinhala island, Burma, Siam and Tibet. In 1368, Mongol administration came to an end, but the spread and expansion of Buddha Sasana continued.

Kublai Khan was a vigorous, shrewd and pragmatic ruler. In this respect he was close in spirit to his grandfather Changiz Khan. During his lifetime he was acknowledged as the great Khan of the Mongol confederacy. Of course, his authority was, in effect, confined to China and its peripheral territories. His partial adoption of Chinese political traditions and his divide-and-rule tactics were ingenious devices in the administration of a complex populous empire. Kublai Khan is known and revered for his civilian and administrative achievements. Grandson of Changiz Khan, Kublai sought to govern rather than to exploit and devastate the vast domains bequeathed to him by two generations of Mongol conquests. He underwent transition from a nomadic conqueror to an effective ruler. Despite the fact that his reign witnessed the most remarkable military success of the Mongols, Kublai Khan’s civilian achievements are no less impressive. His peaceful achievements have overshadowed his various military expeditions.

Footnotes and references:


Bauddha Sanskriti, Rahul Sankrityayan, p. 370.


Madhya Asia Ka Itihas, Rahul Sankrityayan, Part II, p. 8.


Bauddha Sanskriti, Rahul Sankrityayan, p. 371.


Ibid, p. 371.


Hinduism and Buddhism, C. Eliot, Vol. II, p. 264.


Madhya Asia Ka Itihas, Rahul Sankrityayan, Part II, p. 10.


Ibid, p. 8.


The Travel of Marco Polo, p. 87.


The Travel of Marco Polo, p. 88.


Madhya Asia Ka Itihas, Rahul Sankrityayan, Part II, p. 10.


Bauddha Sanskriti, Rahul Sankrityayan, p. 371.

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