One of the greatest pilgrim-monks in Buddhist history was Xuanzang, who was famous for connecting the civilizations of China and India through his great voyage to bring back authentic scriptures to Chang’an. The subject of China’s Tang-era spiritual ambassador is the first episode of a new documentary series called The Sublime Wanderings of the Buddha (Buddha Cārikā), which was released worldwide on 27 February 2023 by Dharma Drum Mountain in Taiwan.
Buddha Cārikā is being produced by First Frame and the episode featuring Xuanzang is titled “Bodhgaya – The Land of Enlightenment” (菩提伽耶 — 開悟的聖地). It comes in Traditional and Simplified Chinese and English versions, with the latter two being released later this year. Surinder M. Talwar, the producer-director of the series, told BDG: “This series is the first of its kind. It focuses on the Buddha’s physical presence – he walked everywhere – through the new perspective of place, route, and ritual, as elucidated in the descriptions of the 7th century monk Xuanzang. We have divided Buddha Cārikā into 17 thematic stories or episodes.”
In 2016, First Frame teamed up with Deepak Anand, a freelance heritage interpreter and consultant, to be the series’ narrator. The objective was to make a documentary series covering the entire epic pilgrimage of Xuanzang from China to India and back. In 2018 they began planning the heritage documentation project with Anand. The real work began on 20 February 2020, with Anand going on a journey by foot to retrace Xuanzang’s journey for more than 2,400 kilometers (BDG has published two features on Deepak’s journey on foot and his plans to make a documentary series). This ongoing walk, called Retracing Bodhisattva Xuanzang (RBX), provided the thematic backbone for the doco-series. A production team followed Anand throughout the RBX journey in India, conducting field surveys, shooting, and conducting research.
In the middle of 2021, First Frame made a pitch explaining how a series could be made based on Anand’s long walk, buttressed by other literary sources. From Oct. 2021, First Frame began work on the doco-series.
Episode One, which explores the events and places in the life of Siddhartha at present-day Bogh Gaya, particularly on the day of his enlightenment, is meticulously crafted. Talwar combines a number of styles, from presenting historical facts with present-day footage assisted by drones capturing sweeping views Buddhist landscapes to narration with actors. The Buddha is played by Anand himself, while the protagonist of Xuanzang is played by Dr. Arun Kumar Yadav, assistant professor at Nava Nalanda Mahavihara, Nalanda. Dr. Yadav was also one of the research advisors for the docu-series. He told BDG that the episodes to follow will be revealing other important places connected to the life of the Buddha and his principal disciples, along with their related routes and rituals. This episode also features music performed by Pankaj Badra, who is also credited with cinematography, video editing, and special effects. The Maghai folk song on the footsteps of the Buddha, sung at the episode’s closing by a women’s troupe from a local village, is another highlight.
Dr. Yadav added that the documentary series is a history-based, social impact campaign to showcase a large number of lesser known and unknown Buddhist heritage sites and assist in the tourist and research revival these holy places, as was mentioned by Master Xuanzang in his meticulous travel accounts. “I am so impressed with the team of professionals that have come together to make this milestone project a reality, from academics and scholars to filmmaking professionals. It was such a pleasure to work with this talented, dedicated, hardworking and extremely meticulous group of experts like Surinder Talwar, Deepak Anand, Pankaj Badra, and Pauli to name only a few. Of course, I hope the team finds generous support in taking the project to its logical culmination.”
The next two episodes of the series will feature the life of Mahakashyapa, one of the Buddha’s chief disciples, and the ordination of Mahaprajapati Gotami and the establishment of the Bhikkhuni Sangha.
Retracing Bodhisattva Xuanzang
As described by the First Frame team, Buddha Cārikā is based on literature, research, and findings conducted over the last 14 years and Deepak Anand’s ongoing heritage documentation project, RBX.
“This is an extremely important project highlighting the shared heritage of the entire Buddhist world,” Anand told BDG. “People can follow the footprints of the Buddha through this series, which I dedicate as a humble tribute to the Three Treasures and Master Xuanzang.” Deepak added that the journey has had its difficulties, and like Xuanzang, finds the process gruelling and trying. “But we are bound to succeed because this is a work of Dharma, and the Dharma and its followers are bound to support us. This is my firm belief and we are bound carry forward come what may,” he concluded.
A promotional video for the walk and series in four languages was also launched in Feb. 2020. 44 project stories from the journey on foot, documenting sacred sites associated with the Buddha on the Gangetic Plains, are available on the blog Nālandā – Insatiable in Offering.
This tremendous Dharma work, with high quality production, filming and editing, and meticulous research, naturally shoulders large expenses. It cannot be completed without the support of the devout. The team, whose members all multitask, is relatively small. Therefore, First Frame has been appealing for the support of as much of the global Buddhist community as possible, and welcome any support from and collaboration with Buddhist organisations in completing the series.
Producer-director Talwar noted: “I am very hopeful of the support of Buddhists and their organisations from all over the world as this project is about the very footsteps of Shakyamuni Buddha, which he made in the Gangetic Plains to all across Northern India, the result of which has been his teaching transmitted to all of us today. I am also very thankful to all the wonderful people that supported the walk of Deepak Anand thus far, along with the organizations and teachers already working with us and who have lent their invaluable support to this doco-series. We also hope that the final product will contribute to the revival of the ancient form of pilgrimage by foot as per the ancient tradition of chetiye cārikā, which Xuanzang himself upheld.”
Watch the Traditional Chinese version
Retracing Bodhisattva Xuanzang Facebook page
Nālandā – Insatiable in Offering
First Frame promotion
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Sublime Wanderings: Buddhist Scholar Plans Video Series to Document the Pilgrimage Path of the Buddha
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Sublime Wanderings: Rediscovering the Buddha in the Footsteps of Xuanzang