Fa-hein’s Cave and the Making of a Myth

Myths have an important role in most religions. The very basis of some religions is a myth. Most of these myths were unconscious, i.e. they self-evolved through misapprehension and hearsay, and they were kept alive by devotion and gullibility and in time became integrated into the religion, sometimes a central part of it. But others  myths have been deliberately manufactured. Some time ago I became acquainted with just such an example of this, not directly but indirectly connected with religion, in this case with Buddhist history. About 15 years ago a leading Sri Lankan newspaper ran a full-page story about a place called Pahiyangala, a cave where it was claimed the Chinese pilgrim Fa-hein (modern piniyn Chinese, Faxian) stayed while on his way to Sri Pada when he was in Sri Lanka in about 410 CE.  The cave is in the vicinity of Sri Pada and its name was, so it was claimed, derived from the pilgrim’s name;  Pahiyan = Fa-hein, gala = rock. Intrigued but sceptical I did a bit of research and was soon able to dismiss the story as baseless and of very recent origin.

It is not difficult to see the problems with the Pahiyangala myth. It starts at the very beginning. Fa-hein mentions Sri Pada in his travelogue, but he never went there, he just reported what others told him about it, and thus he would not have stayed in the nearby cave.  In fact he does not mention going anywhere other than Anaradhapura and Mahintale. But even if he did go to the cave at  Pahiyangala that he, one of but many thousands of visitors, would have been remembered is implausible in the extreme. And even if he had been remembered he would have been known by the Sanskrit version of his name, Dharmadasa, not his Chinese name. And why, it could be asked, would people in Sri Lanka decide to name a location after a (then) obscure foreign monk who stayed  with them for a day or two? There is no inscription at Pahiyangala mentioning Fa-hein and there is no ancient texts from Sri Lanka mentioning him or any other Chinese pilgrim. So where does the information establishing his visit to this cave come from? No answer has been given.

Is there any material evidence for the  claim?  Archaeological investigation of the cave shows that it has been inhabited since prehistoric times. Fragments of Chinese porcelain have been found there as they have been in many locations throughout Sri Lanka. When I visited Pahiyangala a monk there showed me a small piece of such porcelain and  told me that it was “Fa-hein’s cup”. This claim, even if made in with sincerity, has to be dismissed as nonsense.  Fa-hein was of course completely unknown in Sri Lanka and most of the rest of the world until the publication of Samuel Beal’s translation of his travelogue in 1884. In the decades after that Beal’s book must have been read by English speaking Sri Lankan Buddhists and at some point the then abbot of the Pahiyangala vihara must have heard about it and the myth was born. But why would the abbot (or whoever) do this?  Did the original name of the cave sound something like Fa-hein and he put 2 and 2 together and came up with 9?  I have never been able to find out the pre-myth name of the cave. Did he do it on a whimsy? Did he do it in the hope of attracting visitors to an otherwise obscure and prosaic temple?  We do not know.

The earliest mention I have been able to find to the Pahiyangala myth is in a YMBA Vesak Annual from the early 1920s and I suspect that the story started around this time. I have not however, been able to find out the original name of the cave but it would be interesting to know what it was. It has only been in the last 10 or 15 years that the story has really began to get off the ground.  Pahiyangala now has its own website, it is mentioned in several tourist  guidebooks to Sri Lanka and newspapers and at least one airline magazine has featured it. About 10 years ago an official from the Chinese embassy in Colombo visited Pahiyangala and donated a painting of Fa-hein to the temple; anything to promote a bit of China-Sri Lanka friendship.