Central Asia, Buddhist Art in

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More than half a million years ago, plate movements of the earth's crust, by thrusting up the Himalayas and the Tibetan plateau, prevented monsoons from reaching the interior and desertified the area to the north; yet glacial melt streams from the Kunlun mountains and the Tianshan range created extensive fertile oases along the edges of the Taklamakan desert. In De la Grèce à la Chine (1948), René Grousset memorably described the Silk Road as a chaplet or rosary of oasis towns strung around this great desert. Even today, the Keriya river supports well-spaced pastoral households over 250 kilometers into the desert, but at one time, the ease of growing fruit and grains led to the existence of settled and prosperous kingdoms, where Buddhism flourished from the third century c.e. onward. Side-by-side with translations of the scriptures, the arts of architecture, sculpture, and painting had their own contribution to make to this exchange of ideas.


The practice of Buddhism by communities of monks required places remote enough for undisturbed meditation, yet close enough to centers of population whose devotional activities could support them. Cells for the monks, undecorated save perhaps for a single image of the Buddha in meditation, and larger shrines for images of the Buddha and narratives of his life and teachings, could easily be hollowed out of the soft rocks and gravel or sand conglomerates of the region: At some sites hundreds of caves survive, often with a great deal of their painted imagery (Kizil and other sites near Kucha, Toyuq, Bezeklik, and Dunhuang). The architecture ultimately derives from India, but at Dunhuang, the early caves and individual niches show features typical of Chinese wooden architecture, such as the transverse front chamber with simulated gable ceiling.

Architectural monuments include great stūpas (Rawak, Endere) and monastic buildings (Keriya, Tumshuk, Miran, Gaochang, Beiting). Architectural style, particularly of cave sanctuaries, depends on the topography and characteristics of the natural materials at each site. The basic plan consisted of an anterior cell with the main image centrally placed opposite the entrance, and a smaller rear chamber, lower in height, with entrances on either side of the main image, allowing circumambulation (pradakṣiṇa) around it.

Wall paintings

Both cave sanctuaries and constructed buildings were decorated with wall paintings, a great many of which have survived, although many have been removed from their original sites to museums in London, Paris, New Delhi, Saint Petersburg, and Seoul. Mineral pigments were used.

Two Buddhist sanctuaries along the Keriya River were excavated in the mid-1990s. The two buildings were constructed of wooden pillars with reed and clay walls, with a central chamber two meters square, surrounded by a 1.5-meter wide corridor. Although the walls had collapsed to a height of some twenty to ninety centimeters, the scattering of painted fragments and of fallen timbers enabled one sanctuary to be reconstructed almost in its entirety. In the lower register were mural paintings of life-size standing buddhas in Indian style, three on each side (except on the entrance wall), each buddha with two small buddhas in the upper corners, while in the upper part of each wall was a series of smaller panels, each with two smaller seated buddhas in gray or orange robes, one above the other.


Except at Dunhuang, few sculptures remain in situ; archaeological explorers removed many of them early in the twentieth century. Throughout the region, the stucco images are intimately related to the mural decoration:

Aureoles and nimbi are regularly painted on the walls behind them, and share the same style. Often, it is these painted features alone that survive, clearly indicating whether the lost image was seated or standing.

Rawak stūpa, some sixty kilometers north of Khotan, still stands in a rectangular enclosure whose corners are oriented to the cardinal directions and whose walls were lined with large and small clay sculptures attached to a wooden armature. Once the form had been built up in clay, the surface was smoothed and coated with a final thin layer of gypsum plaster, and painted, using the same pigments employed for the mural paintings. Aurel Stein in 1900 and 1901 and Emil Trinkler in 1930 both made partial excavations of the site, but because of the fragility of the unbaked clay sculptures, some remain buried beneath the sands.

In the whole region of the Taklamakan, clay stucco was the most common form of sculpture. Major elements of the imagery were often produced with the aid of molds, some of which have survived: They range from decorative details and miniature buddha images to heads and individual body parts, such as hands and feet, and even whole figures of up to about a quarter or a third life-size, such as a complete seated buddha excavated near Khotan. From Tumshuk, near Kucha, come three almost complete tableaux, each about eighty centimeters in height and sixty centimeters wide, illustrating crucial episodes in individual jĀtaka stories, evidently composed using a number of such molds.

Small wooden images dating from the fifth century c.e. onward have been found at sites such as Toyuq and Gaochang. These images furnished a means for the dissemination of iconography and style, and include both single images and narrative scenes. Several examples exist in triptych form, in which hinged panels with smaller narrative scenes flank the central image; when closed, they are fastened by means of a clasp, protecting the images within and presenting a tall smooth exterior.


Kucha, on the northern route, is surrounded by Buddhist monuments. The cave temples of Kizil, some sixty kilometers to the west, are lavishly decorated with wall paintings. The sixth-century c.e. dating proposed by Albert von Le Coq and Ernst Waldschmidt is slow to be discarded in favor of Su Bai's dating, supported by carbon-14 tests at the site, which suggest a third-century c.e. start.

Shrines at Kizil have an entrance leading directly into a barrel-vaulted longitudinal chamber, with the main image in a niche directly opposite. Large preaching scenes appear on the lateral walls below a balcony of heavenly figures, while the vault, springing from a corbel, depicts individual preaching scenes or jātaka stories in a diamond lattice. For purposes of pradakṣiṇa or ritual circumambulation of the main image, a lower vaulted passage leads to a narrow rear chamber in which the Buddha's parinirvāṇa is depicted in mural paintings or in sculptured form. The final element in the iconographical program is a half-circular lunette over the entrance, often portraying Maitreya, the buddha of the future, sometimes with twin niches beneath for smaller stucco or clay sculptures. The largest caves at Kizil, with a colossal central image, had up to five successive balconies with sculptures instead of paintings on the lateral walls.

Sites along the southern route include Niya, Miran, Endere, and Loulan; those along the north include Karashahr, Gaochang, Bezeklik, and Toyuq. The two routes rejoined near the Chinese border west of Dunhuang, where at least one of the fifth-century Northern Wei caves (cave 257) displays a narrative depicted with iconography and style similar to the same narrative at Kizil (cave 224), the only major difference being the placing of the story on the crown of the vault in Kizil, and at waist level on the side walls in Dunhuang. On this occasion at least, the same craftsmen must have worked at both sites, changing the placement to suit the local architectural schema.

At the Chinese end of the Silk Road, the huge natural cave (no. 169) at Binglingsi, on the Yellow River near Lanzhou, bears a date of 420 c.e. The larger than life-size clay sculptures modeled on wooden armatures are closely related in style to contemporary stone sculptures at Mathurā, showing how rapid was the transmission of both iconography and style, with the necessary adaptation to local materials.

See also:Bāmiyān; Central Asia; China; China, Buddhist Art in; Monastic Architecture


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Roderick Whitfield

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