Manjusri Debates
Vimalakirti at Mogao Caves
There are numerous natural and hand-carved caves in China that were created and used mainly by Buddhist monks, patrons and followers. The Longmen Grottoes near of Luoyang contain one of the largest collections of Chinese and Buddhist art of the late Northern Wei and Tang Dynasties (c. A.D. 316-907), including statues carved into rock, sculptured walls and ceilings, and rock paintings. The site has about 2,345 caves. The Yungang Grottoes, in Datong city, contains about 51,000 Chinese and Buddhist statues in 252 caves. The Mogao Grottoes in Dunhuang, along the Silk Road of China, boasts 492 caves with an estimated 45,000 square meters of frescos and 2,415 painted statues. Over 50,000 artifacts have been found in Mogao, including Buddhist scriptures, historical documents, textiles, and other relics. All of these cave sites have been designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites. [Source: Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of Physical Geography, Gale Group, Inc., 2003]

According to the Asia Society Museum: “The practice of excavating clusters of rooms or niches into the sides of cliffs and mountains to create cave temples originated in India and spread with Buddhism via Central Asia to China. Within China, Gansu is home to more Buddhist caves than any other region of Chinaóa testimony to its importance in the history of early Chinese Buddhism. “Dedication of Cave 4, Maijishan,” by the poet Yu Xin (513–581) reads: ‘It is as if one were to mount a carriage and pierce the mountain, carving out great niches, bestriding the peak, an infinite medley of stars overhead and all the land spinning around far below.’ [Source: “Monks and Merchants, curated by Annette L. Juliano and Judith A. Lerner, November 17, 2001, Asia Society Museum asiasocietymuseum.org == ]

“Buddhist cave sites were often chosen for their scenic beauty, sometimes by passing monks who had seen Buddhist visions at a particular spot or were entranced by the spiritual aura of the sites. Cave temples were the focus of worship and meditation, not only for the communities of monks who resided there, but also for visiting pilgrims and traders. Indeed, cave temples were often located along the trade routes and were used by merchants as banks or warehouses. ==

“Buddhist images were arranged in the caves according to a strict iconographic program. At some sites the images were carved directly from the rock within the cave, but at many Buddhist cave sites in Gansu, the stone of the cliffs is too friable for carving. Instead, most images in the caves were crafted from mixture of clay and straw built up around armatures of wood or metal. A finishing layer of fine clay was applied in which the details were modeled. Both images and walls were brilliantly painted, but in many cases, the pigments have not survived. ==

“In Mahayana Buddhism, the concept of compassion is manifested in the image of the bodhisattva, or "enlightened being." The Sanskrit word "bodhisattva" denotes a human being who has attained enlightenment but has elected not to enter Nirvana, choosing instead to remain in the world to ensure the ultimate salvation of all sentient beings. Compassion is much more than sympathy and extends even to giving one's own life to save another. A bodhisattva actively helps others, sharing intuitive wisdom, understanding, and strength with all those who are seeking enlightenment. A Bodhisattva vow in Mahayana scriptures goes: ‘My happiness is incomplete as long as there is a single unhappy being in the world.’ ==

“Aspects of Buddhahood are embodied in the most important bodhisattvas such as the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara (compassion), the Bodhisattva Manjusri (wisdom), and Maitreya (the future Buddha). Although they are enlightened beings, bodhisattvas appear very different from Buddha. Buddhas are portrayed wearing plain monastic robes to denote their disavowal of earthly ties. Bodhisattvas are depicted as very human, with graceful bodies, full hips, and long hair; they wear crowns, skirts, scarves, and jewelry, and often hold lotus flowers, religious implements, or other symbolic objects.

Websites and Resources on Buddhism in China Buddhist Studies buddhanet.net ; Wikipedia article on Buddhism in China Wikipedia Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu; Buddhist Art: Digital Dunhuang e-dunhuang.com; Dunhuang Academy, public.dha.ac.cn ; Buddhist Symbols viewonbuddhism.org/general_symbols_buddhism ; Wikipedia article on Buddhist Art Wikipedia ; Buddhist Artwork buddhanet.net/budart/index ;Buddhism and Buddhist Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org ; Buddhist Art Huntington Archives Buddhist Art dsal.uchicago.edu/huntington ; Buddhist Art Resources academicinfo.net/buddhismart ; Buddhist Art, Smithsonian freersackler.si.edu; Buddhism: Buddha Net buddhanet.net/e-learning/basic-guide ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Internet Sacred Texts Archive sacred-texts.com/bud/index ; Early Buddhist texts, translations, and parallels, SuttaCentral suttacentral.net ; East Asian Buddhist Studies: A Reference Guide, UCLA web.archive.org ; Mahayana Buddhism: Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Comparison of Buddhist Traditions (Mahayana – Therevada – Tibetan) studybuddhism.com ; The Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra: complete text and analysis nirvanasutra.net ; Buddhas and Bodhisattvas in Mahayana Buddhism cttbusa.org ; Chinese Religion and Philosophy: Texts Chinese Text Project ; Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy plato.stanford.edu

Buddhist Cave Temples in China

Mural of Avolokitesvara
at Mogao Caves
Patricia Buckley Ebrey of the University of Washington wrote: “The idea of constructing Buddhist temples by hollowing out rock faces was brought to China from Central Asia, where monuments of this sort had been constructed for centuries. Over the years, more and more caves would be excavated and decorated as pious acts on the part of monks and artists. Most of the cave temples were begun in the north during the Northern Dynasties. Cave temples at Dunhuang were begun in 366; at Bingling and Maijishan in the early fifth century; at Yungang in 460; at Longmen and Gongxian in the early sixth century. During the Tang period additions were made to many of these cave temple complexes, especially Dunhuang and Longmen. [Source: Patricia Buckley Ebrey, University of Washington, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=]

Positioned in the furthest reaches of northwestern China, Dunhuang served as a gateway into China from Central Asia. Beginning in the fifth century, and continuing through the tenth, approximately five hundred rooms were carved into the area's soft rock. These rooms were decorated with sculptures and frescoes in styles which changed over the centuries.

Yungang Grottoes (10 kilometers west of Datong) is group of 53 caverns carved into the side of a kilometer-long section of sandstone cliff located at the southern foot of Wuzhou Mountain. Inside the caves are over 51,000 statues and stone carvings of Buddhas, Boddhisativas, other figures and decorative motifs. The largest Buddha is over 50 feet high and the smallest rises only a few inches.Some of the carvings are purely decorative. Other depict costumed and crowned figures dancing and playing musical instruments. The Buddhas in caves 5 through 13 have been described as "florid and joyfully exuberant" while the Imperial Caves are austere and restrained. The oldest works date back to the A.D. 5th century.

According to Ebrey: In A.D. 386 “the Northern Wei dynasty was declared by the Tuoba, a nomadic people from the north. As it consolidated power in north China during the fifth century, this non-Han dynasty found it beneficial to associate themselves with the burgeoning popularity of Buddhism. Despite this, the Northern Wei emperor Taiwu (r. 424-452) was persuaded by Daoist and Confucian officials at court to curb the Buddhist church. This persecution of Buddhism, begun in 446, lasted until his death in 452. Taiwu's grandson, Wencheng (r. 452-465) succeeded him and reinstated Buddhism to its previous, eminent position. One of the ways in which he made up for his grandfather's actions was by commissioning the excavation of some of the enormous caves at Yungang.” Many of the caves date back to the 5th century. The front walls of some of the caves have eroded away, so that some of the larger statues can now be viewed from a distance, as seen below. An immense gilded Buddha from Yungang from the fifth century is approximately the height of a four-story house.

Longmen Caves

Longmen Caves (12 kilometers south of Luoyang) stretch for a 1½ kilometers along a 100-foot-high cliffside on the west bank of Yellow River. Designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and considered one of the three great treasure houses of grotto art in China, the Buddhist caves features more than 2,345 caves and grotto niches, 43 pagodas, 3,600 tablets and 100,000 statues built over a 400 year period between A.D. 493 and 960.

The tallest statue is 50 feet tall and the smallest is only two centimeters. The best are comparable to the finest sculptures in the world. Others look like something a schoolchild could make. Binyang Cave is the main cave in the group. Nearby is Thousand Buddha Cave. Fengxian Cave, completed during the first half of the eighth century, contains the largest group of images as well as some of the most expressive and expertly carved ones. Here, a 50-foot-tall Buddha stands alongside a Heavenly King crushing a demon and a 30-foot Lishi guardian with rippling muscles and fierce expressions — considered by some scholars to be finest sculptures in China. Many of the caves are filled with dripping water tainted by acid rain from produced by the nearby industrial city of Luoyang.

Buddhas at Longmen

Patricia Buckley Ebrey of the University of Washington wrote: “Although construction of the cave temples at Longmen were begun in the early sixth century, the bulk of the sculptures there date from the Tang period. One of the more illustrious patrons of the caves was Empress Wu, the controversial Tang ruler who commissioned approximately 380 images for the Longmen caves between the years 655 and 705. Over 100,000 images can be found in the approximately 1,300 caves of Longmen. These images range in size from 2 cm (0.8 in) to 17 m (56 ft). A common theme at Longmen and other cave temples is the "thousand Buddhas," usually portrayed by small, repeated images. [Source: Patricia Buckley Ebrey, University of Washington, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=]

Yungang Grottoes

Yungang Grottoes (10 kilometers west of Datong) is group of 53 caverns carved into the side of a kilometer-long section of sandstone cliff located at the southern foot of Wuzhou Mountain. Inside the caves are over 51,000 statues and stone carvings of Buddhas, Boddhisativas, other figures and decorative motifs. The largest Buddha is over 50 feet high and the smallest rises only a few inches.

Some of the carvings are purely decorative. Other depict costumed and crowned figures dancing and playing musical instruments. The Buddhas in caves 5 through 13 have been described as "florid and joyfully exuberant" while the Imperial Caves are austere and restrained. The oldest works date back to the A.D. 5th century.

The the Seated Buddha in Cave 20 dates to the Northern Wei Dynasty, ca. A.D. 460. Madeleine Boucher wrote in the Art Genome Project: “In the A.D. 6th century, Buddhist cave chapels and monumental sculptures carved into cliff faces dotted the landscape from central China to modern-day Afghanistan. In fact, you might notice the similarity between these sculptures at Yungang and the famous Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan, which were tragically destroyed by the Taliban in 2001. These cave chapels were not only places of worship and destinations for pilgrims, they were also considered sacred spaces apart from the mundane world. Of the more than 200 cave chapels at the Yungang site, few are more striking than the enormous seated Buddha of cave 20, which was once vibrantly painted and enclosed inside a massive cave behind a cliff face that has since collapsed. This peaceful seated Buddha embodies the fusion of Chinese, Indian and Central Asian artistic traditions, melding delicate patterning with volumetric depictions of the human figure. On such a scale, the sculpture would have made visiting worshippers feel as though they were in the presence of the Buddha. [Source: Madeleine Boucher, Art Genome Project, June 24, 2014]

Yungang Grottoes is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The caves and art works have been badly damaged over the years. Travelers have drawn circles on the frescoes, pilgrims have cut out statues and taken them home and Red Guards beheaded many Buddhas during the Cultural Revolution. Renovation and repainting by the government if anything has worsened the situation by ruining much of the original art.

Caves of Yungang

Giant Buddha of Leshan

Giant Buddha of Leshan (on Mt. Emei, near Chengdu, Sichuan) is a sitting Buddha carved into a cliff that overlooks the three rivers. A good example of a popular Asian saying, "the mountain is a Buddha, the Buddha is a mountain," it was conceived and started by a monk a monk named Hai Tong who wanted to build a statue to protect travelers at the confluence of Minjiang, Dadu and Qingyi Rivers, where it is situated. The giant Buddha is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

View from Giant Buddha The Leshan Giant Buddha, or Lingyun Giant Buddha, is the sculpture of a seated Maitreya Buddha located at the confluence of the Minjiang, Dadu and Qingyi rivers in southern Sichuan Province, close to the city of Leshan. The stone sculpture, carved out from a cliff, faces Mount Emei, with the rivers flowing below its feet. Built in Tang Dynasty (618–907), it is the largest stone-carved sitting Maitreya Buddha in the world as well as the tallest pre-modern statue in the world (by far).

Finished in A.D. 803 after 90 years of work, the Buddha is 25 stories (71 meters, 233 feet) high and 27.5 meters (90 feet) across at its shoulders and has an six meter (18-foot nose), two four-meter (12-foot) ears and a 14-meter (45-foot) -high head. The fingernails are the size of king-size beds and have weeds growing from the cracks. It is possible for two people to stand in one of the Buddha's ear canals and 100 people can sit in the area between the Buddha's feet.

Mogao Caves

Mogao Grottoes (17 miles south of Dunhuang) — also known as Thousand Buddha Caves — is a massive group of caves filled with Buddhist statues and imagery that were first used in the A.D. 4th century. Carved into a cliff on the eastern side of Singing Sand Mountain and stretching for more than a mile, the grottoes are one of the largest treasure house of grotto art in China and the world.

All together there are 750 caves (492 with art work) on five levels, 45,000 square meters of murals, more than 2000 painted clay figures and five wooden structures. The grottoes contain Buddha statues and lovely paintings of paradise, asparas (angels) and the patrons who commissioned the paintings. The oldest cave dates back to the 4th century. The largest cave is 130 feet high. It houses a 100-foot-tall Buddha statue installed during the Tang Dynasty (A.D. 618-906). Many caves are so small they can only can accommodate a few people at a time. The smallest cave is only a foot high.

Brook Larmer wrote in National Geographic, “Within the caves, the monochrome lifelessness of the desert gave way to an exuberance of color and movement. Thousands of Buddhas in every hue radiated across the grotto walls, their robes glinting with imported gold. Apsaras (heavenly nymphs) and celestial musicians floated across the ceilings in gauzy blue gowns of lapis lazuli, almost too delicate to have been painted by human hands. Alongside the airy depictions of nirvana were earthier details familiar to any Silk Road traveler: Central Asian merchants with long noses and floppy hats, wizened Indian monks in white robes, Chinese peasants working the land. In the oldest dated cave, from A.D. 538, are depictions of bandits bandits that had been captured, blinded, and ultimately converted to Buddhism."Source: Brook Larmer, National Geographic, June 2010]

“Carved out between the fourth and 14th centuries, the grottoes, with their paper-thin skin of painted brilliance, have survived the ravages of war and pillage, nature and neglect. Half buried in sand for centuries, this isolated sliver of conglomerate rock is now recognized as one of the greatest repositories of Buddhist art in the world. The caves, however, are more than a monument to faith. Their murals, sculptures, and scrolls also offer an unparalleled glimpse into the multicultural society that thrived for a thousand years along the once mighty corridor between East and West.

Cave 282 at Dunhuang

“The Chinese call them Mogaoku, or "peerless caves." But no name can fully capture their beauty or immensity. Of the almost 800 caves chiseled into the cliff face, 492 are decorated with exquisite murals that cover nearly half a million square feet of wall space, some 40 times the expanse of the Sistine Chapel. The cave interiors are also adorned with more than 2,000 sculptures, some of them among the finest of their era. Until just over a century ago, when a succession of treasure hunters arrived across the desert, one long-hidden chamber contained tens of thousands of ancient manuscripts.

"The caves are a time capsule of the Silk Road," says Fan Jinshi, director of the Dunhuang Academy, which oversees research, conservation, and tourism at the site. A sprightly 71-year-old archaeologist, Fan has worked at the grottoes for 47 years, ever since she arrived in 1963 as a fresh graduate of Peking University. Most other Silk Road sites, Fan says, were devoured by the desert or destroyed by successive empires. But the Mogao caves endured largely intact, their kaleidoscope of murals capturing the early encounters of East and West. "The historical significance of Mogao cannot be exaggerated," Fan says. "Because of its geographical location at a transit point on the Silk Road, you can see the mingling of Chinese and foreign elements on nearly every grotto wall."”

A total of 243 caves have been excavated by archaeologists, who have unearthed monk's living quarters, meditation cells, burial chambers, silver coins, wooden printing blocker written in the Uighar and copies Psalms of written in the Syriac language, herbal pharmacopoeias, calendars, medical treatises, folk songs, real estate deals, Taoist tracts, Buddhist sutras, historical records and documents written in dead languages such as Tangut, Tokharian, Runic and Turkic.

3,000 Buddhas

In 2012, archaeologists found a burial pit on the outskirts of the ancient city of Yecheng containing almost 3,000 Buddha sculptures that date to between 1,100 and 1,600 years ago. Though similar pits have been found elsewhere in China, this is the largest of its kind yet discovered. Lauren Hilgers wrote in Archeology magazine: “On the outskirts of Beiwuzhuang village in northern China's Hebei Province, someone started dredging a riverbed. When local archaeologists heard about this particular effort, they came running. “In 2004, our team had discovered a few fragments of Buddhist statues in the riverbed," says He Liqun, a member of the archaeological team working there. “So ever since, this had been an area of concern." [Source: Lauren Hilgers, Archeology, Volume 65 Number 5, September/October 2012 \=/]

“In January 2012, they hit what He calls a “burial pit”—a roughly dug hole in the ground, five feet deep and 11 feet wide. The burial pit contained no coffins or bones, but rather the largest cache of Buddhist sculptures ever discovered in China. Almost 3,000 (2,895, to be exact) were excavated at the site—some of white marble, others of limestone or ceramic—covering more than 500 years, from the Northern Wei Dynasty (A.D. 386–534/35) into the Tang Dynasty (A.D. 618–907). The sculptures offer archaeologists a glimpse into the place of religion in ancient China and into the politics and history of one of its most influential cities." \=/

National Geographic and Nord on Art reported: “The discovery is believed to be the largest of its kind since the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, an archaeologist with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences told reporters in late March, according to the Associated Press. The Buddha statues—most of which are made of white marble and limestone and many of which are broken—could date back to the Eastern Wei and Northern Qi dynasties (A.D. 534 to 577), experts say. [Source: Nord on Art, April 22, 2012]

The statues—discovered during a dig outside of Ye, the ancient capital of the Eastern Wei and Northern Qi dynasties—may have been rounded up and buried after the fall of the Northern Qi dynasty by later emperors in an attempt to purge the country of Buddhism. “It may have been that some of the ruins and broken sculptures from the past were gathered from old temple sites and buried in a pit," said Katherine Tsiang, director of the Center for the Art of East Asia at the University of Chicago.

Mogao Cave mural

The statues range from about 8 inches (20 centimeters) long to life-size. The “freestanding” Buddha statues—typically shown wearing monk-style robes like the one shown here—were widely made in northern China from the middle of the fifth century A.D. onward. Before this time, the Buddha was usually shown standing in a group, with pairs of attendants.

Some of the statues gifted to Buddhist temples by ancient Chinese donors—such as a newfound sculpture of a bodhisattva, or enlightened Buddhist being—were elaborately decorated at great expense. “People wanted to show their generosity with the use of expensive materials like marble and bronze and expensive pigments and gold," Tsiang said.

A stone Buddha missing its body is surrounded by a halo with a large central lotus-leaf blossom—an important symbol in Buddhism of purity and rebirth. “The Buddha had a bump on top of his head that represents his extra wisdom," Tsiang said. “In this case that extra protuberance is not very high. It's just shown as a slightly raised part of the skull." In fifth-century China, Buddhists would often pay to have craftsmen carve a statue of the Buddha, which they would then donate to temples. “It was a way of doing good deeds, generating merit," Tsiang said. “People who gave gifts to temples were considered deeply deserving of rewards, which could include good health or protection by the Buddha."

Statues of a young figure in a cross-legged pose common in Buddhist art—were common in fifth-century China. Such sculptures refer to a formative period in the Buddha's youth, when he had first contemplated the suffering of life and resolved to detach himself from this world while seated in the shade of a bodhi tree. “This is an image derived from India that appeared in scenes of the life of the Buddha, and it shows the Buddha as a prince before he went in search of enlightenment," Tsiang explained. The popularity of this “contemplative” pose amongst Buddha statues in fifth-century China may be related to the growing belief at the time that living Buddhist practitioners could also achieve enlightenment, Tsiang said. “People learned that Buddha himself was a human," she added, “and that it was possible for them to become enlightened through study, cultivation of spirit, and meditation."

Kizil Caves

Kizil Caves ( northern bank of the Muzat River 65 kilometers west of Kuqa) are a set of Buddhist rock-cut caves said to be the earliest major Buddhist cave complex in China, with development occurring between the 3rd and 8th centuries, making them a century or so older than the caves in Dunhuang. The Kizil Caves complex is the largest of the ancient Buddhist cave sites that are associated with the ancient Tocharian kingdom of Kucha, as well as the largest in Xinjiang. Other cave sites in the Kucha region include the Kumtura Caves and Simsim Caves. [Coordinates: 41°47 N 82°30 E][Source: Wikipedia]

There are 236 cave temples in Kizil, carved into the cliff stretching from east to west for a length of about two kilometers. Of these, 135 are in reasonably good condition. The oldest caves, based in part on radioactive carbon dating, are estimated to date to around A.D. 300. Researchers say the site was likely abandoned in the beginning of the 8th century when the Tang Chinese began exerting their influence on the area. reached the area. Documents written in Tocharian languages were found in Kizil, and a few of the caves contain Tocharian inscriptions which give the names of a few rulers.

There are three other types of caves: square caves, caves with large image, and monastic cells (kuti). Around two-thirds of the caves are kutis which are monks' living quarters and store-houses, and these caves do not contain mural paintings. Many of the caves have a central pillar design in which pilgrims would circle the a central column which represented a stupa. A large vaulted chamber is located in front of the column. A smaller rear chamber is behind. Two tunnel-like corridors on the sides of the column link the front and chambers. A Buddha statue would been situated in a large niche in the front chmabers. Butat Kizil none of these sculptures have survived at Kizil. The rear chamber may have featured the parinirvana scene in the form of a mural or large sculpture.

Yungang Grottoes

According to Silk Road in Rare Books: “The Kizil Grottoes run along the Cliffs on the northern shore of the Muzalt River, 67 kilometers west of the city of Kucha (in Aksu Prefecture, Xinjiang Province). Because written records or dated inscriptions have not been found providing hints as to when the grottoes were begun, there is no standard theory on this point. A wide range of theories exist from those positing the earliest activity to have started in the third century, to those suggesting the fifth century. However, researchers generally agree that the caves were probably abandoned sometime around the beginning of the eighth century, after Tang influence reached the area.” The site was and studied by a German Team, which also stripped the caves of some of their best painting and took them back to Germany. ]

The Kizil caves are located in the present districts of Kuche and Baicheng, located in what was once the ancient kingdom of Kucha (Qiuci). The Kingdom of Kucha was one of the great Buddhist kingdoms located along the Silk Road’s Northern Route and was known for its many temples and monks. The fourth century manuscript, Chu Sanzang Jiji (Collected Records from the Tripitaka), records that there were “over ten thousand monks in Kucha,” “countless extravagantly decorated temples,” and “palaces adorned with images of the standing Buddha, just like those seen in temples.” Furthermore, the manuscript records that there were three nunneries in Kucha in which were present the daughters of kings and nobles. The document describes the city as one of the great Buddhist centers of Central Asia. ||||

Murals in Kizil Caves

In 1906, the German expedition team of Albert von Le Coq and Albert Grünwedel explored Kizil Caves. Von le Coq removed many of the murals. Most of the fragments removed are now in Museum of Asian Art (formerly Museum für Indische Kunst) in Berlin. Other explorers removed some fragments of murals and may now be found in museums in Russia, Japan, Korea and United States. Despite this and other damage and looting around 5000 square meters of wall paintings remain. These murals mostly depict Jataka stories, avadanas, and legends of the Buddha, and are an artistic representation in the tradition of the Hinayana school of the Sarvastivadas.

According to Silk Road in Rare Books: ““While little also is known about when the various murals were painted, the German team proposed categorizing the art into at least two stylistic phases, and this system remains in place to this day. The murals belonging to the first phase are characterized by the use of reddish pigments. In addition, the lines in the paintings are drawn carefully, and gradation shades are blended in order to give a three-dimensional appearance to the paintings. In contrast, murals belonging to the second phase use abundant bluish pigments, which include the use of lapis lazuli. In addition, second phase painting shows large differentiations in pigment shades to give a three dimensional appearance to figures. As will be discussed below, many works in the Kizil Grottoes belong to phase 2.” [Source: Silk Road in Rare Books |

According to a text found in Kucha, the paintings in some of the caves were commissioned by a Tokharian (Thogar) king called "Mendre" with the advice of Anandavarman, a high-ranking monk. The king ordered an Indian artist, Naravahanadatta, and a Syrian artist, Priyaratna, with their disciples to paint the caves. The neighbouring Khotanese kings Vijayavardhana and Murlimin sent artists to work on different caves.

One notable characteristic of the murals in Kizil is the extensive use of blue pigments derived from lapis lazuli from Afghanistan. Another feature of the Kizil murals is the division into diamond-shaped blocks in the vault ceilings of the main room of many caves. Buddhist scenes are depicted inside these diamond-shapes in many layers on top of one another to show the narrative sequences of the scenes

Ernst Waldschmidt classified the art of the region into three periods: 1) the murals from the first phase are characterized by the use of reddish pigments and have more Greco-Indian or Gandharan influences: 2) the murals from the second phase are dominated by bluish pigments and have more Iranian (Sassanian) influences. 3) Later caves seem to have fewer legends and jatakas, and instead have repetitive designs of numerous small Buddhas (the so-called thousand Buddha motif), or sitting Buddhas with nimbuses. The last phase, the Turkic-Chinese period, is most in evidence in the Turfan area, but in Kizil only two caves showed Tang Chinese influence.

Albert Grünwedel’s made line drawings by pressing a thin piece of paper directly on the paintings. To bring back the murals to Germany a very sharp knife was employed to “cut round” the designated area “with care being taken that the incision goes right through the surface-layer — to the proper size for the packing-cases” and carefully cutting “the boundary line in curves or sharp angles to avoid going through faces or other important parts of the picture[.” After this step was completed, they would then make a hole with “the pickaxe in the wall at the side of the painting to make space to use the fox-tail saw. In cases where the surface layer of the cave walls were unstable, they would press boards covered with felt firmly onto the painting as they were being cut out. Paintings brought back to Germany using this method had been cut into smaller parts. As a result, the walls in the Kizil grottoes are left scarred with countless blank areas where paintings have been cut out, or where the team quit their work part way through the procedure after making straight cut marks. The cut-out paintings — along with sculptures, painted boards, and manuscripts — were transported back to Germany, enriching collections there but leaving behind irreparable scars in western China. [Source: Digital Silk Road Project, National Institute of Informatics].

History of Kizil Grottoes

Kizil Caves, Cave of the Musicians

According to Silk Road in Rare Books: It is not clear when Buddhism arrived in Kucha, but from what one can tell from the Chinese records, it seems that already by the end of third century to the beginning of fourth century, many monks hailing from the Kucha area were in China engaged in the translation of the Buddhist scriptures. The most famous translator of them all, the monk Kumarajiva made his entrance into history around this time. It is not known exactly when he was born or when he died, but his major accomplishments are concentrated in the period between the first half of the fourth century and the first half of the fifth century. [Source: Silk Road in Rare Books ||||]

Kumarajiva, was the son of a Kuchean princess and an Indian father from a noble family. At a young age, he and his mother together became Buddhist adherents (his mother joining a nummery and Kumarajiva entering the priesthood). Still at a very young age, he moved to Kashmir (then part of the Gandharan Kingdom) to study Theravad Buddhism. In Kashmir, however, he came into contact with Mahayana teaching, and upon returning to Kucha, he dedicated himself to the Mahayana school of Buddhism. Growing in fame as a teacher, his fame reached beyond borders of Kucha borders, and it was said that his name was known throughout all of Central Asia. In Volume Two of the Kao-seng Chuan (Biography of Eminent Monks) it is recorded that, “the western nations all knelt at Kumarajiva’s sacred wisdom. During the annual lecture, the kings all lowered themselves before his seat, and let him step on their backs as he ascended the steps. Thus was the extent to which he was admired.” Later, due to strong requests from the Chinese who heard of his fame, he would participate in the translation of sutras in the Chinese capital of Chang’an. ||||

“Chinese translations of sutras did exist in China before Kumarajiva. However, these translations were achieved by simply utilizing the already-existing native Daoist Lao-Zhuang philosophy. Soon the Chinese began to realize the shortcomings of studying Buddhist scriptures in this manner, and therefore began a demand for translations done by foreign monks with a deeper understanding of Buddhist vocabulary and the teachings as contained in the original-language texts. Thus, Kumarajiva was the perfect candidate; for not only had he acquired Sanskrit during his studies in India, but was also thoroughly familiar with Mahayana Buddhism. ||||

Whilst instructing his students, who are said to have exceeded three thousand, Kumarajiva continued to translate important Mahayana scriptures into Chinese, including the Smaller Sukhâvatîvyûha sutra, the Pañcavi?satisahasrika Prajñaparamita sutra, the Vimalakirti sutra, and the Mahaprajñaparamitasastra. His translation of the Lotus sutra in particular was thought to surpass other past translations. Due in part to Kumarajiva’s superb translations, Mahayana Buddhism was to spread throughout Eastern Asia, and soon was propagated as far east as Japan. The fact that Kumarajiva’s translations continue to be used in present day Japan shows the enormity of his achievement in the full-scale transmission of Mahayana Buddhism to the East. Not only Chinese Buddhism, but other Buddhist nations which were part of this great spread of Mahayana teachings along the Silk Road (including the great Buddhist Kingdom of Kucha), from West to East as far as Japan came to benefit from the great accomplishments of Buddhist culture.” ||||

Architecture and Layout of the Art in Kizil Grottoes

Buddha in a Dragon Boat, Kizil Caves

According to Silk Road in Rare Books: “There are three main architectural styles: namely, the central pillar caves, rectangular caves, and monastic caves. However, the most unique architectural features are seen in the central pillar caves, which consist of three areas: the main room, the central pillar, and the corridors. The composition of the murals drawn on the walls are mostly consistent throughout. [Source: Silk Road in Rare Books ||||]

“The architecture of the central pillar caves follows an iconographic programme, functioning as the stage for the carrying out of a Buddhist pilgrimage. Entering the cave, the pilgrim would first contemplate the past lives of the Buddha as he or she passes along murals depicting scenes from these past lives shown on the walls in the main room. As part of this, the worshipper would stop to worship the main figure of Sakyamuni placed in a niche within the main central pillar. The pilgrim would next circumambulate the corridor moving in a clockwise fashion, thereby worshipping the Sakyamuni statue. Along the back walls of the corridor, the pilgrim would view scenes depicting Sakyamuni’s nirvana and there contemplate his or her own existence in a Buddha-less world. Upon exiting the corridor, the worshipper would view Maitreya (Buddha of the Future) painted on the wall above the entrance to the main room. ||||

“Murals on various themes are displayed on the side walls of the main room. These include paintings on the theme of the Jâtaka Tales, which are stories about the life of the historical Buddha, Sakyamuni; paintings on the theme of the Illustrated Biographies of His Life, which depict the episodes from his life; and paintings on the theme of the Preaching Scenes, which depict various stories about the Sakyamuni’s preaching after Enlightenment. In a style characteristic to the Kizil grottoes, the vault ceilings of the main room are divided into diamond blocks, decorated with paintings done on these same themes (such as the Jâtaka Tales and the Preaching Scenes). ||||

“Typically, the central pillars of the front walls contain a large niche which originally accommodated a seated figure. Surrounding the figure was a background of mountain scenery composed of built-up stucco materials. Most of the three-dimensional figures have been lost, but there are a few remains of standing figures on the front wall. However, these are mere remains and their original appearance remains a mystery. On the left, right, and the back of the central pillars are corridors with low ceilings, and there along the walls are depicted images of donors, monks and stupas. ||||

“On the back walls of the corridors behind the central pillars, we find either painted images(13) or stucco figures on the theme of Nirvana. This Kasyapa image, which is particularly striking for the expressiveness of the figure as well as for its leaf patterns, is painted on this wall. The painting was originally part of the nirvana scene depicted on the back wall of the back corridor. These images represent Mahakasyapa, the disciple who arrived late at the scene of Buddha’s nirvana, and thus failed to be there at the moment of his death. Finally, we find the Maitreya preaching in the Tuita Heaven depicted in the half circle above the entrance of the main room.” ||||

Central Asian Influences on the Kizil Caves Murals

monk in Kizil Cave

Albert von Le Coq, a German archaeologist, visited the Kizil cave site in 1906 and 1913 as part of the German expedition team. He was surprised by the vivid ultramarine blue used in the murals. Reminiscent of the rich blue color of the sky, Le Coq wrote in his expedition diary: “The extravagant use of a brilliant blue — the well-known ultramarine which, in the time of Benvenuto Cellini[a], was frequently employed by the Italian painters, and was bought at double its weight in gold.” The blue came from the mineral lapis lazuli mined in Afghanistan.

Le Coq was also surprised by the fact that “there was … not the slightest sign in the paintings of any East Asiatic influences.” Despite its location in present-day western China, the Buddhist art preserved in the Kizil grottoes showed few Chinese elements; and Indian and Persian influences. One mural features Persian (Sasanian) ducks with jeweled necklaces in their beaks which were drawn facing one-another within pearl-shaped medallions. Works with similar touche in the or Persian as well as Indian styles were to be found among the Buddhist art of the caves. Le Coq was deeply impressed with the art he found at Kizil, describing the murals in his diary as the “most interesting, and artistically perfect paintings.”

“The Sasanian Empire (226-651), whose artistic conventions so influenced the murals, ruled a vast area covering the Iranian Plateau and Mesopotamia; and at its peak, extended its rule as far as Afghanistan. The cave murals found at Kizil displayed a strong influence of the art of the Sasanian Persians as well as that of India. This was particularly seen in addition to the Persian artistic conventions, in the abundant use of Afghanistan lapis lazuli.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons,

Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University; Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/; Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua; China.org; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated August 2021

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