Buddhist Wall Paintings
Buddhist Wall Paintings
- Sonya S. LeeSonya S. LeeDepartment of Art History, University of Southern California
Wall paintings are integral to the built environment of the Buddhist world. Images of deities, celestial spheres, and biographical narratives of all sorts constitute an integral part of Buddhist architecture, serving as the material and conceptual interfaces between art, society, and the ecosystem that link their viewers to the world they live in and realms in their imagination. Buddhist wall paintings are meant to make abstract doctrines and concepts comprehensible through visual means while promoting key moral lessons to devotees in vivid and memorable ways. They provide donors with an opportunity to express piety and accumulate merit for creating a beautiful home for the Buddha that would enable his followers to follow his footsteps and at the same time impress nonbelievers. Though far from a vehicle of individualism, the medium of wall painting challenges artists to be innovative with age-old iconographic formulae and compositional schemes in order to make the tradition anew for their own time and place.
This important artistic medium developed in tandem with the emergence of Buddhism as a world religion during the 1st millennium ce. To underscore the remarkable flexibility that Buddhist concepts and practices exhibited as they were adapted into disparate local cultures, the present study will focus on major sites in the Taklamakan and Gobi Deserts in China to explore the inter- and intraregional connections in the dissemination of Buddhist wall painting across Eurasia.
- Religion and Art
Wall painting is integral to the built environment of the Buddhist world. Images of the Buddha and other divinities, appearing both as individual icons and in narrative compositions, began to grace permanent edifices of worship as Buddhism took root in India sometime in the 4th century bce and then spread across Asia. More than two millennia later, some of the same themes and designs continue to be featured in contemporary structures serving Buddhist communities in the early 21st century. Spanning from antiquity to modernity, Buddhist wall painting is global in its reach. The remarkable adaptability of Buddhism to local culture worldwide naturally gives rise to a multitude of wall painting traditions, each with its distinctive characteristics. On the other hand, these traditions also share certain core features and practices in being part of a wider Buddhist world. At the most fundamental level, Buddhist wall paintings are meant to make abstract doctrines and concepts comprehensible through visual means while promoting key moral lessons to devotees in vivid and memorable ways. They provide donors with an opportunity to express piety and accumulate merit for creating a beautiful home for the Buddha that would enable his followers to follow his footsteps and at the same time impress nonbelievers. Though far from a vehicle of individual expression, the medium of wall painting challenges artists to be innovative with age-old iconographic formulae and compositional schemes in order to make the tradition anew for their own time and place. Indeed, artists from diverse cultures did rise to the occasion by making significant contributions to the world history of wall painting, some redefining the very meaning and purpose of the medium altogether.
The term “wall painting,” often in use interchangeably with “mural,” refers to works rendered in mineral or organic pigments with binders on vertical wall surfaces that have been prepared with layers of plaster coating on top of the wall’s base material, typically made of bricks, stone, clay, wood, straw, or a mixture thereof. The painted images constitute an integral part of the architectural structure, serving as the material and conceptual interfaces between art, society, and the ecosystem that link their viewers to the world they live in and realms in their imagination. The remarkable diversity in architectural context underscores the wide range of viewership and purpose for which Buddhist wall paintings were intended. From freestanding wooden-framed buildings to rock-cut temples created along cliff faces and subterranean deposit chambers, the vast majority of examples from premodern Asia have evolved from the secco or paint-on-dry-plaster methods. This stands in contrast to the Western tradition where the fresco or paint-on-wet-plaster technique has dominated since classical antiquity. Another salient development was the tremendous range of materials utilized for decorating vertical surfaces. Particularly significant is the use of paper, wood, and textile in lieu of plastered walls as the base support. Across the Himalayas and Inner Asian grasslands, interior decorations for Buddhist temples are often made in woven textiles for hanging against the wall or pillar. In structures built in the 20th century or more recently, paper and cotton are two common materials on which paintings are rendered and then pasted to walls both inside and on the exterior. In addition, paintings are rendered on sliding doors, panel screens, and other portable furniture to complement paintings on plastered wall surfaces nearby, as evident in Buddhist temples or palatial complexes in Japan. While these materials are not wall paintings technically speaking, they do have unmistakable similarities in iconography, style, and function that deserve close examination as related developments.
The heavy concentration of sites with extant materials, some with reliable dates, in the Taklamakan and Gobi Deserts in China is the focus of this article (see map). Drawing on the latest scholarly findings and archaeological discoveries whenever available, this analysis will rely on representative examples to broadly delineate the changes and continuities at major sites in Central Asia and Dunhuang or within a given tradition through time.1 It will also delve into the function and meaning of murals ascribed by their creators and users by examining the architectural context to which the murals belong. Last but not least, it will account for the artisans who created the murals as much as extant information allows. Unlike the donors who frequently left behind documentation of their actions and intents, most artisans had remained nameless and voiceless. There were also cases in which wall painters were celebrated during their lifetime or made records of their work, but their art was lost forever.
The Kushans and New Developments in Central Asia
Buddhism, along with other cultural practices from the early Indic world, had spread to the neighboring regions in the 1st millennium ce through the movements of people, animals, and goods within a network of transcontinental routes that came to be known as the Silk Road.2 As a result, many Buddhist monuments were established by local communities of faith across the Hindu Kush, the Pamirs, and the Tarim Basin. The Kushans played a particularly influential role in facilitating the dissemination. Through a succession of ambitious rulers in the 1st and 2nd centuries ce, the Kushans built an empire that dominated the lands from the Aral Sea eastward through much of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and northern India. The powerful King Kanishka (r. c. 120–140 ce) was a great patron of Buddhism who followed more or less the footsteps of Ashoka, the most famous Buddhist king in history, by promoting the Buddha’s teaching as a state religion across his territories. Under such favorable circumstances, different schools of Buddhism flourished at the empire’s center in Gandhara, which corresponds to an area around Peshawar and Taxila in Pakistan, and across northern India as far as Mathura. Likewise, the art and architecture purposely created to facilitate monastic and lay devotional worship at these temples developed in ways not seen before in the subcontinent. The Kushans drew on the artistic language of Hellenism, so deeply rooted in Bactria through centuries of Greek settlements following the conquest by Alexander the Great (d. 323 bce), to represent the Buddha in anthropomorphic form. Unlike central India where the Buddha tended to be represented through the use of associative symbols such as an empty throne or a pair of footprints rather than as a human, the Kushan empire marks a turning point at which anthropomorphism would become the dominant mode of representation in Buddhist art across Asia in subsequent times.
In the early 21st century, much of the understanding of the Buddhist art of the Kushans is based on relief carvings and full-bodied sculptures that once filled large monastic complexes such as the one at Takht-i-bahi outside Peshawar. Mural fragments discovered at temple ruins and rock shelters since the 1990s have provided additional information about the practice of wall paintings in Gandhara. Those from Jinnan Wali Dheri in the Taxila Valley are particularly significant in demonstrating a mature painterly tradition in which the three-quarter view of figuration and the skillful use of light and shade to create volume through color were common.3 The presence of a Buddha striking a wheel-turning gesture in one of the fragments points to an iconographic feature indicative of a later phase of development at the monastic site pertaining to the 4th and 5th centuries. The dating would thus put these murals approximately in the same period as the Mahayana phase at Ajanta.4 As for the earlier development in Gandhara, it is necessary to study specimens found in other areas where connections to the style and iconography associated with the Hindu Kush can be established.
It has long been assumed that Buddhism’s dissemination across Eurasia followed a unilateral, eastward movement from India to China in a single wave. This simplistic view, first popularized in the 19th century, has been superseded by a more nuanced set of interpretations that call attention to multi-directional traffic across Eurasia as well as additional phases of interactions within different geographical areas. The Tarim Basin provides crucial evidence in support of these new viewpoints. As will be discussed in the next two sections, Buddhist wall paintings from several oasis kingdoms across the Taklamakan Desert, notably in Kroraina and Kucha, flourished at an earlier time than other major Buddhist sites further west, such as Bamiyan in Afghanistan, that shared certain key features in art and architecture.5 The existence of earlier monuments east of the Pamirs clearly demonstrates that Buddhism and its material culture did, in fact, travel in both eastward and westward directions.
Kroraina and Khotan
The rise of the Sasanian empire in Iran (224–651) in the first quarter of the 3rd century prompted a significant migration of people across the Silk Road region. This coincided with the shift of the Kushan power eastward into the Tarim Basin, where a number of settlements have yielded thousands of ancient documents in Kharoshthi and Sanskrit. Clearly, migrants from the Hindu Kush had moved into that region through the Karakoram Pass and intermingled with native inhabitants.6 In some of the same settlements, the presence of Chinese documents also reveals that the Chinese state became active across the Tarim Basin in the same period. In this new geopolitical landscape, Kroraina and Khotan along the Southern Silk Road assumed a critical role in facilitating cultural exchange as well as local adaptation of ideas and practices from afar. Wall paintings found at Buddhist temple ruins in both areas are particularly significant. Examples from various locations in Miran, which is believed to have flourished in the 3rd and 4th centuries as an extension of the Kroraina kingdom based at Loulan, provide the clearest evidence of influences from Gandhara and beyond. As exemplified by Shrine V, which took the shape of an enclosed stupa, the murals in the ambulatory path show salient features of Hellenism such as an interest in illusionism by depicting figures in three-quarter view as well as the use of modeling in colors (figure 1).7 In the top two registers, the choice of scenes from the Buddha’s life story as subject matter and the figuration of the Buddha were based on Gandharan Buddhist iconography and style. A comparison of a fragment depicting the Buddha accompanied by six disciples from Shrine M III (in the National Museum of New Delhi; figure 2) with a relief carving of the Buddha and Vajrapani in the Museum of Asian Art in Berlin shows remarkable similarities in how the Buddha was fashioned as a young male in heavy drapery with large eyes, drooping mustache, and a large bun of hair collected at the top of his head as usnisha.8 The same iconography appears to have been closely followed in both wall painting and relief sculpture. The Kharoshthi inscription of the painter’s name “Tita” found on the south wall of the circumambulatory path in Shrine V further confirms a tie with the Kushans, not ancient Greeks or Romans as previously thought.9 The use of a meandering garland interspersed with half-length individual figures across the entire bottom register, on the other hand, indicates a certain degree of familiarity with precedents from the Eastern Mediterranean world in the 3rd and 4th centuries in which garlands were utilized in compositions for commemorating the dead.10
Artistic influences from Gandhara and other regions are also evident in Khotan, another major center of Buddhism along the Southern Silk Road. The Buddha’s teaching was introduced to Khotan sometime in the early 1st century bce, but it was not until the 3rd century ce that the kingdom became one of the first prominent centers of Buddhism outside the subcontinent.11 Although a later legend had linked the founding of Khotan to a son of King Ashoka who was banished from India and then migrated to the Tarim Basin, the discovery of Buddhist texts in Kharoshthi script in Niya, Yotkan, and other sites in the greater Khotan area at least confirms an initial connection to Gandhara.12 As in the neighboring Kroraina, the dissemination of Buddhism to Khotan coincided with the eastward outreach by the Kushans during the 2nd and 3rd centuries. Yet Khotanese Buddhism would continue to evolve as the kingdom became entangled in military and political conflicts with a succession of ambitious empires that took turns dominating the Silk Road: the Hephthalites in the 6th century and the Western Turks, the Chinese, and the Tibetans in the 7th and 8th centuries. The large group of Sogdian merchants and craftsmen who had settled in Khotan or used it as a base for long-distance travels also played an active role in bringing new ideas and goods in and out of the Tarim Basin. As a result, the material culture that arose out of interactions with such diverse groups of cultures over time was far more complex than anywhere else along the Southern Silk Road.
The early examples of Buddhist wall paintings in Khotan bore telltale connections to the Greco-Bactrian tradition. A set of seven mural fragments depicting celestial dancers from Damago (or Domoko in older publications) provides a tantalizing glimpse into this phase of development.13 Rendered in mineral paints on straw-filled clay surfaces, these fragments exhibit a uniform painting style and shared design elements, underscoring the likelihood that they once formed part of the same composition. Each fragment features a nude dancer in motion within an arch-like space created by a thick ribbon outlined in red that seems to extend across space in a wavelength (figure 3). The noticeably large eyes outlined in thick black lines and the twisty curls flowing down the two sides of the head are similar to how figures are depicted in mural fragments found in the Yakatoot district in Peshawar City dating to the Kushano-Sasanid period of the 3rd and 5th centuries ce.14 The use of the garland as a unifying compositional device is evidently similar to the example from Miran Shrine V discussed earlier in this section. Another significant feature shared by some of these mural fragments is a decorative band with illusionistic geometric shapes above the dancer. Interestingly, a nearly identical design is found in a cave temple at Kumtura in Kucha, about 600 kilometers north of Damago.15 As it turned out, the penchant for incorporating decorative borders like this as part of some larger compositions was pervasive at major cave temple complexes in the Kucha region. The appearance of a nearly identical decorative band at two disparate locales in the Tarim Basin clearly underscores a considerable degree of connections between the two oasis kingdoms. The location of the two sites along the Keriya River network, which once provided a viable path linking the southern and northern routes across the Taklamakan Desert, points to the possibility that artisans with knowledge of the decorative motif were active at both sites.
The Damago area is important for understanding the material culture of later Khotanese Buddhism as well. It was where a significant number of temple complexes from the 7th century and onward once concentrated, as evidenced by architectural remnants and material objects that had surfaced at Khadalik, Balawaste, and Farhad-beg-yailaki. Most mural fragments from these sites represent much greater local adaptation of divergent sources in style and iconography than shown in the earlier works. Iconographic themes central to the Mahayana School (including those associated with esoteric teachings) dominated Khotanese Buddhism in this period. Large Buddha statues formed the primary subject of worship in the middle of rectilinear temple structures that were designed with circumambulatory paths around them, resembling somewhat the enclosed stupas in Miran. These temple structures were once decorated with wall paintings of popular motifs such as the Thousand Buddhas, attendant bodhisattvas, guardian figures, and adoring donor figures. A significant number of mural fragments had been removed by local looters and foreign explorers who visited the sites in the early 20th century and then brought the fragments to Europe.16 Several of these pieces are in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, possibly from Balawaste or Khadalik (figure 4). The images were created by the systematic use of preparatory devices such as stencils and templates by professional painters to replicate the same design in different settings. After outlines of figures were traced onto the walls, the individual Buddhas were completed with a color scheme of red, white, and black that was strategically applied to the robe, body and head halos, and background so as to create variations within an otherwise repetitive composition. When viewed at a distance, the Thousand Buddhas do appear like wall papers that are interspersed with color blocks in diagonal movements. A similar production method is evident at other sites in Khotan, such as Dandan-Oilik, as well as those further eastward along the Silk Road, such as the Mogao Caves of Dunhuang.
Mahayana motifs aside, wall paintings in Khotanese Buddhist temples are also replete with images of local deities or those from other religions that were placed alongside Buddhist ones. Particularly interesting is the pairing of Buddhas and Buddhist figures with mounted deities and horsemen. Two such examples were discovered by Chinese archaeologists during excavations conducted at Dandan-Oilik and Topulukdong in Damago in 2002.17 Dating to about the same time period in the 8th century, both mural fragments show three rows of seated Buddhas, possibly representing the Thousand Buddhas motif, filling the upper part of the wall, with a procession of horsemen at the very bottom (figure 5). In the piece from Dandan-Oilik, two of the horses are covered in spots, which might have been a depiction of Nisean horses, once the most valuable breed from ancient Persia. The possible Iranian connection has led some scholars to identify these horsemen as iconographic conflations with Sogdian deities, whereas others believe that these mounted figures with head halos probably represent pre-Buddhist local gods, as indicated by the black bird flying above each horse and the shallow bowls held by the horsemen.18 Similar mounted figures were found on a few painted wooden plaques in the British Museum, including one that depicts a horseman in dialogue with the Buddhist protector Vaishravana, who was deemed to be a key figure in the founding of Khotan as a Buddhist kingdom.19
The British Museum wooden plaque offers an intriguing entry point into a discussion on the art of Kucha. The figural style that its two subjects exemplify—including their unique facial features (arching eyebrows, almond-shaped eyes, curly hair, and drooping mustache) in black and red outlines, bodies captured in distinct poses, extensive use of red and green with highlights in white, and clear articulation of detail in outfits and gear—is also evident in works belonging to what has been labeled the first of three distinct wall painting styles of Kucha.20 A representation example can be found in Cave 77 at Kizil, from which a number of fragments have been preserved in the Asian Art Museum of Berlin (figure 6). The similarities thus raise questions about the interrelationship between the two oasis kingdoms in the Tarim Basin and their connections to neighboring regions, even though they embraced contrasting forms of Buddhism. From historical records and linguistic evidence, Kucha is known to have had close ties with the Kushans and the more conservative Buddhist schools in Gandhara. As noted earlier, the Khotan and Keriya rivers once provided a vital means of transportation for people and goods to circulate between the northern and southern parts of the Tarim Basin. Khotan was an essential stop for travelers from Kucha to cross through the Karakoram Mountains to reach Gandhara as well as for those from the opposite direction to head eastward. Buddhist cave temples in Kucha have preserved a large body of material evidence for understanding the complex exchanges and adaptations that took place during the kingdom’s transformation into a major Buddhist center by the 4th century ce.
Kizil, located about 70 kilometers northwest of Kucha’s capital, is the largest repository of Buddhist wall painting in the Tarim Basin, accounting for about half of the total number of caves in Kucha. Of the nearly 400 units at Kizil (235 numbered and some 150 unnumbered), close to 100 caves are decorated with pictorial images inside.21 The paintings were mostly religious in nature, embodying key concepts and practices pertaining to the early Buddhist School of the Sarvastivadins, which flourished in Gandhara under the Kushans and was introduced to Kucha during the empire’s expansion into the Tarim Basin during the 2nd and 3rd centuries ce.22 Followers of this group prized the steadfast observation of moral precepts as well as the practice of meditation both individually and in groups. These two aspects in turn informed the art and architecture of Kizil. Meditation cells (or undecorated, crudely cut spaces in the cliff face that are large enough to accommodate a person seated inside) were abundant across the site; so were central pillar caves, a type of two-chamber unit which was derived from the Indian chaitya by incorporating a circumambulating path that links the two, with a front space large enough to accommodate group activities of various sorts and a small, dark chamber in the back.23 It is inside these central pillar caves that some of most exquisite wall paintings in Kucha are found.
Cave 38 is a classic central pillar cave located in the westernmost section of Kizil. It was carved alongside over 40 other units that collectively formed a coherent cluster along the cliff face (figure 7).24 The cave’s relatively well-preserved interior allows for a fuller account of its pictorial program and symbolism. Much of the front chamber is devoted to iconographic motifs related to the historical Buddha Shakyamuni, including jatakas and avadanas on the ceiling, scenes from the Buddha’s life story, and an iconic statue that once occupied the middle of the central wall. In the back chamber, various narrative episodes detailing the Buddha’s nirvana are painted on the surrounding walls, plus a large composition featuring the reclining Buddha and those who attended his final moment before entry into extinction. Above the unit’s entrance is a large composition that depicts a cross-legged bodhisattva in a paradise full of adoring attendants (figure 8). Based on the wheel-turning hand gesture and cross-legged pose, the central figure has been identified as Maitreya Bodhisattva in Tushita Paradise.25 Taken as a whole, the pictorial program in Cave 38 represents a symbolic passage of time from the present age of the historical Buddha to the future marked by Maitreya’s coming, and the Buddha’s nirvana marks a crucial moment of transition. The circumambulatory function inherent in the chaitya design was skillfully coordinated with the placement of certain pictorial motifs along the viewer’s path of viewing, so that they came to experience the transfer of authority from one Buddha to another as they walked through the cave. Moreover, the front chamber is decorated largely with preaching scenes and individual conversations that lend themselves to repetition through a shared schematic compositional layout. The seamless array of nearly identical scenes thus prompts questions about viewer literacy and participation. The extensive use of abbreviated references to particular stories in Buddhist literature indicates a viewing audience with a high degree of familiarity with these stories and the ability to identify them with a few telling details.26 While the large size of the chamber clearly points to its utilization by a large group of users, the nature of their activities inside, especially how the cave’s users might have made use of pictorial images in ritual or meditational practices, remains unclear.
The Sarvastivadin penchant for meditation has often been cited as an explanation for the depiction of monks meditating before a skull or dead bodies, which represents some of the most extraordinary images from Kucha.27 Whether or not these images reflect actual practices is difficult to ascertain. Yet other motifs common in Kucha wall painting promoted the tremendous benefits that practitioners might gain through rigorous meditation.28 The miracles performed by the Buddha at Shravasti constitute a case in point.29 A remarkable presentation of this theme is found inside Cave 123, a central pillar cave with a domed ceiling (figure 9). In the first part of the story, the Buddha emitted fire and water from his body while in the fire samadhi. The shooting flames and spurting water thus can be read as a visual manifestation of the supernatural power that the practitioner would have gained through meditation. In the second part, the Buddha replicated himself in great numbers. The self-multiplication, which is specific to the Sanskrit version of the story and not found in Pali texts, is grandly represented by a standing Buddha enveloped within a large mandorla filled with columns of smaller Buddhas in their own mandorlas. This composition in turn is repeated on the opposite walls in the main chamber, further amplifying the spectacular “miracle of double appearances.” There is also an abbreviated version of it as represented by a single standing Buddha (two on the entrance wall and two in the corridors leading into the back chamber) that is similarly surrounded by smaller Buddhas in the head halo and mandorla.
The miracles of Shravasti were a popular subject in Gandharan relief sculptures, as attested by the considerable number of extant specimens that depict the crucial scene of the Buddha multiplying himself in a manner similar to the examples in Kizil Cave 123.30 The existence of iconographic precedents from before the 4th century helps set a terminus a quo for the adaptation of this theme in Kucha. The carbon-14 dating performed on the mural fragments from this unit in Germany has yielded the approximate date of 431–533.31 This is about 100 years earlier than the set of dates, 540–670, obtained by Chinese archaeologists from their own carbon-14 dating in Cave 123 based on straw samples taken from the ceiling of the back chamber.32 Ironically, the results from China align more closely with the Style II, or Sasanian, phase, to which wall paintings from this cave have been assigned in the German style-based chronology. The art of this later phase is characterized by the extensive use of blue and green and a figural type distinct from that of the so-called Indian model of Style I that was probably introduced through groups from west of the Pamirs, such as the Western Turks and the Sogdians with whom Kucheans had greater interactions after the Kushan migration. In the relative-dating scheme developed by archaeologists in China that relies on grouping of caves in situ rather than painting style as the key criterion, Cave 123 purportedly belongs to the fourth and last period of development at Kizil, when nearly half of the caves at the site were created.33
The elusiveness in securing a firm date on a single cave temple at Kizil points to the overall difficulty in developing a more nuanced understanding of the history of Kucha wall painting with limited period documentation found at the site. To find additional evidence, it is thus necessary to bring in comparative perspectives by considering the introduction of Chinese artistic elements to Kucha as well as the eastward dissemination of Kuchean styles to Dunhuang and beyond.
Dunhuang under Tang China
The year 648 marked a watershed in the Chinese engagement with its neighbors in Central Asia, commonly referred to in Chinese records as the Western Regions. The Tang dynasty (618–906) sent its armies to conquer Kucha along with Karashar, thus completing the establishment of the Four Great Garrisons of the Anxi Protectorate. (The other two garrisons, Kashgar and Khotan, became vassals of the Tang court a decade earlier.) This was the first time since the Han dynasty (206 bce–220 ce) that the Chinese state made such an assertive presence along the Silk Road in order to contend with its chief rivals, the Western Turks and the Tibetans. Amid the power struggles of the 7th century, Kucha and other oasis states in the Tarim Basin struggled to maintain their independence as they came under and out of the rule by these ambitious empires. Significantly, the Chinese military presence in Kucha did not lead to any immediate cultural assimilation. In fact, it was not until the mid-8th century when Tang-style artistic elements became detectable at Kucha cave temples. Compositions depicting the Western Pure Land, the Buddha’s life story recast in Chinese cities and buildings as well as the Thousand Buddhas appeared in several caves in the Northern Section of Kumtura, including Caves 14, 16, and 45.34 Their arrival was a clear indicator of artistic influences from Dunhuang, the gateway to China and a bastion of Mahayana Buddhism about 600 kilometers east of Kucha. Cartouches identifying motifs and donors in Chinese were also found at the site.35
The Mogao Caves
More than a century before Chinese donors became active in Kucha, painters in Dunhuang were consciously imitating wall painting styles from that region. The Mogao Caves, among the world’s most important repositories of Buddhist art, began modestly sometime in the 4th century after the monk Yuezun experienced a vision at the Sanwei Mountain and subsequently received sponsorship from local elites to create cave temples there. Of the 40 extant units dating to the period before the 7th century, quite a few boast unmistakable similarities with Kucha wall painting in terms of figural style, color palette, framing décor, and compositional scheme. Mogao Cave 285 provides by far the most significant example with which to consider the intraregional ties between Dunhuang and Kucha through the practice of wall painting. Two aspects are of particular relevance to the present discussion. The first pertains to the motif of individual monks meditating inside caves, which is commonly depicted in the ceilings of Kizil caves. In Mogao Cave 285, images of 36 meditating monks appear in a row that wraps around the lower parts of the four ceiling slopes. Their collective presence symbolically echoes the function of the cave’s vihara design, which was intended for monastic practices as seen at Ajanta and other sites in India. However, only a few such structures were created in Dunhuang during its earliest phase of development, thus underscoring the site’s overall orientation toward lay devotional practices. The second connection to Kucha concerns the painting style of over a dozen Hindu deities on the west wall. Vishnu, who was the supreme protector of the universe in Hinduism and who was appropriated to be part of the Buddhist pantheon, appears to the right of the main Buddha statue as if serving as his guardian warrior (figure 10). Depicted with an intense expression on his face, Vishnu is in a dynamic pose that features multiple heads and arms in coordinated movements. The figural style is similar to that of the Vajrapani from Kizil Cave 77 (see figure 6), whereas his hair style mimics the head of a male figure in wood from the same unit at Kizil.36
The conscious attempt at imitating the Kuchean prototypes in Dunhuang points to the likelihood that the painters at Mogao learned of the earlier examples from pattern books and then carried out their work using local materials and techniques. It is also possible that the murals were painted by itinerary workshop artisans who traveled from one oasis to another for work. Regardless, upon comparison with the superb handling of color in creating the Vajrapani from Kizil Cave 77, the less refined execution by the painters at Mogao suggests that they were rather new to the Kuchean artistic idiom and hence lacked experience in capturing the subtleties of this particular style. Furthermore, the dated inscriptions from 538 and 539 found on the south wall of Mogao Cave 285 confirm that the painting style associated with Kizil Cave 77 was known in Dunhuang by the first half of the 6th century. This in turn means that Style I in wall painting of Kizil existed with Style II at the same site, not earlier in a temporal sequence as frequently construed in studies that follow the German style-based chronology.37
By the 8th century, painters in Dunhuang had managed to develop artistic styles of their own out of materials coming from the Western Regions as well as central China. The emergence of Dunhuang art coincided with the Tang state’s outward-looking foreign relations strategy that sought to achieve security in its vast northwestern frontiers by maintaining strongholds at strategic locations like Dunhuang. This in turn had directed tremendous human and material resources from central China to the frontier garrison. The embrace of cultural pluralism by the local ruling elite further facilitated adaptation of ideas and practices brought in from afar. The resulting cosmopolitanism clearly manifested in the iconographic repertoire of the Mogao Caves, which encompassed a far greater range than any other Buddhist sites in Eurasia. The many themes that emerged in the Tang period were based on Mahayana scriptures popular at the time. Pictorial compositions based on certain aspects of a particular text, be they narrative elements or abstract doctrines, were referred to in Chinese records as jingbian or bianxiang, terms commonly translated as “sutra tableau” or “transformation tableau.”38 Interestingly, a significant number of these works incorporated people, goods, and activities deemed exotic by the Chinese into Buddhist paradises that were modeled more or less after architectural spaces of Tang China.
In the debate between the householder Vimalakirti and Manjushri Bodhisattva, a memorable episode from the Vimalakirti Sutra that constituted the most recognizable feature of the transformation tableau named after the scripture, the lively event was attended by a large audience that included the Chinese emperor as well as dignitaries from numerous states near and far.39 One of the most celebrated examples from the 8th century is painted inside Cave 103, where the two main protagonists face each other on two sides of the cave’s entrance (figure 11). The colorful emissaries from South and Central Asia that fill up the audience space in the lower part of the wall are balanced with the two imposing debaters who were deftly created by firm, elegant brushwork, a hallmark of Chinese painting. The mural offers a tantalizing glimpse into what contemporary Tang painters such as Wu Daozi might have created in the Chinese capitals during the 8th century, as the legendary artist is known to have rendered wall paintings entirely in ink at several Buddhist temples there.40 Those who witnessed the artist at work reported that Wu would raise his brush and sweep it around with the force of a whirlwind as if aided by a divinity.41
Another notable theme at the Mogao Caves that had fully captured the spirit of Tang cosmopolitanism was the Amitayus transformation tableau based on the Sutra of the Meditation on the Buddha of Immeasurable Life (or the Meditation Sutra). It was one of the three key scriptures in the Pure Land School that promoted the devotional worship of Amitabha and the practice of visualization.42 Adherents of the teachings presented therein believed that this Buddha’s Pure Land offers a particularly viable path to enlightenment, for nirvana is ensured to all born there. To attain rebirth in the Pure Land, one would follow a set of practices spelled out in the texts, chief among which is the dedication to Amitabha by chanting his name and contemplating his radiance and Pure Land’s splendors. Visual images have played a crucial role in helping devotees understand the underlying concepts and carry out the related practices. The pertinent murals in Dunhuang, for example, fleshed out an otherworldly realm that is within reach for all who are willing, with utmost sincerity, to make a vow to attain rebirth there. In the Amitayus murals, in particular, the seeming paradox was presented and then solved purely in pictorial terms through two main components that define the composition: a large preaching assemblage in the middle representing the Western Pure Land; and clusters of narrative vignettes relating the story of Ajatasatru and Lady Vaidehi’s meditations that frame the preaching assemblage. Cave 172 at the Mogao Caves boasts two magnificent murals of the same theme exemplifying this unique compositional design (figure 12). The addition of the storytelling elements to a standalone preaching scene was what distinguished the Amitayus transformation tableau from a preaching scene featuring Amitabha. The latter appeared in Dunhuang and elsewhere in China in earlier times largely as a fantastical yet distant place.43 The story of Ajatasatru provided the necessary human touch to bridge the divide between imagination and reality, thus allowing the viewers in Tang-dynasty Mogao to imagine themselves entering the Western Pure Land with ease.
Constituting a narrative preface to the Meditation Sutra, the story of Ajatasatru relates how this evil prince attempted a palace coup by imprisoning his father (King Bimbisara) and threatening to kill his mother (Lady Vaidehi). Her subsequent dialogue with Shakyamuni Buddha forms the bulk of the text in which a meditation process called the “Sixteen Meditations” was introduced as a path for sentient beings to free themselves from sufferings by gaining access to the Western Pure Land of Amitabha. The last three of the Sixteen Meditations spell out a rebirth system called the “Nine Grades of Rebirth.” In Cave 172, both the story and the meditations appear sequentially within the vertical bands on two sides of the wall flanking the main preaching scene or occasionally in the space underneath it. Although the story was set in a foreign land ages ago, all characters in the tableau were dressed in Chinese-style garbs, just as all actions took place inside a Chinese-style courtyard comprised of various timber-framed structures.
The central preaching assemblage in the Amitayus transformation tableau was likewise construed as a splendid imperial Chinese palatial complex. As seen in the two murals from Cave 172, it featured the Amitabha triad, with the Buddha in the middle and Bodhisattvas Avalokiteshvara and Mahasthamaprapta on his two sides. Together, the three presided over a large assembly of attendants surrounding them. Unlike other preaching assemblages in Buddhist art, those representing the Western Pure Land typically include a pond of seven treasures in the lower foreground, out of which those attaining rebirth in the Pure Land emerge on lotus petals. There is also a large ensemble of musicians and dancers performing on large platforms above the water; additional musicians are flying above the assembly with musical instruments in hand. The music being performed must have come from the Western Regions, as indicated by a variety of instruments not known in China before Tang times. The same can be said about the dances. Indeed, one of the most memorable images from Dunhuang shows dancers gyrating while playing the lute on their back. One such pair can be seen in action at the center of the foreground in the Amitayus mural on the south wall.
It is no surprise that the Amitayus transformation tableau, with its alluring depiction of the Western Pure Land and the compelling story of Lady Vaidehi, was one of the most popular motifs at the Mogao Caves ever. This is attested by 76 examples created during the Tang dynasty alone and the fact that the other most frequently depicted motifs at the site, such as the Eastern Pure Land of the Medicine Buddha and the Maitreya Sutra transformation tableau, were closely related in theme, often appearing with the Amitayus mural inside the same cave unit. The widespread distribution of Pure Land imageries across China, Korea, and Japan certainly underscores the tremendous popularity that the teachings of the Pure Land School had attained from the 8th century onward. The situation also points to the use of a greater range of techniques and media for the production of a shared repertoire of iconographic motifs and compositional schemes on a scale not seen before. Dunhuang provides an exceptional resource for understanding this crucial aspect of Buddhist material culture in East Asia, filling the lacuna created by the lack of surviving evidence in central China. The Amitayus transformation tableau, for example, was the subject of wall paintings in cave units as well as hanging scrolls on silk that were found inside the Library Cave, a hidden cache of thousands of ancient manuscripts and artifacts discovered inside a side chamber in Mogao Cave 16 in the early 20th century; there were related images of Amitabha and the Western Pure Land preserved as woodblock prints and paintings on paper too.44
- Bussagli, Mario. Central Asian Painting: From Afghanistan to Sinkiang. Translated by Lothian Small. New York: Rizzoli International Publications, 1979.
- Fraser, Sarah E. Performing the Visual: The Practice of Buddhist Wall Painting in China and Central Asia, 618–960. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2004.
- Hansen, Valerie. The Silk Road: A New History. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.
- Howard, Angela F., and Giuseppe Vignato. Archaeological and Visual Sources of Meditation in the Ancient Monasteries of Kuča. Leiden, The Netherlands, and Boston: Brill, 2015.
- Huntington, Susan, and John C. Huntington. The Art of Ancient India: Buddhist, Hindu, Jain. New York: Weatherhill, 1985.
- Klimburg-Salter, Deborah E. The Kingdom of Bamiyan: Buddhist Art and Culture of the Hindu Kush. Naples, Italy: Istituto Universitario Orientale, 1989.
- Konczak-Nagel, Ines, and Monika Zin. Essays and Studies in the Art of Kucha. Leipzig Kucha Studies 1. New Delhi: Dev Publishers & Distributors, 2020.
- Lee, Sonya S. “Buddhist Art and Architecture.” Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Asian History, 2020.
- Leidy, Denise. Art of Buddhism: An Introduction to Its History and Meaning. Boston: Shambhala Publications, 2008.
- Luczanits, Christian, ed. Gandhara: Das Buddhistische Erbe Pakistans; Legenden, Klöster und Paradiese. Bonn, Deutschland: Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland, 2008.
- Rhie, Marylin Martin. Early Buddhist Art of China and Central Asia. Volume 2: The Eastern Chin and Sixteen Kingdoms Period in China and Tumshuk, Kucha and Karashahr in Central Asia. Leiden, The Netherlands: E.J. Brill, 2002.
- Rowland, Benjamin, Jr. Wall-Paintings of India, Central Asia, and Ceylon: A Comparative Study. Boston: Merrymount Press, 1938.
- Spink, Walter. Ajanta: History and Development. 7 vols. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2005.
- Stein, Aurel. Serindia: Detailed Report on Explorations in Central Asia and Westernmost China. 5 vols. London: Clarendon Press, 1921.
- Whitfield, Roderick. The Art of Central Asia: The Stein Collection in the British Museum. 2 vols. Tokyo: Kodansha, 1982.
- Whitfield, Roderick, Susan Whitfield, and Neville Agnew. Cave Temples of Mogao: Art and History on the Silk Road. Los Angeles: Getty Conservation Institute, 2000.
- Whitfield, Susan, ed. The Silk Road: Trade, Travel, War, and Faith. Chicago: Serindia, 2004.
- Yaldiz, Marianne, Raffael Dedo Gadebusch, Regina Hickmann, Friederike Weis, and Rajeshwari Ghose. Magische Götterwelten: Werke aus dem Museum für Indische Kunst Berlin. Berlin: Staaliche Museen zu Berlin––Preußischer Kulturbesitz Museum für Indische Kunst, 2000.
- Yamauchi, Kazuya, Yoko Taniguchi, and Tomoko Uno, eds. Mural Paintings of the Silk Road: Cultural Exchange between East and West. Tokyo: Archetype Publications, 2007.
2. Justin M. Jacobs, “The Concept of the Silk Road in the 19th and 20th Centuries,” Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Asian History.
3. Archaeological excavations were carried out at Jinnan Wali Dheri from 2002 to 2008 as well as in 2017 and 2018. Four fragments are illustrated in Muammad Ashraf Khan and Mahmood-ul-Hasan, “Eine neue Entdeckung im Taxilatal,” in Gandhara: Das Buddhistische Erbe Pakistans; Legenden, Klöster und Paradiese, ed. Christian Luczanits (Bonn, Germany: Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland, 2008), 302–307.
4. See the discussion on Caves 1, 2, 16, and 17 in Walter Spink, Ajanta: History and Development, Volume 5: Cave by Cave (Leiden: Brill, 2007), 17–55, 179–229.
5. Comparative analyses of key features shared by Bamiayan and Kizil, such as the motif depicting the Buddha’s parinirvana and the creation of colossal Buddhas, have shown that these practices likely originated in Kucha before being introduced to Bamiyan. See Shumpei Iwai, “Radiocarbon Dating and Art-Historical Studies in Central Asian Mural Paintings,” in Mural Paintings of the Silk Road: Cultural Exchange between East and West, ed. Kazuya Yamauchi, Yoko Taniguchi, and Tomoko Uno (Tokyo: Archetype Publications, 2007), 54–59.
6. Valerie Hansen, The Silk Road: A New History (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 26–27, 44–47, 207–209. Linguistic evidence also shows that the Kushans descended from the Lesser Yuezhi, a Tokharian-speaking people who, according to Chinese sources, originated in an area between Kroraina and Kucha and later migrated to Bactria. See Christopher I. Beckwith, Empires of the Silk Road: A History of Central Eurasia from the Bronze Age to the Present (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009), 380–383.
7. Shrine V and other Buddhist temples in Miran were discovered by Sir Aurel Stein, who visited the site in three expeditions to the Tarim Basin (in 1900–1901, 1906–1908, and 1913–1916, respectively). He carried out excavation during the second expedition and reported his findings at Shrine V in Aurel Stein, Serindia: Detailed Report on Explorations in Central Asia and Westernmost China (London: Clarendon Press, 1921), vol. 1, 512–523.
8. Marianne Yaldiz et al., Magische Götterwelten: Werke aus dem Museum für Indische Kunst Berlin (Berlin: Staaliche Museen zu Berlin––Preußischer Kulturbesitz Museum für Indische Kunst, 2000), entry no. 49 (I 58).
9. Yumiko Nakanishi, “The Art of Miran: A Buddhist Site in the Kingdom of Shanshan” (PhD diss., University of California, 2000), 264–265. A photograph of the inscription was published in Stein, Serindia, vol. 1, figure 144, 527.
10. Nakanishi, “Art of Miran,” 225.
11. Gen’ichi Yamazaki, “The Legend of the Foundation of Khotan,” Memoirs of the Research Department of the Toyo Bunko, 48 (1990): 69–70; and Ronald E. Emmerick, A Guide to the Literature of Khotan (Tokyo: Reiyukai Library, 1979), 3.
12. The legend was recorded by the Chinese monk Xuanzang (c. 596–664) in his The Great Tang Record of the Western Regions, English translation by Rongxi Li (Berkeley, CA: Numata Center for Buddhist Translation & Research, 1996), 331–332.
13. These fragments are in the Museum of Damago Buddhist Sites in Qira County, having been confiscated by local authorities from looters in 2011. They likely came from a Buddhist temple in Huyangdun. See Shanghai bowuguan, ed., Silu fanxiang: Xinjiang Hetian Damagou fojiao yizhi chutu bihua yishu [Buddhist Vestiges along the Silk Road: Mural Art from the Damago Site, Hotan, Xinjiang] (Shanghai: Shanghai bowuguan, 2014), 118–127.
14. M. Nasim Khan, “Fresco Paintings from Yakatoot (Peshawar) Gandhara,” in Annual Report of the International Research Institute for Advanced Buddhology at Soka University for the Academic Year 2015, vol. XIX (Tokyo, 2016), 47–56.
15. Specifically, the decorative band is painted on the east wall of the main chamber in Kumtura Cave 21.
16. A local dealer named Badreddin Khan had sold mural fragments from Khotan to various foreign visitors, including Emil Trinkler, who headed an expedition to the area in 1928. There are 162 mural fragments from Balawaste alone in different museum collections worldwide. See Gerd Gropp, Archäologische Funde aus Khotan Chinesisch-Ostturkestan: Die Trinkler-Sammlung im Übersee-Museum (Bremen, Germany: Rover, 1974), 105–106.
17. The temple in Dandan-Oilik was labeled CD4 by excavators in a joint Chinese-Japanese expedition, located in the northwest part of the site; see Zhang Yuzhong, Qu Tao, and Liu Guorui, “A Newly Discovered Buddhist Temple and Wall Paintings at Dandan-Uiliq in Xinjiang,” Journal of Inner Asian Art and Archaeology 3 (2008): 157–170 and figure 8. The example from Topulukdong came from No. 2 Temple Site; see Shanghai bowuguan, Silu fanxiang, entry no. 7, 68–69.
18. Matteo Compareti, “The ‘Eight Divinities’ in Khotanese Paintings: Local Deities or Sogdian Importation?” in Proceedings of the Eighth European Conference on Iranian Studies, ed. Pavel B. Lurje, vol. 1 (Saint Petersburg, Russia: State Hermitage, 2019), 117–132.
19. This wooden votive panel, along with a dozen others, was acquired by Claremont Skrine from Keraken Moldovack and Baddruddin Khan during Skrine’s visit to Khotan as the British consul-general in Chinese Turkistan in 1922–1924. See his Chinese Central Asia (London: Methuen, 1926), 170–171. It is in the British Museum (1925,0619.35).
20. Albert Grünwedel was the first to discuss the artistic development in Kucha in terms of three distinct wall painting styles in cave temples: Style I was based on Gandharan models, Style II on Sasanian precedents, and Style III on Chinese tradition. The scheme was further developed by Albert von Le Coq and Ernst Waldschmidt, who periodized the three styles by assigning the Gandhara-related material to before the 6th century, Sasanian phase to 600–650, and Chinese phase to 650–800. See Albert von Le Coq and Ernst Waldschmidt, Die Buddhistische Spätantike in Mittelasien, Bd. 7: Neue Bildwerke (Berlin: Dietrich Reimer, 1933), 24–31. Scholars in Germany have adhered to the same chronology since then but with some changes in period names.
21. Angela F. Howard and Giuseppe Vignato, Archaeological and Visual Sources of Meditation in the Ancient Monasteries of Kuča (Leiden, The Netherlands, and Boston: Brill, 2015), 26, 39.
22. Monks from the Dharmagupta School were also active in Kucha, probably before the arrival of the Kushans and the Sarvastivadins, but they left few material traces in local cave temples, Howard and Vignato, Archaeological and Visual Sources, 163–164.
23. For a more extensive discussion of these types of cave architecture, see Howard and Vignato, Archaeological and Visual Sources, 63–68.
24. Seven distinct clusters of caves are evident at Kizil. These groupings of caves provide evidence for a relative chronology that can complement dating based on stylistic analysis of wall paintings, see Howard and Vignato, Archaeological and Visual Sources, 98.
25. Miyaji Akira, Nehan to Miroku no zuzōgaku: Indo kara chūō ajia e [Iconology of Parinirvana and Maitreya: From India to Central Asia] (Tokyo: Yoshikawa Kobunkan, 1992), 512–517.
26. Monika Zin, “Reflections on the Purpose of the Kucha Paintings,” Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 38 (2015): 373–390.
27. Examples are found in Caves 77, 110, 116, and 212. See the illustrations and discussion in Eric M. Greene, “Death in a Cave: Meditation, Death Bed Ritual, and Skeletal Imagery at Tape Shotor,” Artibus Asiae 73, no. 2 (2013), 265–294.
28. Howard and Vignato, Archaeological and Visual Sources, 108–123.
29. See an analysis of the story in John S. Strong, The Buddha: A Short Biography (Oxford: Oneworld, 2001), 107–112.
30. See the examples in Kurita Isao, ed., Gandhara bijutsu [Gandharan Art], vol. 1 (Tokyo: Nigensha, 2003), 194.
31. Yaldiz et al., Magische Götterwelten, entry no. 289 (III 9061–9066), 198.
32. The test was performed during 1989–1990. See results in Xinjiang Qiuci shiku yanjiusuo, ed., Kezier shiku neirong zonglu [Content Catalogue for Kizil Caves] (Urumqi, China: Xinjiang meishu hying chubanshe, 2000), 304.
33. Howard and Vignato, Archaeological and Visual Sources, 37–38.
34. Xinjiang Weiwuer Zizhiqu wenwu guanli weiyuanhui et al., Kumutula shiku [Kumtura Caves] (Beijing: Wenwu chubanshe, 1992), plates 25–37, 43–47, 84–97.
35. These inscriptions are found in and around Cave 45, Xinjiang Qiuci shiku yanjiusuo, ed., Kumutula shiku neirong zonglu [Content Catalogue for Kumtura Caves] (Beijing: Wenwu chubanshe, 2008), 172–173.
36. See Yaldiz et al., Magische Götterwelten, entry no. 354 (III 7920), 242.
37. Howard and Vignato, Archaeological and Visual Sources, 5.
38. See the discussion of these terms in Wu Hung, “What Is Bianxiang?—On the Relationship between Dunhuang Art and Dunhuang Literature,” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 52, no. 1 (June 1992): 111–192.
39. There are numerous examples based on the Vimalakirti Sutra at the Mogao Caves, including over two dozen from the Tang dynasty.
40. Susan Bush and Hsio-yen Shih, Early Chinese Texts on Painting (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985), 64.
41. Bush and Shih, Early Chinese Texts, 56.
42. The other two texts are the shorter and longer versions of the Sukhavativyuha Sutra: the Amitabha Sutra and the Amitayurdhyana Sutra, respectively. For a concise discussion of these texts, see David Quinter, “Visualization/Contemplation Sutras (Guan Jing),” Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Religion.
43. For a brief introduction to the topic, see Eugene Y. Wang, “Pure Land Art,” in Encyclopedia of Buddhism, ed. Robert Buswell (New York: Macmillan, 2004), 693–698. See also Shi Pingting, ed., Dunhuang shiku quanji [Complete Works of Dunhuang Caves], Vol. 5: Amituo jinghua juan [Amitabha Transformation Images] (Hong Kong: Shangwu yinshuguan, 2002).
44. See illustrations of these works from Dunhuang in Tokyo National Museum, ed., The Grand Exhibition on Silk Road Buddhist Art (Tokyo: Yuri Shimbunsha, 1996), entry nos. 196–200 on pp. 183-186. For an account of the discovery of the Library Cave and its contents, see Roderick Whitfield, Susan Whitfield, and Neville Agnew, Cave Temples of Mogao: Art and History on the Silk Road (Los Angeles: Getty Conservation Institute, 2000), 32–49.