Reviving the Glorious Past: The Discovery and Research of Ancient Khotan Buddhism Art

Summary: Investigation and ExcavationHetian Prefecture of the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region is located at the southern edge of the Taklamakan Desert. Its fertile land has entered the horizon of the Han Chinese ever since the reign of the Emperor Wu of the Han D

Investigation and Excavation

Hetian Prefecture of the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region is located at the southern edge of the Taklamakan Desert. Its fertile land has entered the horizon of the Han Chinese ever since the reign of the Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty after Zhang Qian opened trade routes to the Western Regions. The area was once named Khotan, while the prominent monk of the Tang Dynasty, Xuan Zang, called it Kustana (Ch.: Qu-sa-dan-na). Being one of the most prosperous hubs on the southern branch of the Silk Route since the Han Dynasty, Khotan is dotted with various historic sites yet buried deep into the sands.

The investigation and research of cultural relics and images from Khotan was tightly intertwined with the late nineteenth century expeditions and accompaning looting conducted by foreign explorers. In 1893, a French mission led by Dutreuil de Rhins and F· Grenard into the Western Regions went by Khotan. Their acquisition of a number of potteries and figurines there was later showed in an exhibition held in Europe, and aroused an enthusiastic public attention to the land.

Khotan soon became a hub for explorers from around the world along with the rise of interest in investigating the Western Regions. In 1896, the Sweden explorer Sven Hedin has ventured further into the interior of the desert, and during his second expedition found the renowned sites of Dandan Oilik and Karadong. As the pioneer of western explores in investigating and excavating sites in Khotan, Sven Hedin’s record of location and hydrology of the two sites became classical guides to later explorers and archaeologists. 

Among those explorers crowd in Khotan following the steps of Sven Hedin, the most important figure is Marc Aurel Stein from Britain. From 1900 to 1930, Stein has led four expeditions in Xinjiang and the Hoxi Corridor and looted away large numbers of uncovered objects. His notes of experience and excavation was later compiled and published as books.

“The Ancient Hotan,” one of the four publications, “has elaborately recorded the whole journey of Stein’s expedition in the Taklamakan Desert, with a great total one million words in length and over three-hundred photographs and maps.” During his investigation at Khotan, Stein has conducted systematic excavations of a number of sites near Damago, including the remains of the Rawak monastery, Dandan Oilik, Siyelik and Balawaste. Photographs of some of his excavations and plan drawings of the sites that are included in the archaeological report have provided a rich amount of first hand sources. Nevertheless, Stein was notorious for his looting activities that are indicated by his destroy of sites and taking away of uncovered objects.

 During Stein’s active days in the Western Regions, there were several other expeditions taken place around the same time. The ōtani Mission of Japan led by ōtani Kōzui and Watanabe Tesshin has organized a series of three investigations between 1902 and 1914 in the Western Regions and the Hoxi Corridor. Interested primarily in exploration, the mission focused on looting cultural relics instead of conducting any systematic excavation. A large amount of objects uncovered from Khotan were later brought to Japan. A portion that was left behind in the Northeastern region of China after the fall of the puppet Manchurian Regime is currently preserved in the Lvshun Museum. 

 The Third German Turfan Expedition (1905 to 1907) led by Albert von Le Coq once stopped by Khotan. Uncovered objects from the region were sent to the Ethnological Museum of Berlin soon after. From 1927 to 1935, the joint Sino-Swedish Expedition in north and northwest China has conducted geological, historical and archaeological research in Inner Mongolia, Gansu, and Xinjiang under the lead of Xu Bingchang and Sven Hedin and achieved significant accomplishments. All of its team members were leading figures in their respective research fields, such as the Chinese archaeologist Huang Wenbi and Sweden archaeologist Folke Bergmann. The expedition has been successful in taking investigations and preliminary excavations of many sites. In 1929, the team arrived at Khotan and surveyed sites in the desert according to the region’s fluviology and hydrology. Huang Wenbi has accounted elaborately in his book, Archaeology of the Tarim Basin, of sites located in the desert to the north of Khotan, ancients sites near Damogo, and the Keriya River and Karadong. His book also includes archaeological reports of the monastic sites of Melikawat and Karadong, with illustrations attached.

Except for above-mentioned famous explorers and investigative teams, a great many of western explorers and treasure-seekers spotted Khotan as a main hub for exploration, and subsequently took place investigations and acquisitions. The renowned includes the American dealer O· T· Crosby and E· Huntington in 1903, the Finnish C· G· E· Mannerheim in 1907, the Russian S· F· Oldenburg from 1914 to 1915, the German W· Trinkler and H de Terra in 1928, and W· Filchner from 1934 to 1938. Objects acquired by these international explorers have been latter scattered in museums located in London, Bremen, New York, and St. Petersburg.

 These expeditions taken place in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries ended up in the chaos of Khotan and large outflow of cultural relics. In addition, driven by the economic benefits, the majority of treasure-seekers have conducted illegal digging and smuggling in the area, leaving sites of Khotan in a state of devastation. 

Research and Preservation

 Since the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, the National Cultural Heritage Administration, the Xinjiang Autonomous Region Institution of Cultural Heritage  and the Hetian Municipal Museum have organized a series of archaeology surveys and rescuing excavations at several sites. An important one is the 1979 excavation of the Han Dynasty site at Melikawat in Lop County, which uncovered a number of early Buddhist objects including miniature Buddhist images, seated Buddha statues (damaged) and stucco fragments of mural paintings. Since 1988, the joint Sino-Japan Expeditin has carried out a nine-year long scientific excavation at Niya in Minfeng County. Experts from both the two countries have cleaned out remains of residential area and Buddhist monasteries, and thus uncovered a large amount of objects and manuscripts, including even silk-made works, such as the renowned piece of brocade embroidered with the text “Wuxing chu dongfang li zhongguo” (Five stars rise in the east, benefiting the Central Kingdom). This investigation led to the publication of a two-volume book titled “Niya site: Research Report into an Ancient Town in Xinjiang, China.” In 1993, the Xinjiang Institute of Archaeology in collaboration with the French 315 Research Institute has conducted a three-year investigation of the sites of Karadong and Yuansha that are located by the Keriya River. They have uncovered a Buddhist stūpa and two Buddhist monasteries at Karadong, and a complex of pre-Han burials that is located deep in the Taklamakan Desert near the Keriya River’s downstream. The monastery dated to the third or fourth century CE has preserved several pieces of stucco mural fragments that are painted with Buddha images in the seated or the feet-crossing posture.

 In 2006, the Institute of Archaeology of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences has rediscovered monasteries No. 61 and No. 62 of Karadong, yielding mural fragments of multi-armed bodhisattvas, and gold and silver wares dated to the sixth to the seventh century. In 2002, a joint expedition led by teams from the Xinjiang Cultural Heritage Administration, the Xinjiang Institute of Archaeology , and the Niya Research Institute of Bukkyo University of Japan, has conducted four expeditions of the site Dandan Oilik. In addition to the preservation of murals in Buddhist monasteries, the team has also acquired many objects including coins and potteries. Achievements of the team and their relevant research are collected in the 2009 publication “Dandan Oilik Site: Report of the Sino-Japanese Joint Expedition,” which becomes the most up-to-date research of the site. Another excavation was taken place in 2002 at the Damago site of Buddhist Monasteries in the Qira County. Two archaeological diggings conducted in 2002 and 2010 respectively at the Buddhist monasteries No.1 to No. 3 in Toplukdong have uncovered large amounts of Buddhist remains including painted murals, statues, and tsa-tsa. Stylistic traits of these unearthed murals and objects indicate a date of the period between the sixth and the ninth century. 

Combing through the post-1949 archaeological excavations at the important sites in Khotan, one sees how the systematized and protective excavation policy, under the guidance of the aim to protect historical sites and relics, is intrinsically distinctive from the looting activities taken by western explorers. At the same time, the integration of foreign teams in joint expeditions not only nurtures the archaeological and research capacity, but also accelarates the internationalization of the field of Khotan studies. 

 Amidst the recollection and systematic arrangement of archaeological sites, the Hetian Prefecture established a municipal bureau of cultural heritage in 1979 to perform the function of acquiring and preserving cultural relics. With support from the administration of the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region and the local government of the Hetian Prefecture since 1995, the Hetian Municipal Museum was officially launched in 2005 and soon became the essential institute for the preservation and research of local cultural relics. 

Nevertheless, private diggings and smugglings still happen nowadays in Hetian despite of the prosperity of the local archaeology and preservation. The region is facing a particular difficulty due to the shortage in funding and personnel. During the preparation for a new season of excavation at a sites near Damago in 2010, organized criminal groups presumptuously dug and smuggled in nearby deserts, their uncovered murals were later sold out in remarkably low price. With the help of local police in 2001, over 3,000 pieces of stolen objects were brought back, however, more murals were heartbrokenly destroyed during the illegal digging and resale process. In addition to the research of Khotan arts, more efforts are needed in its protection.

Tang Dynasty Buddhist Remains in Hetian

Surviving sites show that most sites in Hetian are located along the major rivers and ancient trade routes. Uncovered manuscripts and archaeological analysis of unearthed sites have dated several Buddhist remains to the Tang Dynasty. The first one is the site of Dandan Oilik in the Damago region. After the Sweden explorer Sven Hedin discovered the site, he conducted preliminary excavation and did hand drawings of the thousand-Buddha murals in its Buddhist monasteries. Stein’s arrival in 1900 led to the first systematical excavation of remains in the ancient site, including eight Buddhist monasteries. Large amount of Buddhist statuary and manuscripts were brought to Britain. Over the course of the 2002 Chinese and Japanese Joint Expedition at Dandan Oilik, archaeologists and scholars conducted new systematically excavation at sites that Stein has uncovered, yielding more painted mural in monasteries.

Local religious paintings belong to two main categories: murals and painted wooden panels. Murals usually depict the thousand-Buddha motif, standing Buddhas, multi-faced and multi-armed deities, horsemen or donors. Painted wooden panels are rendered in either the horizontal or the vertical format. The horizontal format prefers narrative stories, such as the “Canzhong dongchuan” (The eastwards transmission of the silkworm eggs) and the “Shuwang chuanshuo” (The legend of the Mice King) from Dandan Oilik. Meanwhile, the Kadalik site of the Damago region, the initial systematic digging of where was taken place by Stein, indicates a date of occupation close to that of Dandan Oilik, according to the discovery of coins of the Tang Dynasty at the site. Other discoveries from the site include murals, clay statues, manuscripts written in Sanskrit and Tubo, as well as fragments of color-painted wooden panels. Themes of these paintings include the thousand-Buddha motif, seated donors located on the lower part of the enclosure wall, and the Buddha Vairocana. The first comprehensive research of Khotanese paintings is conducted by the British scholar Mrs. Joanna Williams, who has provided identification of over 20 paintings in her doctoral dissertation “The Iconography of Khotanese Painting.” 

 At the site Balawaste that is located at Damago near Kadalik, Stein has discovered a great deal of fragments of Buddhist statues, silk brocades and wooden strips. Some murals indicate the employment of the unique technique of polishing with water. The site was later revisited by the German explorer W· Trinkler, objects of whose excavation were later distributed into the British Museum, the National Museum in New Delhi, and the übersee-Museum Bremen in Germany. German scholar G· Gropp has published the 162 pieces of murals preserved in the übersee-Museum Bremen, most of which detached from the Balawaste site, in his book “Archäologisches Funde aus KhotanChinesisch-Ostturkestan.” Balawaste murals exhibit a broad range of themes, including multi-armed deities, the guardian king Vaishravana, the Buddha Vairocana, and images of Buddhas and bodhisattvas. 

At the site of Toplukdong, a Damago site discovered by a local shepherd in 2000, there are in total three Buddhist monasteries excavated by 2011. The monasteries No. 2 and No. 3 are dated to Tang, with mural paintings depicting preaching scenes, the thousand-Buddha theme, multi-armed deities, and horsemen. The Monastery No.3 also houses paintings of donors dressed in the Tang or Tubo-style. A number of painted wooden panels feature Buddhas of multi-eyes and deities dressed in white robe. 

 In the Feburary of 1901, Stein along with a retinue of hired labourers has conducted consecutive excavations for five days at all of the major architectural remains in the ancient city of Endere by the Andir River. Within the central monastery of the city, they found a large number of manuscripts written in Brahmi, Chinese or Tubo, and fragments of statues and mural painting. The most significant discovery is an inscription, which talks about a Tang official, found on the northwestern corner of the monastery’s inner hall. The inscription reads, “On the seventh year of …not until Jian has heard that his troop has reached the four great garrisons. Tubo…with the Tubo official of the Taichang rank (chamberiain for cermonials) Qin Jiaxing returned to the original path…” The inscription was attributed to the seventh year of the Zhenguan era (791 CE), heretofore yielding the date of the Tubo occupation of Khotan. All of the excavated cultural relics are now preserved in the British Museum and the Hetian Museum. In 1989, the Hetian Institute of Cultural Heritage has restored three Buddhist monasteries and a complex of burials of Kumlabat in the Karakax County, with some fragmented murals discovered. The majority of objects uncovered from the area was acquired from locals, stucco Buddhist statues and decorative pieces of which usually have traces of pigments. Major themes of murals include the thousand-Buddha motif, the Buddha Maitreya, animals and donors. Most of them are preserved at the Hetian Museum. 

Based on current remains discovered in sites of Tang Buddhist monasteries in Khotan, there are two major types of paintings, namely murals and painted wooden panels. The common theme is Buddhist icons. Despite of these images’ fragmentary, surviving pieces reveal that murals are usually incompatible with the overall layout of monasteries. For instance, the thousand-Buddha motif is usually found on ceilings or enclosure walls. Typically on an enclosure wall, the major icon of the Buddha is rendered above donor images. The most representative themes include the Buddha Vairocana, the guardian king Vaishravana, horsemen, earth deities, donors, some multi-armed deities that are probably esoteric or Zoroastrian, and preaching scenes rendered in a relatively large scale. 

Along with the deepening of archaeological investigations in Hetian and the publication of notes and materials of western explorers, the Buddhist Kingdom of Khotan on the southern branch of the ancient Silk Roads is reviving its lost glorious past, allowing a broader group of audience and more scholars to learn about the glamour of the pre-thirteenth century Buddhist art in the Western Regions through the observation of surviving statues and murals of splendid craftsmanship. 

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