The Oases of the Northern Tarim Basin

At the heart of the Silk Road lies the Tarim Basin, dominated by the Takla Makan Desert and ringed with the Tien Shan, Pamir and Kunlun Mountains. The water from melting snow in those mountains makes life possible at the edge of the desert. At Anxi, where the Hexi Corridor emerges from China into the desert, the Silk Road divided to go around the Takla Makan. The northern route passed through Hami, Turfan, Karashahr, Kucha, and eventually reached Kashgar, where it was joined by the southern Silk Road.

The early population of the northern Tarim seems to have been peoples who spoke Indo-European languages (among them a group known as the Tocharians). Over time, there would be in influx of Chinese and Turkic peoples from the east and Central Asians (notably the Sogdians), resulting in the disappearance of the original Indo-European language and the emergence of a very cosmopolitan culture typical of many of the centers along the Silk Road.

As Chinese scholars emphasize, there is abundant documentation of Chinese influence, beginning from the time when many of these northern towns came under the administration of the Han Dynasty in the first century BCE. Han administration continued with some breaks down through the second century CE. For several centuries various city-states then ruled the oases, notable among them Khocho (Gaochang) near Turfan, where one can still see the ruins of what had once been a flourishing city. The Tang Dynasty restored direct Chinese control in 640 and placed it under the military administration of Anxi. As the Tang weakened in the ninth century, the northern oases (notably Turfan) came under the control of the Uighurs, whose long rule down to the thirteenth century resulted in the replacement of the original local languages by Uighur Turkic.

The Chinese annals describe the flourishing cities and agriculture of the oases of the northern Tarim:

They [the people of Kucha] have a walled city and suburbs. The walls are threefold. Within are Buddhist temples and stupas numbering a thousand. The people are engaged in agriculture and husbandry. [Zhang, p 285]

Some of our best information on the region comes from the account of the Western Regions by the famous seventh-century pilgrim, Xuanzang. He devotes several pages to Kucha, noting among other things its agricultural products such as grapes and pomegranates and its musical culture. We know from other sources that Kuchean musicians were much sought after among the Tang elite.

These northern oases were amongst the earliest centers of Buddhism, as it made its way north from India. A number of the important early translators of Buddhist scriptures in China came from the Tarim oases, noteworthy among them Kumarajiva, a Kuchean who went to Dunhuang and acquired such a reputation that he conscripted to work in Chang'an in the first decade of the fifth century. Xuanzang found that Buddhism was flourishing in Turfan and Kucha; the ruler of the former tried to make him stay there rather than continue his journey to India. Xuanzang visited some of the famous monastic centers, which have left us important early examples of Buddhist painting and seem to have exercised considerable influence on the spread of Buddhist art further east. The early caves at Dunhuang show evidence of artistic connections with the centers in the northern Tarim.

Among the famous cave complexes are those of Kizil near Kucha and Bezeklik near Turfan. The dating of the paintings in these caves is controversial, but Kizil seems to be the older site (ca. 300-ca. 700), and its paintings have distinct Indian and Iranian features, the latter especially in details of clothing and fabrics. Xuanzang had found that the ruler of Kucha was ethnically a "westerner." The paintings at Bezeklik (ca. 650-950) are more closely connected with the art of East Asia, something we would expect given the more direct Chinese presence in that region and the fact that when the Uighurs came, their culture was already substantially influenced by that of China.

The Tarim oases also hosted other faiths, among them Manichaeism and Nestorian Christianity, both of which probably arrived from the west with the Sogdian merchants. There are striking fragments of illustrated Manichaean manuscripts from Khocho, and at least one painting that most scholars agree represents a Christian scene. When the Uighurs arrived in the Turfan region, they were still heavily influenced by Manichaeism, but increasingly they seem to have abandoned it for Buddhism. Some of the most interesting paintings from Bezeklik commemorate members of the Uighur elite, who are shown as participants in Buddhist rituals.

Apart from the descriptions in the early annals and other historic documents, we know about the culture of the north Tarim centers from the archaeological work that began in the early twentieth century and continues to this day. Much of the early work was carried out by German scholars, who removed the artifacts and some of the most important wall paintings to Berlin, where they are housed in the collection of the Museum für Indische Kunst. The famous British explorer of the Silk Road, Aurel Stein, also excavated in these Tarim sites. The materials he collected are in the British Museum and the National Museum in New Delhi. More recent excavations by Chinese scholars have added substantially to the documentation of the region's history. Unfortunately a great deal of the painting which remains at the cave sites in the Tarim has been damaged by vandalism on the part of a local population which felt that the Buddhist imagery harbored evil spirits and was an offense to Islamic strictures against human representation.

--Daniel C. Waugh


Zhang Guang-da, "The city-states of the Tarim Basin," and "Kocho (Kao-ch'ang)," chapters 11, 12 (pp. 281-314) in History of civilizations of Central Asia. Vol. III. The crossroads of civilizations: A.D. 250 to 750, B. A. Litvinsky et al., eds. (Paris: UNESCO, 1996).

Along the Ancient Silk Routes: Central Asian Art from the West Berlin State Museums (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1982).

Samuel Beal, Si-Yu-Ki. Buddhist Records of the Western World. Translated from the Chinese of Hiuen Tsiang AD 629 (London: Trubner, 1884 [repr., New Delhi, 1983]).

Peter Hopkirk, Foreign Devils along the Silk Road: The Search for the Lost Cities and Treasures of Chinese Central Asia (Amherst: Univ. of Massachusetts Press, 1980).

Albert von le Coq, Buried Treasures of Chinese Turkestan: An Account of the Activities and Adventures of the Second and Third German Turfan Expeditions, Anna Barwell, tr. (London: Allen & Unwin, 1928).

Angela F. Howard, "In Support of a New Chronology for the Kizil Mural Paintings," Archives of Asian Art, XLIV (1991), pp. 68-83.