Kucha and the Kizil Caves

One of the important centers along northern branch of the Silk Road in the Tarim Basin was Kucha, located at the intersection of the east-west trade route with one descending from the difficult Muzart Pass in the north. Kucha was one of the earliest centers of Buddhism in the Tarim Basin. Buddhism may have arrived there as early as the first century CE. The area's flourishing Buddhist communities were noted in a fourth-century Chinese chronicle. Since the area was one where people of different ethnicities mixed, it became a center in which the activities of multi-lingual translators could flourish. One of the most famous and accomplished of the translators of Buddhist scriptures in China, Kumarajiva (344-413) was a Kuchean, born to Indian and Kuchean parents. The famous pilgrim monk Xuanzang in the 630s described Kucha at some length. Here are some highlights of his account:

The soil is suitable for rice and grain...it produces grapes, pomegranates and numerous species of plums, pears, peaches, and almonds...The ground is rich in minerals-gold, copper, iron, and lead and tin. The air is soft, and the manners of the people honest. The style of writing is Indian, with some differences. They excel other countries in their skill in playing on the lute and pipe. They clothe themselves with ornamental garments of silk and embroidery....
There are about one hundred convents in this country, with five thousand and more disciples. These belong to the Little Vehicle [Theravada] of the school of the Sarvastivadas. Their doctrine and their rules of discipline are like those of India, and those who read them use the same originals....About 40 li to the north of this desert city there are two convents close together on the slope of a mountain...Outside the western gate of the chief city, on the right and left side of the road, there are erect figures of Buddha, about 90 feet high.

One of the important monastic cave complexes which may have been visited by Xuanzang, is that at Kizil, located to the west of Kucha on one of the routes up into the mountains. The first serious study of the Kizil caves and their art was by the German expeditions of the early twentieth century led by Alfred Grünwedel and Alfred von Le Coq. Their work and that of most subsequent scholars tended to distinguish three periods of artistic activity at Kizil, the earliest (starting around 500 CE) showing Indian/Gandharan influences and the next, Iranian (Sassanian) influences. Some objects from the site have been dated as late as 800 CE.

More recent work, relying in part on radioactive carbon dating, pushes the earliest dates back by some two centuries to around the year 300 CE. The architecture of the caves, the themes of the paintings, and their stylistic features all support the idea of such an early date. Of particular interest is the fact that the subject matter of the paintings shows no evidence of Mahayana Buddhist doctrines, which would become popular in China later. Given the importance of the Kucha region in the transmission of Buddhism into China and the evidence we have about the movement of translators such as Kumarajiva, it is reasonable to suggest that the art (and possibly the artists) of Kizil influenced the early art of the Mogao Cave complex near Dunhuang, further east along the Silk Road. The earliest of the extant Dunhuang caves (dating from the beginning of the fifth century) show distinctly "Central Asian" features in their painting, stylistically similar to what we find at Kizil. Among the subjects depicted at Kizil and Mogao in strikingly similar fashion is that of the "Cosmological Buddha," whose robe displays images connected with the phenomenal world.

--Daniel C. Waugh