Buddhism on the Silk Routes

Buddhism spread across Asia through networks of overland and maritime routes between India, Southeast Asia, Central Asia, and China. The transmission of Buddhism to Central Asia and China corresponded with the development of the silk routes as channels for intercultural exchanges. After a Buddhist community was established in the Chinese capital at Loyang by the second century C.E., Buddhist monasteries emerged near irrigated oases at Khotan, Kucha, Turfan, and Dunhuang on the northern and southern branches of the silk routes.

The earliest waves of Parthian, Sogdian and Indian translators of early Chinese Buddhist texts came to Loyang via the silk routes. Dhamaraksa (ca. 233-311 C.E.) and Kumarajiva (344-413 C.E.) came directly from Buddhist centers in the Tarim Basin. Anonymous foreign monks who traveled between India and China along the silk routes were responsible for the transmission of Buddhism at sub-elite levels. Faxian (between 399-414 C.E.) and Xuanzang (between 627-645 C.E.), the most famous Chinese pilgrims to India, reported valuable details about social, political, and religious conditions along the silk routes.

Stupas, cave paintings, and manuscripts reflect the movement of Buddhism across Central Asia on the silk routs. Stupas at Buddhist sites on the southern route in the Tarim Basin adopted northwestern Indian architectural features. A Gandhari manuscript of the Dharmapada from Khotan and about one thousand Kharosthi documents show that the Gandhari language of northwestern India, Pakistan and Afghanistan continued to be used along the southern silk route until the 4th century C.E. Numerous Buddhist paintings in caves on the northern silk route display close stylistic affinities with the art of Gandhara, western Central Asia, and Iran, while others incorporate more Chinese and Turkish elements.

Buddhist Sanskrit manuscripts from the 2nd-6th centuries C.E. found at northern silk route Buddhist centers generally belonged to Shravakayana (Hinayana) schools (particularly the Sarvastivadins), but Mahayana manuscripts were prevalent in southern silk route centers such as Khotan. Buddhist literature was written in Central Asian vernacular languages, including Khotanese Saka, Tocharian, Sogdian, Uighur, Tibetan, and Mongolian, after the 6th century. Buddhist artistic and literary traditions continued to flourish in Central Asia along with Zoroastrian, Manichaean, and Nestorian Christian traditions in the middle to late 1st millennium C.E. With the exceptions of the surviving Buddhist traditions in Tibet and Mongolia, Buddhism disappeared from the Silk Road regions of Central Asia in the 2nd millennium C.E.

-- Jason Neelis


Emmerick, Ronald. "Buddhism in Central Asia," Encyclopedia of Religion (ed. Mirceau Eliade), vol. 2: 400-404. New York: Macmillan, 1987.

Härtel, Herbert and Yaldiz, Marianne. Along the Ancient Silk Routes: Central Asian Art from the West Berlin State Museums. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1982.

Liu, Xinru. Ancient India and Ancient China: Trade and Religious Exchanges AD 1-600. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1988 (reprint, 1997).

Liu, Xinru. The Silk Road: Overland Trade and Cultural Interactions in Eurasia. Washington D.C.: American Historical Association, 1998.

McRae, John and Nattier, Jan, eds. Collection of Essays 1993: Buddhism Across Boundaries - Chinese Buddhism and the Western Regions. Sanchung, Taipei: Fo Guang Shan Foundation, 1999.

Nattier, Jan. "Church Language and Vernacular Language in Central Asian Buddhism." Numen 37 (1990):195-219.

Rhie, Marylin Martin. Early Buddhist Art of China and Central Asia, vol. 1: Later Han, Three Kingdoms and Western Chin in China and Bactria to Shan-shan in Central Asia. Leiden: Brill, 1999.

Zürcher, Erik. The Buddhist Conquest of China: The Spread and Adaptation of Buddhism in Early Medieval China, 2 vols. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1959.