Freer Gallery of Art Arthur M Sackler GalleryGallery Guide Cave as Canvas: Hidden Images of Worship along the ancient Silk Routes
Cave as Canvas: Hidden Images of Worship along the Ancient Silk Routes
Buddhist Cave Temples in Chinese Central Asia along the Silk Routes
Buddhism reached Chinese Central Asia (modern Xinjiang) from India around the first century A.D., brought by missionaries via the ancient Silk Routes. By the third century A.D., this new religion was flourishing in all the oasis kingdoms in the Tarim Basin (the Taklamakan Desert), also known as eastern Turkestan. As the Buddhist religion took hold and piety increased, the Indian tradition of excavating caves to serve as Buddhist sanctuaries proliferated in this region. In many of the Central Asian states, monasteries and temples were hewn out of the cliffs in secluded river valleys. With the patronage of local rulers, the elite, and wealthy merchants, these institutions gradually became major Buddhist centers. They continued to grow and prosper until the advent of Islam. Today, such Buddhist rock-cut cave complexes are some of the finest, if little known, monuments preserved in Chinese Central Asia.

All Buddhist rock-cut caves can be classified into two major types: simple unadorned monks' quarters and larger halls of worship that are often lavishly decorated with wall paintings and sculptures. The largest surviving cave complex in Chinese Central Asia today is located at the site of Qizil (or Kizil), near the city of Kucha. Today, over 250 caves still survive at Qizil, of which 135 are relatively intact. Both types of caves occur there and the decorated cave temples represent the highest achievement of Central Asian art during this period. The grandeur of Qizil is comparable to other great Buddhist cave sites in China, such as the Dunhuang Caves in the Gansu Province and the Longmen Caves in the Henan Province.

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