China’s Earliest Buddhist Caves: The Kizil Thousand Buddha Grottoes (Photos)

The Kizil Thousand Buddha Caves in Xinjiang. (Image: Rolf Mueller/Wikimedia Commons)
The Kizil Thousand Buddha Caves in Xinjiang. (Image: Rolf Mueller/Wikimedia Commons)

Once a commercial hub on the ancient Silk Road, all that remains of Kizil is a set of Buddhist rock-cut caves in North West China’s Xinjiang Province.

They are the earliest known Buddhist cave complex in China, and were developed between the 3rd and 8th centuries during the time of the ancient Tocharian kingdom of Kucha.

Spanning 1.2 miles from east to west, there are 236 cave temples carved into the cliff.

Over half of them are still fairly intact. They are either simple cells where monks lived, or richly decorated temples with murals. Most of the sculptures have been removed.

The murals depict religious themes, such as legends of the Buddha, and karmic parables. Some of the paintings show the natural landscape, and daily life of people in Kucha, like farming, and hunting activities.

Dance of princess Chandraprabha, mural in Cave 83. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Dance of princess Chandraprabha, mural in Cave 83. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

The paintings have two stylistic phases: The first used reddish pigments, while the second used bluish ones, including a precious ultramarine pigment made from lapis lazuli.

Mural depicting disciples of Buddha, Cave 224, ~600 A.D. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Mural depicting disciples of Buddha in Cave 224, ~A.D 600. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

There is a distinct lack of Chinese influence with only two caves showing elements from the Tang Dynasty that influenced the area from the start of the 8th century, when the caves were probably abandoned.

Wall painting of a feitian playing pipa - pigment on stucco, Tang Dynasty, A.D. 600-800. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Wall painting of a feitian playing pipa – pigment on stucco, Tang Dynasty, A.D. 600-800. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Sadly many of the caves were damaged and looted after Islam arrived in the region, during the Cultural Revolution, and when German archaeologists and other explorers removed sections of murals.

Fragments of a Kizil wall painting at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Missouri. (Image: Daderot/Wikimedia Commons)

Fragments of a Kizil wall painting at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Missouri. (Image: Daderot/Wikimedia Commons)

The area was listed as part of a World Heritage Site in June 2014, including other ruins on the ancient trade route, and has been likened to an exquisite flower blooming in the desert of the Silk Road.

Goddess and celestial musician. (Wikimedia Commons)

Goddess and celestial musician. (Wikimedia Commons)

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