“Talisman of the Pole Star”—Protection Along the Silk Route

Talisman of the Pole Star, ink and colors on paper, mid-10th century, Cave 17, Mogao Grottos, Dunhuang (©The British Museum)

In early March, 1907, archeologist Aurel Stein reached the square-walled oasis of Dunhuang on the edge of the Lop Nur, now just a dried lake bed at the eastern end of the Tarim Basin. Twelve miles SE of the oasis in a shallow depression, known as the “Valley of 1000 Buddhas,”  Stein would soon uncover the world’s most extensive and celebrated cache of Buddhist art, some of it more than 1500 years old.

For more Venetian Red posts on Dunhuang Caves—On Trail of Alexander; Flying Down the Central Asian Steppe; Little Paper Offerings.

“Talisman of the Pole Star” was one of perhaps 40,000 manuscripts that Stein eventually removed from the caves.  At 17×12 inches, it was designed to be carried, rather than read in a library. Certainly its magical powers and delightful design have made it an object of interest. However, the real value of the scroll for me was in its context in the history of human development, specifically the migration of Buddhism from India to China.

Ashoka the Great did much to spread Buddhism beyond India in the 3rd c. BCE. As Aurel Stein’s many Central Asian digs were to make clear, Alexander and his armies introduced Hellenic culture to lands already steeped in Buddhist beliefs.  It was only natural that proselytizing monks should travel along the well-established roads of the Silk Route, establishing monasteries and enclaves in and around key trading center.   Though Daoism and Confucionism were well-established in China, the Chinese were curious about new ideas. Or perhaps they perceived a threat.  By the 1st c. BCE, the Hou Hanshu chronicles describe Emperor Ming sending envoys West to “inquire about the Buddha’s doctrine.”

By the 2nd/3rd c. CE, many Silk Route cities came to be dominated by Buddhist stupas and monasteries, some of them evident today.   In the 7th century, Dunhuang became a prosperous way station at the juncture of the northern and southern routes around the Takla Makan desert. Also by the 7th century, the Chinese had embraced Buddhism and were undertaking the wholesale translation of Buddhist texts into Chinese. This endeavor was to require many generations of scholars traveling back and forth from India to China. It’s not surprising with this confluence of factors that a considerable and lasting Buddhist outpost was established near Dunhuang.

The scroll form is believed to have come to China with Buddhism along the Silk Route. The layout of the “Pole Star” scroll with the image on top and text below was to become the dominant form for Chinese illustrated books from the eleventh to the sixteenth centuries.  Further, the imagery on this scrol beautifully the absolute demonstrates the absolute fungibility of cultures, where they mix freely.

The Pole Star was an established figure in Chinese Daoist and Hindu religions, so undoubtedly the Buddhists adopted from either of these sources.  In depicting the figure of the Pole Star (left) holding a paper and a brush, the artist was careful to follow existing traditions that associated the figure with imparting of information. On the right of the scroll is mythological figure, Ketu, a Hindu tradition whom the Buddhists embraced. Together with deity Rahu, Ketu represents a point on the ecliptic where the Moon is in alignment with the Sun and the Earth.

Thus, the pairing of the Pole Star and Ketu denotes precise harmony with the celestial elements—i.e. the Sun, the Earth, the Moon, the stars; important to Buddhists in the enfolding of individual consciousness and no doubt appealing to the Chinese.  For extra protection, the artist has added text in Chinese and Daoist writing (transcribed below), penned in red to confer extra good luck and/or supernatural powers on the bearer of the talisman.

Whoever wears in his girdle this talisman, which is a dharani (magic chant) talisman, will obtain magic power and will have his sins remitted during a thousand kalpas (eras). And of the Ten Quarters all the Buddhas shall appear before his eyes. Abroad in the world he shall everywhere encounter good fortune and profit. Throughout his whole life he shall enjoy other men’s respect and esteem. His religious merit shall be unparalleled, and this protection and purification shall come to him as swiftly as Lü Ling (a Daoist sage) rides.

—Roderick Whitfield (Caves of the Thousand Buddhas) translation of the “Pole Star” text.

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