Archive for 1000 Buddha Caves

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

Posted in Central Asia, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting with tags , , , , , , , on September 9, 2008 by Liz Hager

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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On the Trail of Alexander: Aurel Stein & the Caves of Dunhuang

Posted in Central Asia, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting, People & Places, Sculpture with tags , , , , , , , , on August 30, 2008 by Liz Hager


Traveling Monk sutra, colored inks on paper, 10th century CE,

Five Dynasties or Northern Song Dynasty
from Cave 17, Mogao, near Dunhuang, Gansu province, China. (courtesy British Museum) 

In July, 1900, Marc Aurel Stein stood amidst the high glaciers of the Pamir Mountains at the source of the Oxus River (now the Amu Dayra). As a young student in Dresden in the 1870s, Hungarian-born Stein was captivated by the military campaigns of Alexander, who marched his sizable armies from Greece through the steppes of Central Asian all the way to the Indus River valley, some 3000 miles as the crow flies.   Stein must have had a sense of what Alexander felt when he arrived at this place, the edge of the known world for the Greeks.  Although Stein couldn’t have known it then, this spot carried additional import. He was more or less at the midpoint of the famed “Silk Route,” the vast and shifting network of trade routes, which for centuries had connected China with the Mediterranean. Rediscovery of the civilizations along the Silk Route would make Stein’s reputation in his day.  And yet, today,  Aurel Stein is one of the least known explorers and archeologists of the 20th century.

Aurel Stein, Mogao Cave Grotto, Dunhuang, 1907,
photograph (courtesy Digital Archive, Toyo Bunko Rare Books)

Stein’s side trip to the Oxus was part of but one of 11 archeological expeditions he mounted during his lifetime, eight alone through the treacherous Tarim Basin in the heart of Chinese Turkestan (modern-day Xinjiang Uigher Automous and Gansu Provinces).   Altogether these expeditions lasted 7 years and covered some 40,000 kilometers over the most inhospitable terrains on camel, horse-back, and, when the going got rough, by foot.  The teams endured hurricanes of sand, frostbite, blindness and death in pursuit of Stein’s singleminded quest for ancient secrets buried in the sand.  Quite simply, Aurel Stein was able to see beyond the absolute desolation of the Central Asian landscape, beyond the acute physical pain he and members of his party often endured, to the cultural promise that a thousand years of history had bestowed on this part of the world.

Manjushri visiting Vimalakirti, ink and colours on paper, mid 10th c. CE,
Five Dynasties
from Cave 17, Mogao, near Dunhuang, Gansu province, China (courtesy British Museum).

Stein’s enduring legacy is his 1907 “discovery” of the Buddhist shrines at Dunhuang, a network of thousands of caves that once housed pilgrims and monks as they made their way along the northern and southern routes that skirted the large and formidable Takla Makan desert. The import of his find cannot be overestimated, for in the caves were tens of thousands of manuscripts, paintings, wall-hangings, sculptures and artifacts, undoubtedly the world’s largest collection of Buddhist art.  In the tradition of the day, Stein carted off as much as his camels could carry—literally tons—but not for himself.

The booty from Stein’s excavations was split among the governments of Britain, India, and Hungary. Portions of it are on view at the British Museum, the British Library, Srinagar (Kashmir) Museum, and the National Museum in New Delhi.  Some of it has been digitalized, but most lies in the basements.

In addition, see Venetian Red posts on elements of the Stein collections—Talisman of the Pole Star; Flying Down the Central Asian Steppe; Little Paper Offerings.

The Dunhuang discovery in particular provided invaluable documentation of life along the Silk Route. Much of it dated from the Tang Dynasty, a period more than 1000 years ago of particular prosperity along the Silk Route. Stein’s most important find was the “Diamond Sutra”— dated at 868 AD, it is the world’s earliest known printed book. In an interesting side note, the collection also provided scholars with the data necessary to connect the path of Buddhism from India to China.

Although Stein has been dead for over 65 years, the Chinese haven’t forgiven this “imperialist villian” for purloining a part of their national heritage.  Today, mostly due to vandalism in the 20th century, fewer than five hundred caves survive intact. We’ll never know what the Chinese would have done with the pieces that Stein took.  The way things are going in the museum world, they may get some of them back.

Wider Connections

Today in the Takla Makan desert

Foreign Devils on the Silk Route —Peter Hopkirk’s engaging overview of the early 20th c. archeological “raiders”  in this corner of Central Asia.

The Thousand Buddhas (digital copy of 1921 original book)

Aurel Stein: Pioneer of the Silk RoadAnnabel Walker’s informative and highly-readable biography of Stein (now out of print)

Aurel Stein at the British Museum

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