Buddhist Art and Architecture on the “Silk Road”

Michelle C. Wang

in Buddhism

ISBN: 9780195393521
Published online June 2011 | | DOI:
Buddhist Art and Architecture on the “Silk Road”

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The “Silk Roads,” a term first coined by the German geographer Baron Ferdinand von Richthofen in 1877, refers to the east–west overland trading routes crossing Central Asia that for centuries served as the conduit for the transmission not only of consumer goods such as silk textiles, but also of religions, including Buddhism. One terminus of the Silk Road lay in the Mediterranean, crossing through Syria, Mesopotamia, Iran, and Turkmenistan to Kashgar in present-day Xinjiang Autonomous Uighur Region of China. The Silk Road then split into northern and southern routes, skirting the forbidding Taklamakan Desert and reuniting at the Chinese military garrison of Dunhuang in Gansu Province, from which point the route continued further inland in China to the capital cities of Chang’an (present-day Xi’an) and Luoyang. Archaeological discoveries document the presence of trade from the Neolithic period. However, the earliest Chinese monk pilgrim to travel overland from China to India was Faxian, who departed in 399 ce on a fifteen-year journey. His travels paved the way for countless numbers of monks, among them Xuanzang, who embarked in 629 ce on a seventeen-year journey. The Buddhist sites situated in present-day Afghanistan, Xinjiang Autonomous Uighur Region, Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, and Gansu Province continued the traditions of rock-cut architecture first introduced in India. In addition to housing monastic communities, the rock-cut sites of the Silk Road also functioned as pilgrimage sites that were the recipients of patronage from local elites, traders, and Chinese rulers. The sites that have received the most attention, particularly from Western scholars, have been the Mogao cave shrines in Dunhuang, Gansu Province, and the Kizil cave shrines in Kucha, Xinjiang Autonomous Uighur Region. In addition to the mural paintings and sculptures of these rock-cut sites, Mogao Cave 17, commonly known as the “library cave,” contained tens of thousands of paintings and manuscripts that were sealed c. 1000 ce and that were dispersed in the early 20th century into library and museum collections around the world.

Article.  9383 words. 

Subjects: Buddhism ; Tibetan Buddhism ; Zen Buddhism

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