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Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves

By Devik Balami at
Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves

Just like other thousand Buddha Caves, the Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves is also a complex of Buddhist grottos which is located between the cities of Turpan and Shanshan (Loulan) at the north-east of the Taklamakan Desert near the ancient ruins of Gaochang in the Mutou Valley, a gorge in the Flaming Mountains, China. These grottoes are situated high on the cliffs of the west Mutou Valley. It is recorded that the construction of these grottoes was started from the 5th century and completed only in the 14th century, but most of the caves that existed in the current period were constructed during the west Uyghur kingdom around the 10th - 13th centuries.

Cities along the silk road

Buddhist Uyghurs

Uyghurs were physically Mongoloid until they mixed with the Tarim Basin's original Indo-European Tocharian inhabitants as suggested by Professor James A. Millward. His explanation was supported by the images of Uyghur patrons housed at temple no. 9 in Bezeklik Caves. It was believed that the Buddhist Uyghur created Brezeklik buddhist arts or murals.

Another researcher, Peter B. Golden writes that the Uyghurs didn't only adopt the religious faiths of the Indo-European Sogdians, they also look them as mentors and followed them as Silk Road traders. This belief is supported by the image of Sogdians wearing silk robes as seen in the pranidhi scene of Bezeklik arts; Sogdians donating the Buddha in Scene 6 from Temple 9.

Albert von Le Coq, another imminent personality, who researched murals of Bezeklik. He suggested that the person in pranidhi scene who was kneeling and praying in front of the Buddha were Persian people with green eyes, wearing the green fur-trimmed coat.

During a ghazat, holy war, the Buddhist Uyghurs of the Kingdom of Qocho and Turfan were converted to Islam by Muslim Chagatai Khanate ruler, Khizr Khoja. After being converted to Islam, the descendants of the previously Buddhist Uyghurs in Turfan believed that instead of their ancestors, Infidel Kalmuks were the people who built Buddhist monuments in their area. This belief was developed since they were not able to retain the memory of their ancestral legacy.


Buddhist art at the Bezeklik grottoes

It is recorded that there are around 77 rock-cut caves at this grottoes. Most of the caves at the grottoes have rectangular space and rounded ceilings. The ceilings were divided into four sections, and each section consists of antique Buddhist arts painted on the ceilings. Therefore we can see hundreds of Buddhist arts painted all over the ceiling and walls of the grottoes. Some murals, Buddhist arts painted over the wall or the ceiling, shows a large Painting of Buddha which is surrounded by other figures, including Turks, Indians, and Europeans. Regarding about the quality of the murals, there are various quality murals from naïve to the masterpieces. One of the masterpiece Buddhist art of Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves is large sized "Pranidhi Scene" which portrays Sakyamuni Buddha's promise or pranidhi from his past life.

Due to the Muslim conquest and also Muslim population, the Buddhists arts found inside of the caves have suffered heavy damage. It was recorded that the local Muslim people in that period, also had destroyed the images and arts installed in the cave. The locals also took out the pieces of murals which were used as fertilizer. It was only after late 19th century many explorers visited this place and found the Buddha statues, in pieces and in single, and murals, later they took those artifacts to their homelands. Albert von Le Coq, a German explorer, had also collected some of the best murals, like- large pieces of pranidhi scene which later was sent to Germany and then fixed to the walls in Museum of Ethnology in Berlin. During the Second World War, this Buddhist art was also destroyed along with the Museum when bombarded. But still, other parts of this mural are safely stored in other Museum of the world.

This thousand cave still has its charm and lots of people visits here just to see the magnificent antique Buddha statues and buddhist arts even though most of its parts were destroyed in ancient times.