Freer Gallery of Art Arthur M Sackler Gallery Gallery Guide Cave as Canvas: Hidden Images of Worship along the ancient Silk Routes
Cave as Canvas: Hidden Images of Worship along the Ancient Silk Routes
Wall Painting Tradition of Buddhist Cave Temples at Qizil
Although the Buddhist cave tradition originated in India, the cave temples of ancient Kucha have little in common with their Indian counterparts. The architects and artisans working at Qizil developed and modified the architectural tradition of rock-cut cave temples into something uniquely Kuchean. The ethnic diversity of ancient Kucha inspired its inhabitants to forge their own distinctive style of Buddhist art and architecture, drawing on influences from many different sources such as ancient Gandhara (modern Afghanistan), India, and Iran. Over time, the Kucheans absorbed all the artistic influences transmitted along the Silk Routes and adapted them into something of their own. Thus, the artistic achievements of Qizil exude an air of the cosmopolitanism that pervades the decoration in the Buddhist cave temples of Qizil.

The interior of these decorated caves typically consists of a large vaulted chamber in the front and a smaller rear chamber. Two tunnel-like corridors on the sides link these spaces. In the front chamber, a three-dimensional image of Buddha, housed in a large niche, usually serves as the focus of the interior. Regrettably, none of these sculptures survives at Qizil.

A series of sermon scenes or episodes from the life of the historic Buddha (Sakyamuni) traditionally decorate the side walls. The vaulted ceiling is always covered with Jataka stories that recount the deeds of the Buddha's many past lives or Avadana stories that are allegories or parables concerning the doctrine of the karma (the concept of cause and effect). At Qizil, each tale is framed in a uniquely Kuchean diamond-shaped pattern. The focus of the rear chamber is usually a Parinirvana scene representing the Great Demise of Sakyamuni. Throughout, the ancient Kuchean artists favored a blue and green palette that is characteristic of the wall paintings of Qizil.

The highly standardized decorative program of these cave temples represents a Buddhist cycle that transmits the core teaching of Buddhism. The Buddha, born Siddhartha Guatama, was part of an elite family, and lived in northern India from approx. 563 to 483 B.C.E. Renouncing his life of privilege, Siddhartha devoted himself to meditation and ascetism. Finally, he reached enlightenment through the realization that man could be free of suffering only by escaping the cycle of reincarnation to achieve Nirvana (ultimate extinction) or complete liberation from the earthly, sensory realm. The murals of the front chamber provide an almost "biographical" account of the Buddha's achievements. In the rear chamber the Parinirvana scene depicts the Great Demise of the Buddha and symbolizes his entry into Nirvanah—the ultimate goal of all Buddhist followers.

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