Kizil Caves

The Kizil Caves (also romanized Qizil Caves, spelling variant Qyzyl) are a set of Buddhist rock-cut caves located near Kizil Township (克孜尔乡, Kèzī'ěr Xiāng) in Baicheng County, Xinjiang, China. The site is located on the northern bank of the Muzat River 65 kilometres (75 km by road) west of Kucha.[1][2] This area was a commercial hub of the Silk Road.[3] The caves are said to be the earliest major Buddhist cave complex in China,[3] with development occurring between the 3rd and 8th centuries.

Kizil Caves
Kizil Caves on the edge of the Tarim Basin.
Shown within Xinjiang
LocationXinjiang, China
Coordinates41°47′N 82°30′E
Kizil Caves
Chinese name
Simplified Chinese克孜尔千佛洞
Traditional Chinese克孜爾千佛洞
Literal meaningKizil Cave of a Thousand Buddhas
Uyghur name
Uyghurقىزىل مىڭ ئۆي


The Kizil Caves complex is the largest of the ancient Buddhist cave sites that are associated with the ancient Tocharian kingdom of Kucha, as well as the largest in Xinjiang. Other cave sites in the Kucha region include the Kumtura Caves and Simsim Caves.

There are 236 cave temples in Kizil, carved into the cliff stretching from east to west for a length of 2 km.[1] Of these, 135 are still relatively intact.[4] The earliest caves are dated, based in part on radioactive carbon dating, to around the year 300.[5] Most researchers believe that the caves were probably abandoned sometime around the beginning of the 8th century, after Tang influence reached the area.[6] Documents written in Tocharian languages were found in Kizil, and a few of the caves contain Tocharian inscriptions which give the names of a few rulers.

Many of the caves have a central pillar design whereby pilgrims may circumambulate around a central column which is a representation of the stupa. A large vaulted chamber is located in front of the column and a smaller rear chamber behind with two tunnel-like corridors on the sides linking these spaces. In the front chamber, a three-dimensional image of Buddha would have been housed in a large niche serving as the focus of the interior, however, none of these sculptures have survived at Kizil.[7] The rear chamber may feature the parinirvana scene in the form of a mural or large sculpture, and in some cases, a combination of both.

There are three other types of caves: square caves, caves with large image, and monastic cells (kuti). Around two-thirds of the caves are kutis which are monks' living quarters and store-houses, and these caves do not contain mural paintings.


In 1906, the German expedition team of Albert von Le Coq and Albert Grünwedel explored the Kizil Caves. While Grünwedel was primarily interested in copying the murals, von le Coq chose to remove many of the murals. Most of the fragments removed are now in Museum of Asian Art (formerly Museum für Indische Kunst) in Dahlem, Berlin.[8] Other explorers removed some fragments of murals and may now be found in museums in Russia, Japan, Korea and United States. Although the site has been both damaged and looted, around 5000 square metres of wall paintings remained,[9] These murals mostly depict Jataka stories, avadanas, and legends of the Buddha, and are an artistic representation in the tradition of the Hinayana school of the Sarvastivadas.[1]

According to a text found in Kucha, the paintings in some of the caves were commissioned by a Tokharian (Thogar) king called "Mendre" with the advice of Anandavarman, a high-ranking monk. The king ordered an Indian artist, Naravahanadatta, and a Syrian artist, Priyaratna, with their disciples to paint the caves.[1] The neighbouring Khotanese kings Vijayavardhana and Murlimin also assisted with the painting of another cave by sending artists to the site.

A notable feature of the murals in Kizil is the extensive use of blue pigments, including the precious ultramarine pigment derived from lapis lazuli from Afghanistan. In the classification of the art of the region by Ernst Waldschmidt, there are three distinct periods:[1] the murals from the first phase are characterized by the use of reddish pigments, while those from the second phase used bluish pigments in abundance.[6] The earlier paintings reflect more Greco-Indian or Gandharan influences, while the second ones show Iranian (Sassanian) influences.[5] Later caves seem to have fewer legends and/or jatakas, being replaced by the repetitive designs of numerous small Buddhas (the so-called thousand Buddha motif), or sitting Buddhas with nimbuses.[1] The paintings of the first two phases showed a lack of Chinese elements.[6] The last phase, the Turkic-Chinese period, is most in evidence in the Turfan area, but in Kizil only two caves showed Tang Chinese influence.

Another characteristic of the Kizil murals is the division into diamond-shaped blocks in the vault ceilings of the main room of many caves. Buddhist scenes are depicted inside these diamond-shapes in many layers on top of one another to show the narrative sequences of the scenes.[1]

See also


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