The Silk Road in Xinjiang

Article and Photographs by Yap Pak Choong (C) 2020



Hotan (Khotan): The remains of Rawak Buddhist Complex


Today Hotan, or Khotan, is a medium-sized city located in the Southern rim of Tarim Basin, in the present-day Chinese Xinjiang Province, which was then known as the “Western Region” by the ancient Chinese. Two thousand years ago, it was one of the most powerful kingdoms in that region, the territory of which included the present day Yarkland, Loulan (Shanshan), Turfan, Kashgar, Kucha and Karashahr.

Ancient Khotan was inhabited by the Sakas, people with roots from ancient Persia. The Sakas already had business dealings with the Chinese three thousand years ago during the Shang and Zhou Dynasties. Later when the Southern Silk Roads took shape during the Western Han Dynasty (1st to 2nd century B.C.E), the kingdom was connected with Dunhuang on the east, an ancient city located in Gansu Province.

Initially, it was the Nikaya Buddhism (so-called Hinayana Schools) from Gandhara region of Northwest India (modern day northern Pakistan, Kashmir regions), that was brought to this region sometime during the turn of the Christian era. Mahayana Buddhism only became prominent from 5th century C.E. onwards. It was during this golden period that the first Chinese pilgrim monk Chu Shi-hing came with his disciples to study Mahayana Buddhism.

Ancient Khotan was one of the earliest Buddhist kingdoms in the world, and Buddhism existed there for more than a thousand years. During this long period of time, many Buddhist texts, written in Gandhari Prakrit (in Kharosthi script) were brought from Gandhara, and translated into Khotanese, an Eastern Iranian language related to ancient Sanskrit.

With the advent of Buddhism, many viharas (Buddhism temples) and stupas were constructed for people to worship and venerate. According to the Chinese pilgrim monk Faxian’s memoir, there were only fourteen large and small viharas during the 4th century C.E. By the time of 7th century C.E., the Chinese pilgrim monk, Xuanzang mentioned about hundred viharas. However, by the late 9th to early 10th century C.E., the number had increased by fourfold . Khotan was conquered by the Islamic Kara-Khanid Khanate in 11th century C.E., following this onslaught, Buddhism declined and never recovered.

One of the better-preserved remains of Buddhist monastery complex extant today is the Rawak Buddhist stupa which is located about 60km to the north of the present day Hotan city. The stupa is of Gandharan design, surrounded by four walls together with other buildings not far away outside. Each wall is estimated to be about 45 m long with carvings and murals on both sides of it. However, over the years, the walls and other buildings have long been destroyed and collapsed, what we see today are only the remnant pieces of foundation bricks.

The lower part of the main stupa is still in reasonably good, recognizable condition though its upper portion have been destroyed and fallen. The staircases at the four cardinal sides of the two-levels square plinth that lead to the base of the main structure can hardly be recognized. The stupa faces south, the enclosures in front of it has two openings, one of these is directly facing the stupa. At the eastern side of the complex, there is a small temple in ruins. The structural designs of the whole temple complex, which includes the stupa, other temple buildings, carvings and wall paintings etc. show the influences of Gandharan Buddhist arts, which are different in styles from those found in mainland China.

It is not very clear when the Rawak Buddhist Complex was built, however, historians believe that it could be constructed during the Chinese Northern and Southern Dynasties (5th to 7th century C.E.). The complex was abandoned during 11th century C.E due to the invasion of Islamic Turkic army.



Hotan (Khotan): Melikawat Ruins


The Melikawat ruins as seen today are located just at the west bank of Yorungkash River, about 25 km away from present Hotan city. In ancient days, it was a town, probably the capital or a major Buddhist centre of ancient Khotan kingdom. Some believe that the buildings were constructed during the Tang Dynasty (7th to 9th century C.E.), yet other scholars mentioned 4th century C.E. as probable date, as they claim that these were mentioned in the memoir of the Chinese pilgrim monk Faxian , who, on his way to India for pilgrimage, stayed for a few months in Gomati, a Mahayana monastery in Khotan kingdom.

The ancient town and monastery complex were abandoned probably due to long period of wars fought with the Islamic Turks, which ended sometime during 11th century C.E. Over the years, the remains of the buildings and monasteries have been covered by a thick layer of silt caused by the overflowing river water from nearby Yorungkash River, as well as the fine sands blown from the nearby deserts, thus leaving behind only wind-eroded heaps of “rocks” and some large earth mounds scattered here and there. These are probably the remains of top portions of the buildings.

The ruins measure 10km from north to south, and about 2 km wide from east to west, it is in very deplorable conditions. At the southern side of the ruins, and within the compound of the archaeological site, one can see a tilted stone stupa with diameter of about 60 m long, and its height is slightly more than 6 m. Nearby there is a square-shaped earth mound about 3km high with total length of about a hundred footsteps. There are ruins of dwelling houses seen near the stupa.

Many artifacts were excavated at this site before. It includes bronze Buddha images, stucco Buddha images, parts of the wall with murals thereon etc. which can date back to thousand over years ago.

Like many other Buddhist monasteries in Xinjiang, the Buddhist temple of this ancient Melikawat town was either abandoned or destroyed by the Islamic army of Kara Khanid Khanate during 11th century C.E.




Tashkurgan means "Stone Fortress" or "Stone Tower" in the Turkic languages. The historical Chinese name for the town was a literal translation (Chinese: 石头城, Shítouchéng).

Tashkurgan was the ancient capital city of Puli kingdom, one of the thirty-six (36) ancient “kingdoms” (judging from the size of territory and population, it should be more appropriately called a tribal state) in “Western Region” (Chinese term for ancient Xinjiang) that existed same time as the Chinese Han Dynasty, about two thousand years ago.

The details of the formation of this kingdom is mentioned in the Han Dynasty’s historical Chronicles. The kingdom changed hands several times. After the Chinese Han Dynasty, it became the capital city of Sarikol. Later, from Three Kingdoms Period (3rd century C.E.) until Tang Dynasty (8th century C.E.) it was known as Qiepanto.    

Tashkurgan is located at the northwestern part of Xinjiang, near the border of Pakistan, and with Tajikistan not far away at its west. It also borders with the Wakhan Corridor, a narrow, long flat piece of land located at northeastern Afghanistan, in which the Silk Road cuts through, connecting the ancient Bactria kingdom in the west (region around the present day Balkh of northern Afghanistan).

The Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang, on his way back from India, travelled along the Silk Road in this well-known “Corridor” to reach Tashkurgan where he briefly stayed for few months. He put up in a monastery in the fortress city and gave Dhamma talks (please see the photo that indicates the site where he delivered Buddha’s teachings).

Nowadays, the visitors can travel along the Karakoram Highway from Kashgar to reach Tashkurgan. Its nearby town centre is quiet, peaceful and tranquil, it is a nice place indeed to relax, the hotel lodging and foods are excellent, and the climate (we were there in autumn) is fine too.

In the memoir of Xuanzang , he mentioned many Buddhist temples in this place. This shows that ancient Tashkurgan was an important Buddhist centre along the Silk Road where monks from Central Asia, Gandhara (present day northern Pakistan and Kashmir), Afghanistan, Bactria, Kashgar, Khotan etc. gathered and met. It is believed that Italian traveler Marco Polo also visited this place. In the early 20th century, when British archaeologist Aurel Stein conducted his excavations in Xinjiang, he too stopped briefly at Tashkurgan.

The Fortress is about ten over meters away from the town centre. It has an area of about ten thousand square meters, oval-shaped, and is built on the top of a large rocky hill. There are walls of about 20m high, some are still in good conditions and visible to us. These walls were constructed with stones and were “cemented” (glued) together with sticky clay. The fortress consists of two sections, the external part, which is in bad shape, is about 3,600 meters in diameter. In this section, only part of the walls, military buildings and some ruined dwelling houses still in existence. The inner section is better preserved, and part of its citadel, including the remains of the Buddhist monastery, can still be seen. However, all these existing structures belong to Tang (7th to 9th century C.E.) and Jing (3rd to 4th century C.E.) Dynasties of China, only a small number of court buildings belong to Qing Period of 17th and 18th century C.E.

When the present new town centre was built, the old fortress was then abandoned.


Kashgar: The Ruins of Moer Buddhist Pagoda


The word “Moer” in Uighur means chimney. It was so-called probably due to its outlook which resembles a military beacon when viewing from afar. In actual fact, this ruined pagoda was the main stupa of a large monastic complex of ancient Kashgar, also called Shule kingdom, built during middle or late Tang Dynasty (7th to 9th century C.E.) and subsequently destroyed (possibly by fire) during Yuan Dynasty (13th century C.E).

Kashgar, especially its present old town area, was the capital city of ancient Shule kingdom, or rather oasis state. This kingdom was first mentioned in Han Dynasty Chronicle as early as 120 B.C.E. and was so called until Tang Dynasty. It was probably formed sometime around 200 B.C.E (2nd century B.C.E) by Saka tribe, who were related to Eastern Iranians.

When the Silk Road was “opened up” after the visit by the Han mission in 2nd century BCE, trading activities flourished between merchants from Central Asian “countries” and those in Shule, thus making ancient Kashgar an important business place. It was mainly due to the compassionate efforts of Central Asian Buddhist monks that the religion was brought into Shule kingdom sometime during 2nd century C.E.   

Buddhism was prominent since its introduction. When Faxian visited ancient Kashgar during 4th century CE, he witnessed the Buddhists there were celebrating the “pancavarshad” festival, or known as the “Great Five-Yearly Assembly”. He even mentioned in his memoir that he actually saw Buddha’s alms-bowl and tooth relic. During that time, there were thousand over monks who were followers of “Hinayana School”, which was later identified as Sarvastivada. When Chinese pilgrim monk Xuanzang visited there during 7th century CE, the number of monasteries had already exceeded hundred. Xuanzang also mentioned about ten thousand monks in ancient Kashgar, and most of them were followers of Sarvastivada School.

The remains of Moer Buddhist complex as seen today consist of two ruined structures, i.e. a stupas and another huge earth mound that resembles a square platform. These two structures are located on top of a small sandy hill about 29km northeast of present Kashgar town. Constructed with rectangular mud bricks, these two temple structures were badly eroded after exposing to strong wind of the desert for more than a thousand years .

The stupa which is better-preserved, has three levels of square “seats” (plinths), the lowest of which is about 12 meters in length on each side, the other two are shorter. On top of these “seats” is the main stupa structure with dome-shaped roof top. There is a small cavity at one side of the stupa’s wall which serves as the “altar” for ritual praying. The other ruined structure, about 30m away, was the base of another stupa. The front and two sides of this structure have niches where small Buddha and Bodhisattvas images were once placed. Both ruined stupas face south, overlooking the remains of another ancient city called Hannuoyi (also built during Tang Dynasty) located not far away.

There are remains of monks living quarters found at the southeastern part of these two stupas. Under the slope of the hill where these stupas are built, was the one-kilometer Kares water-irrigation system from which monks obtained their drinking water.
The Moer Buddhist complex formed part of the Hannuoyi ancient city. The latter was abandoned during 12th century, and the Moer Buddhist temple faced the similar fate a century later.