Kizil Figure

KIZIL FIGURE   24″ x 18″   2001

In 1999 I travelled by train from Beijing to the far west of China. My main purpose was to see the Buddhist wall paintings at Dunhuang, and the monastic site of Kizil which lies north of the town of Kucha. This essay is a description of my visit to Kizil, where I made some drawings.

The oasis city of Kucha is located on the road that runs along the north side of the Talkamakan Desert, on the way to Kashgar. On my map Kucha was like a small island, coloured green on the pale yellow ground of sand and gravel that runs for a thousand miles to the Pamirs. North from Kucha the road enters foothills of dry rock, a kind of “badlands” of eroded hills. Further north, a hundred miles away, you can see a hazy wall of mountains, the glacier-covered Tian Shan. At altitudes of more than 10,000 feet, the Tian Shan run west to east – a natural barrier between China and the former Russian republics to the north – now Kyrgystan and Kazakhstan.

The highest peak of this line of mountains is Khan Tengri at 23,620 feet, though it was beyond my line of vision. In 629 CE the Buddhist scholar Xuanzang on his way to India came this way, passing around the base of Khan Tengri. He crossed the Tian Shan at the Bedel pass, just north of where I was. He followed the caravan route that led to Samarkand, and then south through what is now Afghanistan. Xuanzang stayed for two months in Kucha, waiting for the heavy snow to clear in the mountain passes.

Melting snow fields and glaciers on the southern flank of the Tian Shan feed fugitive rivers that find their way down into the desert. These rivers eventually are lost in the desert, drying up. Over time the moving sands driven by the winds shift the course of the rivers, so that they leave in their wake dead forests of willow, poplar, and tamarisk.

A painter I met in Urumqi told me that I should go to Kizil, a ruin of Buddhist cave temples. Kizil lies about fifty miles north-west from Kucha – through bare rock foothills and stretches of flat sand. The road north from Kucha followed a clear river tumbling over boulders. We entered a plain of sand that seemed to be as fine as dust. Trucks occasionally passed the other way, enveloping us all in a cloud of yellow haze. The only landmark was the constant band of the Tian Shan, suspended like a curtain along the north horizon.

After an hour heading across this severe landscape the road came down into a deep valley. A smooth-flowing river crossed the floor of the vally, with dark green fields from one end to the other. Along the face of a rocky ledge, on the north side of this natural depression in the earth, are the remains of Kizil, which between the 5th and 8th centuries became one of the great centres of Buddhist visual art in Central Asia. Wall paintings cover the surface of hundreds of chambers cut into the rock cliff. These paintings incorporate Sassanian Persian, Gupta Indian, and Chinese influences, as well as ideas of the human figure drawn from the Graeco-Buddhist art of Gandhara. In India the wall paintings at Ajanta – not far from modern Mumbai – were close in time to Kizil.

Astride the major trade route between the West, India, and China, Kucha drew a cosmopolitan traffic of artists, scholars, and merchants. It was an age of extraordinary infiltration of new idea into Central Asia and China. One remarkable aspect of this flow of ideas was the human figure as a motif in painting. Sometime after about the 10th century – long after the Kizil paintings were completed – the Buddhist tradition in Xinjiang was over-laid and gradually replaced by Islam. Islam became the religion of the oases, as it is today.

The caves at Kizil are reached by climbing a scaffolding of walkways and steep concrete stairs erected along the cliff. I stood inside one of the rock chambers looking out through a small window cut through the thick exterior wall. I could look south down into the valley, across the lanes between the fields to the slow moving surface of the purple-blue river reflecting the sky. I found a painting that I wanted to draw, at my eye level on a wall under a low ceiling. I could stand right in front of it, a foot or two away, and study its chalky colour and clean lines.

The painting showed a figure, head turned and looking down, with left arm raised and right hand held out towards me, palm outwards. The figure was male but androgynous, with broad shoulders and a narrow waist. The ground was pale flesh tone. Draped over his shoulders and arms in a rhythmic, circular flow was a turquoise sash. All around were loops and curves of ultramarine blue, including an encircling blue nimbus that showed this was a Bodhisattva – a human who had achieved salvation but, out of compassion, has stayed in this world to help the suffering. Large circular earrings like discs on either side of his neck repeated the circular movement of the painting. A jewelled bracelet traced the contour of his lifted shoulder and forearm. Another long necklace of jewels was draped across his chest and stomach, and pressed against his right hip. The jewels, with their weight and touch against the body, convey the volume and breathing life of the figure. The eyes seem half closed, as if completely at ease, drawn with a few lines. The nose and brow on each side was a single long line. The painted surface around his mouth had been damaged. Despite that surface imperfection, his confident and graceful character was fully revealed in ten or twelve painted strokes.