Khara-Khoto, a Buddhist oasis at the edge of Gobi: its discovery and excavation by A.I. Andreyev

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In the early spring of 1908 a Russian expedition mounted by the Imperial Russian Geographical Society and lead by Petr Kozlov made a most sensational discovery on the southern fringes of Gobi – the ruins of a medieval Tangut city of Khara-Khoto or “Black City” in Mongolian. The place was known to Europeans since the days of Marco Polo however all searches for Khara-Khoto by a host of enthusiastic Russian explorers of Inner Asia in the late XIXth C., such as G. Potanin and A. Obruchev, were unsuccessful.

The local Torgout Mongols inhabiting the lower Edzin-gol river strongly denied its existence though rumors persisted that the ruins lay hidden somewhere amidst the sands of the Great Desert. Thus the site of the “Black City” had remained a mystery for nearly six centuries, stirring the imagination of many a European traveler in these regions.

A year before Kozlov discovered Khara-Khoto a caravan of a young Buryat trader Tsokto Badmazhapov while passing through this area had stumbled over the ruins during a sandstorm apparently by sheer luck.

This was in late April 1907.Tsokto who had known Kozlov personally since the time he had participated in his previous journey (1899-1901) immediately conveyed the news to St Petersburg, forwarding a detailed account of his passage across the desert along with a description of Khara-Khoto and several photographs, the first ever taken of the legendary “dead city”, to the Geographical Society.

He also sent word about his discovery to Kozlov knowing about his plans for a new expedition to Inner Asia. (Tsokto’s handwritten report, a few faded photos and a letter to Kozlov are preserved nowadays in the archive of the RGS in St Petersburg)1.

We do not know whether Kozlov received Tsokto’s letter before he started his journey in the later half of 1907. A search for Khara-Khoto was not included in his expedition program approved by the RGS, yet in his travel diary he confessed that was thinking of the dead city all the way from St.-Petersburg to Mongolia.

Moreover, as soon as he reached its capital Urga (today’s Ulan-Baator), he headed straight in the direction of the lower Edzin-gol.

There he met with a Mongol prince Torgout-Beile whose encampment was only 20 versts away from Khara-Khoto.

The prince, as we learn from Kozlov’s account of his journey, yielded to his insistent persuasions and agreed to provide the Russian traveler with pack animals and even a guide to take him to the ruins.

Why was he so yielding is difficult to say. Perhaps Kozlov, an officer of the Russian General Staff, looked too militant and pushy.

Curiously, the chief negotiator with Torgout-Beile on Kozlov’s behalf was Tsoktos’s younger brother Gombo, who happened to be on the expedition staff.

Kozlov’s dream came true on 19 March (New style: 1 April) 1908 when he together with several companions2 reached the remains of the mysterious Tangut city.

From afar they saw its cob walls with odd-looking Buddhist memorials, suburgas3 or stupas, mounted on them, silhouetted against the dazzling blue sky.

This is how Kozlov described his first encounter with Khara-Khoto: “

At last we have seen the City itself, spread out on a low terrace made of the rough Han-Hai gritstone.

Above the north-western corner of the fortress rose the main spire-like suburga, one in a row of smaller size neighboring structures, also mounted on the wall, as well as those outside the fortress.

As we approached the city we came across a great number of pieces of broken pottery; the sight of the fortress-city became obscured by the high-rising sand mounds.

Finally we came upon the terrace and lo, here Khara-Khoto revealed to us all its outer charms”4.

The Dead City had a rectangular shape, 380 by 450 meters, oriented from West to East as most of the Chinese fortresses were. Its wattle and daub walls were 6 – 8 m high and 4 – 6 m thick at their foundation.

The entire territory within the walls was divided into regular quarters and there were two broad streets leading to the center from the city’s two entrance gates in the western and eastern walls.

The streets were lined with small ramshackle houses of the fanza type covered with a crust-like straw and clay roofs.

One could see traces of gun-slots in the walls but their most typical feature was suburga memorials which suggested that the city-dwellers were Buddhists.

These suburgas were everywhere, inside and outside the city walls.

A few words should be said about Khara-Khoto’s history.

The city was a major outpost of the Chinese Empire as early as 2 century B.C. forming part of the defensive line along the Edzin-gol to protect the country from incursions of nomadic tribes.

In the 10th century A.D. the local Tanguts built a fortress here which eventually turned into a thriving city of their powerful state of Western Sia (Si-Sia) named Edzin-ai.

The Tangut leader Chao-Yuang proclaimed himself emperor and started a war with his Chinese neighbours whom he ultimately defeated.

Yet in 1204 Chinggis Khan sent his troops against the Tanguts and finally conquered them in 1227.

The population of the country was partly exterminated and partly assimilated with the Mongols and Tibetans.

That was the end of Si-Sia and Edzin-ai. The city however existed under the name of Khara-Khoto for another century and half until 1372 when it fell into the hands of the Chinese and was destroyed by them.

Kozlov stayed with his party in Khara-Khoto for a few days only. This time however was enough to conduct a preliminary excavation of the city.

His early findings included fragments of porcelain, various household items and articles of trade, the copper choh-coins, Chinese paper money (the earliest known to us), and numerous religious or cult objects.

It turned out that the wall suburgas were filled at their base with a large number of small clay figures of various Buddhist divinities, so called tsatsa. “

All our excavation in Khara-Khoto”, recounted Kozlov, “was conducted with great thoroughness and special loving care. Each and every new item found in the bowels of the earth or on its surface caused a universal joy”.

Kozlov was especially delighted when he personally unearthed a little icon pained on a piece of cloth, a representation of a Buddhist monk, presumably an errant Indian guru5.

A year later, in May – June 1909, at the final stage of his expedition, Kozlov visited Khara-Khoto again to undertake a more thorough and substantial excavation therein.

It was then that all its major treasures were unearthed. The excavating work was carried out according to a plan drawn up in advance by two teams of diggers whose cooperation Kozlov has duly secured: a Mongolian and a Russian one.

The Mongolians under Arya Madaev, a Buryat by birth, focused on the ruins of houses (fanzas) while the Russian team guided by Kozlov himself did all the general excavation both inside and outside the fortress.

The most valuable findings were made in one of the suburgas dubbed the “Famous Suburga” located a quarter of a versta away from the western city wall on the right bank of the dried-up Edzin-gol river-bed.

The structure after it was totally dismantled from top to bottom yielded a whole library of books, scrolls and manuscripts numbering over 2000 pieces altogether, several hundred of Buddhist icons or tangkas, i.e. paintings on canvas, silk and paper.

In the same suburga were also found the metal and wooden statues, the so-called burkhans, printing blocks, models of suburgas as well as a beautiful piece of tapestry, being a sample of traditional Tangut weaving.

“I will never forget these happy moments, Kozlov wrote down in his travel diary, as I won’t forget the strong impression made on me and my companions by two samples of Chinese painting on cheesecloth.

When we unfolded them, we saw marvelous images of some seated figures drowned in a delicate blue and pink radiance.

These Buddhist relics gave us a feeling of something lively, expressive and whole; we could not tear ourselves away from them for a long time – so inimitably beautiful they were…”6.

Unfortunately, some of the Buddhist statues were too big and could not be transported safely to Russia.

So before leaving Khara-Khoto Kozlov buried these earthen collossi in the sand by one of the walls of the Dead City, hoping he would return to pick them up in the future. And he did return many years after, in 1926, when he came to Khara-Khoto again, but, alas, was unable to locate his hidden treasures.

In the fall of the same year all of Khara-Khoto’s findings were brought to St. Petersburg to the newly built premises of the Russian Geographical Society.

There in early 1910 they were displayed to the public for the first time along with other naturalist and ethnographic collections gathered by Kozlov.

After the closure of the exhibition the bulk of Khara-Khoto’s vast collection was transferred to the ethnographic department of the Russian Museum while its remaining part which included mainly the xylograph-books and manuscripts went to the Asiatic Museum of the Russian Academy.

The recovered samples of Buddhist painting from Khara-Khoto were then subjected to a most thorough examination by the eminent Russian Orientalist S.F. Oldenburg who consequently (in 1914) brought out a special volume devoted to Khara-Khoto’s iconography7.

In this book Oldenburg divided the Tangut icons (tangkas) stylistically into two main groups, those representing the Tibetan or alternatively the Chinese artistic traditions.

According to him, the former group clearly reveals the influence of the older Indian school of painting and is completely distinct from the latter.

The Buddhist pantheon as is represented on the Tangut “Tibetan” icons is basically the same as in Amdo and Tibet. The person most favored by Tangut painters is Buddha Shakyamuni.

However one won’t find any icons with images of the lama-teachers of the “yellow-hat creed” which emerged under Tsong-kapa in the 14th C. by which time Khara-Khoto had already ceased to exist.

The Tangut “Chinese” style icons focus thematically on Buddha Amitabha as well as a group of planetary divinities (Saturn, Jupiter, Venus etc.) which played an important role in the religious life of Tanguts8.

This astronomical cult apparently has an Indian origin and can be traced also to both the Hellenistic and Iranian traditions.

In the opinion of S.M. Kochetova, the cult must have waned after the 13 C. as it is rarely found in the Tibetan iconography and the fact that Khara-Khoto’s icons with planetary gods are so numerous is truly remarkable.

As to the kind of Buddhism that was practiced by the Tanguts, we know that their prevailing Buddhist sect or school was that of Kagyupa (Bha’-rgyud-pa). Second to it was the school of Sakyapa (Sa-skya-pa). All major sects of Chinese Buddhism were also active in the Tangut state.

At present the collection of Tangut painting is preserved in the funds of the State Hermitage and the book collection belongs to the Institute of Oriental Manuscripts (renamed Oriental Institute, Institut Vostokovedenia).

The latter alone is of paramount importance, as the deciphering of the Tangut written language done in the 1920s by the Soviet Sinologist Nikolai Nevsky (1892-1937) laid the foundations of a new Oriental discipline, Tangut studies. Overall the Khara-Khoto findings provided a most valuable historical and cultural resource which has considerably expanded our knowledge of the history and culture of the peoples of Inner Asia.

In conclusion, I would like to note that a selection of Khara-Khoto’s items, including samples of Tangut Buddhist art and religious writings, were displayed at the Hermitage recently (November 2008 – April 2009) together with the objects from the famous Dun-huang’s “Caves of the Thousand Buddhas”.

The bulk of the exhibition was made from the three major collections, those of P. Kozlov, S. Oldenburg and A. Grünwedel.

12 February 2009