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March 2020

By Unknown author – Scanned from “Caves of the Thousand Buddhas : Chinese art from the Silk Route” (London: British Museum Press, 1990) page 160 plate 132., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11252136

The kingdom of Khotan which had its origins in the 3rd and 2nd century BC existed in the region which is today in Western China. Khotan was on the Southern Silk Route but it was not just a city of passage as it had its own economy based on silk, paper and Jade. It was a centre for Buddhist learning and art as well as a strong political centre.

It is said that the population of Khotan was an amalgamation of three sources- Nomadic Saka horsemen, Indian and Chinese immigrants and traders. Such a diverse population gave birth to many innovations. In the fifth century, the Indian Gupta script called Late Brahmi script was used to write the Middle Iranian language of the Saka. There were bilingual Sino-Kharoshthi bronze and copper coins whose weights also matched those of the Kushan coins.

The Indian and Chinese origins of Khotan are also reflected in the Tibetan Annals of Li Yu which was composed in the mid eighth century. According to a legend, Vaishravana, the Buddhist guardian of the deity of the North impregnated the wife of Emperor Ashoka. Ashoka abandoned the child and Vaishravana took him to China and had him adopted as Emperor’s son. After some years, the prince quarrelled with the sons of the Chinese emperor and set off west with a small army. At the same time, a disgruntled minister left Ashoka’s India for a new homeland. When the two met, war threatened but Vaishravana was able to establish peace between them and the two communities founded Khotan. Hence, Vaishravana is honoured as the patron of the city. According to this legend, the date of foundation of Khotan would be around 134 BC.

There are many artworks and monastery ruins excavated in the region. One of the most impressive is the monastery stupa of Rawak. Karadong has Hinayana period wall paintings in the two storey temple featuring only standing and seated Buddhas. The faces at Karadong are distinctively Indian/Central Asian, dated to the first half of the Fourth Century. Dandan Oilak was a city of temples and monasteries and was a part of the Khotan empire. One of the paintings (which you can see at the top of the blog) talks about the legend of how Sericulture came to Khotan. The Chinese kept the art of Sericulture guarded. When a Chinese princess was getting married to a Khotan prince, he wrote to her that she would need to wear coarse clothes in Khotan as there was no silk available. The Princess smuggled Silkmoth eggs and Mulberry leaves out of China in her headdress. Thus, Khotan learned the secret art of making Silk.

The paintings excavated at Dandan Oilak are similar in style to the ones at Panjikent (ancient town of Sogdiana). There is a painting of a three headed figure who at the first look represents the Hindu God Shiva but in context of Khotan could be Maheshvara (tutelary deity under Tantric Vajrayana Buddhism) or the Sogdian God Weshparkar. Either of these is possible as there was a sizeable Sogdian community in Khotan. The Sogdian Zoroastrians merged the visual representation of their deities with Hinduism and Tantric Buddhism- cultures with whom they were in close contact through trade.

Panel discovered by Sir Aurel Stein in December 1900 from Dandan Oilak

Khotan faced pressure from the Tibetans who conquered it around 798 AD. In 851 Khotan regained its independence and in 920 allied itself by marriage with the Chinese ruling family of Dunhuang. Khotan finally fell to Yusuf Kadr Khan in 1006.


  1. The History of Central Asia – The Age of the Silk Roads, Christoph Baumer
  2. http://www.sothebys.com/en/auctions/ecatalogue/2018/travel-atlases-maps-l18401/lot.196.html
  3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kingdom_of_Khotan
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