Silk actually composed a relatively small portion of the trade along the Silk Road: eastbound caravans brought gold, precious metals and stones, textiles, ivory and coral, while westbound caravans transported furs, ceramics, cinnamon bark and rhubarbs as well as bronze weapons. Very few caravans, including the people, animals and goods they transported, would complete the entire route that connected the capitals of these two great empires. The oasis towns that made the overland journey possible became important trading posts, commercial centres where caravans would take on fresh merchants, animals and goods. The oasis towns prospered considerably, extracting large profits on the goods they bought and sold.


Kizil Buddhist Caves in Kucha
Silk Road Caravans in Taklamakan Desert
Dunhuang Flying Apsara

During the Han dynasty, the Chinese referred to the Taklamakan Desert as Liusha, or ‘moving sands’, since the dunes are constantly moving, blown about by fierce winds. Geographers call it the Tarim Basin, after the glacier-fed Tarim River that flows east across the Taklamakan Desert to the Lopnor Lake. The Taklamakan is bordered on three sides by some of the highest mountain ranges in the world: to the north, by the Heavenly Mountains (Tian Shan); to the west, by the Pamirs (Roof of the World); and to the south, by the Karakoram and Kunlun Mountains. To the east lie the Lop Nor and Gobi Deserts. The infamous Taklamakan-which in Turki means ‘go in and you will not come out’-has been feared and cursed by travellers for more than 2,000 years. Sir Clarmont Skrine, British consul-general at Kashgar in the 1920s, described it in his book Chinese Central Asia:
To the north in the clear dawn the view is inexpressively awe-inspiring and sinister. The yellow dunes of the Taklamakan, like the giant waves of a petrified ocean, extend in countless myriads to a far horizon with, here and there, an extra large sand-hill, a king dune as it were, towering above his fellows. They seem to clamour silently, those dunes, for travellers to engulf, for whole caravans to swallow up as they have swallowed up so many in the past.


The most significant innovations carried along the Silk Road to China were the belief systems and religious arts of India, Central Asia and Middle East. Buddhism began its evolution as a religious doctrine in the sixth century BC, and was adopted as India’s official religion in the third century BC. When Buddhism, and to a lesser extent Manicheanism and Nestorianism arrived in China, their art and creed revolutionized Chinese culture. Many of the structures housing ancient religious manuscripts, beautiful frescoes and statuary—built from the first century BC to the end of the Tang dynasty—lay hidden under centuries of sand until their rediscovery at the turn of this century.

According to legend, the Han Emperor Mingdi, who had already heard of Buddhism, dreamt of a golden figure floating in a halo of light—perhaps a flying apsara (Buddhist angel)—that was interpreted by the Emperor’s wise men to be the Buddha himself. Consequently, and envoy was sent to India to learn about the new religion, returning with sacred Buddhist texts and paintings as well as Indian priests to explain the teachings of the Buddha to the Emperor. Monks, missionaries and pilgrims began travelling from India to Central Asia and then on to China, bringing Buddhist writings and paintings, while converts followed the Silk Road west. The new Buddhist art that emerged from Chinese Turkestan, now known as Serindian, absorbed different styles and forms along the way, including those popular in the Kingdom of Gandhara (in what is now the Peshawar valley of northwest Pakistan), where indigenous Indian art forms had already been mixed with those of the Greeks and Persians in the early sixth century BC.

This Graeco-Indian, or Gandharan art was considered revolutionary for its depiction of the Buddha in human form, the temporal earthbound personality of Sakyamuni. Since Sakyamuni had achieved nirvana, escaping the cycles of birth and rebirth, he had essentially ceased to exist. He had previously been symbolized by a footprint, a wheel, a tree, a stupa or sanskrit characters. The Greek (Hellenistic) influence on traditional Buddhist painting was obvious: instead of a loincloth the Buddha wore flowing robes, had a straight chiselled nose and brow, full lips and wavy hair. Some of the Indian influences that remained were the heavy eyelids and elongated ear lobes, stretched long because of Sakyamuni’s former life as a heavily jewelled and worldly prince, a symbol of the life he renounced for the ascetic spiritual life. As a result of rushed and highly unprofessional excavations in the cities and temples of Gandhara (which were already in poor condition), most of the wall paintings and frescoes were destroyed and sculptures are all that remain of this exquisite art form. Nonetheless, it was this art form that travelled across the Pamirs, establishing itself in the oasis towns of the Taklamakan and beyond, where it was again to absorb new influences. Concurrently with the school of Gandhara, the school of Mathura also began to show the Buddha in human form, and it influence is noticeable in figures found in Rawak on the Southern Silk Road.

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From Book "The Silk Road Xi'an to Kashgar"-Judy Bonavia



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