Central Asian Buddhism: Turfan and the Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves
The Lost Murals of Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves
Approximately a hundred years ago, when the German expedition (09) to Central Asia led by Albert von Le Coq reached the Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves near Turfan, they found the site almost completely buried in sand and inhabited by local nomads (Distant View of the Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves(1),Sketch of the Bezeklik Cave drawn by the German Expedition Team(2), Floor Plan of the Bezeklik Cave drawn by Albert Grünwedel(3)).
Although the Uighur word "Bezeklik" means "a place with paintings" or "a beautifully decorated place," the caves were in such a terrible state of disrepair that no one could ever have imagined the reason behind the name. However, as the German archeologists began clearing the deep layers of sand that had accumulated inside the caves, they were stunned when murals painted in the most extraordinarily beautiful colors appeared before their eyes (Seated Buddhas(4), Dragon Pond Scene(5)).
Visitors to the caves today, however, will no longer find exquisite murals adorning the cave walls. What happened, they will wonder, to the murals discovered here a hundred years ago beneath desert sands?
The reason behind their disappearance from the Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves has to do with the survey methods used by the various international expedition teams that traveled to the area from nations, such as Germany, Japan and Britain. Removing murals, manuscripts, and Buddhist sculpture from the caves, the foreign expeditions took the art and artifacts back with them to their respective homelands as the fruits of their labor in the Central Asian deserts. In particular, the German team removed a great number of murals-- as many as could be cut out and carried back home.
(See, for example: Image of Vaiśravaṇa(6); Precious Flower Pattern(7);Scenes of Reincarnation into the Six Destinies(8) etc.). The sad fate of the murals would only get worse as many of these paintings, stored in a museum in Berlin were lost forever in air raids during the Second World War.
Today, therefore, all we have left of the murals taken by the German expedition are the photographs and sketches that the team left behind. Contained in the Toyo Bunko Rare Book Digital Archive are some of the expedition team’s survey reports. The books provide a glimpse into the great beauty of the murals that once decorated the cave walls of Bezeklik. Below we will introduce some of the murals that have been digitally-reconstructed based on books in the Toyo Bunko collection.
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