Doi 10. 14277/2385-3042/AnnOr-52-16-7



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DOI 10.14277/2385-3042/AnnOr-52-16-7

Submission 2015-04-01 | Acceptance 2016-04-14 | © 2016



145

Annali di Ca’ Foscari. Serie orientale 

[online]  ISSN 2385-3042

Vol. 52 – Giugno 2016 

[print]  ISSN 1125-3789



Qizil: an Interpretation of District Six,  

Caves 109-121 in Gunei

Giuseppe Vignato

(Università Ca’ Foscari Venezia, Italia)

Abstract  For over a century studies on the caves of Kuča were mainly focused on the paintings; 

little attention has been dedicated to cave architecture, while the way caves related to one another 

forming a living monastery has gone almost completely unnoticed. In previous studies I proposed a 

division of the site of Qizil in seven districts: among these, District Six was the one which presented 

most interpretative difficulties. In recent years the iconography of five painted caves has been the 

object of many studies, but the remaining 18 undecorated ones have been systematically ignored. 

Realizing how this district keeps on stimulating art historians’ interest – other relevant studies are 

presently being carried out – the present work offers a more complete description and analysis by 

focusing on the unique assemblage of caves and groups of District Six; some essential features never 

mentioned before are also introduced here. Finally, the provisional interpretation of District Six as 

a special ritual area will contextualize it in the overall site of Qizil.

Summary  1 Description. – 2 Analysis of Some Elements. – 2.1 Internal Stairways. – 2.2 Repair and 

Renovation of Damaged Caves. – 2.3 Paintings and Painting Style. – 3 Interpretation. – 3.1 Function 

of the Caves. – 3.2 Monastic Cells: Who Lived in Them? – 3.3 Meditation Cells and Meditation. – 3.4 

Conclusion.



Keywords  Qizil caves. Caves function. Meditation cells. Soot.

For over a century the study of the Buddhist caves of the kingdom of Kuča, 

set on the northern artery of the Silk Road, north of the Taklamakan desert, 

has mainly focused on the paintings and texts found in them.



1

 Successive 

generations of scholars have worked to achieve a better understanding of 

the kind of Buddhism which was practiced in this small kingdom, but much 

remains to be done. Scholarship needs to shift its focus from the study of 

selected images and individual caves to a more comprehensive approach 

that considers the rock monasteries in their entirety and follows their 

development through time. Formed of almost 400 caves hewn at different 

heights in the towering cliffs that run alongside the Muzart River, Qizil is 

the largest and most complex rock carved monastery of the ancient king-



This research project has received generous support by the Peking University Endow-

ment for the Humanities (北京大学人文基金).



146

Vignato. Qizil: an Interpretation of District Six, Caves 109-121 in Gunei

Annali di Ca’ Foscari. Serie orientale, 52, 2016, pp. 145-172

ISSN 2385-3042

dom of Kuča. The division of the site in seven functional districts serves 

to clarify our understanding of the site (Vignato 2006). District Six is the 

most difficult to interpret since it defies the precise functional definition, 

which is readily achieved in the other districts.

Although there is still no clear cut understanding of the role of District 

Six within the Qizil rock monastery, an extensive amount of scholarly en-

deavour has been expended on the iconography of the few decorated caves 

therein – the paintings from a handful of caves continue to draw the atten-

tion of art historians. In providing a preliminary description, analysis and 

interpretation of District Six this paper will discuss its unique assemblage 

of caves and cave groups. These features indicate the successive phases 

of development in this district and so by examining them an improved un-

derstanding of District Six can be reached. This should include the specific 

location of this district within the site of Qizil and of all the 23 remaining 

caves within the district, in addition the way caves related to one another, 

and of the successive phases of carving, remodelling and use. This will lead 

to a more accurate interpretation of this district and, consequently, of the 

iconography concentrated in its five painted caves (Fig. 1).

Figure 1. The layout of the rock monastery of Qizil. Besides the traditional naming  

of its different sections, the coloured parts indicate my proposed division in seven districts;  

District Six is in the upper left corner




ISSN 2385-3042

Annali di Ca’ Foscari. Serie orientale, 52, 2016, pp. 145-172

Vignato. Qizil: an Interpretation of District Six, Caves 109-121 in Gunei

147

1  Description 

Scholars rarely consider the physical characteristics of the location at 

which a cave is carved. The relative position of a cave in the site, its rela-

tion to neighbouring caves, the quality of the rock in the general area, 

the daily amount of direct sunlight exposure, the distance from sources of 

humidity are all elements which, although they rarely appear in present 

day studies, would have been the primary concerns of the planners and 

builders of the caves. Take District Six in Qizil: it is located in the west-

ern section of Gunei. At this point the bottom of the gully only receives 

a few hours of direct sunlight a day. It is also damp almost year round 

with the humidity rising after even light rain. This explains why the caves 

are concentrated in the upper section of the northern cliff. This location 

would have received a greater number of sunlight hours in addition to 

being away from the damp. The district is only accessible from the South. 

Having walked through most of the north-south stretch of Gunei, the first 

visible cave is a monastic cell. The other caves come into view one after 

the other as one walks further into the valley. The arrangement is in sharp 

contrast with that of Guxi, Gudong and Houshan. Those caves receive more 

sunlight hours and are further removed from sources of humidity. How-

ever, the most significant detail is that these caves were carved in highly 

visible locations and could be seen from afar. From this we can ascertain 

that District Six was not a prime location, a site of last resort rather than 

the location of earliest caves. 

District Six is the most difficult to interpret of the districts in Qizil, be-

cause it does not present a clear functional identity. In contrast, the other 

districts display a much more uniform content relying on caves or groups 

of caves of the same type. This lack of uniformity indicates that the caves 

in District Six underwent several alterations, restorations and additions, 

which moved the function of the district away from its original purpose. 

An understanding of the function of the district is further complicated by 

late caves which were carved into the remaining sections of viable rock 

due to a lack of space in other districts. The caves along the gully will be 

described from east to west (Fig. 2).





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