Architecture of Buddhist monuments in Central Asia

Issue #2 • 1919

“And happened a miracle, – the ancient legend narrates, – the prince was born in a caul, and, just born, he was doing four steps: to the north, to the south, to the east, to the west and roaring like a lion: “I – incomparable… “. It was a start point in the history of Buddhism, which occurred more than two and half thousand years ago and became one the greatest religious – philosophical doctrines of our planet.

Having arisen in India, Buddhism has spread far beyond the native land, everywhere getting the local original features in the countries where it found the adherents.

At the early 1st century A.D. a leader of the Kushans, one of the Yuech-chi clans, – Qudjula Kadfiz established a state on the territory of Gandhara and Kabulistana. Subsequently, the Kushans conquered huge areas of India, Afghanistan and the south of Central Asia, uniting them in the Kushan empire. At the reigning of Wima Kadfiz and especially at the time of powerful Kanishka and Huvishka (the 2nd century A.D.), the state system of the empire was strengthened by means of political actions, dynastic relations, monetary reforms, and in the field of ideology – by means of protection policy towrads all religions, the motley population of the Kushan state professed. Imperial domain of Kanishka in India reached the river of Narbada in the south and in the east – Benares. The dynastical capital of the Kushans was Purushapura (Peshawar) – a busy city located on the main way between the Indian and Central Asian parts of the huge empire. Rome, Parthia, the Kushan empire and Han’s China had direct contacts and various – trading, diplomatic, cultural and military – political contacts, which promoted formation of the first in history system of caravan and aquatic routes, covered all ancient world – the Great Silk Road. By this way Buddhism came with monks-missionaries to Bactria and then to oases of modern Sintszyan, to China and Tibet (1). Kanishka was eulogized in Indian Buddhist literature as the earnest patron of Buddhism. In such favourable conditions, this religion was quickly spread in Bactria, obtaining growing number of its adherents among the local elite. A number of Buddhist colonies had grown. New Buddhist sanctuaries and monasteries were established everywhere.

Buddhism penetrated into Bactria from Gandhara (the area of northwest India, nowadays the territory of Pakistan) through Nagarahara and ridges of the Hindu – Kush. Though it brought own architectural canons, including a basic composition of Buddhist structures, in Bactria they obtained local original features, what in a measure was caused by different construction materials. In architecture of the Kushan region, the local construction techniques prevailed. In Bactria – these are clay materials – adobe brick, beaten clay – pakhsa, clay plasters, wooden ceilings and adobe vaults. In India – surface-tooled stone and laying from stone plates on a clay mortar. In monumental construction, alongside with wooden ceilings, were installed stone arches, vaults and domes. For big bays they used stone columns. In Bactria – these were traditional wooden columns, more often erected on stone bases, usually with attic profile (a square plinth and balls divided by trocholus with shelves). Such bases were used for near-wall pilasters, which trunks were made from adobe with limy plastering. Frequent are the pilasters topped by a stone capital. In Bactria was applied white marbled limestone, in India – dark slate (2).

Planning and volumetric compositions were also changed. In Bactrian Buddhist structures there are no canonized schemes – none of examined monuments duplicates another in solution of the construction tasks. The compositions characteristic for different by function Kushan buildings were quite often applied in Buddhist structures. The major goal of the builders was to provide major sacral functions and monastic lifestyle outside of rigid architectural standards.

Besides that, in Central Asia, local types of Buddhist temples, differed from the Indian, had been formed. Sometimes the Buddhists adapted already existing cultic structures. Buddhist cultic structures can be subdivided into three major types: stupa, a temple-chapel (city or rural) and a monastery. Stupas – Buddhist cultic-memorial monuments having also a prayer function, were built, undoubtedly, earlier Buddhism coming, but since the time of Ashoka – the Indian king, a legendary patron of Buddhism, had become wide spread and built from durable materials. Early Buddhist stupas served for preservation of Buddha’s relics. From pre-Ashok period have been remained ruins of huge stupa in Piprahv, on the border with Nepal, probably dated from the 4th century B.C., or may be of the 5th century B.C., according to the inscription cut out on stone relic case, and saying, that there are relics of Buddha.

Archetypal stupas had a hemispherical form. Such form, probably, goes back to ceiling of a round hut in a form of a beehive. It is natural to presume that stupas have relation to burial mounds. According to the last instructions of Buddha, his body should be buried according to the rite applied for a truthful governor (chakravartina) – the body was cremated, ashes was located in a gold urn (reliquary), which was built into stupa – a special memorial structure in a form of a mound. As a rule, stupa had a form of a hemisphere on a round or square base, with a stone reliquary built into it; it was crowned by decorative canopies and encircled by a fence with four gates – torana. Stupa should be supplied by a fence serving for execution of a ritual circuition – pradakshina-patkha. Stupa traditionally reproduced a structure of a universe, and its separate parts correlated with certain concepts of the Buddhist doctrine.

Among three known types of Buddhist cultic structures, probably, stupa least of all influenced the temple architecture. By its functional purpose and monolithic form it gravitates more likely to a sculptural monument, than to architectural. The majority of stupas was constructed from adobe brick, and the top layer – from the burnt brick coated by the plaster. Later it was faced by valuable sorts of the stone. Within Indian practice not to destroy, but to repair the old cultic structures, stupa was often covered by several new layers of the stone or brick coating, what increased its initial sizes. For example, stupa №1 in Sanchi was faced in the 2nd century B.C. and its size had grown twice. Big stupa usually stood surrounded by some monastery and small stupas with ashes of some famous monks, and quite often all this complex was fortified (3).

Curcuition around stupa is one of the most widespread rituals of Buddhist cultic practice. The first stupas in India had round bases. The Buddhists having come to Bactria at early Kushan time installed structures having such design. Pakhsa and adobe brick were used as construction materials. One of the earliest is stupa in the Buddhist monastery of Fayaz-tepa. Its cylindrical base and dome are of adobe bricks; the upper overhang fascia of cornice – from burnt brick. On the dome there are traces of a square reliquary. In the center of the dome – a round aperture for fixture of canopy. Wall surface is faced by ganch with pictures of a lotus and “wheel of law” painted over it (1).

Another example of stupa in Bactria dated from the Kushan time, is a structure in the yard of Complex B at Kara-tepa. Just the lower part of adobe drum plastered by ganch has remained. The base of the drum was decorated by ganch petals of lotus. Remained fragments show that stupa was painted in a red colour and built in the 1st – 2nd cc. A.D. synchronically with the eastern part of Complex B.

About the second half – end of the 1st century A.D. in north-western India appeared first stupas with a square base, which being generated in India became spread in Bactria in the 2nd – 3rd cc. A.D. This type is presented by stupas of Airtam (separately standing), Ushtor – mulloh and Tower of Zurmal. As the excavation revealed, Bactrian stupas of that period, traditionally built from pakhsa and adobe brick, were faced by stone plates. This facing formed a profile of the structure and was decorated by architectural and sculptural decor.

Monastery stupas with square bases had ladders going to the platform of the base, where prayers could execute ritual curcuition. Stupa from Merv’s Buddhist complex could be, probably, related to this type. Appearance of stupas in Kushan Bactria can be guessed thanks to graffito at Kara-tepa, which exposes a square platform with four columns – stambhami on cardinal points, cylindrical body and domes with reliquary on the top. Unfortunately, we have still had no materials clearing up the arrangement of columns on four sides of stupas in Bactria, but this architectural solution is exposed at Gandhar’s relieves (4).

The interesting type of stupa in Bactria – Toharistan was fixed at Adjina-tepa and Hisht-tepa in Khovaling. They can be specified as stupas on star-shaped bases with ladders on four sides of the platform. Big and votive stupa at Adjina-tepa and votive stupa at Hisht-tepa, probably, combined two types: stupa with one ladder and cross-shaped stupa.

Alongside with monolithic stupas, in Bactria were found stone votive models (Airtam, Kara – tepa, Ushtur – mulloh), which date from the 2nd – 3rd cc. A.D. Unlike the Kushan period, when in Bactria was spread a tradition of votive stone stupas, in early medieval Tokharistan widespread became their miniature models made of not burnt clay. These small models (just at Hisht-tepa – about 60), which bases did not exceed 6.5 – 8.6 cm, were given to temples equally with chirogas, flowers and fruits – traditional offering of the Buddhists. Value of these finds is that many of them, as it turned out, had flat round ceramic tablets with the text in Brahmi in the lower part. Most likely, they were a popular article of offering (1).

Stupas were located either inside cultic and monastery complexes (Airtam, Kara-tepa, Dalverzin-tepa, Adjina-tepa, Hisht-tepa) or nearby them (Fayaz-tepa, Ushtur-mulloh, Gyaur-qala in Merv), or separately standing (Zurmala, Zar-tepa, suburb of Gyaur-qala in Merv).

Importance of stupas was pointed out in Vinae of Mahasanghiks. On the data of epigraphy, representatives of this school lived in monasteries of Northern Bactria in Kushan period. Unlike stupas and monasteries, such cultic structures as a temple and sanctuary, had been known in Central Asia long before arrival of first Buddhist missionaries. The missionaries gave not too much attention to construction of these temples and did not form their initial types. Probably, therefore in Bactria – Tokharistan, including the northern (Central Asian) area of this region, local features of temples were formed substantially in view of ancient local traditions of cultic construction. For example, presence of cella-altar in a frame of corridors in Buddhist temples was not typical of the native land of Buddhism, but had long history in the Irano-Central Asian world where such planning model was applied in temples of fire (5).

Buddhist chaitia forms a temple-chapel where believers execute a ceremony of worship to stupa. Buddhist chaitia came to life after the material cultic subject in a form of stupa had appeared and arisen a necessity for some closed premise for storage of relics and for prayers. Before that, all ceremonies were carried out under the sky. In front of the entrance of chaitia there is an open lobby and a courtyard located before it, closed from three sides and having the wooden fence on the fourth. As for Buddhist monuments of Central Asia, planing of a temple with cella-altar, framed by corridors, was adapted to needs of such important element of Buddhist ceremonial complex, as ritual circuition – pradakshina, in this case – circuition around the Buddhist relics placed in cella along the corridors surrounding it. Occurrence of a new type of Buddhist sanctuaries in the 1st century A.D. was connected with appearance of a new ritual practice of worship to Buddha, bodhisattvas and the other Buddhist personages alongside with worship to early symbols – stupa, its pictures, a lotus and “wheel of law”. It caused, besides “the house of the symbol”, construction of “the house of the image ” – a sanctuary containing some sculptures. “Houses of the symbol” and “houses of the image” acted in various combinations, either being separated from each other or combining both functions (6).

Besides public Buddhist structures, in Central Asia were found special sanctuaries for elite. For example, at the site of ancient Kafyr-qala was discovered some Buddhist sanctuary forming a cultic structure of exclusive character – for the governor and members of his family. This sanctuary evidently proves that Buddhism was spread among ruling circles of early medieval Tokharistan.

Traditionally in India, and then in Kushan Bactria, Buddhism existed as urban religion. However, in early medieval Tokharistan was fixed a group of Buddhist monuments of “not-urban” Buddhism. The Indian materials testify to construction of temples along trading routes. For example, the Airtam temple, which stood on the crossing over the Amu Darya where at Greko-Bactrian time was a fort. Like stupas, monasteries in Central Asia appeared together with Buddhist communities. All monastery structures, known today in Central Asia, were constructed under uniform design and followed the Indian tradition. Such are Fayaz-tepa and Ushtur-mulloh (Kushan epoch), Adjina-tepa and Hisht-tepa (the period of the Arabian conquest). In Ushtur-mulloh, the northern top of Kara-tepa, and, probably, in Hisht-tepa the monastery premises were placed around of one inner courtyard, Adjina-tepa had two such courtyards, and Fayaz-tepa – three.

According to some researchers, in the second half of the 1st – beginning of the 2nd century A.D. in the northwest of India, in area of Taxila, was worked out the planning of ground Buddhist monasteries, which based on yard composition – a central courtyard with premises on its perimeter. As a rule, it was a line of identical monk’s cells, forming a dwelling zone. Premises of cultic character adjoined it on the one side (sanctuaries, halls for assemblies), economic premises (kitchen, larders) – on the other. One of obligatory elements of a monastery was stupa, which could placed both inside the monastery or outside it. Such planning specified as “typically Kushan” was being applied for construction of monasteries over the area from Taxila up to Sanchi for several centuries.

A number of premises (cells) at the excavated monasteries of Bactria – Tokharistan and Merv allow to establish roughly a number of monks, constantly living or temporarily lodged there, and pilgrims (6). Unique is the monastery of Kara-tepa in Old Termez. It combines a ground structure with a big courtyard and cells on its perimeter as well as sanctuaries and big stupa (Northern hill) with two ground-cave complexes at Southern and Western tops. The cave part was cut in the soft (Pleistocene sandstone) rock of the hill; the ground part was located on, probably, leveled or, may be, cut off for this purpose, or additionally built slope nearby the cave part of a complex, with which the courtyard forming a core of the ground part, was joined by the entrance aperture. All these complexes were repaired, and even were cardinally reconstructed. At the southern, the best studied top, were fixed traces of 15 – 20 levels of repair works. Unfortunately, the geology of Old Termez, does not allow to build temples after Indian great volumes. However, applying absolutely different forms and methods of exterior and interior decor, local masters managed to create true masterpieces of art, which preserve their impressiveness to this day.

Author: Maria Bolganova

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