Itinerant Creeds: The Chinese Northern Frontier by Paola Demattè


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In consideration of the choices that guided the selection of these sites for the construction and use of sacred or ritual places, the rock art locations discussed above can be compared to a number of other sites. Given the themes featured in rock art, the most obvious connection is with Buddhist temples or grotto complexes, particularly those in nearby locations and similar environment. Unsurprisingly, Gansu and Ningxia are as rich in Buddhist temples and rock cut sanctuaries as they are in rock art, though these are rare in Inner Mongolia (Juliano 2002).

Though the construction and use of Buddhist temples and grottoes required specialized technical and ritual knowledge and differs considerably from the creation of rock art, these two types of sacred places share many elements, particularly as regards the choice and use of landscape. Both rock art and Buddhist grotto sites tend to make use of elevated places close to water sources or rivers, and are positioned in remote areas that are, however, within a well traveled network of roads. Like their prehistoric counterparts, which are near prehistoric migration routes and early defensive structures, Buddhist grotto sites were established along the historic Eurasian trade roads and were often in the vicinity of historic fortifications.

Inner Mongolia

For geographic and historic reasons, Inner Mongolia has few Buddhist grottoes, but important temples dedicated to Lamaistic Buddhism are sometimes associated with preexisting nomads’ ovoo stone cairns. Often these stone constructions are near rock art sites and are likely to have been created by the same people who carved the petroglyphs. An example of this confluence of beliefs is embodied by the Chaolu (Black Stone) ovoo stone cairn and Lama temple, which are north of Saiwusu Town, an area of Urad Rear Banner (Inner Mongolia) not far from the Buerhanshan rock art site. At Chaolu, the ovoo complex and the Lama temple share both location and symbolism. The ovoo is decorated with Lamaistic symbols and elements of the iconography of the temple wall paintings are comparable to that of rock art. In one panel, in addition to the Buddha, we see deer and tigers (Figure 4). Though related to Buddhist stories (such as the deer and tiger jatakas), these animals are also a nod to the local tradition of animal representation, which paidparticular attention to deer and tigers. This merging of place and imagery is not surprising, because, since the introduction of Lamaistic Buddhism among the Mongols in the sixteenth century, important ovoos have been incorporated into Lamaistic worship and the most important have become paired with a Buddhist temple.

Ningxia and Gansu

A comparative analysis of petroglyphs and Buddhist art can be carried out by pairing rock art sites with one of the many rock cut sanctuaries are disseminated along the ancient trade routes of Ningxia and Gansu. A good example is Xumishan, a Buddhist cave complex in southern Ningxia, though other Buddhist grottoes, such as Mogao or Binglingsi in Gansu, would be equally valid.

Xumishan holds more than 130 rock cut cave temples spread over a 2 km area on the eastern slopes of Mount Xumi (1800 m, on the Liupangshan range) overlooking the Si River gorge, a strategic pass on a major travel route. The grottoes are clustered into eight groups (Dafolou, Zisungong, Yuanguangsi, Xiangguosi, Taohuadong, Songshugui, Sangeyao, Heishigou) following the main peaks of the mountain (Figure 5). Xumishan, which is not an uncommon name for a Buddhist mountain site, is a reference to mount Sumeru, the sacred mountain of Buddhism (xumi is Chinese for the Sanskrit Sumeru and shan is Chinese for mountain).

Carved out of the red sandstone cliffs and originally fronted by a timber structure, the caves vary in plan and in size based on use and date. Most caves used for worship have a squarish plan and are often equipped with a stupa pillar at the center. However, the largest tend to have side chambers and the smallest often lack the stupa pillar. Caves that served as living quarters for monks are simple, square or rectangular, some with side corridors. The largest cave, the Big Buddha Mansion (cave 5 at Dafolou), houses the tallest statue of the site (20 m), a seated Buddha Maitreya. The smaller ones are just a few meters wide. About 70 of these grottoes were fully adorned with wall paintings or statues of Buddhas, Bodhisattavas and holies carved from the living rock and painted. The remainder appear to have been either unfinished or undecorated, probably serving as the living quarters of monks. Today, only 20 caves still maintain most of their statues and decorations and a few are still in use for both Buddhist and Taoist worship (Ningxia Heritage Preserving Committee & Archaeology Dept. Beijing University 1997).

The cave temples were built in various spurts of activity between the fourth and the tenth centuries under the influence of dynasties, such as the Northern Wei (386-534 C.E.), Western Wei (534-57 C.E.), Northern Zhou (557-81 C.E.), Sui (581-618 C.E.), and Tang (618-906 C.E.), which had an inner Asian or Turkish ethnic background. The main function of the Xumishan caves was as places of worship and pilgrimage. However, beyond devotion, the reasons for this protracted building and use of Buddhist cave temples in an area that is relatively arid and isolated is connected with Xumishan strategic location along the Silk Road, one of the most important Eurasian trade and spiritual routes. Nearby historic and archaeological sites indicate that Xumishan had military and commercial importance over the centuries. A Qin dynasty (third century B.C.) defensive wall near the site and the natural defensive character of the narrow river gorge (where historic battles took place) suggest that Xumishan had considerable strategic importance. Persian and Central Asian objects such as glass and silver excavated from several large burials confirm that long distance trade was thriving on this section of the Silk Road and was vital to the continued use of the grottoes (Ningxia Heritage Preserving Committee & Archaeology Dept. Beijing University 1997).
Notwithstanding its complex sculptural and architectural program, Xumishan resembles rock art sites in many aspects. Like these places, the Xumishan grottoes were concentrated in a series of peaks overlooking a river, and were constructed over an extended period of time by a varied population that included nomad pastoralist, Chinese agriculturalist and their mixed descendants. Though located in what appears as a physically and spiritually remote area, their connections with trade routes and strategic mountain passes indicate that the grottoes were, after all, quite accessible.
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Itinerant Creeds: The Chinese Northern Frontier
Cults of Place: Mountains, Rivers and Beyond
→ Case Studies: Inner Mongolia: Yinshan
→ Case Studies: Ningxia: Helankou
→ Case Studies: Gansu: Heishan
Conclusion & References Cited
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