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The Popular Silk Road and the Tibetan Influence in world

The Rise of Tibet on the Silk Road

Nestled in the northeastern edges of the Tibetan Plateau, the Silk Road was a crucial nexus of ancient trade routes. Among these, the Tuyuhun Route, also known as the Qinghai Route, carved its way through the eastern regions of the plateau. Thanks to the geographical convenience, Tibetans and their ancestors, like the ancient Qiang people, thrived in parts of the Silk Road, becoming integral to its diverse cultural tapestry. From the era of the Tibetan Empire, the historical engagement of Tibetans with the Silk Road and the spread of Tibetan culture can be broadly categorized into several phases.

The Era of the Tibetan Empire

In 633 AD, the Tibetan Empire conquered Tuyuhun, taking over the Qinghai Lake area and bringing the Tuyuhun Route under its control. Around 632 AD, Tibetans ventured into the Western Regions for the first time. By 670 AD, they had momentarily seized the Anxi Four Garrisons, bringing the southern route of the Silk Road under Tibetan influence. Taking advantage of the An Lushan Rebellion, they occupied territories of the Tang dynasty in the Western Regions, including significant Silk Road towns like Dunhuang, for nearly a century. Tibetan officials, soldiers, and civilians settled in these areas, implementing policies to “Tibetanize” the local populace.

This not only introduced Tibetan culture to these regions but also left a lasting impact. Despite internal strife leading to the end of Tibetan rule along the Silk Road, the Tibetan presence and culture remained, intertwined with other ethnic groups.

The Song and Yuan Dynasties

During the Song Dynasty, a significant number of Tibetans lived in areas like the Hexi Corridor, the Huangshui River basin, and the upper reaches of the Wei River. The Tibetan tribes in Hexi established the Liangzhou Six Valleys regime, later conquered by the Western Xia. The Huangshui area saw the rise of the Qutang regime. Tibetan tribes in these areas were either under Western Xia’s rule or the Song dynasty’s jurisdiction. The Qutang regime, particularly, fostered external trade, safeguarding the Silk Road and facilitating commerce between Central Asia and China.

Xining city (ancient Qingtang city) became a vital trade hub, with special districts for Western Region merchants. Under the Yuan dynasty, most Tibetans in the Hexi region fell under Gansu province’s administration, while the Huangshui area was managed by institutions under the Xuanzheng Yuan. Compared to the Tibetan Empire era, the Song and Yuan periods saw a massive eastward spread of Tibetan Buddhism, supported by rulers of Western Xia and the Mongol Empire. Tibetan Buddhism flourished in the Hexi region and beyond, becoming the dominant religion and cherished by multiple ethnicities.

The Continuation of Tibetan Buddhism Through Dynasties

The Ming and Qing Dynasties

During the Ming and Qing dynasties, Tibetan Buddhism continued to thrive in regions like Hexi. The Ming dynasty adopted a supportive stance towards Tibetan Buddhism, recognizing its role in stabilizing the northwestern frontiers. Several Tibetan Buddhist monasteries, supported by the Ming government, emerged in the Gansu-Qinghai area. These monasteries, enjoying royal patronage, blended Han and Tibetan cultural traditions, showcasing distinctive characteristics.

In the Qing dynasty, while the prominence of Tibetan Buddhist culture on the main routes of the eastern Silk Road declined, it flourished along the sides of the Hexi Corridor, between the Qilian Mountains and Inner Mongolia. The Oirat Mongols, who occupied the Western Regions during the transition from Ming to Qing, built monasteries, translated Buddhist scriptures, and fervently promoted Tibetan Buddhism. This led to the widespread development of Tibetan Buddhism in the Western Regions, maintaining the area’s religious and cultural diversity into contemporary times. Today, Tibetans remain a vibrant community in places like Hexi, with historical Tibetan cultural heritage still preserved and newly discovered along the Silk Road.

The Riches of Tibetan Cultural Heritage

The Silk Road’s material Tibetan cultural heritage is immensely rich and historically profound, with some artifacts dating back thousands of years. The rise of disciplines such as Dunhuang studies, Tibetan studies, and Western Xia studies has drawn academic attention to the Silk Road’s Tibetan cultural heritage, resulting in significant scholarly output. This attention has filled many gaps in academic fields, yet much of this research remains specialized, focused on specific eras or regions without a comprehensive overview of Tibetan culture across the Silk Road’s expanse.

Despite the systematized, in-depth cultural studies of the Silk Road’s various regions, the majority of researchers lack a background in Tibetan culture. Coupled with a scarcity of historical sources, this has led to challenges in fully grasping the subject. As a result, research on Tibetan culture along the Silk Road appears relatively underdeveloped compared to other aspects. Given the broad scope and long continuity of Tibetan culture on the Silk Road, this essay aims to organize and categorize the existing academic findings on Tibetan cultural heritage, providing a structured introduction to this fascinating aspect of Silk Road history.

Paper Documents: A Glimpse into History

Tibetan Manuscripts of the Tubo Period

The Dunhuang Mogao Grottoes, a treasure trove of historical manuscripts, have yielded Tibetan documents that now reside across various countries, including France, the United Kingdom, China, Russia, and Japan. While the exact number of these documents has not been precisely tallied, estimates suggest there are over ten thousand scroll numbers, making them the second-largest collection within the Mogao cache. The collections obtained by French scholar Paul Pelliot and British explorer Aurel Stein are among the most diverse and valuable, attracting scholarly attention for nearly a century.

To date, collaborative efforts between the Northwest University for Nationalities, the Shanghai Ancient Books Publishing House, the French National Library, and the British Library have led to the cataloging and publication of these documents. The “French Collection of Dunhuang Tibetan Manuscripts” has published up to its 16th volume, while the “British Collection of Dunhuang Western Regions Tibetan Documents” has reached the 6th volume. In China, the majority of Dunhuang Tibetan manuscripts, accounting for over 90% of the national collection, are housed in Gansu and have been cataloged, though not yet published.

The International Dunhuang Project (IDP) has progressively digitized and made available online a wide array of artifacts unearthed along the Silk Road, including the complete digitization of the French Dunhuang Tibetan documents and a substantial portion of the British collection. Recent explorations in Tibet have uncovered Tibetan manuscripts from the Tubo period, similar to those found in Dunhuang. While historical, economic, legal, and linguistic secular documents have traditionally dominated research, there’s a growing trend towards the study of Buddhist manuscripts, marking a new direction in the exploration of Dunhuang’s Tibetan corpus.

Tibetan Documents Unearthed in the Western Regions

Originating from places like Khotan, these documents comprise thousands of scroll numbers and are primarily housed in the British Library. Significant research includes Thomas’s “Tibetan Documents and Manuscripts from Chinese Turkestan” (Volume II), which transcribed, translated, and annotated 600 documents from the region, effectively publishing these precious texts for the first time. Following this, Japanese scholar Takeshi Watanabe conducted specialized studies on ancient Tibetan societal documents, culminating in the publication of “The Ancient Tibetan Documents from Central Asia in the British Library Stein Collection,” which was released between 1997 and 1998.

This work included facsimiles, catalogues, and glossaries. Unsorted and undigitized fragments and pieces of Tibetan texts from the Western Regions remain to be organized and studied, promising further insights into the rich tapestry of Silk Road history.

The Role of Tibetan Script and Buddhism in Western Xia

Tibetan script was one of the scripts in circulation within the Western Xia territories, with Tibetan Buddhist scriptures highly valued across different ethnic groups. Monks, regardless of their ethnicity, were required to recite Tibetan Buddhist scriptures mandated by the government. Excavations at the Heishui City site have unearthed Tibetan documents now kept in Russia, China, the United Kingdom, and other locations. The Russian collection from Heishui City comprises over 60 numbers and more than 300 pages, including both manuscripts and woodblock prints, believed to be among the earliest examples of Tibetan printing.

These artifacts exhibit various binding styles, including Sanskrit fold, butterfly fold, and single-page amulets. Among these findings are Western Xia Buddhist scriptures annotated in Tibetan, with 18 fragments in the Russian collection and one Western Xia document with Tibetan annotations, comprising nearly 170 words, in the British collection.

Discoveries at Various Sites

A modest amount of Western Xia-period Tibetan documents have also been discovered at the Vajra Mother Cave in Wuwei. In Wuwei’s Zhangyi Xiaoxigou, Tibetan manuscripts (five pieces) and printed texts (one piece) from the Western Xia period were found in a Zen cave. Additionally, fragments of Tibetan Buddhist scriptures, carved during the Western Xia era, have been identified in the Tiantishan Grottoes in Wuwei. At the Bingling Temple Grottoes in Yongjing County, a collection of ink-written Western Xia dharanis and a page of Tibetan dharani were found, with the Tibetan perfectly matching some of the Western Xia dharanis.

The Legacy and Research

The Tibetan documents from the Western Xia period include texts inherited from the Tubo period that circulated in Hexi, as well as Buddhist scriptures introduced from Tibet during the later stages of dissemination. Despite their significance, the Tibetan documents found in Heishui City and other locations from the Western Xia era have not yet been systematically organized or published, with research findings remaining relatively scarce.

These discoveries highlight the importance of Tibetan culture and Buddhism within the Western Xia territory, showcasing a blend of inherited traditions and new influences. The presence of Tibetan texts during the Western Xia period underlines the enduring cultural and religious exchanges along the Silk Road, contributing to the rich tapestry of its history. Yet, the path to fully understanding and appreciating these documents lies in future efforts to organize, study, and publish these significant yet underexplored artifacts.

The Flourishing of Tibetan Buddhism

During the Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties, Tibetan Buddhism saw widespread popularity in regions such as Hexi, with monasteries dotting the landscape. Despite the destruction of many temples due to wars and turmoil towards the end of the Qing Dynasty and during the Republic of China period, a significant number of documents have been preserved. In areas like Yongdeng, Gulang, and Yongchang, Tibetan manuscripts remain, with the Wuwei Museum holding a particularly rich collection. These documents, primarily from the Yuan and Ming periods, include both handwritten manuscripts and woodblock prints, many featuring dedicatory inscriptions and using the Ming Dynasty’s imperial era names, thus reflecting strong regional characteristics. Among these treasures is a Ming Dynasty cinnabar red-printed copy of the “Kangyur” (the Tibetan Buddhist Canon), though its provenance remains unclear.

Discoveries in the Mogao Grottoes

In the northern area of the Mogao Grottoes, 23 caves yielded 115 Tibetan documents, including complete leaves, fragments, and scraps, now housed at the Dunhuang Research Institute. These documents span a wide range of topics beyond Buddhism, including medicine, mathematics, and divination, dating from the Western Xia to the Yuan and Ming periods.

Tibetan Buddhism in the Qing Dynasty

In the Qing Dynasty, Tibetan Buddhism was prevalent among the Oirat Mongols of Xinjiang, where the Dzungar Khanate once built grand monasteries. Consequently, a substantial number of Tibetan Buddhist manuscripts have been found in Xinjiang, kept in places like the Xinjiang Museum, though these have not yet been cataloged or organized.

Recent Discoveries

In 2014, during stabilization work on a hazardous rock formation, the Gansu Bingling Temple Cultural Relics Protection Research Institute discovered fragments of Tibetan Buddhist scriptures in a cave, clearing nearly a thousand pages of scripture fragments. The exact period of these documents has not yet been determined.

Silk Road Translations

Along the Silk Road, documents translated from Tibetan into Western Xia, Uyghur, Chinese, and Mongolian have been unearthed, reflecting the spread of Tibetan Buddhism among various ethnic groups and the intercultural exchanges between them. The number of Tibetan Buddhist documents translated into Western Xia is substantial, with significant finds at Heishui City, the Vajra Mother Cave, and the northern Mogao caves, now housed in China, Russia, and other countries.

Tibetan Inscriptions and Stone Carvings


Tibetan inscriptions and stone carvings have a long history, dating back to the Tubo period, with the tradition of erecting stone tablets influenced by the Tang Dynasty. While the number of Tibetan inscriptions along the Silk Road is limited, they span a wide historical range, extending into contemporary times.

Tubo Period Inscriptions

Biantoukou Stone Buddha Temple Inscription

Located in the Biantoukou Stone Buddha Temple Cliff in Minle County, Gansu Province, this inscription dates back to 806 AD. It features carvings of Buddha images and inscriptions.

Tubo Tombs Inscriptions in Dulan, Qinghai

Excavated from the tombs in Dulan, Qinghai, these inscriptions include four stone tablets bearing the names of the tomb owners. Additionally, six rectangular stone tablets were found in other tombs, with one bearing the name of a Tubo queen.

Skardu Inscription in Pakistan

Dating back to the Tubo period, the Skardu inscription features prayers and wishes.

Western Xia and Yuan Dynasty Inscriptions

Yuge Jun’s Testament Stone Tablet

Located in the Dafosi Temple in Xining, Qinghai, this inscription dates back to the early 10th century.

Heishuiqiao Stone Inscription in Ganzhou

Also known as the Heihe Bridge Inscription, this is one of the surviving stone inscriptions from the Western Xia period, now housed in Zhangye, Gansu. Erected in the seventh year of the Qianyou reign (1170 AD), it features Chinese on the front and Tibetan on the back, with both texts believed to be translations of each other.

Mogao Grottoes Six-Syllable Mantra Stone Inscription

Commissioned by Emperor Wenzong of the Yuan Dynasty in 1348 AD, this stone inscription is currently preserved at the Dunhuang Research Institute. It features a depiction of the four-armed Guanyin Bodhisattva in the center, surrounded by the Six-Syllable Mantra written horizontally in regular script, as well as the names of 95 patrons carved around the perimeter.

Inscriptions of the Six-Syllable Mantra

Along the Silk Road, numerous stone carvings of the “Six-Syllable Mantra” in Tibetan script can be found, spanning from the Western Xia period to the Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties.

  • In Gansu, near the Shengrong Temple in Yongchang, there is a stone carving of the “Six-Syllable Mantra” in Chinese, Tibetan, Western Xia, Uighur, Mongolian, and Brahmi scripts, dating back to the Yuan Dynasty.
  • In Qinghai, at the Ganglong Stone Carving Site, there are also stone carvings of the “Six-Syllable Mantra” in Tibetan script.
  • In Heishan, Dingxi, there are stone carvings of the “Six-Syllable Mantra,” but their dating remains undetermined.
  • In the southern part of Xinjiang, in areas like Hongtuling and Zongkun’erma, stone carvings of the “Six-Syllable Mantra” have been discovered.

Ming Dynasty Stone Carvings

Qutan Temple Stone Inscriptions in Qinghai

Qutan Temple in Ledu, Qinghai, was built with the support of the Ming government. Within the temple, there were originally seven stone inscriptions, including:

  • The “Imperial Edict Inscription” in the sixth year of the Yongle reign.
  • The “Imperial Edict Inscription” in the sixteenth year of the Yongle reign.
  • The “Imperial Edict Inscription for the Golden Buddha Statue of Qutan Temple” in the sixteenth year of the Yongle reign.
  • The “Imperial Inscription of Qutan Temple” in the first year of the Hongxi reign.
  • The “Imperial Inscription of the Rear Hall of Qutan Temple” in the second year of the Xuande reign.
  • The “Imperial Edict Inscription for the Front Gate of Qutan Temple” in the second year of the Xuande reign (which is no longer extant).

These inscriptions, with Chinese on the front and Tibetan on the back, provide valuable insights into Ming Dynasty policies towards Tibetan Buddhism, as well as translations between Han Chinese and Tibetan, contributing to the study of cultural exchanges between different ethnic groups.

Dachongjiao Temple Stone Inscriptions in Minxian, Gansu

The “Imperial Inscription for the Four Great Pillars of Dachongjiao Temple” in the fourth year of the Xuande reign is currently housed in a pavilion on the right side of Dachongjiao Temple in Meichuan Township, Minxian County, Gansu. This inscription, using both Chinese and Tibetan scripts, reflects the Ming Dynasty’s support for Tibetan Buddhism and features translations of the Tibetan text into Chinese.

Stone Inscriptions and Buddhist Cave Paintings along the Silk Road

Stone Inscriptions

Gansu Province

  1. Restoration of the Bai Ta Temple in Wuwei, Gansu, in the Fifth Year of the Xuande Reign (1430)
    This inscription, originally erected at the Bai Ta Temple in Wuwei, commemorates the restoration of the temple during the Ming Dynasty. It is currently housed in the residence of a local farmer. The Bai Ta Temple served as a significant residence for the Tibetan Sakya Pandita and was where he passed away. The inscription is written in both Chinese and Tibetan and provides insights into the Ming Dynasty’s efforts to support Tibetan Buddhism.
  2. Restoration of the Guangshan Temple in Wuwei, Gansu, in the Thirteenth Year of the Zhengtong Reign (1448)
    The Guangshan Temple, also known as the Rgya Yag Dgon in Tibetan, is located in Wuwei and is renowned for its connection to Tibetan Buddhism. The stone inscription, dating back to the Ming Dynasty, is inscribed in both Chinese and Tibetan scripts, highlighting the Ming Dynasty’s patronage of Tibetan Buddhist institutions.
  3. Imperial Edict Bestowed on the Gan’en Temple in Hongcheng Town, Yongdeng County, Gansu, in the Fourth Year of the Jiajing Reign (1525)
    The Gan’en Temple, constructed by the Lu chieftain, was granted its name by the Jiajing Emperor. The inscription, written in both Tibetan and Chinese, reflects the Ming Dynasty’s religious policies and its interactions with local Tibetan Buddhist communities.

Buddhist Cave Paintings

Cave Murals from the Tubo Period

During the Tubo period, cave murals flourished, particularly in sites like the Mogao Caves (designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987) and the Yulin Caves.

  • Mogao Caves: It is estimated that around 56 caves were excavated during the Tubo period at the Mogao Caves. The artistic style during this time continued the previous trends but incorporated elements of Tubo culture, especially in murals depicting Tubo rulers, officials, and deities.
  • Yulin Caves, Cave 25: This cave features an ancient Tibetan inscription, indicating its excavation during the Tubo period. The murals within depict various Buddhist deities, reflecting both esoteric and exoteric Buddhist practices. Additionally, scenes of Tang-Tubo cultural exchanges, such as wedding ceremonies, are also depicted.

The influence of Tubo Buddhist art extended to other regions along the Silk Road, such as Khotan and Kucha, where traces of Tubo culture can be found in cave murals, sculptures, and literary works. Despite significant progress in the study of Tubo Buddhist art, there is still a lack of comprehensive research, and many questions remain unanswered.

During the Western Xia period, Tibetan Buddhism inherited from the late Tubo period continued to thrive in areas like Hexi, exerting a positive influence on the revival of Tibetan Buddhism in Tibet itself. Various Tibetan Buddhist sects that emerged in Tibet spread eastward to regions like Hexi, resulting in a fusion of traditional practices with new trends. Along the Silk Road, extending to Xinjiang in eastern China, Tibetan Buddhism spread and flourished. The Western Xia dynasty, upon occupying these regions, adopted a policy of reverence and support for Buddhism, leading to a flourishing of Tibetan Buddhism. Sacred sites such as the Mogao Caves continued to be protected, with new caves being excavated.

The cave murals from the Western Xia period, as well as the subsequent Yuan and Ming dynasties, exhibit a fusion of Han and Tibetan styles, with a prominent presence of Tibetan Esoteric Buddhism characteristics. Caves such as Mogao Cave 206, 491, 398, 462, and 464, Yulin Cave 29, 2, and 3, as well as caves in Wufeng Temple, showcase rich Tibetan Esoteric styles. Some scholars even consider Mogao Caves 462, 464, and the Northern 77th Cave as epitomes of Tibetan Buddhist art during the Western Xia period. Cave 465, famous for its Esoteric Buddhism imagery, is attributed to either the Western Xia or Yuan dynasty, featuring depictions of tantric practices and Indian tantric practitioners.

In the hinterland of the Western Xia, in the Helan Mountains, Tibetan Buddhist murals have also been discovered, such as those in Shanzuigou Cave. These murals depict images of Western Xia kings, Tibetan masters, and deities, blending Han and Tibetan Buddhist themes and artistic styles seamlessly.

During the Yuan, Ming, and Qing periods, sites like the Matai Temple and Wenshu Temple in Sunan County, Gansu, and the Xumi Mountain Grottoes in Guyuan, Ningxia, featured Tibetan Buddhist murals and sculptures from the Western Xia and Yuan periods. The Bingling Temple Grottoes in Yongjing County, Gansu, have preserved Tibetan Buddhist murals from the Yuan, Ming, and Qing periods, reflecting the dominance of Tibetan Buddhism in the region for over 800 years. Similarly, numerous Tibetan Buddhist temples along the Hexi Corridor and in the Hexi region have retained their exquisite murals, showcasing a harmonious blend of Han and Tibetan artistic elements and holding significant cultural value.

(1) Silk Paintings from the Tubo Period: Unearthed from scripture caves, these are the earliest known Tubo silk paintings, directly related to the formation of later Tibetan thangka paintings. For example, S.P. 32. Ch. xxxvii004 is a tantric silk painting created in 836 AD by Tubo painter Baiyang in collaboration with a Han Chinese painter. It bears a Tibetan inscription: “In the year of the Dragon, I, the monk Baiyang, created the following group of paintings for the benefit of all sentient beings: Medicine Buddha, Bodhisattva Manjushri, Prince of Manjushri, Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva with a Thousand Hands and Eyes, Vaishravana, and Jambhala.” Similarly, the artwork E0.1148 in the Musée Guimet in France also exhibits distinct Tubo characteristics, as do three other pieces numbered S.P.160.Ch.00401, S.P.168.Ch.00377, and S.P.169.Ch.00376, all with Tibetan inscriptions.

(2) Tangka Paintings from the Western Xia and Yuan Dynasties: Seven tangka paintings were unearthed from the stupa in Cave No. 1 of the Jinguang Haimu Cave in Wuwei, now housed in the Wuwei Museum. Among them, “Bodhisattva Manjushri,” “Mahamayuri Vidyaraja with Vajravarahi and the Mandala of Mahamayuri,” and “Eleven-faced Avalokiteshvara” are well-preserved. The “Bodhisattva Manjushri” tangka also depicts Medicine Buddha, a Tibetan Buddhist master, and a Western Xia official in a black hat and white robe. The artistic style of this tangka combines Tibetan and Han elements, with delicate detailing and vibrant colors such as yellow and ochre, resulting in vivid and lively character portrayals. It has been designated as a National First-Class Cultural Relic.

In addition, six tangka paintings, including “Mahamayuri Vidyaraja and His Mandala,” were excavated from the Hongfota Pagoda in Helan County, Ningxia. The 108 Stupas in Qingtongxia, Ningxia, yielded brick and stone carvings as well as silk paintings, including a “Thousand Buddhas” tangka from the niche of a stupa. Moreover, two tangka paintings, “Mahamayuri Vidyaraja” and “Portrait of a Master,” were unearthed from the twin pagodas at Baisikou, Ningxia.

Furthermore, over 300 Buddhist paintings were unearthed from the Heishuicheng Site in Ejina Banner, Alxa League, Inner Mongolia, most of which were transported to Russia by Kozlov and are now housed in the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. In 2009, Northwest Minzu University, the State Hermitage Museum, and Shanghai Ancient Books Publishing House jointly published “Russian-Tibetan Artifacts from Heishuicheng,” the first systematic publication of Heishuicheng artifacts in China. These artifacts often exhibit a Tibetan Buddhist style or a fusion of Han and Tibetan artistry, holding significant positions in the history of Tibetan Buddhist art.

  1. Architectural Remains from the Western Xia Period:
    • The remaining base of Zamu Monastery’s pagoda, located in Lanjiazhuang Village, Ba Wu Village, Ancient City Township, Wuwei City, bears engravings depicting five Buddhas in the upper row and four Buddhas in the lower row, separated by a bead pattern. There is a Tibetan inscription in the lower right corner. It dates back to the late Western Xia period or early Yuan Dynasty.
    • The 108 Stupas in Qingtongxia, Ningxia, feature the architectural style of Tibetan Buddhist stupas (also known as lama stupas) and have yielded numerous Tibetan Buddhist artifacts, thereby qualifying as cultural heritage related to Tibetan culture.
  2. Architectural Remains from the Yuan Dynasty:
    • The Saba Lingta site preserves the base of a monumental relic stupa built by Sakya Pandita in Bai Ta Si (Bai Ta Temple) after his death in Liangzhou (present-day Wuwei), which remains intact to this day.
    • The Guazhou Zangmi Teda Tan Cheng site, possibly dating back to the Western Xia period, is located approximately 6 kilometers from Guazhou County, at the western end of the Hexi Corridor. Discovered through aerial photography, it is considered a significant breakthrough in the archaeology of Hexi sites. It remains the largest outdoor mandala city of Tibetan Buddhism in China, known as the “First Mandala of Buddhism,” but its historical background and cultural significance have yet to be thoroughly studied, making it still a mystery.
  3. Temple Architecture from the Ming and Qing Dynasties:
    • Representative examples include the Qutan Monastery in Ledu, Qinghai; the Miaoyin Monastery, Gan’en Monastery, and Ganzhong Monastery in Yongdeng, Gansu; and the Dongda Monastery, reflecting various aspects of the layout, structure, and decoration of Tibetan Buddhist temple architecture in the northwest during the Ming and Qing periods.
    • The Dafosi Temple in Zhangye, Gansu, originally built during the Western Xia period and later extensively renovated throughout successive dynasties, was initially a Tibetan Buddhist monastery but was converted into a Han Buddhist temple during the Ming and Qing periods. In the ninth year of the Yongle reign (1411 AD), the Ming court began reconstruction of the Dafosi Temple, which lasted for nine years. Emperor Chengzu bestowed the name “Hongren Temple” upon it. The earthen pagoda built inside the Dafosi Temple at this time is a lamaist stupa belonging to the Tibetan Buddhist Vajrayana tradition. This distinctive earthen pagoda is one of the few surviving Vajrayana-style pagodas in China.

Tombs and Burial Sites

One of the notable burial sites along the Silk Road is the Tubo tombs in Dulan County, Haixi Prefecture, Qinghai Province. These tombs are situated along the Qinghai Route, a branch of the Silk Road. The artifacts unearthed from these tombs include silk from the Central Plains, brocades from Central Asia, as well as gold, silver, wooden slips, Tibetan inscriptions, stone lion sculptures, and other items. Unfortunately, only a small portion of these tombs have been scientifically excavated, with many being extensively damaged or looted. As a result, numerous artifacts have been lost, with only a few remaining scattered across museums in Qinghai Province, Gansu Province, as well as in museums in Japan, the United States, and other countries. There is some debate within the academic community regarding the ethnic origin of the Dulan tombs, with some attributing them to the Tubo Empire and others to the Tuyuhun. However, most of the excavated tombs date back to the Tubo period, and the Tibetan inscriptions and wooden slips found within them indicate a distinct Tubo cultural influence.

Another significant Tubo tomb site is located in Dachangling, Sunan County, Gansu Province. Discovered in 1979, these tombs yielded 143 artifacts, including gold, silver, tin, iron, and wooden items, which are now housed in the Yugu Nationality Museum in Sunan County. Among the treasures found are a gold pot adorned with pearls, a silver tray with a golden flower motif, and woodblock prints depicting the twelve zodiac animals.

In summary, the surviving cultural and related heritage along the Silk Road associated with Tibetan culture is invaluable and irreplaceable. These artifacts provide insights into aspects of Tibetan history and culture that would otherwise remain obscure or unknown. The discovery of Tubo tombs and the treasures within them has significantly enriched our understanding of Tubo society, filling gaps in historical records and shedding light on various aspects of Tubo culture. Similarly, the artistic treasures unearthed from sites such as the Mogao Grottoes and the Black Water City have contributed to our knowledge of Tibetan art history. The importance of Tibetan cultural heritage along the Silk Road cannot be overstated, as it enriches the overall cultural landscape of the region and highlights the historical connections between Tibet and other regions along the Silk Road.

About the author

The Tibetan Travel website's creator, hailing from Lhasa, is a cultural enthusiast. They promote responsible tourism, connecting the world to Tibet's beauty and heritage. Awards recognize their contribution.

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