TUYUGOU (Chine) - Excavation of Tuyugou Grottoes


Excavation of Tuyugou Grottoes in Shanshan County

Chinese Archaeology

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Tuyugou Grottoes was the earliest Buddhist grottoes in eastern Xinjiang. It was located at the Mazha village Tuyugou Township, Shanshan County in Xinjiang, where was of great geographic significance for the spreading of Buddhist grotto art from the West Regions to Central China. To support the application for listing of Silk Road (Xinjiang section) in UNESCO’s World Cultural Heritage list, and the project of dangerous rock reinforcement, archaeologists from Institute of Archaeology, CASS and the Turfan Institute have conducted joint excavations to Tuyugou Grottoes in 2010. The east area, the west area and the north area of the site and an aboveground Buddhist temple have been uncovered.

The caves in both the east and the west area have the same type of combination, with the column type (the large statue type) or the Buddha-hall type being the distributing center. The arrangement of caves resembled multi-storey buildings. A total of 56 caves in the north part of the east area have been cleaned and renumbered, including praying caves, meditation caves, monk’s dormitory caves and some living facilities. The group of caves centering Cave K18 is very important. This cave has a column in the center with the upper part shaped in a pagoda, This form of cave was the fist finds in Xinjiang. Cave K25, a praying cave at the lowest position in this group, has three rooms. The middle room is decorated with wall paintings. Cave K18, located at the mid-level, is of a large statue type. In front of the central column originally stands a huge statue. Now only the back nimbus and the lotus pedestal are preserved. Murals could be seen on the wall of the vaulted passage. On the south of Cave K18 there is a two-story cave including a meditation cave and a monk’s dormitory. Behind the upper pagoda of Cave K18 there is another group of meditation cave and monk’s dormitory (K11~K14). The highest group of caves, K8~k10, are meditation cave, monk’s dormitory and square cave respectively.

Caves of the central column type in the north part of the west area were dug into the natural mountain. Behind the column is the caved passage. The rest parts, including the left and right passages and the central column (or a huge statue) were built with clay bricks directly on the mountain slope. On the passage side walls was painted rows of standing Buddha and the ceiling was decorated with lotus design. Every side wall of the two side passages has a niche in the middle part. In the inner niche of the left passage there are remained feet of a figure. The back passage has also niches in the middle part and at each end respectively. On the west of this group is a group of meditation caves. Its ground floor has a dormitory in the front of a meditation cave.

In the south part of the east area, an aboveground temple of the Gaochang Uygur Kingdom period was found, which was constructed on a mountain slope. The excavated part includes a Buddhist hall and living facilities. The Buddhist hall at the south has a rectangular throne, with the Buddhist statue above being destroyed. Some murals are remained on the lower surrounding wall, depicting rows of Uygur prayers. Some of them have a Uygur inscription. At the north there are a kitchen and several living facilities, including small storeroom and store pits.

The excavation yielded a great number of manuscripts written in varying languages, including Chinese, Sogdian, Tibetan, Uygur, Brahmi, etc. The contents include Buddhist texts, secular texts and ancient annotated books. Some documents are in good state of preservation with scroll rods and inscriptions. According to the character styles they could be dated to the 4th-5th century. These finds provide new materials for studying the social life, religions and ancient languages in the Turfan regions.
The styles of wall paintings newly found in the two caves of the central column type (the large statue type) in the east and west areas are indicative of an early age. The subjects of painting are also the first finds, which are different from those finds in Hexi, Qiuci and Khotan regions. This will give some valuable clues to study the starting time and the carving sequence of Tuyugou Grottoes.     

  (Translator: Tong tao)