The Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves (柏孜克里千佛洞 Bózīkèlǐ Qiānfódòng), were carved over a 900 year-long period of time between about 400 and 1,300 AD. In these grottoes, people created artwork depicting daily life and their religion. The area underwent change of rulership, invasions and migrations, so people of different cultures left artwork. Also, as a major Silk Road stop, people from many places in Asia came through. Most of the surviving art is thought to be made mainly by an ancient people called the Gokturks who began to rule the area in the middle of the 6th century and the Uyghurs who succeeded them in the middle of the 9th century. The paintings and carvings depict people of various races doing things together like playing music, standing or doing Buddhist rituals. It is hard to understand what is happening in the religious Buddhist art. It is said that there were perhaps hundreds of such grottoes, but erosion and human destruction have destroyed most of the caves and most of the art in the remaining caves. Also, only some of the caves are generally open to the public. If you are in the area, it is one of the highlights of travel because what you can still see is interesting and the natural surroundings like super-huge sand dunes and canyons are exotic.
The grotto complex is in the Mutou Valley of the Flaming Mountains. The Flaming Mountains are a ridge that marks the northern boundary of the Turpan Depression. Since water flowed down to the spot from the Bogda Mountains in the canyon, the area was a natural place for habitation. The people wanted to make Buddhas and shrines and memorialize people in the area. The region was densely inhabited and lots travelers passed through and some stayed, and these people made lots of caves and temples in the steep cliffs of the desert canyon that is just about 10 kilometers north of Gaochang.
Most of the grottoes that can be entered have a rectangular door that allows entry into rectangular rooms that have arched ceilings on which there may be paintings. The grottoes are numbered. To appreciate what the artwork means probably takes a lot of time for the study of history and extinct religions. Tourists don’t generally have the time, knowledge or interest. Most of the art is Buddhist art or depictions of daily life, and there are portraits of actual people. Cave No. 17 is kind of unique because it displays what people think is Manichean artwork about hell. The Manichean religion was once one of the major religions of the world, and it was believed in Central Asia between China and Europe, but it is now an extinct religion.
Much of the artwork was destroyed intentionally by Muslims destroying the idolatry in the caves or by European archeologists and others cutting out the artwork for museums around the world or maybe for sale. However, what remains in the caves and paintings that have been preserved around the world depicts people of several races with a range of skin color. Caucasians, Indians, Chinese and other Mongoloid people are together religiously and in daily life. For example, one painting depicts a big central Buddha who is distinctly Mongoloid, but the surrounding people seem be come from a variety of cultures and have different skin tones. There is a Caucasian man and Mongoloid women who have the Hindu spot in the middle of their foreheads.
An interesting painting from Cave 31 is said to be from the 11th century which means that it was painted during the time of Uighur rule. It was taken to Japan. It shows a group of male musicians of various cultures playing together with a drum and different kinds of wind instruments. The musicians are Mongoloid, mixed race people who look like Uighurs, a dark-skinned South Asian man and a Caucasian. If this picture is representative of the people living then, then the whole society was really a melting pot of races. Some of the artwork shows artistic talent and some are na?ve, but on the whole, they are interesting.
One of the mysteries of the area is a previously unknown Caucasian civilization that lived in the area more than 2,000 years ago. Until about 20 years ago, these people who unknown. But lots of tombs have recently been found all over Xinjiang that show that the first settlers were Caucasian. It is still not clear where they came from, so the history of the region is still unclear. It is known that about 300 BC there were Caucasians at Jiaohe about 46 kilometers to the east because their tombs were recently found there. There is a museum about them at Jiaohe. These people who were at Jiaohe are called Cheshi or Yuezhi and other names. It is also known that during the 1st millennium, people called Tocharians left behind libraries of documents written in two Tocharian Indo-European languages. It is known that Tocharian Buddhists helped to spread Buddhism along the Silk Road. But it isn’t clear if the Tocharians were descended from the Cheshi people.
It is said that the Silk Road route following the foot of the Flaming Mountains started when Han Empire (206 BC – 220 AD) rulers wanted trade and allies and sent Zhang Qian as an emissary to western countries two times about the year 100 BC. Silk was the most prized Chinese product, and the Chinese wanted big horses and manufactured products such as glass articles. Travelers and traders going east and west skirted the Turpan Depression. Caravans stopped at Gaochang for supplies, and merchants traded there. Gaochang prospered and became a large fortified garrisoned city and a market center for the Silk Road route. The chiseling work at Bezeklik began about 400 AD, and the Gokturks and Uighurs did a lot of construction between the 500s and the invasion of the Mongols in the 13th century. It is said that the Mongols attacked and destroyed Gaochang. When the Mongol Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368) fell, there was a disruption of trade through the area and then Islam became the dominant religion.
When Westerners first came to the region, they were astonished to find evidence of lost cities and civilizations. An archeological race of sorts developed as people from developed countries came to the dangerous region looking for archeological discoveries. A German named Von Lecoq was amazed at the artwork at Bezeklik, partly because so many of the painted figures were Caucasian but also because the paintings were so well preserved. When he moved some sand, he suddenly saw “splendid paintings in colors as fresh as if the artist had only just finished them.” He cut a lot of material off the wall and carefully packed the material and sent it to Germany. This may have actually saved a lot of artwork because he reported that the local people were at the same time destroying the archeological sites around Turpan. People who visit Bezeklik notice how much of the artwork has been destroyed. On lots of the faces, the eyes were erased. Though a lot of the artwork that he took was destroyed in Germany during WWII, the majority is still preserved in various museums.
To see the ruins of Gaochang or their tombs called the Astana Tombs, go south from the Huoyanshan Bus Station. The Turpan Museum in the center of Turpan is a place to learn more about the people who used the grottoes and the history of the region.