Black Castle of the desert


During my first visit to the National Museum at New Delhi about 4 years ago, I had found two of the exhibition halls, most interesting. One of these was the hall displaying the artifacts and other items from the Indus-Sarswati culture and the second one was the hall dedicated to Aurel Stein Collections, brought by him from China.
Sir Marc Aurel Stein,(1862 – 1943) was a Hungarian born British archaeologist. From his early age he had such great interest in oriental studies that in 1884 he went to England to study oriental languages and archeology and became a British citizen. In 1887, Stein came to India, employed by the British Indian Government. At the beginning of the 20th century, Aurel Stein undertook his archaeological expeditions in Central Asia with the agreement that in return for his having been provided government funding, the results of his expeditions would be divided between British and Indian collections. While the largest portion of what he acquired went to the British Museum in London, a sizable number of objects, some of them of great interest, are in New Delhi. There are number of exhibits from places like Miran, LouLan, Khotan, Nia, Astana cemetery and a large collection of paintings and manuscripts from Dunhuang caves, which are really noteworthy.
While going through the museum exhibits leisurely, my attention was drawn to a small painted stucco head of a female. As usual, Stein has described this exhibit in minute details as;
Clay stucco head, female (?) ; painted. Plump oval face ; straight, normal eyes, small nose (broken) and mouth ; delicate and rather weak chin. Eyebrows well arched ; hair in short close curls (?) over brow, long in front of cars. Tiara (broken). Hair at back in loose flat bands interlacing ; at top it is drawn high up like a plume, but coiled into tight roll, presenting volutes at the sides. Flesh pink, hair black. Type very Etruscan(An ancient Italian civilization). Stick projecting downwards from neck. 3-1/2″ x 2” x 1-3/4”. ”
What I found particularly interesting was the name of the place, mentioned on the legend plate, where Stein had found this head. The name was mentioned as “Khara Khoto.” The name got stuck in my memory because it nearly matches a Marathi word, which means “True False.” Later on, I did some research and found that this is the Mongolian name of the place and means Black Castle. Chinese have several, similar sounding names for this place as Heishui City, Hēichéng or Hēishuǐchéng, which mean "black city" or "black water city". I was surprised as to why anyone would call a city as black city? I decided to find out more about this strange city and found that there were many more surprises in store such as, even though the city was located on China-Mongolia border, people were not of Chinese origins, They followed Tibetan Buddhism and some of the documents had even Kharoshti and Sanskrit scripts inscribed on them and as happens with everything in central Asia, association with Genghis Khan.
The name of this city is mentioned in 'The Travels of Marco Polo (CE 1200-1300), as Etzina or Eji Nai ( in Chinese as Yijinai.) However, it is far from clear, why Mongolians named this place as Black Castle. Even the last Mongol king , who ruled the city up to 1372 was known as  Khara Bator ( Baiter) or Black Bator.

Alxa League

Next question in my mind was, where was this ancient city? China's Inner Mongolia province lies just south of the present China-Mongolia border in the Gobi desert region. This province is divided in 12 prefecture level divisions and 3 extant leagues. Alxa League or Ālāshàn League is one such division. The league borders Mongolia to the north and Gansu to the south and west. Banner is a county level division in the Chinese administrative hierarchy. The Khara Khoto city ruins are located in Ejin Banner of Alxa League near the former Gashun Lake ( a lake in the Gobi desert that has dried up in 1961). In fact the banner has been named after the city itself.

The Gobi is Earth's northernmost desert and least inhabited. It straddles the boundaries of China and Mongolia, and occupies an area of 500,000 square miles (1.3 million square kilometers). Very often less than 3 inches (7.6 centimeters) of rain falls here in a year. Its rocky soil mostly consists of gravel. During winters the weather is almost cruel cold and summers are full of sand-blasting or scouring gales that can flay exposed skin and strip the paint from a car.  

Alxa League or Ālāshàn League lies at the heart of this desolate forbidden region. Geographically speaking, the region is a plateau known as Alashan Plateau, covering 260,000 square miles (673,400 square kilometers) in China and Mongolia and is home to wild horses, snow leopards, and rare Bactrian camels. The place is so remote and sparsely inhabited that it has hardly figured in China's long history.

The question therefore naturally arises that if this Alxa League or Ālāshàn League and the Ejin Banner, which is a part of it, are located in such barren, godforsaken terrain, how a major city was founded here in the year 1032 and became a thriving center of Tangut empire trade in the 11th century? I suppose we would have to go in the details of the geography and the history of the city as well as the region for that purpose.

Before we do that, let us see how the city was as can be visualized from the ruins almost buried in sand. The city was walled in a giant 30-foot (9.1 m)-high ramparts and 12-foot (3.7 m)-thick outer walls. We can get an idea of the size of the city from the fact that the outer walls ran for some 421 m (1,381 ft) east-west by 374 m (1,227 ft) north-south.This explains at least one doubt, why this city was known as a castle. What else would you call a place that had 30 feet high ramparts around it? 

(A Tangka fragment of 13th-14th century, depicting Hindu Elephant God Ganapati or Ganesha riding a mouse from Khara Khoto, China-Mongolia border)
Readers must have surely read about the silk road of central Asia, the major trade artery through which, caravans carried goods, conquering armies of central Asia rode, nomads, urban dwellers and monks travelled, from about 200 BCE to Fifteenth century. This trade route started from the then Chinese capital of Xian and ended in Constantinople (Istanbul) in the Ottoman empire.
Towards the eastern end of this trade route, lay a narrow passage known as the Hexi Corridor, which stretches for about 1,000 KM starting from the modern city of Lanzhou to the Yumen pass or Jade Gate at the border of Gansu and Xinjiang regions. There are many fertile oases along the path, watered by rivers flowing from the Qilian Mountains, such as the Shiyang, Jinchuan, Ejin (Heihe), and Shule Rivers.
These desert oases are surrounded on all sides by extremely rugged and strikingly inhospitable, geographical features like the snow-capped Qilian Mountains ("Nanshan") to the south; the Beishan mountainous area  and the Alashan Plateau to northwest, and the vast expanse of the Gobi desert to the north. These geographical conditions had restricted the ancient silk route to a narrow trackway in the Hexi corridor, where even small fortifications spaced at reasonable distance could completely control the passing traffic.
Ever since the silk road became operational in first millennium BCE and silk goods being carried on its Northern branch ( southern route passed through areas south of Taklamakan desert and was mainly used by caravans going to India), including the Hexi Corridor segment, appeared in far off Siberia, there was a great tussle and struggle between Chinese tribes and ruling dynasties to take control of the Hexi corridor. These tribes even included at one time, Yuezhi tribe that later took over Afghanistan and north India as Kushans. From 600 CE to 800 CE, the Tang Empire from china fought with the Tibetan Empire for control of areas in Inner and Central Asia. There was a long string of conflicts with Tibet, over territories in the Tarim Basin between 670–692 CE. Hostilities ended only when a peace treaty was signed in 821 CE, which fixed the borders between two states and Tang dynasty exercising control over Hexi Corridor.

The people of “Tangut” tribe arrived on the scene in seventh century. The Tanguts (Xia) were a people of Tibetan origin, whose home originally was in the highlands of western Sichuan (adjecent to Tibet) and had moved to Mongolia by then. By the middle of the ninth century, they had become important allies of the  Tang Dynasty and in 1006, taking advantage of the political rivalry between the Liao dynasty ruling in the north and the Song dynasty in south, managed to gain de facto independence. They established their capital in Xingzhou (Old district of today's Yinchuan) across yellow river in 1020 and were able to assert their control over Hexi corridor. The Tangut empire is known as the Western Xia dynasty (Xi Xia) and controlled the areas in what are now the northwestern Chinese provinces of Gansu, Shaanxi, and Ningxia from 1038 CE up to 1227 CE. So powerful were the Tanguts, that they proclaimed their equality with the Song emperor and by 1040s, the Song empire were sending the Tanguts a huge annual tribute of silk, silver and tea. Tanguts controlled the Hexi Corridor for 191 years.
I have indulged into this bit of this Chinese history, just to emphasize the power “Tangut” dynasty held over the desert area on the China-Mongolia border at one point in time. What makes the “Tangut” rule in China-Mongolia border areas interesting is that they were not Chinese, but people of Tibetan origin. Tanguts were short, stocky, dark-skinned with ruddy (reddish) complexion and thick-lipped. They had black hair and wore their hair in the Tufa style, shaved bald except for a long fringe of bangs that framed the face. They followed Tibetan Tantric Buddhism as their religion and had their own Tangut language, which was similar to Tibetan and Burmese and script, which has not been completely deciphered even today. They had even presided over a major project to translate Buddhist scriptures and have them published in the Tangut language. It is no wonder therefore that their paintings and manuscripts show clear Indian influence because of this Tibetan link.
 A Tangut couple worshipping

Coming back to our subject proper, no one knows, who built the fort city of “Khara Khoto” as a frontier town, on border with the Mongol empire. Whether it was Tanguts or someone else? What is known is that Tanguts took control of the fort in 1035 AD and it became an important city in the empire.
Khara Khoto finds a mention in the book “Livres des merveilles du monde (Book of the Marvels of the World” by Marco Polo (1254-1324) a Venetian merchant traveller, who travelled along the silk road. Marco Polo says in his travelogue ( Book I pp 202);
When you leave the city of Campichu (Identified as Zhangye at middle of Hexi corridor) you ride for twelve days and then reach a city called Etzina, which is towards the north on the verge of the sandy desert; it belongs to the province of Tangut. The people are Idolaters (Idol worshipers), and posses plenty of camels and cattle, and the country produces a number of good falcons, both Sakers and Lanners (species of falcons). The inhabitants live by their cultivation and their cattle for they have no trade. At the city you must needs lay in victuals (food and provisions) for forty days, because when you quit Etzina you enter on a desert which extends forty days journey to the north and on which you meet no habitation nor baiting-place.(halt)”
It is believed that Marco Polo visited Etzina sometime around 1273-74. This would mean that the castle city was sill surviving then. Though, it was no longer a frontier outpost of the Tangut empire, as it was invaded and captured in 1226 by the Mongols, who had established a Tangut province within their empire and the city continued to be known as “Etzina.”
In modern age, Khara Khoto was discovered on 10th of March 1908 by a Russian explorer; Colonel Pyotr Kuzmich Koslov, who had earlier led the 1899-1901 Russian expedition to Mongolia and Sichuan. On New Year's Day in 1908, it was -47°C in Mongolia. In spite of the cold, Kozlov and his expedition set off for the lower reaches of the river Edzin-Gol, where nine years before, they had first heard rumours of the existence of a buried ancient town. On the 10th of March, 1908, Kozlov's dream was finally realised. With only four companions, Kozlov was led to the ruins by the Torgut guide, Bata. In front of them stood the ruins of Khara Khoto, ruins that local Torgut tribesmen had been afraid to approach for centuries. The five explorers set up camp in the centre of the town. Kozlov's first digging revealed buried treasure. He says;
"I shall never forget the sense of delight which filled my heart when, after
removing a few shovels full of debris in the first ruined building, I
unearthed a small Buddhist painting"
Further excavation that day, revealed fragments of documents written in an unknown script, more books, a Buddhist painting of the Amitabha, a painting on silk, several small clay heads, a painting on silk and a gilded head of Buddha with dark blue hair. In a matter of days they had filled several crates of books in Tangut, Tibetan and Chinese, papers, household wares and Buddhist objects, which they sent back to St. Petersburg, where the sensational new discovery was announced.
Koslov made a return journey to Khara Khota in may 1908 and carried back thousands of artifacts and documents (actually 3500 items) in ten chests during these two visits. He located the manuscripts hidden inside a Stupa on the right side bank of the dry bed of the ancient river, E-ji-na. The artifacts he discovered reflect the Buddhist traditions and cultural richness of the Tanguts in Xia state. These paintings and other artifacts are displayed at the Hermitage museum in St. Petersburg, Russia and the manuscripts are kept at the Institute of oriental studies. Several years later, Sir Aurel Stein visited Khara Khoto and found many objects and manuscripts. This was followed by number of expeditions including those by Sven Hedin and others, who did extensive excavations at Khara Khoto.

So how did the fort city look like? The best and most detailed description has been given by Sir Aurel Stein in his book Innermost Asia.



Portrait of a Dignitary, Created: China, Tangut State of Xi -Xia, Khara-Khoto. 11th - 12th century

On his visit to Khara Khoto in 1914, Aurel Stein records his first impressions about the walled city in these words.
It was a striking site, the most impressive perhaps that I had seen on true desert ground, this dead town with massive walls and bastions for the most part still in fair preservation, rising above the bare gravel flat which stretches onwards it from the river bank. A conspicuous Stupa, of distinctly Tibetan appearance, crowning the big bastion of the northwest corner and a row of smaller Stupas on the ground outside the bastion, seemed at first sight to proclaim the predominantly religious character of the site.There was nothing in the surroundings of the dead town to impair the imposing effect created by the massive strength of the town walls and the utter desolation which reigned within.”
Another explorer. Langdon Warner, who visited Khara Khoto in 1925 describes it in more of poetic fashion in his book- The Long old Road in China:
No city guard turned out to scan my credentials now, no bowman leaned from a balcony above the big gate in idle curiosity, and no inn welcomed me with tea and kindly bustle of sweeping my room or fetching fodder for my beasts. One little grey hawk darted from her nest high in the grey wall, her set wings rigid, and sailed low over the pebbles and sparse thorn bushes of the plain. No other life seemed there, not even the motion of a cloud in the speckless heaven nor the stir of a beetle at my feet. It was high afternoon, when no ghosts walk. But, as sure as those solid walls were built up by the labour of men, just so sure was I that the little empty town had spirits in it. And the consciousness never left me by day or night while we were there.”

Aurel Stein, as per his usual practice, drew a plan of the walled city, with several structures and neatly laid out streets still visible in all pervading sand blown on them. Stein describing the site further says:
The most striking ruins of the Khara Khoto are those of its circumvallation (surrounded by rampart). The plan shows an approximate rectangle neatly oriented. The area enclosed measure about 466 Yards on the north side and 381 yards on the west.... The walls are built of stamped clay and reinforced by a wooden framework of which the big rafters could be traced in three rows all around the inside faces of the walls. The walls are about 38 feet thick at the base... the width at the top, about 30 feet from the ground is only about 12 feet. The width is however greatly increased near the northwest corner where the top is crowned by the Stupas with a correspondingly greater thickness at base. In places a parapet about 1 foot thick, with loopholes still survives to a height of 5 or 6 feet. Ramps leading up to the top of the walls can be traced at the gates and at the north-western and south-western corners. Gates 18 feet wide, lead through the western and eastern wall faces, each protected by by a rectangular outwork built as massively as the walls themselves.”

Stein found the ruins of only one temple (mentioned as K.K.I.ii in plans) within the outer walls. It occupied a conspicuous position at the end of the road, which led from the eastern gate towards the center of the circumvallated area. The temple was was built on a high platform of stamped clay measuring about 82 feet by 63 feet. South eastern portion of the interior within the walls appeared to have been occupied mainly by the “Sarais” ( dwellings for travellers) and like, whereas the western portion of the town appeared to have been mostly occupied by shrines. Stein was able to make a rich haul of fragments of silk and cotton pieces, iron daggers, hooks, pottery, porcelain, figurines, Buddha heads and many other things. He also discovered many manuscripts that were discerned to be Tibetan, Tangut, Turkic, Chinese and Uygur scripts.

Readers would be able to appreciate from these descriptions, how solidly this walled city was built to protect not only against vagaries of nature but also from invaders. Strategically speaking, it was an important military outpost where the Tanguts stationed one of their 12 columns of armies.

By the year 1038 CE, Tangut empire had become strong enough to control and hold the Hexi corridor, aposition which they held for next 191 years. However, in the thirteenth century the situation changed dramatically as a new power rose in Mongolia, that of much feared Genghis Khan.
From 1205 CE onward, Mongols led by Genghis Khan, attacked Tanguts six times, in 1207, 1209, 1217, and 1226-1227, to extend their control over the Hexi Corridor, retracting their forces each time even after inroad to Tangut capital. However Khara Khoto remained unconquered.
In the spring of 1226, Genghis Khan attacked Tanguts on some or other pretext with two columns of armies. During this campaign Genghis Khan took over Khara Khoto in month of February. Inhabitants were forced to convert to Islam. Mongols established a Tangut province in their empire and Khara Khoto continued with the name “Etzina” and struggled on. It was during this time that Marco Polo had visited the city.
During 1372 CE, troops of Chinese Ming dynasty attacked Khara Khoto and as per official records, the town's defender “Buyan'temur' surrendered. Documents found at the site by the explorers date no longer than 1380 and it can be concluded that the defeat, along with climate changes, which lowered the water table, forced the city's inhabitants to move away and Khara Khota city disappeared from memory.
The cultural legacy of Khara Khoto however lives on in form of paintings, manuscripts, figurines and documents preserved at Hermitage, British and National museums in Russia, England and India.

Crowned Buddha figurine, Khara Khoto

I have already mentioned before, that Tanguts held the Hexi corridor for 191 years through which the caravans on silk road moved. It nay not be an overstatement therefore to say that they were at the crossroads of three cultures: the Chinese, the Central Asian and Tibetan, which was culture of their ancestors. It is natural that Tangut art should draw from each of the three cultures in their works of art. The Tangut artists, over the centuries, tried to combine all three styles to create a distinctive, uniquely Tangut style.
In the concluding part of this series, let us have a look at some of the graphic images and figurines salvaged by Col. Koslov. His entire collection has been safely stored in the Hermitage museum in St. Petersburg, Russia. Before we see some examples of the wonderful art of the Tanguts, it might help to get some ideas cleared about various characters that are often repeated in Buddhist paintings.
The term 'Buddha' means an enlightened one and therefore anyone who attains complete enlightenment is called a Buddha. Prince Siddharth or Gautam is known as 'Shakyamuni Buddha' because of the name of the tribe to which he belonged; Shakyas. Bodhisattvas are the 'enlightenment heros' who have chosen to work, life after life, reincarnation after reincarnation, for the enlightenment of all humankind. Bodhisattvas have chosen to renounce their own freedom until all creatures are enlightened. Bodhisattvas are sent into the world by Buddhas in order to help living beings more effectively. Amitabha, Avalokiteshvara, the Green and White Taras, Vajrapani, Manjushri, and Samantabhadra are the Bodhisatvas that appear in these fine works of art produced by Tanguts.

1. The Green Tara
This is one of the finest example of Tangut art. This is not a painting but the figures have been woven in kesi technique (“incised silk,”a particular type of Chinese tapestry) like a carpet. This image can be attributed to the Tibetan school of the Tangut tradition. Tara's name means 'the one who saves', and her desire to save is said to be stronger than a mother's love for her children. In some myths Tara was born from the compassionate tears of Avalokiteshvara in the Pure Land (a concept very similar to that of heaven.) Tara is is the best example of the Bodhisattva as goddess, and represents the miraculous activities of all Buddhas by helping beings overcome difficulties on the path to enlightenment. The goddess is shown here seated on a lotus; above her are the five Transcendent Buddhas and flanking her two Taras: the benevolent Aśokakāntā, with a yellow body, and the blue angry Ekajatā. At the stem of the lotus are genuflecting nagas; above and below the composition are additional miniature figures of heavenly musicians and dancers.

2. Eleven-Faced; Eight-Armed Avalokitesvara
The Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara is one of two Bodhisattvas (along with the Tara) that come from the 'Western Pure Land' of the Amitabha Buddha. Avalokiteshvara is the Bodhisattva of Compassion, and is said to have taken his vows to protect the people of Tibet, the 'Land of the Snows'. He is therefore often considered the protector of the mountain kingdom of Tibet. This painting on canvas shows Avalokitesvara with 11 faces. In Tibetan Buddhism this is one of the forms of Avalokitesvara and is known as Ekadasamukha. 

3. Paramasukha Cakrasamvara Yab-Yum Luipa Mandala
Here in this painting on linen, the male and female figures of Samvara avd Vajravarahi actually indicate Compassion and Wisdom. Buddhahood, or enlightenment, is often shown as the perfect union of compassion and wisdom. This whole is often expressed visually by the sexual union of a male figure and a female figure, or Yab-Yum, which is sometimes translated as Mother-Father. By meditating on this image, and imagining themselves to be both figures in the image, Tantric Buddhists gain an insight into the deeper aspects of reality.

4. Guanyin, Moon in Water
In Chinese Buddhism, Avalokiteshvara is often considered in a female form and know as Guanyin. In this painting on silk, she is shown sitting in western pure land (heaven). What is interesting is that at the bottom, some Tanguts are shown as playing musical instruments and dancing. There is pole on right that connects heaven with earth. On left, the figure in black cap is the emperor, who has died and is going to heaven. His grave also is shown next to him. In the upper right, the dead man is shown again, this time reborn as a boy,reaching out his hands to the Bodhisattva in prayer.

5. Planet deities
This is one of the most interesting paintings done with mineral colours on silk. It combines, Indian and Greek ideas about astronomy. Buddha is shown seated with 10 planets that include Indian imaginary planets of 'Rahu' and 'Ketu.' The Sun and the Moon are show as Emperor and Empress. All 12 signs of Zodiac of Greek origin such as Aries, Taurus, Gemini are shown in circles in two rows towards top. In between these two rows there are images in 28 circles in all. These are the Indian constellations along the Ecliptic, known as “Nakshatras.” This painting is perhaps the best example of mixing of ideas of Indian, Greek and Chinese origin that happened all the time along the silk road.

6. Bhaishajyaguru: the Medicine Buddha
According to Mahayana Buddhism, Shakyamuni turned himself into a deep blue
Buddha, giving off healing rays of light, and taught a gathering of men and gods the science of medicine. In many Buddhist countries the Medicine Buddha, is the patron of medicine and healing, and the special god of physician.

7. Vajravarahi
Tantric Buddhism believes the keys to enlightenment can be found in the human condition, however coarse or humble. They believe that even the most negative human emotions - hate, lust, envy, greed - can be turned enlightenment, or realisation of the Truth about reality. This belief is shown in pictures of 'wrathful' deities: Bodhisattvas trampling human bodies, Bodhisattvas drinking blood, Bodhisattvas carrying terrible weapons. Meditation on these frightening images help the viewer understand the possibilities for enlightenment even in the most dreadful aspects of human character. These images help the viewer understand how to change negative feelings into positive feelings. Vajravārāhī is one of the most popular female Tantric deities in all traditions of Tibetan Buddhism. She is shown one face, two hands and two legs, is usually red in colour, and standing in a dancing posture on a human corpse. She has a garland of human heads around her neck. She is also sometimes shown with a pig's head and that is why the name Varahi.

 8. The Two-headed Buddha 
This story was told to a Chinese pilgrim during one of his long wanderings in the north:once upon a time, there were two men, both devoted to the teachings of Buddha. Each of them dreamed an image of the Buddha, but they were too poor to pay for two sculptures, so they asked an artist to make them only one. Buddha himself, in an act of kindness, divided the image in two. Kindness, or compassion, is an important teaching of Buddhism.
This clay statue was found in the stupa uncovered by Kozlov in 1909. The statue is made from the simple materials of earth and straw, but the artist has given the Buddha a smile and a gentle tilt to the head, and added colour and gold to the two faces to emphasise Buddha's compassionate nature.
The Hermitage museum carries more than 3500 works of art from Khara Khoto along with 8000 manuscripts. An unknown number is safely stored with British and India museums. Availability of such large number works of art indicate the quality of life of Tanguts. Tangut society was a 'melting pot' of Tanguts,
Chinese, Tibetans and Uighurs from Central Asia, and except for the rare
occasion when a native Tangut claimed seniority, all were considered equal
under Tangut law.
It is an irony of fate that such people and their culture was destroyed by the barbarians. Tanguts made the mistake of resisting the Mongols when they began to extend their control over the Hexi Corridor in the first decade of the thirteenth century. They were successful initially, but right at the end of his life in 1226-1227, Genghis Khan's armies destroyed the Tangut state. Along with it, the city of Khara khoto also disappeared into oblivion.

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