RAWAK VIHARA

RAWAK VIHARA, a ruined Buddhist stupa (a reliquary representing the passing, or nirvana, of the Buddha) and monastery complex located about 40 km northeast of Hotan/Hetian (see KHOTAN), in Xinjiang-Uyghur Autonomous Region, Xinjiang Province, western China. Rawak means “high building” or “steep house” in Uyghur, and vihara is the Sanskrit term for “monastery.” The modern Chinese name of Ravak is Rewake Fosi yizhi (热瓦克佛寺遗址). In 2001 the Cultural and Archaeological Authorities of the Peoples Republic of China placed Rawak Vihara on the National List of Cultural Monuments. The earliest scholarly report concerning Khotan, based on Chinese historical records, was published by the French Sinologist J. P. Abel-Rémusat (1820), who points out the importance of this area, “which [formerly] was covered with monasteries” (p. iv) for Buddhism in Central Asia, especially in regard to transmission of texts.

In antiquity, and especially before the rise of Islam in the Tarim Basin in the 9th-10th centuries CE, the region of Khotan was mainly populated by East-Iranian-speaking Saka tribes, the so-called Khotan Sakas, according to Sir Harold Bailey (1982). In addition, Indians from Northwest India, i.e., Gandhara and Kashmir, settled in the region, according to Sir Marc Aurel Stein (1921). From earliest times, the Khotan region was a melting pot of Iranian, Indian, and Chinese people with their diverse languages and cultures meeting in an area that had an East Iranian cultural and linguistic foundation and background. During the Han Dynasty of China (206 BCE–220 CE), around the beginning of the Christian era, the area of Khotan became a Buddhist stronghold. Dieter Metzler (1989) and B. A. Litvinsky (1999) both have discussed ancient legends, in search of fact to explain how Buddhism could have reached Khotan from Gandhara in the 3rd century BCE under the Maurya emperor Aśoka. Especially in the case of the stupa and monastery complex of Rawak Vihara, one finds strong influences from Gandhāran art and from the Buddhist art of the Guptas. Influences on the arts of painting of Khotan have been intensively studied by Joanna Williams, Mario Bussagli, and Gerd Gropp.

The ruins of Rawak Vihara are situated in a completely uninhabited area of the Takla Makan desert. The more or less constant winds erode the monument steadily. According to the archeological accounts, sand dunes previously covered a large area of the site. In 1901 and 1906, Aurel Stein excavated at the southern/southeastern corner of the large, rectangular (ca. 50 × 44 m) wall that surrounds the stupa; in 1926 Emil Trinkler (1896-1931) excavated the southwestern part. The wall is ca. 4 m high and 1 m thick. The stupa walls were completely covered with sculptures of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, life-sized or a little larger. The coloring of the sculptures was of a deep red. The sculptures, of which Stein found 91 in number up to 1906, were modeled of unbaked clay on a wooden frame of branches of trees and fastened to the thick wall via wooden pins. After the rough sculptures were modeled, the outer surface was covered with fine stucco and was painted. This artistic technique of stucco sculpturing has been intensively studied further by K. M. Varma (1987). Very often the artists used molds to form the faces of sculptures. The stupa on its cross-shaped platform and with four staircases, one on each side of the monument must once have reached ca. 12 meters height. Today the ruined cupola of the stupa still has a height of ca. 9.5 m;. it collapsed already in antiquity due to wind erosion.

Benjamin Rowland, Jr. (1970) saw close connections between the Rawak Vihara four-sided building plan with staircases and that of the stupa of Shah-ji-ki-Dheri near Peshawar, which dates from the Kushan period, ca. 3rd-4th centuries CE. Also very close in its building plan is the stupa of Top-i Rustam near Balkh in Afghanistan. On the basis of the excavations of Sir John Marshall (1876-1958) at Taxila near Rawalpindi in modern Pakistan, it can be estimated that such plans originated in Kushan Gandhara. This type of ground plan (termed “star-shaped”) was supposed by Lokesh Chandra (2004) to express the idea of a mandala. But Franz (1979) and other scholars have regarded the Rawak Vihara central monument as a typical stupa and not a mandala.

The most difficult question regarding Rawak Vihara is its chronology. The German scholar M. Yaldiz has finely characterized the problems of dating the monument by citing all her predecessors since Stein, who dated Rawak Vihara to between the 2nd/3rd centuries CE and the early 8th century CE. Rowland (1970) followed Stein in his argumentation. The German Iranist Gropp, who intensively studied the archeological results and collections of Trinkler, in 1976 dated the monument to the 6th/7th centuries CE. His dating is based on paintings showing a standing man in riding-dress with Mongolian face and a complex headdress. Gropp thought that this painting clearly shows Sogdian influences, as displayed, for example, in the painting and sculpture from Adzhina Tepa, a Buddhist site of the 6th/7th centuries CE in modern Tajikistan, which was excavated and published by the Soviet archeologists B. A. Litvinskiĭ (Litvinsky) and T. I. Zeĭmal in 1971. The author of these lines has shown in a larger study (2006) that riding dress like that of the man painted at Rawak Vihara is unsuitable for dating, due to the fact that not only the Sogdians wore such in the 6th/7th centuries CE all along the ancient Silk Roads; it was an international fashion.

Simone Gaulier and French art historians dated the site again in 1976, this time into the 4th century CE, thus aligning with Stein’s dating. Franz also follows the “4th-century-path” in his large, architectonic study of similar complex buildings. In fact, only the most modern and scholarly excavations could solve these chronological problems, for example, by Carbon-14 tests of the wooden frameworks in the sculptures. Without more archeological evidence, one should confess that the dating of Rawak Vihara cannot be done better than was done by Stein, i.e., between the 3rd/4th centuries CE and the 8th-century T´ang Dynasty.

According to the Swiss archeologist, historian, and traveler Christoph Baumer, who visited the monuments of Rawak Vihara in 1998, the moisture of the soil there is increasing constantly, so the outer walls and the stupa itself continue to collapse due to its action; the salt content in it will destroy the whole monument sooner or later in combination with the steady desert winds. A complete modern excavation and complete restoration of the whole monument, through collaboration between the official Chinese authorities and international partner organizations, would be needed for Rawak Vihara to be preserved for posterity.

Archeological artifacts from Rawak Vihara are stored and in part exhibited in the Regional Museum of Hotan (Hetian) and in the Archaeological Provincial Museum of the Autonomous Region of Xinjiang-Uyghur at Urumqi. A few finds from Rawak Vihara are part of the A. H. Francke and H. Körber collection from Khotan, from 1914, in the Munich State Museum of Ethnography.

Particularly interesting to specialists in Iranian studies and Iranian religious history is that in the sculptures of Rawak Vihara a certain ‘fire symbolism’ seems observable. One finds flames coming out of the Buddhas’ shoulders, not only at Rawak Vihara, but also at other sites in the Khotan oasis, such as Kighillik and Dandān Öilïq. Gropp shared the opinion of Ernst Waldschmidt (1930) that here is meant the Buddha’s miraculous display that is termed the ‘Wonder of Sravasthi.’ Such fire symbolism has also been studied by Rowland (1949), A. C. Soper (1949, 1950), as well as A. von Gabain (1987). K. Tanabe (1981) collected all available information regarding Iranian influences on Buddhism, and Ch. Haessner (1987) and D. A. Scott (1990) discussed the material in the context of Buddhism in Central Asia before Islam. Up to the present we know very little about the religion of the Eastern Iranian Sakas before the missionaries of Buddhism spread their religion in the region. It remains for specialists of syncretism in Central Asia to determine if the idea of fire symbolism in Buddhism is of Iranian, i.e., Zoroastrian, background. Litvinsky (1999) pointed out that it is still unclear in what way ancient Iranian religious ideas may have influenced the Buddhism of Khotan.

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(Ulf Jaeger)

Cite this article:

Ulf Jaeger, “RAWAK VIHARA,” Encyclopædia Iranica, online edition, 2016, available at http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/rawak-vihara (accessed on 30 June 2016).