Routes from the Swat: Buddhism in Khotan


Map showing the Khotan oasis surveyed by Aurel Stein and R S Ram Singh of the Survey of India. The old city of Yotkan is indicated by the lighter green circle between the rivers. Archaeological sites and Stein’s routes are shown in red.

In AD 480 the Chinese pilgrim Faxian reached the central Asian oasis kingdom of Khotan, source of jade and a thriving centre of Buddhism. Even though Buddhism was well established in his homeland, China, he was struck by the evidence of the faith in Khotan. Notable on his travels in the kingdom were the number of stupas, both large gilded ones serving the community, but also small family shrines placed, he notes, in front of most houses in the country. Nothing today remains of the medieval capital nor of most of the settlements of Khotan and it is difficult to imagine the impact or extent of this sacred landscape. Only a few monumental stupas and shrines have survived or been discovered, many others might still remain hidden by the desert sands or have long disappeared. But the Swat valley in northern Pakistan, although a very different terrain, perhaps offers an insight into how Buddhism once dominated the landscape and defined the sacred space in Khotan.

The Buddhist remains from Swat, the region of Uḍyāna, have been quite extensively studied, perhaps most famously by Aurel Stein (1862–1943) in the late 19th/early 20th century and then, from 1956, by Guiseppe Tucci (1894–1984) with the Italian Archaeological Mission (IsIAO).1 Now led by Dr Luca M. Olivieri and working with the Directorate of Archaeology and Museums, Government of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (Pakistan), the work of the Mission continues and had sought to take a unified approach to the sacred landscape.

‘To approach the topic of the sacred areas and monastic settlements of [Swat] from the typological point of view and at the same time viewing them as unitary complexes formed by several interconnected artifacts and the surrounding conditions, contributes to the relaunching of a method in the field of architectural history in which the buildings are considered as a whole for the purpose of relating volumes and spaces to a way of life and no longer considers them as mere material remains of a past culture.’2

On studying and then visiting the Swat valley in October 2019, particularly the area discussed by the Italian Mission, it became clear that the instigators of the Buddhist structures had a topographical awareness akin to that of military planners, in that all the routes and valleys radiating out from the Swat valley and the city of Bazira (Birkot) were dominated by these structures. We can still see the remains of stupas along the Swat valley itself, a main route from Peshawar and Taxila north through to the high mountain passes leading to the heart of central Asia, but we also find them on the routes radiating out from Birkot through the smaller valleys some of which then lead over local passes to other major routes, such as to that following the Indus valley to the east. The latter routes were probably used for more local and inter-regional travel, trade and pilgrimage. In addition, as Aurel Stein noted and, more recently, Gregory Schopen has explored further, the placing of the structures also took into account the surrounding features: their gardens and landscape views were an important element.3 This is clearly apparent in two sites, Tokar-dara and Abbasaheb-china where the beauty of the approach and surroundings of the Buddhist complexes remains breathtaking—Uḍyāna comes from the Sanskrit word for garden. Stein was reminded of Devon lanes when he first came here and, while the butterflies are considerably more spectacular than those found in southwest England, much of the vegetation is indeed similar.

Abbasaheb-China I site, Swat

Stupa and monastic complex at Abbasaheb-china I, October 2019. Photograph by John Falconer.

How then to apply this framework to the Khotan oasis, at first sight a very different landscape?


Rawak stupa in Khotan. October 2008. Photograph by John Falconer.

The kingdom of Khotan, as shown in Stein’s map above, is an oasis settlement radiating out along river courses from its capital (marked as Yotkan) in the foothills of the Kunlun mountains. The kingdom is at a higher elevation that most of Swat: Birkot, lies at 880 m while Yotkan is at 1382 m, but Khotan is also in the foothills of a great mountain range and controls the routes to mountain passes. The main route lies along the southern fringes of the Kunlun, west to Yarkhand and east to Keriya, and was that used by most long distance travellers, including pilgrim monks from China and India. Routes south from Khotan through the mountains were used for local and inter-regional trade, travel and pilgrimage: for example, to and from western Tibet or, more locally, for bringing gold, jade and other gemstones from the mines in the mountains. To the north routes led through the desert along irrigated river courses to the kingdoms of the northern Taklamakan, such as Kuche, and to join the east-west route there. Of course, the obvious difference today is that the Birkot is in a fertile valley, lush with vegetation and rice fields, while Khotan is an oasis, verdant at its heart but caught between the barren northern slopes of the Kunlun and the Taklamakan sand desert. Stein describes the view from the mountains to the south, a far cry from the ‘Devon lanes’ of the Swat:

‘I shall never forget the view that opened westward and in the direction of the distant plains. There were lines upon lines of absolutely bare rocky spurs, closely packed together and running most from south to north; between them, shut in by unscalable rock slopes, was a mass of arid gorges, of which the bottom could not be seen. It was like a choppy sea, with its waves petrified in wild confusion. Far away on the horizon this rocky waste was disappearing in a yellow haze, the familiar indication of another region which knows no life—the distant sea of sand.’4


The Taklamakan, Stein’s ‘sea of sand’. In the foreground are the skeletal remains of farmsteads from the 1st-4th century kingdom of Caḍ́ota (Niya). They would have originally been surrounded by orchards and linked by poplar-lined canals and lanes. November 2011. Photograph by John Falconer.

There are a number of problems in attempting to take a unified approach to Khotan. First, unlike Swat with its stone faced stupas, such structures in Khotan were built of unfired clay bricks with decorations and sculptures of plaster. Thus, while the early archaeologists and travellers in Swat found—and removed—extant stone decorative friezes and statues, at Khotan only those elements buried and protected by the desert sand survived. Many of the monumental structures at Swat have largely survived wars, earthquakes, robber and locals seeking building materials, and it is possible to reconstruct to some extent the surrounding building complexes, including monastic structures and smaller shrines. However, in Khotan, the natural elements, especially winds and flash floods, and locals seeking building materials or treasure, have reduced many structures to no more than mounds of earth while others are hidden by encroaching desert sands: we can be certain that not all have been located or identified. This problems is compounded by the fact that the old route through the desert is further north than the existing route, often covered by sand and difficult to trace.

Secondly, there has been no long-term systematic archaeological work at Khotan. After Stein and his contemporaries, it was not until quite recently that archaeology resumed. The 2002 Sino-Japanese excavations of Dandan-uliq in the north of the kingdom explored this site extensively with a detailed publication, and a Sino-French team have done excellent work at neighbouring Karadong, but much other work has been piecemeal.5 For many years the archaeologists have had to spend much of their time and resources on rescue archaeology—for example, the Buddhist temple at Toplukdun near Domoko was excavated after farmers happened upon it—rather than large-scale surveys leading to focused excavations. And there are often only summary rather than full reports on the archaeology.6 Thirdly, the concentration of the archaeology has been on desert sites and less work has been done along the routes up the mountain valleys. And fourthly, and just as importantly, the different topography might have resulted in a different solution to the definition—the controlling—of the sacred space.7

Screenshot 2020-07-23 at 10.05.25

The Buddhist landscape around Birkot in the Swat Valley. Courtesy Italian Archaeological Mission in Pakistan—ISMEO, elaborated by Emanuele Morigi, further annotations by Luca M. Olivieri and Susan Whitfield.

Despite this, I still think it is a useful exercise to approach Khotan as a whole and to see if the example of Swat can shed any light on this once thriving Buddhist kingdom. If we take this analogy, we would expect to see Yotkan at the centre of a web of routes radiating out and marked by Buddhist establishments. The east-west route along the fringe of the desert would be the equivalent to the Swat river route between Mingora and Malakand, as seen on the map of Swat above. And indeed we find evidence of several monumental stupas with associated Buddhist structures along this route in Khotan on the approaches to the city. Xuanzang, for example, mentions a stupa ‘one hundred feet high’ just west of the city. Stein identified the remains of this on the fringes of a Mazar and cemetery: ‘A little low mound, rising scarcely five feet above the surrounding ground’.8 It was still considered a hallowed spot by the local—Muslim—villagers, an indication of the persistence of sacred structures and space. Slightly further west, Stein noted the remain of Kara-kir stupa, ‘much decayed but still holding its own  among the high dunes of the surrounding drift, The base of the structure when intact must have been about 65 feet square.’9 Going east we see another stupa, Arka-kuduk, which in Stein’s day was ‘so thoroughly destroyed by erosion, and probably also by diggings for ‘treasure’, that no approximate idea could be formed of its original shape or dimensions.’10 These are stupas seemingly in similar styles to those in Swat, namely tall domes on platforms, the style sometimes referred to as a ‘terrace stupa.’ There are other stupas further east around Domoko.

Screenshot 2020-07-25 at 21.06.58

Google Earth Map with overlay of Buddhist sites noted by Stein, from the Digital Silk Road Project Stein Placename Database.

The routes north from Khotan through the desert are more problematic as they have not been clearly traced and certainly changed considerably over time as water courses shifted. One of the most impressive structures in Khotan is Rawak stupa, northeast of the city (pictured above). Probably too far north to lie on the main route east-west, its size and complexity—with perimeter walls containing corridors lined with over life-size statues—indicate that it was near an important route. With three terraces and staircases on four corners, it is stylistically similar to stupas further west.

Further north, between the Karakash and Keriya rivers lies another extensive Buddhist site, that of Dandan-Uliq. This contains numerous small shrines and monastic structures. A large stupa has not been found in the vicinity. However, with much of the site still buried by sand, it is possible that one exists. Was this on a route north from Yotkan, probably on an old course of the Chira, or was it on a east-west route nearer the northern edge of the oasis, leading to the two main north-south routes to the east and west (or both)? The existence of a river with irrigation here and thus more vegetation would have enabled travellers to use this as a stopping point before going east or west to join one of the cross desert routes. Settlements with stupas and shrines are seen at the edges of cultivation on the rivers to the east (now all dry river beds): Karadong on the Keriya (although further north, outside the map above), Niya and then Endere.

There are several old routes branching south off this main east-west route into the mountains following the river valleys, such as the Yurung-kash and Chira, and then joining main routes leading to the Karakorum Pass and thence to Ladakh and the other between the two mountain ranges leading to the western Tibetan plateau. On his survey of Khotan, the Yale University geography professor, Ellsworth Huntingdon (1876–1947), explored some of this region.11 He noted that it was only in the lower valleys that conditions were favourable for some terraced agriculture supporting villages. Higher up pastoralists lived in caves and goat-skin tents, moving their herds between summer and winter pastures.

Over the course of his first three expeditions to the region, Stein and his surveyors travelled and mapped the mountains area south of Khotan. Given the terrain and climate, we might only expect to find substantial Buddhist structures in the lower valleys where the climate and water were able to support nearby communities. Evidence is scanty but is to be found. For example, southwest of Khotan Stein records a much decayed stupa below the village of Puski on the mountain track to Zanguya. The lowest base measured 34 feet square and Stein speculates that it might have been similar in size and style to that of Topa-Tim near Kashgar.12 He found no trace of local habitation, suggesting that the stupa marked the route. Moving east along other river valleys, he notes the sacred cave which had been identified by M. Grenard, a previous explorer, with Xuanzang’s Mount Gosringa, a pilgrimage site for the Khotanese. Then on the next river valley, that or the Yurung-kash, long dug for jade, he finds the remain of a stupa near Chalmakazan. Further east still, also on a route south, remains of a pair of stupas, one large and a smaller mound were visited by Stein north of the village of Nura. They had been previously noted by Huntingdon.13

Without trying to push the analogy too far, I believe that it is important at Khotan, just as the Italian Mission has argued for Swat, to consider the Buddhist remains in relation to a larger sacred area which marked and protected Khotan in the first millennium. The work carried out by Stein and, more recently, archaeologists from China and Japan, has enabled a preliminary and very rough plotting of this space, as shown above. But more work is needed to understand it fully and, importantly, to see how it was defined and restricted by the local terrain. I hope to continue this work—sadly, only remotely—as research for my forthcoming history of this important but neglected Silk Road Buddhist kingdom.


1. For a summary of Stein in the Swat with further references see Luca M. Olivieri, 2015. “Frontier Archaeology’: Sir Aurel Stein, Swat, and the Indian Aornos.” South Asian Studies, 31:1: 58-70. For a history of the Italian Archaeological Mission in Swat see Luca M. Olivieri., 2006. “Outline History of the IsIAO Italian Archaeological Mission in Pakistan (1956-2006).” East and West 56, 1/3: 23-41. Accessed July 14, 2020. also

2. Quotation from Piero Spagnesi, 2006. “Aspects of the Architecture of the Buddhist Sacred Areas in Swat.” East and West 56, 1/3: 151-175, p. 172. Accessed July 14, 2020. For a full exposition of this approach see Luca M. Olivieri, Massimo Vidale et al., 2006. “Archaeology and Settlement History in a Test Area of the Swat Valley: Preliminary Report on the AMSV Project (1st Phase).” East and West 56, 1/3: 75-150, pp. 129–31. Accessed July 14, 2020.

3. Gregory Schopen, 2006. “The Buddhist Monastery’ and the Indian Garden: Aesthetics, Assimilations and the Siting of Buddhist Monastic Establishments.” In Pierfrancesco Callieri, ed. Architetti, capomastri, artigiani: L’organizzazione desi canteri e della produzione artistica nell’Asia ellenistica: Studi offerti a Domenico Faccenna nel suo ottantesimo compleanno. 225-45. Rome: Istituto italiano per L’Africa e l’Oriente. I discuss this further in my Silk, Slaves and Stupas. Oakland: University of California Press 2018: 92-3. I am using stupas as a framework for the sacred space. Of course, there were many other structures that may have been used to define/populate it, from smaller shrines to rock carvings as noted in Olivieri, Vidale et al. 2006, cited above.

4. M. Aurel Stein, 1903. Sand Buried Ruins of Ancient Khotan. London: T. Fisher Unwin: 233. Describing the valley of the Yurung-kash river south from Khotan, Stein wrote: ‘Gravel and coarse sand, with scarcely a trace of vegetation, covers the ground; and the landscape, save for the distant view of the Khotan oasis below, was one of complete desolation.'(207).

5. Xinjiang Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology; The Academic Research Organization for the Niya Ruins of Bukkyo University, eds. . 丹丹乌里克遗址-中日共同考察研究报告 [Dandan-Uiliq Site—Report of the Sino-Japanese Joint Expedition]. Beijing: Cultural Relics Press. For an interim report of the Sino-French excavation see Corinne Debaine-Francfort, and Abduressul Idriss, 2001. Keriya, mémoire d’un fleuve: Archéologie et civilisation des oasis du Taklamakan. Suilly-la-Tour: Findakly, Paris: Electricité de France. A full excavation report is in progress.

6. With the current political situation and cultural genocide taking place in this region, the possibility of work on the ground is neither desirable nor possible. The situation of the local archaeologists is not clear. The destruction of much Uyghur heritage, including most local shrines and many historic mosques and cemeteries will have undoubtedly also have destroyed or damaged other historical remains.

7. I plan to explore this further, especially the use in Khotan and the region generally of smaller shrines/monastic complexes without any obvious monumental stupa, such as at Toplukdun, Dandan-Uliq or in neighbouring Miran.

8. Stein 1903: 265.

9. Stein 1903: 192.

10. M. Aurel Stein, 1907. Ancient Khotan, Oxford: Clarendon Press: 471. Other Buddhist shrines might be expected at the higher altitudes or less populated routes, such as rock carvings and cave paintings—such as seen at Swat (see Olivieri, Vidale et al., 2006, cited in n. 2 above, for further discussion). Indeed, Stein is told by locals of caves now worshipped as Mazars in the mountains southwest of Khotan. He equates these with a legend recounted both by the Indian monk Jinagupta (b. 523) who came here c. 556, and then by Xuanzang. This told of arhats from India who, having reached this state, use their supernatural abilities to fly here and take residence in the caves. Xuanzang notes that a great number of stupas were erected in this place. Having entered nirvāṇa their bodies shrivel but their hair continues to grow and so monks come to give them hair cuts and trim their beards (M. Aurel Stein, 1921. Serindia, Oxford: Clarendon Press: 89).

11. Ellsworth Huntington, 1907. The Pulse of Asia. Boston, Houghton, Mifflin and Company.

12. Stein 1921: 91.

13. Stein 1921: 1322.

Thanks to Dr Luca M. Olivieri, Mr Shafiq, Dr Elisa Lori, Mr Sirat and their colleagues at the Italian Archaeological Mission in Swat for hosting the visit of myself and John Falconer and for sharing their expertise and time so generously. Thanks also to Alice Casellini for her company and insights.

I would also like to thank colleagues in Xinjiang who hosted my previous visits to Khotan and also shared their great expertise and time most generously. It is they who should be able to work freely and lead research on this. I very much hope there might be a time in the future where it is possible to work together again, but this is far from certain. I take this opportunity to deplore the cultural genocide taking place there and the cruel and inhumane treatment of the local population. Their history is part of the Silk Road and it is both tragic and ironic that the government of China which uses the ‘Silk Road’ brand so liberally for its own purposes, is directing a programme which seeks to destroy an essential part of this—the diversity of the region’s history, peoples and cultures.

A joint grant to myself and John Falconer from the British Academy Stein-Arnold Fund enabled this visit, with additional support from the Leverhulme Foundation.

For other posts on a recent visit to Swat, see those of Llewelyn Morgan on the Jahanabad buddha and on Stein and Aornus.

This entry was posted in Aurel Stein, Buddhism, Silk Road archaeology and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s