Qizi Grottoes (Caves), near Kucha

Important Buddhist Sites in Xinjiang, China by Yap Pak Choong, 29 September 2020


Qizil Grottoes are a set of Buddhist rock-cut caves on the cliff of Qul-tagh Mountain about 65 km west of present Kucha town of Xinjiang. The Mountain is located just by the side of the Muzart River. These Grottoes are of great historical significance because they are the earliest Buddhist caves of China, much older than the well-known Magao Cave of Dunhuang. Not only that, this grottoes complex is the most centralized and largest in scale, thus was considered one of the four major Buddhist grottoes of China.

Kucha was one of the 36 oasis states in the “Western Region” (the Chinese’s term for Xinjiang region), with ancient Kashgar (Shule) at its west, and Agni at its east. Located at the strategic position on the Silk Road which ran along the northern rim of Tarim Basin, it had already become one of the most advanced kingdoms in that region since the turn of Christ Era. It was a busy commercial hub, also a centre for religious, cultural and trade exchanges. Probably due to the abundant availability of man-power and material resources nearby, the Buddhist monks could excavate these caves as early as the 5th century to late 6th century C.E during the Southern-and Northern Dynasties of China.

According to Xuanzang’s memoir, the soils in ancient Kucha (called Kizil) were fertile, which were suitable for planting fruits, rice and grains. The ground was rich in minerals. Peoples were friendly and honest, and they excelled in music and dances. In fact, the ancient court-music of China was heavily influenced by the Kuchean music, and the well-known Chinese musical instruments like Pipa and lute (these instruments were often depicted in the Buddhist caves paintings and murals) were in fact introduced by the Kucheans thousand over years ago. It was further stated that the Kucheans had a particular habit since young, of having their heads flattened by the pressure of a wooden board.

Buddhism was introduced to Kucha sometime in late 1st century C.E. (Kusana Dynasty) following this, many temples were built in the next hundred years. For instance, in the Chronicles of Chinese Jin Dynasty (266 C.E. to 420 C.E.), there were nearly one thousand stupas and temples in the kingdom. But the religion seemed to be on the verge of decline during 7th century C.E. when there were only about one hundred Buddhist temples with five thousand “Hinayana” monks (modern scholars say Sarvastivada monks) as mentioned in Xuanzang’s memoir. It was also stated in the text that the monks of Kucha, like all those in the kingdoms located along the northern rim of Tarim Basin, followed the teachings and Vinaya rules as practiced in India.   

Today, there are 236 caves listed in Qizil Grottes out of possibly six hundred over in total. These caves are divided into six groups, of which Qizil grottoes complex is the largest, and the earliest to have constructed. The architectural designs of the caves as well as the wall murals, strongly reflect the unique style practiced by the ancient Kucha artisans, though some reflected the designs of Gandhara school of Buddhist arts. The types of Qizil Buddhist arts, a mixture of Gandharan with local elements, later influenced the developments and designs of Buddhist grottoes in mainland of China. 

The contents of the sculptures, images, murals and wall paintings etc. are rich and varied, these include Jataka stories, and some Apadana stories explaining the doctrine of karma and the retributions. Apart from the Buddhist theme, there are also some paintings relating to secular topics.

Somewhere at the entrance of the Grottoes, there is a copper statue of great Chinese Buddhist texts translator, Kumarajiva who was a native of Kucha. He was born in the middle of 4th century C.E. and was brought by his mother to Gandhara to study. At age of 20, he came back to Kucha to be ordained as monks.

The constructions of new grottoes halted sometime during 9th century C.E. About a century later, the Islamic Kara Kunid Khanate invaded Kucha, and the whole Grottoes complex was abandoned and deserted. It remained deep in the desert sands for more than a thousand years until Qing Dynasty, when it was re-discovered by the archaeologists. Since then, most of the precious artifacts and some fine wall murals have been ransacked and looted, this is evidenced from many empty square spaces left here and there within the whole section of the murals, that one can easily see inside the caves.

General outlook of Qizil Grottoes

The copper statue of Great Buddhist texts translator Kumarajiva

The wall murals about one Apadana story explaining the retributions of one’s kammic actions.

The deva musician with (black) his black Pipa (musical instrument)


Jataka stories


The other Qizil caves

At the main entrance