Bezeklik (Bšzšklik), (near Turfan), Tarim Basin

Uighurian Princes from Temple 9

A larger image of Uighurian Princes, Temple 9, Bezeklik (Bšzšklik), (near Turfan), Tarim Basin.

108 Uighurian Princes
Bezeklik, Temple 9, 9th century
Wall painting, 62.4 x 59.5 cm.
MIK III 6876a

The two narrow faces of the east wall of Temple 9 at Bezeklik bore pictures of princes on each side. In this well-preserved painting are portraits of three princes of East Asian aspect, who seem to be striding forward on a carpet. All three are dressed alike, in differently patterned, long red robes with a round neckline. It is difficult to make out how these are fastened; perhaps they are sewn together in the middle. Over the right leg, the side facing the spectator, the robes fall open to reveal high, dark boots. The princes hold their hands, hidden by fairly wide sleeves, above the belt, which was evidently made of plaited leather studded with metal disks. Some of its thongs hang down without any apparent function, while to other thongs or cords are attached a dagger, flint-pouch, awl, knotted kerchief, and other objects; these were perhaps meant not so much for everyday use as to denote the rank of their bearer.
    The darker-skinned prince on the right precedes the other two by a couple of paces and appears to be of higher rank. All three wear high tiaras, which are fastened by ribbons under the chin. In contrast to the common people the aristocrats wore their center-parted hair in long tresses, hanging down the back and cut square at the ends. The flower that each holds seems to have been added at a later date. Anne-Marie von Gabain believes that this flower must have had a special significance: she quotes a Uighurian text translated from the Chinese, which in its many prayers for the dead expressly mentions "those who hold the flowers.'
In our branch of Buddhism we venture the hypothesis that the lotus bud in the hands of worshipers denotes the hope of rebirth as an Aupapaduka, i.e., in Amitabha's paradise, while a different kind of flower symbolizes some other desirable reincarnation. This would explain why the Buddha does not carry a flower, as he has already attained perfection, and why his immediate followers are not distinguished by the flower symbol either the presence of the Enlightened One assures his pupils of the best possible prospects of nirvana. . . . As the long-stemmed flower without hands to hold it occurs quite often in pictures, we cannot speak of an oversight on the part of the painter; such a contravention of the laws of statics must have had its significance. We believe we have found a clue in a picture from Tun-huang dating from 971: the accompanying text identifies the members of a group of worshipers as the deceased parents and several family members. The father bears a stemless, flower on his hands, the mother too, though her hands are covered. The other persons, whom we may suppose to be still alive as their death is not mentioned, have no flower. Hence our postulation that the bereaved showed their reverence for a dead relative by commissioning a portrait of him with the flower, to show that they wished him a joyous rebirth. Living persona, however, were painted without a flower. But when after the completion of a picture the person died, this symbolic flower was then added, painted in across the breast. (Gabain 1973b, text vol., pp. 165f)

    There is a cartouche at the head of each prince. Only that of the foremost bears a complete inscription, in which von Le Coq has identified the name of a well-known Uighurian family. His reading is: "The Tutuq Bugra [from the house of] Sali." This family is reported to have flourished in Khocho for a long time.

Le Coq 1913, pl. 30a and text. Indische Kunst 1971, 1976, no. 561. Indische Kunst 1978, p. 98.

Source: Along the Ancient Silk Routes. Central Asian Art from the West Berlin State Museums (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1982), no. 108, p. 169-170.

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Tarim Basin Frescos