Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Black Castle of the desert- Part I

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? 

(To be continued)

2nd March 2015

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