(A Tangka fragment of 13th-14th century, depicting Hindu Elephant God Ganapati or Ganesha riding a mouse from Khara Khoto, China-Mongolia border)
Readers must have surely read about the silk road of central Asia, the major trade artery through which, caravans carried goods, conquering armies of central Asia rode, nomads, urban dwellers and monks travelled, from about 200 BCE to Fifteenth century. This trade route started from the then Chinese capital of Xian and ended in Constantinople (Istanbul) in the Ottoman empire.
Towards the eastern end of this trade route, lay a narrow passage known as the Hexi Corridor, which stretches for about 1,000 KM starting from the modern city of Lanzhou to the Yumen pass or Jade Gate at the border of Gansu and Xinjiang regions. There are many fertile oases along the path, watered by rivers flowing from the Qilian Mountains, such as the Shiyang, Jinchuan, Ejin (Heihe), and Shule Rivers.
These desert oases are surrounded on all sides by extremely rugged and strikingly inhospitable, geographical features like the snow-capped Qilian Mountains ("Nanshan") to the south; the Beishan mountainous area and the Alashan Plateau to northwest, and the vast expanse of the Gobi desert to the north. These geographical conditions had restricted the ancient silk route to a narrow trackway in the Hexi corridor, where even small fortifications spaced at reasonable distance could completely control the passing traffic.
Ever since the silk road became operational in first millennium BCE and silk goods being carried on its Northern branch ( southern route passed through areas south of Taklamakan desert and was mainly used by caravans going to India), including the Hexi Corridor segment, appeared in far off Siberia, there was a great tussle and struggle between Chinese tribes and ruling dynasties to take control of the Hexi corridor. These tribes even included at one time, Yuezhi tribe that later took over Afghanistan and north India as Kushans. From 600 CE to 800 CE, the Tang Empire from china fought with the Tibetan Empire for control of areas in Inner and Central Asia. There was a long string of conflicts with Tibet, over territories in the Tarim Basin between 670–692 CE. Hostilities ended only when a peace treaty was signed in 821 CE, which fixed the borders between two states and Tang dynasty exercising control over Hexi Corridor.
The people of “Tangut” tribe arrived on the scene in seventh century. The Tanguts (Xia) were a people of Tibetan origin, whose home originally was in the highlands of western Sichuan (adjecent to Tibet) and had moved to Mongolia by then. By the middle of the ninth century, they had become important allies of the Tang Dynasty and in 1006, taking advantage of the political rivalry between the Liao dynasty ruling in the north and the Song dynasty in south, managed to gain de facto independence. They established their capital in Xingzhou (Old district of today's Yinchuan) across yellow river in 1020 and were able to assert their control over Hexi corridor. The Tangut empire is known as the Western Xia dynasty (Xi Xia) and controlled the areas in what are now the northwestern Chinese provinces of Gansu, Shaanxi, and Ningxia from 1038 CE up to 1227 CE. So powerful were the Tanguts, that they proclaimed their equality with the Song emperor and by 1040s, the Song empire were sending the Tanguts a huge annual tribute of silk, silver and tea. Tanguts controlled the Hexi Corridor for 191 years.
I have indulged into this bit of this Chinese history, just to emphasize the power “Tangut” dynasty held over the desert area on the China-Mongolia border at one point in time. What makes the “Tangut” rule in China-Mongolia border areas interesting is that they were not Chinese, but people of Tibetan origin. Tanguts were short, stocky, dark-skinned with ruddy (reddish) complexion and thick-lipped. They had black hair and wore their hair in the Tufa style, shaved bald except for a long fringe of bangs that framed the face. They followed Tibetan Tantric Buddhism as their religion and had their own Tangut language, which was similar to Tibetan and Burmese and script, which has not been completely deciphered even today. They had even presided over a major project to translate Buddhist scriptures and have them published in the Tangut language. It is no wonder therefore that their paintings and manuscripts show clear Indian influence because of this Tibetan link.
Coming back to our subject proper, no one knows, who built the fort city of “Khara Khoto” as a frontier town, on border with the Mongol empire. Whether it was Tanguts or someone else? What is known is that Tanguts took control of the fort in 1035 AD and it became an important city in the empire.
Khara Khoto finds a mention in the book “Livres des merveilles du monde (Book of the Marvels of the World” by Marco Polo (1254-1324) a Venetian merchant traveller, who travelled along the silk road. Marco Polo says in his travelogue ( Book I pp 202);
“When you leave the city of Campichu (Identified as Zhangye at middle of Hexi corridor) you ride for twelve days and then reach a city called Etzina, which is towards the north on the verge of the sandy desert; it belongs to the province of Tangut. The people are Idolaters (Idol worshipers), and posses plenty of camels and cattle, and the country produces a number of good falcons, both Sakers and Lanners (species of falcons). The inhabitants live by their cultivation and their cattle for they have no trade. At the city you must needs lay in victuals (food and provisions) for forty days, because when you quit Etzina you enter on a desert which extends forty days journey to the north and on which you meet no habitation nor baiting-place.(halt)”
It is believed that Marco Polo visited Etzina sometime around 1273-74. This would mean that the castle city was sill surviving then. Though, it was no longer a frontier outpost of the Tangut empire, as it was invaded and captured in 1226 by the Mongols, who had established a Tangut province within their empire and the city continued to be known as “Etzina.”
In modern age, Khara Khoto was discovered on 10th of March 1908 by a Russian explorer; Colonel Pyotr Kuzmich Koslov, who had earlier led the 1899-1901 Russian expedition to Mongolia and Sichuan. On New Year's Day in 1908, it was -47°C in Mongolia. In spite of the cold, Kozlov and his expedition set off for the lower reaches of the river Edzin-Gol, where nine years before, they had first heard rumours of the existence of a buried ancient town. On the 10th of March, 1908, Kozlov's dream was finally realised. With only four companions, Kozlov was led to the ruins by the Torgut guide, Bata. In front of them stood the ruins of Khara Khoto, ruins that local Torgut tribesmen had been afraid to approach for centuries. The five explorers set up camp in the centre of the town. Kozlov's first digging revealed buried treasure. He says;
"I shall never forget the sense of delight which filled my heart when, after
removing a few shovels full of debris in the first ruined building, I
unearthed a small Buddhist painting"
Further excavation that day, revealed fragments of documents written in an unknown script, more books, a Buddhist painting of the Amitabha, a painting on silk, several small clay heads, a painting on silk and a gilded head of Buddha with dark blue hair. In a matter of days they had filled several crates of books in Tangut, Tibetan and Chinese, papers, household wares and Buddhist objects, which they sent back to St. Petersburg, where the sensational new discovery was announced.
Koslov made a return journey to Khara Khota in may 1908 and carried back thousands of artifacts and documents (actually 3500 items) in ten chests during these two visits. He located the manuscripts hidden inside a Stupa on the right side bank of the dry bed of the ancient river, E-ji-na. The artifacts he discovered reflect the Buddhist traditions and cultural richness of the Tanguts in Xia state. These paintings and other artifacts are displayed at the Hermitage museum in St. Petersburg, Russia and the manuscripts are kept at the Institute of oriental studies. Several years later, Sir Aurel Stein visited Khara Khoto and found many objects and manuscripts. This was followed by number of expeditions including those by Sven Hedin and others, who did extensive excavations at Khara Khoto.
So how did the fort city look like? The best and most detailed description has been given by Sir Aurel Stein in his book Innermost Asia.
(To be continued)
4th March 2015