Iranian Elements in Kaśmīr and Tibet

The article below Iranian Elements in Kaśmīr and Tibet: Sasanian and Sogdian Borrowings in Kashmiri and Tibetan Art” by Matteo Compareti was originally posted in


The territory of modern Kaśmīr was the homeland of famous Buddhist monks who had very important roles in the buddhization of the Himalayan region and Chinese Turkestan. The Kashimro-Kuchean monk Kumarajiva (344-413) was so famous that the Chinese Emperor Yao Xing (393-415) wanted him at Chang’an, while Padmasambhava was expressly invited sometime between 770-780 by Khri srong lde btsan (756-797) from Uḍḍiyāna (a region bordering Kaśmīr) in order to win over the last resistance to the adoption of Buddhism in Tibet. Later, Rin chen bzang po (958-1055) studied in India and Kaśmīr before the foundation of his famous Buddhist school in Tibet. However, the relations between Kaśmīr and Tibet were not always friendly especially during the rule of the Kārkoṭa (c. 622-855) and Utpala (c. 855-1003) dynasties.

1.1. Kaśmīr under the Kārkoṭas and Utpalas

During the reign of Muktāpīḍa Lalitāditya (c.725-760/61)1, Kaśmīr experienced an exceptional period of cultural and artistic flourishing. Despite the Kārkoṭa adhesion to Hinduism, Buddhists did not suffer much under Lalitāditya who apparently even protected the followers of the Dharma. The monuments dated to his reign, which are still visible, reveal clear signs of contact between Kaśmīr and the Classical and the Iranian world possibly due to the actual presence of architects and artists originally from these distant regions (Goetz, 1969.b) although it is not possible to exclude that such Hellenistic elements were just borrowings from the art of Gandhāra (Siudmak, 2007: 45).

The extension of Lalitāditya’s domains into parts of North-Western India and Bactria-Tokharistān and the submission of the Turki Śahī (c. 665-843, but in Zabul until 870) as it was presented by Hermann Goetz several years ago have been reconsidered in the light of recent re-examination of Chinese written sources and local coinage. The background of the “golden age” of Kaśmīr presents difficulties especially for the relations with neighboring kingdoms: Bactria-Tokharistān was under Arab rule, while Kapiśa and Zabul were governed by Turkish dynasties (the Turki Śahī) who were friendly with the Kārkoṭas (Sen, 2004: 152-154).

Very soon Lalitāditya entered into conflict with the Tibetans who – during the period of the sPu rgyal (or Yarlung) Dynasty (649-850 c.) – wanted to expand their domains into the Southern Hindukush. For this reason, he was considered a good ally of the Tang Empire (618-906) (Wink, 1990: 243-244; Sen, 2004). Chinese chronicles and other literary sources of the Heavenly Empire recently collected in a very interesting study by Tansen Sen, give quite a clear image of the geopolitical situation in the Southern Hindukush region around 700 (Sen, 2004). The position of the Arabs in Bactria-Tokharistān and the Turki Śahī in the area between modern Eastern Afghanistan and North-Western Pakistan has already been considered above. Kaśmīr (Gushimi or Jiashimiluo according to Chinese sources) formed an alliance with the Tang in order to contain the advance of the Tibetans into India. The Chinese army was headed by Gao Xianzhi, a general of Korean origins who, later, was defeated in 751 at the famous battle of Talas (South-Eastern Kazakhstan) by a Turco-Arab coalition.

It does not seem that Muktāpīḍa (Muduobi in Chinese sources) fought alone as in Goetz’s reconstruction although the expansionist intentions of the Tibetans should have certainly alarmed him. During the war against Khri lde gtsug brtsan (commonly known as Mes ag tshoms, 712-755) and Khri srong lde brtsan, the figure of Lalitāditya assumed legendary proportions and for this reason it should be considered more cautiously (Wink, 1990: 243-254; Sen, 2004).

The main direct literary source about the life of Muktāpīḍa Lalitāditya and other Kashmiri sovereigns is the Rājataraṅgiṇī. This work was composed by Kalhaṇa in 12th century and it represents the first example of a “chronicle” ever written in India. Interesting information can be obtained in the same source such as regarding the history of Kaśmīr in relation to Iranian-culture. In the Rājataraṅgiṇī, the Kuṣāṇ annexation of Kaśmīr under Huviṣka and Kaniṣka (2nd century) is mentioned together with the coming of the Kidarites and, possibly, the Hephtalites in the 4th-6th centuries (Rosenfield, 1967: 49-50; Dani, 1996: 167-172)2. Both these peoples, in fact, adopted the culture of Bactriana but their ethnic affiliation still remains a mystery. However, there are no Kashmiri monuments to be safely attributed to the Kuṣāṇas or other Iranian-culture peoples although, as we shall consider below, some doubts arise about the Harwan complex.

In a passage of the Rājataraṅgiṇī (in book VI, 192), we read about an interesting association between the Sun (Sūrya) Temple at Mārtand and a city not far away whose main activity was the cultivation of the grape (Stein, 1906: 141). As P. Pal argued, the city was possibly populated by a colony of Persians who had escaped during the Arab invasion (Pal, 1975: 42). His hypothesis is based both on the presence of grapes such as on the Indian cult dedicated to the sun by the Maga Brāhmaṇa (Wink, 1990: 252; Panaino, 1996), a sect settled in this part of India long before the fall of the Sasanians (224-642) who could have given refuge to the exiled Persians.

However, as already observed by this author (Compareti, 2000: 338), an identification of the people of the grape-city with the Sogdians seems more likely. As in Chinese sources, Sogdians are described as people fond of wine (Chavannes, 1903: 134; Trombert, 2005). According to one Chinese literary source, then, around the city of Shanshan (Xinjiang Province) there was a settlement called the City of the Grape (Putao Cheng) because of the plantations of grapevines there by Sogdians (Giles, 1930-1932: 829-830; de La Vaissière, Trombert, 2004: 950). Moreover, Mithra was a god venerated in Sogdiana itself as well (Grenet, 2001) and, according to the Muslim author al-Idrīsī, some parts of Kaśmīr were “inhabited by people and merchants from all parts of the world” (Wink, 1990: 247). Since al-Idrīsī was writing in 12th century, it is hard to imagine that he was not referring to Sogdians too. In any case, it is not possible to state for certain if the construction of the Sūrya Temple at Mārtand had some connection with the Iranians living in Kaśmīr since this god had many followers in medieval India as well. Moreover, the grape could have been introduced into Kaśmīr much earlier, even during the Indo-Greek or Kuṣāṇa period (Pal, 2007: 23).

1.2. Iranian elements in Kaśmīr

Some specimens of Kashmiri art display very clear Iranian borrowings. The much discussed terracotta tiles from the Buddhist complex of Harwan (not far from Śrinagar) have always attracted the attention of students of Iranian art for decorative elements such as pearl roundels containing single flowers (fig. 1) or birds (fig. 2), and archers hunting animals according to the so-called “flying gallop” style while ribbons attached to the body are floating in the air (fig. 3). These elements, in fact, call to mind a typical Sasanian decoration which, however, obliges us to revise the chronology proposed for the site (Paul, 1986: 53-62).

Fig. 1. After: Kak, 1933: pl. XL fig. 43.

A date as late as possible would fit better for Harwan, as, in the past, a chronology was proposed that was obviously too early, thus rendering impossible the presence of the (Iranian) pearl roundels pattern (Kak, 1933: pls. XX, XXII.1, XXII.3, XXX.22, XXXIV.31, XL.42-43; Fisher, 1987.a). In the most recent study dedicated to Kashmiri art, a date to 5th century is proposed (Paul, 1986: 44), although even the 6th century could also be considered likely: this was the period of invasions from the north-west which have been attributed to the Huṇas by Indian sources.

Fig. 2. After: Kak, 1933: pl. XXX fig. 22.

Of the Huṇas much needs to be discovered (Parlato, 1990; De La Vaissière, 2003) but it is not possible to deny that the invaders of North-Western India could have brought Iranian elements although their affiliation was to a different ethnic group (for example, even Altaic). In any case, it is worth remembering that pearl roundels containing single lotus flowers appeared around 1st century in Indian art at Bharut (?) and Sañci (Bénisti, 1952). So, a pure Indian component should be taken into consideration when studying the Harwan tiles.

Fig. 3. After: Kak, 1933: pl. XXXIII fig. 3 (detail).

On the other hand, the pearl roundels reproduced on the pillows on which two bronze statuettes of Buddha are sitting in maradhāsanamudrā and dharmacakramudrā can not be considered proper Sasanian despite the hypotheses expressed by some scholars who consider such an element indisputably Sasanian (Tucci, 1974: 300). The statuettes are kept respectively in the Norton Simon Museum (fig. 4) and the Lahore Museum (fig. 5) and they can be dated quite precisely to 8th century Kaśmīr (Pal, 1975: cat. 22.a-b; Catalogue Naples, 1964: cat. 329).

Fig. 4. After: Pal, 1975: cat. 22.a.

The vegetal elements represented inside the pearl roundels have a very precise parallel in the figurative textiles found around Turfan (Gao, 1986: 129, fig. 91 and 161, fig. 76). Although it is not clear if these textiles were actually produced in the area of Turfan or in the region of Shu (modern Sichuan Province), the presence of Sogdians at both Chinese sites represents an historical fact (Compareti, 2006). A third 8th century metal statuette recently showed on the occasion of an exhibition in Germany could be included in this group: it is possible to observe a Buddha in dharmacakramudrā sitting on a pillow on a high pedestal wonderfully embellished (Catalogue Berlin, 2006: cat. 11). It was kept in the Potala in Lhasa and its state of preservation is excellent: traces of color can be clearly observed on the whole statue especially on the face and hair of Buddha and on the pillow embellished with pearl roundels of the same kind of the two other metal statuette in the Norton Simon Museum and the Lahore Museum.

Fig. 5. After: Catalogue Naples, 1964: cat. 329.

One last 8th century Kashmiri bronze with silver and copper inlay, now part of a private collection, presents interesting decorations too (Heller, 2006: figs. 125-129). The sitting Buddha in dharmacakramudrā is curiously dressed with precious clothes, a pointed crown and ribbons while at his sides stand two bodhisattvas and, below, three smaller donors. Pearl roundels embellish the frontal side of the pillow on which the Buddha is sitting and the garments of one donor, although the latter is only partially visible (fig. 6). A very important detail of this statue is the three-pointed camail on Buddha’s shoulders. In fact, usually, just bodhisattvas and minor Buddhist deities have such precious garments since they are not supposed to have done any renunciation. This kind of small cloak reflects the fashion of the people living in the North-Western Indian regions and in the territory of modern Afghanistan and, sometimes, it can be observed worn by Buddha himself according to the typology called “Buddha parée” (Compareti, 2007).

Fig. 6. After: Heller, 2006: fig. 126 (detail).

A typical Iranian dress, the camail, can be observed often in Kashmiri statues of Sūrya as, for example, at Martand, in the Lahore Museum (fig. 7), in the Srinagar Museum and in several bronze statues kept in museums and private collections (Goetz, 1969: pl. XXI; Fisher, 1987.b: fig. 7; Siudmak, 1987: 51; Harle, 1987; Pal, 1992: figs. 3, 6-7). The camail is a three-pointed poncho-like cloak worn over the other clothes. Figures of donors wearing the camail can be observed in Gandhāran statues but also, later, in Sogdian paintings from Panjakand (Marshak, 2002: fig. 60). According to J. Siudmak, the camail would have been introduced into Kaśmīr during the Kārkoṭa Dynasty, possibly, by the Buddhist communities protected by Lalitāditya (Siudmak, 1987: 51). One of Lalitāditya’s ministers, in fact, was a Tokharian and a patron of Buddhist works too. His name was Cankuna, possibly a corruption of the Chinese title jiangjun (general), and, most likely, he was a follower of the Dharma (Goetz, 1969.a: 11-12). This figure as well has been critically reconsidered by Tansen Sen and, if his suggestions (as it seems likely) are to be considered correct, then Cankuna should be considered to have come from Bactria-Tokharistān and not from the region of the Tarim Basin as supposed by H. Goetz (Sen, 2004: 151-152). Since in all the territories just mentioned the pearl roundels pattern was very well-known and appreciated, it was proposed to attribute to Cankuna its introduction into Kaśmīr (von Schroeder, 1981: 107). The hypothesis seems to be likely but it is not clear if Cankuna himself adopted particular decorations directly from Sasanian or Sogdian traditions. The second hypothesis would seem more convincing since, in the 8th century, the Sasanians did not exist anymore.

Fig. 7. After: Pal, 1992: fig. 6.

Architectonic decoration under the Kārkoṭas show Iranian elements as well. The Śiva stone temple at Pandrethan has the ceiling embellished by large pearl roundels containing lotus flowers of the same kind of the Harwan ones (Brown, 1955: 48; Fisher, 1987.b: fig. 9, 14). The same shape of the ceiling has a clear parallel in the so-called “lantern” typology which was very widespread in Central Asia such as at Varakhša and Qal‘a-e Qahqaha (but also in the Caucasus). Strangely enough, pearl roundels do not appear at Mārtand.

After the death of Lalitāditya, the Kārkoṭa Dynasty lasted one century more although the territorial boundaries and the splendor of the court were not the same. The Utpalas did not favor Buddhism as their predecessors. Such a situation mirrors a general trend of the whole of India with the exception of the Bengala region. In the Utpala tributary territory of the Hindū Śahī (c. 843-1026)3, between modern South-Western Afghanistan and Northern Pakistan, Hinduism was the main religion too, as the same dynastic name of those sovereigns points out. Hindu sovereigns were not always tolerant with other religions spread in India which, during some periods, suffered persecutions (Verardi, 2002; Verardi, 2003; Verardi, Paparatti, 2004: 97-102). Among the few protectors of Buddhism in Central Asia there was Tang China that was present in the area until 750. This is considered to be the main reason for the sinicized features of the face of Buddhist statues on a great area extended from the borders with China to Margiana (Rhie, 1988; Verardi, Visconti, forthcoming). Kaśmīr does not seem to constitute an exception and, in fact, the famous Kashmiri Buddhist bronzes display very strong mongolic traits such as almond eyes (Goetz, 1955: 72; Heller, 2008: 30).

The Rājataraṅgiṇī is not too explicit about the material presence of Iranians in the territory of Kaśmīr although the decoration of some temples in the area of Śrinagar shows evident signs of Iranian borrowings. The temple of Avantisvāmi (or Avantiśvāra) in Vantipur has columns embellished with vertical pearl roundels containing animal, vegetal and geometric elements. The repertoire at Avantisvāmi is very rich: here, in fact, all the typology of pearl roundels just described can be observed (fig. 8). The roundels at Avantisvāmi also present square elements in the points where they should have been tangent to another roundel. This is a typical solution observed in Sasanian stuccoes and, occasionally, textiles, while in Sogdian textile art it is much more widespread (Compareti, 2004.a). Certainly, many Persians escaped from the Arabs who invaded the Sasanian Empire and it is also probable that they settled in some parts of India and Central Asia4. As it is well-known, typical Sasanian motifs were accepted by the Omayyads (661-750) and the Abbasids (750-1268) but it is very strange to observe them in Kaśmīr during the Utpala period, that is to say, approximately two centuries after the end of the Sasanians. Moreover, the decorations of the Avantisvāmi temple comprehend images of facing animals also which were not appreciated at the Sasanian court (Compareti, 2000: 338-339)5. On the contrary, facing animals represent the main subject inside the pearl roundels of the textiles improperly called zandaniji, which were woven in a non-determined region of Central Asia after the Arab conquest (Marshak, 2006.a; Raspopova, 2006). So, it seems more probable that the Iranian motifs adopted in the decoration of the Utpala temples were coming from Central Asia and not from Sasanian Persia.

Fig. 8. After: Kak, 1933: LXXXII.

At the time of the Kārkoṭas and the Utpalas and even later, at least until 12th-13th centuries, Kashmiri art deeply influenced the entire Himalayan region (Pal, 1987; Siudmak, 2000; Henss, 2002; Béguin, 2002: 246-247; Heller, 2008: 28-30). Most likely, Iranian elements observed in the artistic production of Tibet arrived there through Kashmiri artists. Not only central Tibet but also Ladakh and Guge – that is to say, the western outskirts of the Tibetan Empire – accepted many Iranian elements especially in the decoration of the garments of Bodhisattvas and, quite strangely, Buddha too. The main Buddhist centers of Ladakh are represented by the monasteries of Mangyu and Alchi, dated to 12th-13th century (Pal, 1988; Linrothe, 1994; Goepper, 1996). The latter site is particularly interesting for the presence of pearl roundels reproduced on the ceiling of the Sumtsek (gSum-brtsegs), a three-storied temple built in early 13th century (fig. 9). Many patterns of pearl roundels can be observed and scholars agree in recognizing not only Iranian motifs but also painted imitations of textiles (Flood, 1991; Goepper, 1993; Goepper, 1996: 225-264). The same decorations which embellish the garments of important people in the paintings at Alchi display clear Iranian borrowings: and also for them a Sogdian origin can be argued (Singh, 1991: 517; Sims, 2002: 23-24; Pal, 2007: 147-149). Very recently, new Tibetan paintings have been discovered in the region of the ancient kingdom of Guge which is nowadays under Chinese administration too. According to the preliminary investigations, there are clear Kashmiri borrowings in those paintings which could be dated between 11th-15th/16th century (The Institute of Chinese Tibetan Learning of Sichuan University, 2007: figs. 10-13, 21-24; Pritzker, 2008).

Fig. 9. After: Flood, 1991: fig. 3.

Something more could be added about the paintings on the dhotī of the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara on the ground floor of the Sumtsek at Alchi. Approximately in its center, slightly above the knees of the statue, two scenes attracted the attention of scholars for two reasons: they are the only ones not to be interpreted as religious scenes and “clearly reflect stylistic elements that are different from the earlier Buddhist paintings of the eleventh-century monuments. They evoke a cultural milieu that was both sophisticated and cosmopolitan” (Pal, 2007: 147). On the right leg a royal couple sits in a palace while musicians and attendants can be observed outside on both sides. On the left leg there is the representation of a parade of horsemen and the king appears too holding clear royal symbols like the axe (fig. 10). Not only some of the textile decorations could be associated to the Iranian world but the royal scene itself calls to mind similar Islamic book illustrations which could be contemporary with the paintings in Alchi.

Fig. 10. After: Pal, 2007: fig. 157.a-b.

Many specimens of Islamic book illustration could be mentioned in order to find a parallel with the Alchi paintings under exam but there is a frontispiece in the Topkapı Saray (Istanbul) known as Hazine 2125 which resembles surviving parts of an important 7th century cycle of Sogdian paintings at Afrāsyāb (ancient Samarkand) whose origins are definitely rooted in pre-Islamic traditions of Central Asian art (Esin, 1977; Pugačenkova, 1987). As I attempted to prove in another paper, at least at Afrāsyāb there is the representation of the local Nawrūz (the most important Iranian festival) while in the Topkapı and in many other Islamic book illustrations it is not possible to be that specific: what is really important to remark is the common origins of such a stereotyped scene despite its meaning which could be different according to the cultural milieu where it is found (Compareti, forthcoming 2009). Musicians appear always in this group of images together with dancers and attendants offering a flower (or a plant), a bow with arrows, and also horses and other animals used for hunting (dogs and falcons) to the king or the royal couple (fig. 11)6. Something similar could be guessed for Alchi itself. In fact, even if we do not know the exact meaning of that royal scene it is interesting to note that the Kashmiri artists who executed it chose an Iranian model which was spread for a very long time and accepted also by other Central Asian peoples like Turks and Mongols.

Fig. 11. After: Compareti, forthcoming 2009: figs. 4-5.

In Ladakh some Sogdian inscriptions have been discovered too. They cannot be dated precisely but, while the 4th-6th century inscriptions do not represent an unicum since there are other contemporary ones in the Hindus Valley (Sims-Williams, 1989-1992), the 9th century inscription, on the contrary, is among the latest evidence concerning the presence of Sogdians along the Himalyan trade routes (Sims-Williams, 1993; Vohra, 1994).

The main monuments in the territory of Guge (which is nowadays divided between India and China) are: the monastery of Tabo and the grottoes of Dung dkar, both dated to the 11th century (Wandl, 1999; Neumann, 2000). The paintings from Tabo are definitely the most interesting and they were rightly associated with the paintings at Bāmyān for their numerous Iranian decorative elements (Klimburg-Salter, 1996). A unique group of manuscript covers from the area of Gilgit possibly dated to 7th-8th century constitutes another parallel with paintings produced in the areas of modern Afghanistan where Iranian Buddhism was spread. Not only are the figures of Buddha and Bodhisattvas on these covers extremely similar to the models at Bāmyān, Kakrak and Fondukistān but the features of the donors represented kneeling besides them also have clearly common roots (Klimburg-Salter, 1990; Klimburg-Salter, 1991).

2.1. Tibet under the Yarlung

During the period of the Yarlung Dynasty, Tibet was one of the main powers in Central Asia and the contacts with the Sogdians are attested in several sources. The Tibetans extended their conquests on the Tarim Basin between 666-692 and, more firmly, between 760-850. They also conquered some parts of Gansu (Haarh, 1969; Beckwith, 1987; Hoffmann, 1990). Until a first attempt of establishing good relationships with the Omayyads and, later, the Abbasids (Dunlop, 1973), the btsanpo Khri lde gtsug brtsan (712-755) – one of whose wives was a princess from Samarkand (Twitchett, 1979: 432) – fought against the Arabs together with his Turkic allies in order to expel them from Sogdiana (Beckwith, 1987: 108-110). It is not completely clear what was the reason for such an intervention. Possibly the Sogdian traders represented a good source of gain for the Tibetans who controlled the access to some vital routes in Central Asia. The relationships between Sogdiana and Tibet were in general friendly (Li, 1957-58; Hoffman, 1971; Uray, 1979: 282-283; De La Vaissière, 2002: 152-153), even though it is reported that there was at least one episode of an incident when a Tibetan official was captured by some Sogdians in 694 (Li, 1957-58; Hoffman, 1971: 443-446; Beckwith, 1987: 56).

The Yarlung conquest of Khotan – an Iranian Buddhist kingdom in strict relations with Kaśmīr and Sogdiana (Bailey, 1982: 4, 9, 57: Kumamoto, 1996: 84-86; Mu, Wang, 1996) – heralded the immigration of many Khotanese monks, craftsmen and merchants into Tibet (Hofmann, 1971: 451-453; Gropp, 1974: 36-37). A Kashmiri bronze statue is said to have been found at the site of Domoko, in the Khotan Oasis (Heller, 2006: 185, n. 25; Heller, 2008: fig. 11). The word for merchant in Khotanese was sūlī (plural sūlya, sūlīya) and, although it is probably connected with an Iranian root sau– (to earn), most likely, it is also associated to the ethnonym sūlya: Sogdian. This is probably due to the fact that the Sogdians were considered the merchants par excellence in Central Asia (Bailey, 1982: 23; De La Vaissière, 2002: 64, 130).

The Sogdians had trade relationships with Tibet (Beckwith, 1965: 100-103: De La Vaissière, 2002: 303). Since the main items traded by Sogdians were luxury goods, it is possible to consider that they imported into Tibet precious silks and metalwork. The court of Lhasa, on the other hand, provided the Sogdians with the famous perfumed musk which was very much requested by the Muslim courts. According to Mas’udi (10th century), some merchants that he met in Eastern Persia arrived there “from Sogdiana through […] the mountains of Tibet and China” (Shboul, 1979: 162, n. 80). Furthermore, the Tibetans were aware of the religions professed by the Sogdians as it is clearly reported in their literary sources (Uray, 1983). According to Klimkeit, there were several Manichaean elements in the paintings at Alchi but, more recently, such a hypothesis has been rejected by Lieu (Klimkeit, 1979; Klimkeit, 1982; Lieu, 1998: 54-56).

2.2. Iranian elements in Tibet

The archaeological investigation confirmed the reciprocal knowledge of the Sogdians and the Tibetans7. Several textiles and metalwork embellished with motifs, very common in Sogdian art, have been recovered from the cemetery of Dulan, not far from Reshui in Qinghai Province, which can be dated to 8th-9th century (Heller, 1998.a; Heller, 1999; Heller, 2003.a; Heller, 2006). This region was known as Amdo and, in that period, it was part of the Tibetan Empire. Also the funerary habits of the princely tombs at Dulan reveal connections with Tibet.

Other textiles from Tibet appeared in the antiquary market and form important collections in museums around the world. A child’s jacket embellished with pearl roundels containing confronted ducks (fig. 12) constitutes an exact parallel with the so-called zandaniji textiles and with some silk fragments from Dulan (Catalogue New York, 1997: 34-37; Heller, 1998.b).

Fig. 12. After: Catalogue New York, 1997: cat. 5.

A unique silk fragment from Dulan presents a very interesting inscription in Pahlavi, the language used by the Sasanians for their official inscriptions. This fragment represents the only unquestionable evidence of the relationships between Persia and Tibet although the possibility can not be ruled out that it was written by a person who was not a Persian but knew Pahlavi. For example, Manichaeans who lived in the territory around Turfan (for long periods even under Tibetan control) continued to use Pahlavi after the fall of the Sasanian Empire (Tremblay, 2001: 220-238). Also Sasanian silver coins have been found in the cemetery of Dulan (Heller, 2008: 16-18) although they could have been imported by Sogdians who, very often, used Persian coins of the reign of Peroz (459-484) after countermarking them even with typical Sasanian symbols (Nikitin, Roth, 1995).

As it is well-known, many Persians escaped from the Arab conquest of the Sasanian Empire and epigraphic traces of their presence are found in Sogdiana at Panjakand and Paykand (Raspopova, 1990: fig. 26; Semenov, Mirzaahmedov, 2001: 9), in China at Chang’an on a 9th century funerary stele which belonged to Māhšī Sūrēn (Harmatta, 1971) and, more recently, at Dulan8. For this reason, A. Nikitin proposed a very interesting hypothesis about the rise of Tibet as a “world power” during 7th century. According to him, the arrival of Iranians at Lhasa gave a great impulse to the development and organization of the Tibetan military power which in a few years constituted a menace for China, the Uighurs and the Arabs9. One of the main technological resources of the Tibetans, in fact, was the production of chain mail for armor. At least one Chinese source describes Tibetan warriors and horses as completely clad in armor, so that only the eyes were not protected (Beckwith, 1987: 110). This description, actually, calls to mind the (late) Sasanian relief of one equestrian knight completely clad in armor in the bigger grotto at Ṭāq-e Bostān which represents, however, a unique and enigmatic specimen of sculpture in the whole of pre-Islamic Persian art (Fukai, Horiuchi, 1972).

Even if the interesting suggestion by Nikitin is accepted, there are only the Pahlavi inscription from Dulan and few coins to support a conspicuous presence of Persians at the court of Lhasa so, for the moment, it is not possible to be more specific. Little other evidence could be enlisted about the Tibetan-Persian relationships. According to a stone tablet inscribed in Chinese and said to be kept in Tokyo, a Christian official of Persian origin called Aluohan was at the head of some Tibetan tribes that he tried to convert between 656 and 661 (Dauvillier, 1950: 218). It is not clear if this is the same Aluohan who was in the service of the Tang Dynasty in 7th century and who was possibly one of the sons of the last Sasanian king Yazdigard III (632-651) (Forte, 1996.a)10. In late Sasanian Persia, Christians had very important positions and it is not excluded that Yazdigard III and Peroz (another of his sons) had many connections with them (Compareti, 2003: 207-208). Other Chinese literary sources state that in 677 Peroz requested the Chinese Emperor for permission to build a “Persian temple” in Chang’an which was, most likely, a Christian and not a Mazdean building (Forte, 1996.b: 355, 364).

However, Zoroastrianism continued to be the creed of the Iranians and especially the Persians. Common elements in Zoroastrian literature and in Tantric religion have been considered to be a trait borrowed by Tibetans from Iranian lands (Templeman, 2002).

The tombs belonged to people who were in very strict contact with Tibet like those under excavation in Guolimu, Haixi (Qinghai) revealed also 9th century painted coffins embellished with very interesting scenes (Luo, 2006). The main subject is the hunt which is represented according to formulae very spread on a very big area, practically in the whole Eurasian continent. In the case of the Guolimu coffin it is possible to observe at least one hunter shooting a couple of running yaks in the position of the so-called “Parthian shot” (fig. 13). In the same painting there is also a deer hunt and a scene which could be interpreted as a banquet in front of a tent.

Fig. 13. After: Luo, 2006: 1 (detail).

According to B. Maršak, a silver gilt dish kept in the Miho Museum (Shigaraki, Japan) embellished with fantastic creatures should be attributed to 8th-9th century Tibet (Catalogue Wien, 1999: cat. 49; Heller, 2003.b: 228-229). Very strong Iranian elements can be observed on the body of the central centaur and on the bodies of the winged couples of animals along the external rim of the dish (fig. 14). These elements reproduce vegetal or geometric motifs typical of Sogdian textiles and metalwork (Compareti, 2004.b: 874-882). Mushroom-like horns can be observed on the head of some of the winged deer, according to a scheme similarly developed in Sogdian metalwork (Maršak, 1971: T29, T 37). Iranian traditions seem to be evident in Himalayan metalwork production just because importations from Sasanian Persia were very common throughout the Eurasian continent. As recent investigations would support, it is very likely that Sasanian sovereigns used luxury objects like textiles and metalwork as the main goods to be exchanged with neighboring kingdoms. Persian metalwork and textiles have been found in the tombs of important people from the Urals to Japan, and it is highly probable that the same Tang emperors adopted the habit to present diplomatic gifts according to the “Western” iconography because of the contacts with Sasanians and Sogdians (Compareti, 2000). A silver bowl embellished with Greek themes found in Tibet which has been considered to be Persian (Denwood, 1973) could be easily a metalwork produced in Bactria-Tokharistan where Hellenistic borrowings have been always stronger than in Iran and in other regions of Central Asia.

Fig. 14. After: Catalogue Wien, 1999: cat. 49 (detail).

An 8th century silver jar kept in Lhasa depicts the head of a mushroom-like-antler deer on its top, while the body of the jar is embellished with representations of Iranian people, most likely Sogdians dancing and drinking (Heller, 2003.b). Sogdian metalwork would have been highly esteemed in Tibet and, in fact, evidence of such an influence can be noted in several Tibetan specimens found at different archaeological sites (Heller, 2003.a; Heller, 2003.b).

The most important evidence of the real use (or, at least, of the knowledge) of garments embellished with Iranian motifs by the Tibetan high classes is preserved in Chinese art. A scroll representing the Chinese Emperors painted by the famous artist Yan Liben (c. 600-674) shows also a Tibetan envoy wearing a caftan embellished with single birds within pearl roundels (fig. 15). The scene possibly refers to an episode which actually happened in 640, when the Tibetan minister mGar sTon btsan yul zun arrived in Chang’an in order to escort to Lhasa the Chinese princess Wencheng Gongzhu who was promised to his king, Srong btsan sgam po (c. 610-649) (Karmay, 1975; Karmay, 1977). The detailed rendering of the “barbaric” garments of mGar evidently attracted the attention of Yan Liben who probably saw with his own eyes the Tibetan embassy. However, Chinese literary sources say that silk started to be adopted by Tibetans only after the wedding of Srong btsan sgam po with Wencheng Gongzhu (Richardson, 1975). So, the caftan worn by mGar could have been a gift of the Tang Emperor although the possibility that Tibetans already knew precious textiles cannot be ruled out. A different interpretation could be given in order to identify that person. Recently, it was proposed to recognize him as a foreigner, specifically a Sogdian, who worked for the Tibetans due to his physical features and caftan (Heller, 2003.b: 223, 231). Sogdians from different social classes and, particularly, merchants worked at the Chinese courts between 4th-9th century as translators as well.

Fig. 15. After: 5000 ans d’art chinois. Peinture 2. La peinture sous les Sui, les Tang et les Cinq Dynasties, ed. Jin Weinuo, Beijing, Bruxelles, 1988: fig. 2a, p. 232.

Possibly, the Sogdian traders brought silk into Tibet. The pearl roundels on the garment of Yan Liben’s “Tibetan” envoy, in fact, present single birds of the same kind observed in Sogdian paintings at Afrāsyāb, Panjakand and Varakhša. The hypotheses expressed about the painting by Yan Liben consider the caftan worn by the envoy as a silk product as a matter of fact although it could have been, for example, also a woolen garment, or another warm textile more attuned to the weather of Tibet.

The sources and the archaeological evidence considered above point out at a situation just partially investigated11. Nevertheless, it is possible to state that the Sogdians were much more present in Kaśmīr and Tibet than the Persians unless the first studies dedicated to the Iranian elements in the Himalayan regions favored the Sasanians.

Further investigations could shed light on the hypothesis about a strong Iranian presence in Tibet after the unification of the country in the middle of 7th century and an improving of technical and military knowledge, something which would require an approach from the point of view of specialists not only in the field of Iranian studies but Tibetan too.


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1 There is no unanimity about the chronology of Lalitāditya’s reign. His period of reign has been recently discussed in: Sen, 2004: 151. For a date between 724 and 761: Siudmak, 2000: 38.

2 On the problems concerning the identification of the Huṇas of the Indian sources with the Hephtalites, see: Parlato, 1990; De La Vaissière, 2003; De La Vaissière, 2005: 7-10.

3 Under the first three Utpala sovereigns – Avantivarman (855-883), Śamkaravarman (883-902) and queen Sughanda (902-906) – the Hindū Śahī were tributaries of Kaśmīr but, later, they conquered independence and even became more powerful than their old lords. The new situation was possible also because the Ṣaffārids (c. 845-913) did not constitute a problem for them anymore. During the period of the Lohara dynasty (c. 1003-1101), Kaśmīr experienced some of its ancient splendor before loosing its importance as a regional power: Goetz, 1969.c: 68-69; Rehman, 1979: 97-118.

4 The last Sasanian representatives lived exiled at the Tang court and, at least in a first moment, they were not sinicized: Compareti, 2003.

5 There is only one single silver jar considered to be a true Sasanian production which present two lions in a very similar position of some of the decorations at Avantisvāmi: Ghirshman, 1962: fig. 404.

6 The list of things to be presented to the sovereign during the celebration of the Nawrūz is mentioned more or less explicitly in many Islamic written sources (Arabic and Persian). One of the most important sources is represented by the Nawrūz-namāhThe book of the New Year” in Persian which has been recently investigated by Simone Cristoforetti and will be soon published in the journal “Eurasian Studies“. I wish to thank S. Cristoforetti who allow me to read his forthcoming article.

7 It was recently proposed to recognize (cautiously) a delegation of Tibetans also among the 7th century Sogdian paintings on the western wall of the so-called “Hall of the Ambassadors” at Afrāsyāb: Grenet, 2006: 48-49.

8 The translation of the embroidered inscription is “king of kings, the great and glorious” but the name of the possible Sasanian king mentioned there was not preserved: Catalogue New York 2004: cat. 244; Zhao, 2006: fig. 142.

9 Alexander Nikitin kindly exposed to me his ideas during a conference held in St.Petersburg between November 2nd-5th 2004. The Russian scholar was called to give a first reading and translation of the Pahlavi inscription on the textile fragment from Dulan. The idea by Nikitin calls to mind a study by H. Goetz where he expressed about the growth of Kaśmīr as one of the main powers in the region because of the technologies imported by the Chinese and the Sasanian immigrants: Goetz, 1969.a: 21. Very similar ideas have been formulated also in : Wink, 1990: 239, 243, 250-251.

10 To say the truth, it is not really clear if this stone tablet should be considered a reliable source. In his short article, Dauvillier just writes about the scholar who would have studied it: Y. Saeki, a Japanese Christian priest who wrote extendedly about “Nestorianism” in Far East in the beginning of the last century.

11 A fragmentary painting considered to be Kušān has been recently found in Tibet through antiquaries from Thailand: Marshak, 2006.b. This would be a further evidence of the contacts between the Himalayan Region and Iranian-culture peoples in Late Antiquity.

Impact of Iranian Culture On East Asia

The article below “Impact of Iranian Culture on East Asia” published in The Iranian (Sept 10, 2017) is by Dr. Mohammad Ala, the recipient of the 2013 Grand Prix Film Italia Award for his documentary Immortality.


There are many examples of Iranian cultural influence on East Asia. In this article, several examples of this influence in Japan and China will be listed.

Iran is located in West Asia (wrongly known as the Middle East, even among Iranians). It has influenced many cultures throughout its rich history from music to food preparation, and even some imperial traditions were borrowed from the Iranian system of government.

According to the “Shiji”, a historical book written by Sima Qian, Iranians were known in China as An-XiAn-Xi means Arsak/Ashkanian and the Parthian Empire extended into to the Chinese language, including Pacoros and Emperor Zhangs letters. An-Xi (Parthia/Iran) Gao means high (i.e., from a noble background). Thus An-Xi Gao refers to a Parthian with noble background. Sima Qian and his associate An Xuan wrote about Wudi and Mihrdat and how they knew each other. Qian was the first person to translate Buddhist texts into Mandarin which had a major impact on Chinese history.

In countries across East Asia (not just China!), including Korea, Vietnam and Japan, these two individuals are considered holy. They were instrumental in Buddhism gaining popularity.

History teaches us that the Chinese were well informed about Iran. For example, after the overthrow of the Parthian Empire, they stopped calling Iran An-Xi and they started to call it Po-ssi or Bo-ssi which means Parsi in Chinese.

The Tang-Dynasty were close allies with the Sasanids. Some historians believe China tried to free Iran from the Arabs and some Iranians left to live in East Asia by way of the silk road.

An interesting story is that of An-Lu Shan a Sogdian-Iranian who became the Emperor of China. Iran was a part of the Chinese history, and later during the Islamic Period, many Hui-Chinese like Zheng He were of Iranian-Khwarezmian ancestry. Also the Barmakiyan-Family, a mixed Zoroastrian-Buddhist Iranian family, had important positions in India and East Asia.

The first mention of Iranians (Persians) coming to Japan can be found in the Nihon Shoki (Chronicles of Japan). One of the earliest Japanese historical sources, completed in 720 C.E. It records that in 654 C.E. several people arrived in Japan from Tokhārā (Aston, pp. 246, 251, 259). Though there is some controversy about the location of Tokhārā, some scholars have claimed the name to be a shortened version of Toḵārestān, which was part of the territory of Sasanian Persia (Itō, 1980, pp. 5-10).

Iranian people of Central Asia were the link between West and East Asia as a whole and the civilizations of ancient Iran, notably Sassanian and post-Sassanian culture(s). Open and tolerant, the Soghdians, Kushans, Tocharians, etc. established a sophisticated literature and urban culture (Lecture slide from Kaveh Farrokh’s lectures from the course “The Silk Route: origins & History“).

Elsewhere in the Nihon Shoki, it is mentioned that in 660, when an Iranian (Persian), whose name was Dārā, returned to his country. He left his wife in Japan and promised the Emperor that he would come back and work for him again (Aston, p. 266; Imoto, 2002, pp. 58-60).

In the 7th to the 9th centuries, foreigners—then known in Japanese as toraijin—were coming to Japan mainly from Korea and China, bringing with them technology, culture, religion (Buddhism), and ideas. Eastern Asia, especially the Tang Dynasty of China (618-907), had socio-economic networks with many regions of the world, including southern and western Asia.

Chang’an (present-day Xi’an), the capital of the Tang Dynasty, was an international city with people from various countries, including Iranians (Persians). It should be noted that some even traveled further to Japan. Iranian names are to be met with in historical documents, and one can find some influence of Persian culture in the architecture, sculptures, and also in the customs and old East Asian rituals at that time. For example, some scholars have claimed that there is some influence of Persian culture in the Omizutori ritual held every February at Tōdaiji temple in Nara (Itō, 1980, pp. 125-33).

The oldest document in Parsi, which is preserved in Japan, was procured by the Japanese priest named Kyōsei (1189-1268) from Iranians (Persians) during his trip to southern Asia in 1217. Thinking they were Indians, the priest asked them to write something for him as a keepsake. However, after his return to Japan he found out that they were not Indians, because no one could understand what the writing meant. This document was discovered in the late 20th century, when it was established that it is written in Parsi and contains a line from Ferdowsi’s Šāh-nāma (qq.v.), a line from Faḵr-al-Din Gorgāni’s Vis o Rāmin (qq.v.), and a quatrain of unknown authorship (Okada, 1989).

Music has no boundaries, words from one language can be combined with musical tradition of another. The following is a beautiful singing.


In addition to public domain sources, the data were obtained from, Japan and Ancient Iran” , Christopher I. Beckwith: Empires of the Silk Road” and Kaveh Farrokh’s lectures at USC and UBC were reviewed.

Mazda = Ahoora Mazda (God of light), the name Mazda came into being with the production of the company’s first trucks.

Nissan Qashqai: This name came from Qashqai tribe who live mostly in mountainous Southwestern region of Iran.  (Qashqai means “a horse with a white forehead”)

Chinese-Iranian Relations in Pre-Islamic Times

This article by Edwin G. Pulleyblank on Chinese-Iranian relations was originally published in the Encyclopedia Iranica on December 15, 1991 and last updated on October 14, 2011. This article is also available in print (Vol. V, Fasc. 4, pp. 424-431).

The version printed below is different in that it has embedded photographs and captions used in Kaveh Farrokh’’s lectures at the University of British Columbia’s Continuing Studies Division and were also presented at Stanford University’s WAIS 2006 Critical World Problems Conference Presentations on July 30-31, 2006.


Contact between China and Iran was initiated toward the end of the 2nd century B.C.E. by the envoy Chang Ch’ien (Zhang Qian), who journeyed to the west in search of the Yüeh-chih (Yue-zhi), a people that had migrated from the borders of China after having been defeated by the Hsiung-nu (Xiongnu). The Chinese hoped to enlist the Yüeh-chih as allies against this common enemy. It is, of course, possible that there had been indirect contacts even earlier. Speculations about possible western influences on Chinese astronomy, geography, myth, and folklore in pre-Han times, presumably through Iranian intermediar­ies (see, e.g., Maspéro, 1955, pp. 505-15), remain unsubstantiated by firm evidence, however.

The Terracotta army In the north-west Chinese region of Xian (left) at the mausoleum of China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang (right), who died more than 2,200 years ago. The tomb contains approximately 8,000 life-sized terracotta warriors and horses. Qin Shi Huang unified China, built China’s first Great Wall and constructed a city-sized mausoleum along with a massive Terracotta Army by utilizing 700,000 laborers.   Chinese archaeologists have unearthed evidence that a foreign worker helped build the Terracotta Army mausoleum. Remains of the worker, described as a “foreign man in his 20s”, found among 121 skeletons in workers’ tomb 500 meters from mausoleum (as reported by the State-run Xinhua news agency). DNA tests were used to identify the ethnicity of 15 workers  Tan Jingze, an anthropologist with Fudan University, told Xinhua that “One sample has typical DNA features commonly owned by the Parsi [Zoroastrians]… the Kurds…and the Persians in Iran,” [i.e. all from the Iranian stock] (Picture and caption from Kaveh Farrokh’’s lectures at the University of British Columbia’s Continuing Studies Division and were also presented at Stanford University’s WAIS 2006 Critical World Problems Conference Presentations on July 30-31, 2006).

It has long been recognized that the Yüeh-chih must correspond, wholly or in part, to the Tochari, Asii (or Asiani), and Sacaraucae, who, according to Strabo (11.8.2), overthrew the Greek kingdom of Bactria, thus providing the earliest synchronism between Chinese and western historical records. Chang Ch’ien found them on the northern bank of the Oxus, but they were already overlords of Ta-hsia (Daxia), the name by which he called Bactria­. He did not succeed in his mission to persuade them to return and join with the Chinese against the Hsiung-nu, but he brought back news not only of the countries that he had visited in person but also of more distant lands (see ch’ien han shu). His descriptions of these countries provide glimpses of contemporary life in the Iranian city­-states, some of which are mentioned by name. In western Turkestan the dominant powers were the Ta-yüan (Dayuan; transcription of *Taxwar?) in Sogdiana and the K’ang­chü (Kang-ju), with Tashkent as their capital. It is probable that, like the Yüeh-chih, both peoples were nomadic invaders from farther east who spoke languages related to Tokharian (Pulleyblank, 1966). The major power in Persia was Parthia, which Chang Ch’ien called An-hsi (q.v.; An-xi = Aršak).

Iranian engineers supervising the construction of the Persepolis palace circa 2400-2500 years ago. A number of Chinese archaeologists now state that contacts between Iranian peoples and Far East began a century earlier than believed.  Iranian craftsmen of the Persepolis tradition were present in Qin China; earlier studies suggested first contact occurring later during Han dynasty (206 BC-220 CE) (Picture and caption from Kaveh Farrokh’’s lectures at the University of British Columbia’s Continuing Studies Divisionand were also presented at Stanford University’s WAIS 2006 Critical World Problems Conference Presentations on July 30-31, 2006).

Chang Ch’ien’s report inaugurated a period of intense diplomatic activity and the development of trade relations via the so-called Silk Road across Inner Asia, which in succeeding centuries had a profound impact on both China and the Iranian peoples, unfortunately too little documented in written records. Under the Han dynasty (Former, or Western, Han, 206 b.c.e.-23 c.e.; Later, or Eastern, Han, 25-220 c.e.) embassies were exchanged with Parthia around 106 b.c.e. and again at the end of the 1st century c.e. In the 1st century b.c.e., after the Chinese had succeeded in displacing the nomadic Hsiung-­nu as overlords of the Tarim basin, the easternmost Iranian city-states, Khotan (Yü-t’ien/Yu-tian), Kashgar (Shu-le/Shu-le), and Yarkand (So-chü/Suo-ju; see chinese turkestan i. in pre-islamic times), enjoyed particularly close contacts with China. These relations were inter­rupted during the civil wars toward the end of the Former Han Dynasty, at the beginning of the 1st century c.e., but were restored a few years later; they then lasted more or less unbroken until the renewed civil war and Chinese withdrawal from the west after the Taoist Yellow Turban uprising of 184, which helped to bring down the Later Han dynasty (see, e.g., Mansvelt Beck, pp. 317-57).

The Yüeh-chih and the Kushans

Shortly after Chang Ch’ien’s visit the Yüeh-chih crossed the Oxus and carved out a kingdom for themselves in Bactria (q.v.). In the 1st-2nd centuries c.e., under the rule of the Kushan dynasty, they extended their power south across the Hindu Kush and east into Gandhara and northern India. In the process they gave up their nomadic way of life and adopted the mixed Hellenized Iranian and Buddhist Indian civiliza­tion of their settled subjects (see, e.g., Bivar, pp. 191-94; Frye, pp. 191-95); in fact, the Kushan empire became the main center from which Buddhism (q.v.) was introduced to the Far East (see below). There is also evidence that toward the end of the 2nd century the Kushans extended their power north of the Oxus and east into the Tarim basin as far as Lou-lan, near the area from which they had migrated westward nearly 400 years before. Although there is no explicit record of such a Kushan occupation in Chinese sources, presumably because the Chinese were preoccupied with their own internal troubles, it left traces in the use of Gandhari Prakrit written in Kharoṣṭhī script, which remained the administrative language in the local kingdom of Lou-lan in the following century (Brough). An independent embassy from Khotan visited the Han court in 202, which suggests that by then the Kushans had withdrawn west of the Pamirs (Pulleyblank, 1969). In 230 an embassy was sent by the Kushan king Po-t’iao (Bo-tiao = Vāsudeva) to the court of Wei (220-65), which had replaced the Han dynasty in northern China (Pulleyblank, 1969). There is no further Chinese reference to the Kushans after this embassy, presumably because their territory was conquered shortly afterward by the Sasanian dynasty of Persia, an event that went unnoticed in Chinese sources (Brough; Pulleyblank, 1969).

At the state level Chinese contacts with western countries in the next three and a half centuries were sporadic. After the Western Chin (Jin) dynasty (265-317) had succeeded the Wei in northern China embassies arrived from the K’ang-chü and the Ta-yüan in the period 265-74 and in 285 respectively, but the accounts of their lands in the Chin shu, which was compiled only much later, merely repeated information from earlier sources. Shortly afterward, in 304, non-Chinese tribesmen who had been allowed to settle inside the northern frontier during the Later Han period forced the Chin to withdraw south of the Yangtze river; according to the evidence from Chinese records, there were no further diplomatic missions to and from western countries until the mid-5th century, after the T’o-pa (To-ba, or Northern) Wei (386-535) had managed to reunite northern China. Contacts were made with the outer Iranian states in the Tarim basin, Sogdiana, and Afghanistan, which by that time had come under the domination of new nomadic powers, the Chionites (q.v.) and the Hephthalites (see, e.g., Frye, pp. 346-51).

Embassies from Po-ssu (Bo-si; Mathews, nos. 5314, 5574), the name by which the Chinese referred to Sasa­nian Persia, arrived at the Northern Wei court ten times between 455 and 522 (Ecsedy). The embassy of 518 brought a letter from the Persian king Chü-he-to (Ju-he­-duo; Mathews, nos. 1535, 2115, 6416; Early Middle Chinese kɨa-γwa-ta), that is, Kavād I (488-96, 498-531). The contemporary southern dynasty, Liang (502-57), received Persian embassies in 533 and 535. Western Wei (535-57), which succeeded to one part of the territory of Northern Wei, received a Persian embassy in 555 (Ecsedy). The reunification of the whole of China by Yang Chien in 589 led to renewed diplomatic initiatives under the Sui dynasty (581-618). The second emperor, Yang-ti (605­-17), sent an embassy to Ḵosrow II (590, 591-628), which elicited a reciprocal embassy from Persia to China (Sui shu 83). The accounts of Persia in several pre-T’ang dynastic histories, the Wei shu (history of the Wei dynasty), Liang shu (history of the Liang dynasty), Pei Chou shu (history of the Northern Chou dynasty), Sui shu (history of the Sui dynasty), Nan shih (history of the southern dynasties), and Pei shih (history of the northern dynasties), contain in­formation that had no doubt been gained from these embassies. Unfortunately, the textual relationships among these various sources, which, except for the Wei shu, were all compiled in the early T’ang period (618-907) from earlier materials, pose a complex problem (see Miller, pp. 47ff.). The original account in the Wei shu has been lost, though at least part of it was copied into the Pei shih, from which the extant text of the Wei shu has been restored. A later encyclopedic work, the T’ung-tien, also contains versions of the same information, and some of it is repeated in the Chiu T’ang shu and Hsin T’ang shu (old and new (histories of the T’ang dynasty; translations of the relevant passages are found in Chavannes, 1903; see pp. 99-100 on the sources).

More intimate relations between China and the Persian kings came about in the early years of the T’ang dynasty (618-907). The last Sasanian ruler, Yazdegerd III (632-­51; Yi-si-si, Chavannes, index, p. 331), who was hard pressed first by the western Turks on his eastern flank and then by the Arabs in the west, sent an embassy to China in 638. After he was killed in 31/651 his son Pērōz (Bi-lu-­si, Chavannes, index, p. 353) took refuge in Ṭoḵārestān, where he obtained the support of the local Turkish ruler and sent an embassy to China asking for assistance. No help was forthcoming, but after the Chinese defeat of the western Turks in 659, when a short-lived administration was set up in the conquered territory, Pērōz was recog­nized as governor of Po-ssu, with his capital at Ji-ling (Zarang, in Sīstān). He was unable to hold out against the advancing Arabs, however, and took refuge at the T’ang court between 670 and 673. After the death of Pērōz his son, called Ni-nie-shih (Chavannes, index, p. 349) in Chinese, was escorted to the west by Chinese troops and remained there under the protection of the Turkish ruler of Ṭoḵārestān for about twenty years before returning to die in the Chinese capital sometime between 707 and 709. From then until the battle of Talas (Ṭarāz) in 751, which established Arab dominance in Transoxania (Ebn al-Aṯīr, V, p. 449; Chavannes, 1903, pp. 143, 152-53; Barthold, pp. 195-96; see chinese turkestan ii. in pre-islamic times), regular embassies from Po-ssu to the T’ang court were recorded (Chavannes, 1903, pp. 171-73). Presum­ably at that period the name Po-ssu referred to a puppet kingdom on the eastern borders of Afghanistan, maintained by the Turkish rulers of Ṭoḵārestān. All trace of this kingdom disappeared after the battle of Talas and the An Lu-shan rebellion in China in 755, though there is evi­dence that descendants of refugees from the Sasanian empire were still serving as soldiers at Ch’ang-an, the Chinese capital, in the 9th century (Harmatta, 1971).

Trade relations

Even less well documented than offi­cial diplomatic contacts between China and Iran are the trade relations that developed between these two great civilizations after the Chinese opening to the west in the 2nd century b.c.e. The diplomatic missions actually played an integral part in these trade relations, not only because of the “tribute” that they brought to the Chinese court and the “gifts” that were bestowed in exchange, but also because of the private trade that was permitted after the formal courtesies had been exchanged. On the Chi­nese side profitable trade with the newly discovered west was an important stimulus for diplomatic activities. In the first flush of enthusiasm that followed Chang Ch’ien’s return from Sogdiana there was eager competition among “sons of poor families” to take part in missions to the west for the sake of the trading opportunities that they afforded, and under the Han Chinese merchants were at times directly involved in military operations to gain control of the Western Regions of the country (Yü, 1967, pp. 137­-38). In the end, however, foreigners, especially Iranians, were predominant in promoting and controlling the overland trade from China across Central Asia.

A Chinese Ewer of Sassanian inspiration (6th-7th Centuries CE) (Picture and caption from Kaveh Farrokh’’s lectures at the University of British Columbia’s Continuing Studies Division and were also presented at Stanford University’s WAIS 2006 Critical World Problems Conference Presentations on July 30-31, 2006).

From the beginning Chinese silk was the most impor­tant commodity in this trade, so much so that Seres, “the silk (people),” was the name by which the Chinese were first known to the Greeks. Silk was much sought after both in the Roman empire and in India and presumably also in Iran. The importance of Iranians in the silk trade, how­ever, lay more in their role as middlemen than as consum­ers. When Kan Ying (Gan Ying) was sent by Pan Ch’ao (Ban Chao), protector-general of the Western Regions, as envoy to Ta Ch’in (Da-qin, i.e., the Roman empire) in 97 c.e., he went only as far as the Persian Gulf, where he was induced to turn back by sailors from Parthia, who told exaggerated stories about the length and difficulty of the journey (Chavannes, 1907, pp. 177-78). Possibly local merchants viewed the establishment of direct contacts between China and Rome as a threat to their own mo­nopoly. The wish to circumvent this Parthian monopoly may also have been a factor encouraging the opening of a sea route between China and India; such sea trade had already begun by the end of the 1st century b.c.e. and gradually increased during the next few centuries (see below).

The large quantities of Sasanian coins discovered on Chinese territory are evidence of the continued impor­tance of Iran in China’s western trade after the Sasanians had supplanted the Parthians in Persia. The coins of twelve different rulers, from Šāpūr II (310-79) to Yazdegerd III have been recovered, some along the Silk Road in Sinkiang (Xin-jiang) but others at Hsi-an, Lo-­yang, and many other places in China proper (Hsia, 1974).

It was not the inhabitants of Persia, however, but rather the Sogdians who played the key role in the overland trade between China and the west in pre-Islamic times. A cache of manuscripts in Sogdian language discovered by M. A. Stein at a post on the Chinese northwestern frontier near Tun-huang (Dun-huang) has provided striking evidence of Sogdian preeminence at an early date. The letters turned out to have been written by Sogdian merchants to their home bases (See ancient letters). Beside personal news of family and friends, the letters include information about the latest commodity prices and rates of exchange for silver, as well as about difficulties in postal communications. One of them also tells of recent sensational events in China: the departure of the emperor from his capital at Lo-yang because of famine, the subsequent burning of the palace and abandonment of the city, and the capture of the cities of Yeh and Ch’ang-an by hostile forces that in­cluded Xwn (i.e., Hūn = Hsiung-nu). W. B. Henning (1948) concluded that the letter referred to events of 311­-13 that were connected with the fall of the Western Chin. J. Harmatta (1979) argued, on the contrary, that the report corresponds better to events of the years 190-93, during the civil wars at the end of Eastern Han. His specific dating to the year 196 depends, however, on a highly questionable interpretation of the date formula at the end of the letter, and the new identifications of place names that he proposed are also in doubt. Recently Frantz Grenet and Nicholas Sims-Williams have proved Henning’s date correct, thus providing incontrovertible evidence that in the early 4th century Sogdian merchant houses had agents at Tun-huang on the western frontier of China, as well as at the capital, Lo-yang, and other cities in the interior.

A map of ancient Chang’An in northern China (left) and the remains of that city (right). This ancient Chinese metropolis boasted up to a million residents. Iranian refugees from post-Sassanian Iran were often settled in the Western Market area southwest of the imperial palace. The city also boasted a  Sassanian Zoroastrian temple at Hsien-tz’u: a, a Manichean church at Ta-yun Kuang-ming Ssu and a Nestorian church at Ta-ch’in Ssu (Picture and caption from Kaveh Farrokh’’s lectures at the University of British Columbia’s Continuing Studies Division and were also presented at Stanford University’s WAIS 2006 Critical World Problems Conference Presentations on July 30-31, 2006). 

Although silk was the most important commodity in the trade between China and the west, many other products were also exchanged. The Sogdian letters mention, in addition to various kinds of silk, textiles of hemp, blankets or carpets, perfumes, musk, rice wine, camphor, fragrant resins, drugs, and similar items (Harmatta, 1979, p. 165). The many western products, especially plants, that were introduced to China from Iran or through Iranian intermediaries were the subject of a classic study by Berthold Laufer (Sino-Iranica).

Although no later records comparable to the Sogdian letters have so far been discovered, there is abundant evidence of other kinds that Sogdian involvement in the China trade continued unabated in the following centu­ries. In Sui and T’ang times the Hu, or Sogdian, merchant not only was mentioned frequently in official historical sources but also had become a commonplace figure in popular literature, most often as a connoisseur of precious gems (Schafer, 1951, pp. 414-15). There were sizable colonies of these foreigners not only in the oases of Kansu, along the western part of the trade route, and at the capital cities of Ch’ang-an and Lo-yang but also at major inland centers like Yang Chou, the entrepôt at the southern end of the transport canal joining the Yellow river to the Yangtze, where several thousand merchant Hu were massacred by rebel soldiers in 760 (Schafer, 1963, p. 18).

Sogdians who settled in China or had dealings with China are recognizable from the characteristic Chinese surnames that they adopted. For example, K’ang was abbreviated from K’ang-chü (attested, e.g., in Jiu Tang shu, tr. Chavannes, 1903, p. 26), though it referred in Sui and T’ang times to Samarkand, rather than Tashkent (e.g., in Tang shu, tr. Chavannes,1903, p. 132 and n. 5). An was originally an abbreviation of An-hsi (i.e., Aršak), the Chinese name for Parthia, but was later applied to Bukhara; Shih (Early Middle Chinese dźiajk) “stone” (Mathews, no. 5813) referred to Tashkent, lit. “stone city,” which was probably a translation into Turkish of a much earlier name (Pulleyblank, 1962, pp. 246-48; Aalto, 1977). Shih (lit. “history,” Mathews, no. 5769; Early Middle Chinese ṣɨʾ) referred to Kish (Šahr-e Sabz, modern Shahr in Uzbekistan), Mi (lit. “rice,” Mathews, no. 4446) to Māymarḡ, Ts’ao (Mathews, no. 6733) to Kabūdan, Ho (Mathews, no. 2109) to Kūšānīya, and Huo-xün (Mathews, no. 2395, 2744) to Ḵᵛārazm (cf. Chavannes, pp. 132-49). These surnames were particularly common in the T’ang period, sometimes clearly referring to recent arrivals from Cen­tral Asia, sometimes to families that had been living as foreigners in China for some time, sometimes to people who had become fully assimilated and indistinguishable from the rest of the population.

Tse-Niao (Bird) motif mural painting in Kizil, Sinkiang, 6-7th Centuries AD. (left) and a Pheasant as depicted in late Sassanian arts 6-7th Centuries AD (Picture and caption from Kaveh Farrokh’’s lectures at the University of British Columbia’s Continuing Studies Division and were also presented at Stanford University’s WAIS 2006 Critical World Problems Conference Presentations on July 30-31, 2006).

There was a great vogue, especially in the first half of the eighth century, for Iranian objects and customs of all kinds: foodstuffs, clothing, furniture, music, and dancing (Hsiang). Although Iranian influence on the Chinese visual arts lies outside the scope of this article (see xi, xii, below), representations of Central Asians among the T’ang tomb figurines should be mentioned as vivid illustrations of the cosmopolitan character of Chinese culture at that period.

Sogdians among the nomads

The word hu, which under the Han had been a general term for the nomadic horse­men of the north, especially the Hsiung-nu, came to refer to westerners from Central Asia, especially Sogdians, somewhat later. This change poses an interesting prob­lem that has never been clearly explained. Probably it occurred during the 4th century, when northern China was overrun by the so-called Five Barbarians (wu hu), a conventional list comprising Hsiung-nu, Chieh, Hsien-pei, Ti, and Ch’iang peoples, from which arose one or more of the short-lived dynasties known as the Sixteen Kingdoms. The second of these peoples, the Chieh, were considered a branch of the Hsiung-nu, but, though they had entered China as subjects of the Hsiung-nu, they were racially distinct and had connections with K’ang-chü, that is, the Tashkent region (Pulleyblank, 1962, pp. 246-48). The Chieh or Chieh-hu were known for their “high noses and deep eyes,” which set them apart not only from the Chinese but also from other non-Chinese, and it was perhaps these features, often mentioned, that led to the specialized application of the more general term hu to the Iranians of western Turkestan. At least two of the typical Sogdian surnames were already found among the Chieh or Chieh-hu who participated in the barbarian uprisings of the 4th century. The more prominent was Shih, the surname of Shih Le, who founded the Later Chao king­dom in 319. K’ang, which in one document was explicitly qualified as Su-t’e (< *Soγ’ak), was the name of a prominent clan at Lan-t’ien in present Shensi province and was attested elsewhere as well (T’ang, p. 421).

The procession of the ambassadors painting at Afrasiab (Source: Faqsci in Public Domain); this painting is believed to have been commissioned sometime in 650 CE by Varkhuman, the king of Samarkand.

The Iranians present among the subject peoples of the Hsiung-nu who settled in Han China must have been slaves taken by the nomads through conquest, but it is not clear whether at this early date there was already a desire to make use of the skills of oasis dwellers in order to profit from the trade between China and the west. Nor is it clear whether these Iranians maintained contact with their original homeland or with the Sogdian merchants who came to China independently, seeking profits, or whether the Sogdian merchants themselves sought to influence their nomadic overlords to protect the trade routes. There is, however, good evidence of a kind of symbiosis be­tween Sogdians and Turks after the latter had become masters of the steppe in the 6th century. Soon after the Turkish overthrow of the Hephthalites a Sogdian named Maniach was sent first to Persia and then to Byzantium to open up the silk trade, and other Sogdians played a prominent role in diplomatic relations between the Turks and the Chinese (Chavannes, 1903, pp. 234-35).

Sogdians connected with the Turks were influential during the transition between Sui and T’ang. In one Chinese source (T’ung-tien 197.6a, cited in Pulleyblank, 1952, pp. 347-54) a group associated with the northern Turks was identified as che-chieh (zhe-jie), probably a transcription of Persian čākar (q.v.) “servant,” a term that also had the special sense “warrior” because of its application to elite troops employed as a ruler’s bodyguard; this group established itself at Hami and Lop Nor, straddling the eastern ends of both branches of the Silk Road. It maintained a semi-independent status until its surrender to T’ang in 630 (Chavannes, 1903, p. 313; Pulleyblank, 1952, pp. 347-54). There are also approximately contemporary references to a distinct Hu, that is, Sogdian, “tribe” that wielded great influence at the court of the northern Turkish ruler Hsieh-li Qaghan in Mongolia. These Hu were said to be “grasping and presumptuous, and vacillat­ing by nature” and were accused of inducing the ruler to multiply laws and regulations and to engage in constant warfare, which caused disaffection among his own Turkish subjects and contributed to his overthrow by T’ang in 630 (Pulleyblank, 1952, p. 323). The Sogdian component among the northern Turks did not disappear after this event. It settled in the Ordos region, within the bend of the Yellow river, where in 679 a special administrative ar­rangement, Six Hu Prefectures, was established by the T’ang government. This name continued to refer to the descendants of these Sogdians for the next hundred years, long after the specific administrative unit had disappeared. Members of this group, recognizable by their “Sogdian” surnames, were mentioned frequently, both collectively and as individuals, in historical sources and sometimes played important roles in historical events (Onogawa; Pulleyblank, 1952). An Lu-shan, who rose through service in the Chinese army to become military governor of a large sector of the northern frontier and in 755 led a revolt that nearly overthrew the dynasty (Pulleyblank, 1955, passim), was the son of a Sogdian father and a Turkish mother and probably came from this group. His name can be identified as Iranian *Rōxšan (Pulleyblank, 1955, p. 15).

A Chinese Qi depiction of Soghdians (Picture and caption from Kaveh Farrokh’’s lectures at the University of British Columbia’s Continuing Studies Division and were also presented at Stanford University’s WAIS 2006 Critical World Problems Conference Presentations on July 30-31, 2006).

The descendants of the Hu of the Six Prefectures can be traced even later in history (Pulleyblank, 1952, pp. 341ff.; Onogawa). In 786 a Tibetan invasion of the Ordos region forced them to move to northern Shansi, where they were joined by the Sha-t’o (Shatuo) Turks. In the last quarter of the 9th century they formed a distinct component of the Three Tribes of the Sha-t’o, which played an important part in the civil wars at the end of the T’ang dynasty and in the following Five Dynasties period (907-60). The surname of the founder of Later Chin (936-41), Shih Ching-t’ang (Shi Jingtang), who came from the Sha-t’o confederacy, reveals his Sogdian ancestry; several of his female ancestors also had Sogdian surnames (Pulleyblank, 1952, pp. 341ff.; Onogawa, pp. 979-80).

It must be acknowledged that in the long history of the Hu of the Six Prefectures there is little evidence of direct connections with their Sogdian homeland or with mercantile activities. Living in the grasslands of the northern Chinese frontier, they seem to have adopted the way of life of their Turkish neighbors, with whom they frequently intermarried, and it is as mounted warriors that they are usually mentioned in the sources. The role of Sogdians as cultural intermediaries between the nomads and their settled neighbors and promoters of mercantile interests among the nomads became prominent once more, how­ever, when the Uighurs succeeded the T’u-chüeh Turks as masters of the steppe in the 8th and 9th centuries. The Uighurs’ adoption of the Manichean religion (see below) and the privileged position that they enjoyed because of their assistance in restoring the T’ang dynasty after the An Lu-shan rebellion (Mackerras, 1972, p. 37) provided distinct advantages for Sogdian merchants under their protection. It is reasonable to assume, too, that the Uighurs’ gradual acculturation to their Sogdian subjects during this period had much to do with their adoption of settled life in the oases of Kansu and Sinkiang after the collapse of their steppe empire.

Persians in the China Sea trade

Although details re­main controversial, there is clear evidence that sea trade between China and India and points farther west began about the end of the 1st century b.c.e. The arrival by sea of envoys to the Later Han dynasty from India was recorded in 159 and 161; in 166 an envoy was reported to have come from “King An-tun (An-dun) of Ta-ch’in (Da­-qin),” that is, presumably, the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (Chavannes, 1907, p. 185). The claim of this “envoy” to such credentials is unlikely to have been genuine, but his arrival is evidence that by 166 the sea route was known as an alternative to the overland route through Parthia. In 226 a merchant from Ta-ch’in arrived in Tongking and was sent to the court of Wu, then an independent kingdom with its capital at Nanking (222-­58), where he was questioned by the ruler (Wolters, p. 42). Wu, like later Chinese kingdoms south of the Yangtze, had a special interest in maritime communications with the south and west and dispatched a mission that brought back valuable information about India and Ta-ch’in, as well as Southeast Asia. One of these envoys was K’ang T’ai (Kang Tai), very likely a Sogdian expert on foreign trade who had come to Wu from northern China. Un­fortunately, only fragments of the written records that he left survive (Wolters, pp. 42, 271 n. 63, with references to discussion of the date by Pelliot, Hsiang Ta, and Sugimoto).

Persia is not mentioned directly in these sporadic early Chinese references to sea trade with the west. In the 5th and 6th centuries, for which evidence of regular commerce via the south China Sea is more abundant, Persian goods played a major role, and the epithet Po-ssu (Persian) was even sometimes applied to non-Persian products that came to China from the west. Opinions have differed, however, about whether or to what extent Persian traders came to Chinese ports (Wang, pp. 59-61; Wolters, pp. 139ff.). There is good evidence that in the T’ang period Persian, and later Arab, ships frequently visited Hanoi and Canton and that many Persians and Arabs were settled in those cities (Wang, pp. 79-80; Schafer, 1963, p. 15). Before the T’ang period, however, it seems that the eastern end of the trade was in the hands of Indonesians and that Ceylon was the point at which Chinese products destined for the west and Persian products destined for China were exchanged (Wang, pp. 60-61; Wolters. pp. 146ff.).

Iranians and religion in China: Buddhism

In the 2nd century c.e. the Kushan empire was the main center from which missionaries carried Buddhism to China, and naturally Iranians played a notable part in this activity. An Shih-kao (q.v.; An Shi-gao), who arrived in China in 148 c.e. and became the first translator of Buddhist sutras into Chinese, was a Parthian prince. Another early translator, An Hsüan (Xuan), was originally a Parthian merchant who arrived and settled in Lo-yang in 181 (Zürcher, I, p. 23). The surnames Chih (from Yüeh-chih) and K’ang (see above) were especially frequent among westerners in­volved in translation activities in the 2nd and 3rd centu­ries. It is probable that by that time they no longer referred to specific nomadic groups but more generally to the predominantly Iranian populations of Afghanistan and western Turkestan respectively. Beside first-generation immigrants like An Shih-kao and An Hsüan, Iranian Buddhists included men like K’ang Seng-hui, the son of a Sogdian merchant living at Chiao-chih (Jiao-zhi; Hanoi) in the extreme south of China, and Chih Ch’ien, whose grandfather had come to China with several hundred fellow countrymen in the time of the Han emperor Ling (168-90; Zürcher, I, p. 23). Indians, who bore the surname Chu (Zhu), from T’ien-chu (Tian-zhu, Mathews, nos. 6361, 1374, the name for India in the Han period, based on a transcription of Old Iranian *Hinduka; Pulleyblank, 1962, p. 117), very likely also traveled primarily from or by way of the Kushan empire.

Probably at the same period missionaries from Kushan established Buddhism in the oases of the Tarim basin, providing a congenial corridor of communication for Buddhist pilgrims going from China to India “in search of the law” (Brough; Zürcher, I, pp. 59ff.). The first known example of such a quest is that of the Chinese monk Chu Shih-hsing (Zhu Shi-xing, written with a character [Mathews, no. 1346] different from that in T’ien-chu), who set out in 260 or a few years later and traveled as far as Khotan, where he succeeded in obtaining the particular text that he sought (Zürcher, I, pp. 61-63). Khotan remained a flourishing Buddhist center and an important way station on the route to India until the Muslim con­quest (ca. 1006).

Tang Chinese nobles engaged in the Iranian game of polo (right). Interestingly a Chinese princess by the name of Yang Kwei-Fei popularized the game among Chinese women after her contacts and friendship with Iranian noblewomen who had settled in the Chinese metropolis of Chang’ An (Picture and caption from Kaveh Farrokh’’s lectures at the University of British Columbia’s Continuing Studies Division and were also presented at Stanford University’s WAIS 2006 Critical World Problems Conference Presentations on July 30-31, 2006).

Chinese Buddhist pilgrims were, of course, primarily interested in the Indian sources of their religion, rather than in the Iranian lands through which they passed, but their travel accounts nevertheless contain much inciden­tal information about the eastern portion of the Iranian world. The most important from this point of view are the reports of Fa-hsien (Fa-xian, 399-412), who spent some time in Khotan before traveling south to India; Sung Yün (Song-yun, 518-22), who, accompanied by the monk Hui-sheng, undertook a mission to the Hephthalite capital in Bactria; and Hsüan Tsang, who traveled through the Tarim basin by the northern route to the territory of the western Turks, then south through Afghanistan to India, and returned via Khotan on the southern route. His Ta T’ang Hsi-yü chi (Da Tang Xi-yu ji (record of the western re­gions in Great T’ang) is a valuable firsthand account of conditions in those regions in the first half of the 7th century (Beal; Waley, pp. 23-29).


Mazdaism, or Zoroastrianism, the official religion of the Sasanian empire, seems to have arrived in China early in the 6th century, probably as a result of diplomatic contacts with Persia. In China it came to be known as Hsien (Xian; Mathews, no. 2657, Early Middle Chinese xen), written with a graph that is rarely found in any other context and has given rise to a good deal of puzzlement (cf. Pulleyblank, 1962, p. 117); it is, in fact, simply a way of writing an old dialect pronunciation of Chinese t’ien (tian; Mathews, no. 6361) “heaven.” T’ien “heaven” or t’ien-shen “heaven god” was the Chinese Buddhist equivalent for Sanskrit deva “god,” and there is also evidence for the variant pronunciation hsien in Buddhist usage. Application of the Buddhist term deva to the god of the Persians was a natural extension. The more specific terms huo-shen “fire god” and huo-hsien “fire deva” are also found. In the Shih ming (written ca. 200 c.e.) the pronunciation of the word for “heaven” with initial x, rather than t’, was said to be characteristic of the central provinces, including the two Han capitals, Ch’ang­-an and Lo-yang, whereas the pronunciation with was associated with the eastern seaboard (Bodman, p. 28). In the 6th century it seems that pronunciation with x was confined to the “land within the passes” (Dien, citing Hui-­lin, p. 550c), that is, the Ch’ang-an region, which by then had declined to a provincial backwater. What is not clear is why the word was always pronounced in this special way when applied to Zoroastrianism, even after Ch’ang­-an had once again become the capital, under the Sui and T’ang dynasties, and had lost this local peculiarity.

In the later 6th century Zoroastrianism attained a degree of official recognition in northern China, a status that it retained in the Sui and T’ang periods. There are known to have been four temples in Ch’ang-an, two in Lo-yang, and others in K’ai-feng and in cities along the road to the northwest (Ch’en). The foreigners in charge of them, known by the non-Chinese term sa-fu or sa-pao (sabao), had Chinese official rank (Pelliot,1903). In Northern Ch’i and Sui they were subordinate to the hung-lu-ssu (honglusi), the office in charge of receiving foreign tributary missions, but in T’ang they were attached to the bureau of sacrifices, a division of the board of rites. It is likely that the worshipers were all or mainly foreigners resident in China. Anecdotal literature reveals that the Chinese were interested in the ritual dancing that took place (see dance i) and associated the temples with feats of conjuring. Mazdaism was one of the foreign religions proscribed in 845, but there are a few references to Zoroastrian temples as late as the 12th century.

Nestorian Christianity

Christianity (q.v.) in its Nestorian form was officially introduced in China in 638, when a Persian monk, A-lo-pen (Aluoben), presented scriptures to the T’ang court; as a consequence the government issued a decree ordering construction of a monastery for twenty-one monks in the I-ning (Yi-ning) ward in northwestern Ch’ang-an (Moule, pp. 39ff.). It seems that at first it was called Po-ssu (Persian) monastery, for, according to another decree, issued in 745 (Moule, p. 67), it had been learned that Christianity had originated, not in Po-ssu, but in Ta-ch’in (the Roman empire); the name was thus changed to Ta-ch’in monastery. A corresponding name change was ordered for a similar monastery in Lo-yang and for others in prefectural cities throughout the empire. In addition to these brief data from T’ang historical sources, the famous Nestorian stone inscription in Chinese and Syriac, dated 781 and probably from one of the monasteries in or near Ch’ang-an, was rediscovered early in the 17th century; it had probably lain buried since the suppression of foreign religions in 845 (Moule, pp. 27-­52). Further evidence for the existence of Christianity with an Iranian background in T’ang China can be found in Christian texts discovered at Tun-huang, as well as in scattered references in other sources. It seems likely that, like Mazdaism, Nestorian Christianity was largely con­fined to the foreign community and had little impact on the general population. Christians were among the foreigners massacred when the Huang Ch’ao rebels sacked Canton in 878 (Moule, p. 76). Thereafter Christianity disap­peared from China until it was reintroduced under the Mongols.


Manicheism (See chinese turkestan ix. manicheism in central asia and chinese turkestan) was mentioned by Hsüan-tsang in his account of Persia (Ta T’ang hsi-yü chi 11.938a; Chavannes and Pelliot, 1913, p. 150). It, too, arrived in China in the 7th century. In 694 a Persian, Fu-to-tan Fu-duo-dan = Aftādān “episcopus”), was received by Empress Wu and presented her with a Manichean treatise (Chavannes and Pelliot, 1913, pp. 152-53; Lieu, p. 189); in 719 a Manichean astronomer arrived with a letter of recommendation from a local ruler in Ṭoḵārestān and a request to be allowed to found a church (Lieu, p. 188). Manicheans may have had more interest than Mazdeans (and perhaps also Persian Nestorians) in propagating their faith, for in 732 it was deemed necessary to issue a decree declaring that, though Manicheism was a false doctrine masquerading as Bud­dhism, it was permissible for Iranians (Hu) from the west to continue to practice it (Lieu, p. 190). That some Manicheans were astronomers is of particular interest because the Iranian seven-day week, with days named after planets, became known in China at about the same time (see viii, below; calendars i). The Chinese Manichean name for Sunday, Mi (< Middle Chinese Mjit < Sogdian Mīr), is marked in red on a Chinese calendar from Tun­-huang (facs. in Pelliot and Haneda), a practice that sur­vived in popular almanacs in southern China at least until the end of the 19th century (Chavannes and Pelliot, pp. 158-77).

Manichean Painting (9th century CE) at the Shotcho Cave (Picture and caption from Kaveh Farrokh’’s lectures at the University of British Columbia’s Continuing Studies Division and were also presented at Stanford University’s WAIS 2006 Critical World Problems Conference Presentations on July 30-31, 2006)

The great opportunity for Manicheism in China came in 762, when the Uighur qaḡan became a convert at Lo­-yang, which he had captured and sacked during the restoration of the T’ang dynasty after An Lu-shan’s rebellion. When he returned to Mongolia the qaḡan made Manicheism the state religion. As the T’ang were indebted to the Uighurs, the latter were able to demand the estab­lishment of Manichean temples not only in Ch’ang-an and Lo-yang but also in T’ai-yüan and various localities in the Yangtze region (Chavannes and Pelliot, pp. 261-62; Lieu, p. 194). Uighur support for Manicheism in such places was no doubt for the sake of the Sogdian (Hu) merchants settled there and in contact with Manichean Sogdians at the Uighur court.

The collapse of the Uighur empire after the defeat by the Kirghiz in 840 deprived the Manicheans of their protec­tion (Chavannes and Pelliot, pp. 284ff.). In China the first attack came in 842, when temples in the Yangtze region were abolished (Chavannes and Pelliot, p. 293). In the following year the Manichean religion was proscribed throughout the empire (Chavannes and Pelliot, pp. 293­-95; Lieu, p. 196). The temples and all their property were confiscated, scriptures were publicly burned, and the clergy were ordered to return to lay life and, in some instances at least, executed or exiled to the frontiers with other Uighurs. This sequence of events was followed two years later by a more general persecution of foreign religions, including Buddhism (Lieu, p. 198), though by that time it had become so thoroughly assimilated into Chinese life that it eventually recovered its former position.

The 3rd century CE Iranian prophet Mani as depcited in a Chinese temple carving in Dunhuang Picture and caption from Kaveh Farrokh’’s lectures at the University of British Columbia’s Continuing Studies Divisionand were also presented at Stanford University’s WAIS 2006 Critical World Problems Conference Presentations on July 30-31, 2006). 

Although Manicheism disappeared as an officially recognized cult, it must, unlike Nestorianism and Mazdaism, have struck roots among the Chinese population, for it survived as an underground sect for nearly 800 years in the southeast coastal region of Fukien. The hostility of both the government, which looked with suspicion on all popular religious movements as seedbeds of subversion, and the Buddhists, who regarded Manicheism as a per­nicious heresy, dominates the scant Chinese literary ref­erences to the “religion of light” and has sometimes unduly influenced modern scholars. Manicheism has thus been counted as one of the sects involved in popular uprisings under the Sung (960-1127) and at the end of the Yüan (1206-1368; see iii, below). The modern historian Wu Han even developed the theory, which has been quite widely accepted, that there was a Manichean element in the ideology of the Red Turban rebels, a Buddhist Maitreya sect to which Chu Yüan-chang (Zhu Yuan-zhang), the founder of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), originally belonged (Wu Han). More recent scholarship has shown, however, that the ascetic and peaceful Manicheans of Fukien had nothing to do with the Red Turbans (cf. Lieu, pp. 259-61). The coincidence in name between the “religion of light” and the Ming dynasty (“dynasty of light”) had unfortunate consequences for the Manicheans, however; having allegedly usurped the dynastic title, they became a special target for persecution (Pelliot, 1923, pp. 206-07). Nevertheless, small pockets survived to around 1600, after which the records are silent (Lieu, p. 263).


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Central Asia: NASA Adds to Evidence of Mysterious Ancient Earthworks

The article below by Ralph Blumenthal entitled “NASA Adds to Evidence of Mysterious Ancient Earthworks” was originally posted by the New York Times on October 30, 2015. Apart from a number of minor edits and formatting, the article below is the same content as the New York Times original, including all of the photographs and accompanying descriptions.

The article is of interest to ancient history enthusiasts as it points to the discovery of ancient symbols in ancient Central Asia (in the region of modern Kazakstan). These ancient symbols are seen (with various variations) in later Indo-European civilizations, notably the proto-Iranian peoples, their cousins in India and Europe and the beginnings of the Zoroastrian religion (see for example: Archaeologists uncover Zoroastrian Links in Northwest China).


High in the skies over Kazakhstan, space-age technology has revealed an ancient mystery on the ground.

Satellite pictures of a remote and treeless northern steppe reveal colossal earthworks — geometric figures of squares, crosses, lines and rings the size of several football fields, recognizable only from the air and the oldest estimated at 8,000 years old.

The largest, near a Neolithic settlement, is a giant square of 101 raised mounds, its opposite corners connected by a diagonal cross, covering more terrain than the Great Pyramid of Cheops. Another is a kind of three-limbed swastika, its arms ending in zigzags bent counterclockwise.

Described last year at an archaeology conference in Istanbul as unique and previously unstudied, the earthworks, in the Turgai region of northern Kazakhstan, now number at least 260 — mounds, trenches and ramparts — arrayed in five basic shapes.

Spotted on Google Earth in 2007 by a Kazakh economist and archaeology enthusiast, Dmitriy Dey, the so-called Steppe Geoglyphs remain deeply puzzling and largely unknown to the outside world.

1-CA-BestamkoeThe Bestamskoe Ring is among the so-called Steppe Geoglyphs in Kazakhstan — at least 260 earthwork shapes made up of mounds, trenches and ramparts, the oldest estimated at 8,000 years old, recognizable only from the air (Source: New York Times, originally Credit DigitalGlobe, via NASA).

Two weeks ago, in the biggest sign so far of official interest in investigating the sites, NASA released clear satellite photographs of some of the figures from about 430 miles up, showing details as small as 30 centimeters by 30 centimeters. “You can see the lines which connect the dots,” Mr. Dey said.

“I’ve never seen anything like this; I found it remarkable,” said Compton J. Tucker, a senior biospheric scientist for NASA in Washington who, along with a colleague, Katherine Melocik, provided the archived images, taken by the satellite contractor DigitalGlobe, to Mr. Dey and The New York Times. He said NASA was “proceeding to map the entire region.”

Last week, NASA put space photography of the region on a task list for astronauts in the International Space Station.

Ronald E. LaPorte, a University of Pittsburgh scientist who helped publicize the finds, called NASA’s involvement “hugely important” in mobilizing support for further research.

The archived images from NASA and dozens more the agency has been working to produce add to the extensive research that Mr. Dey compiled this year in a PowerPoint lecture translated from Russian to English.

“I don’t think they were meant to be seen from the air,” Mr. Dey, 44, said in an interview from his hometown, Kostanay, dismissing outlandish speculations involving aliens and Nazis. (Long before Hitler, the swastika was an ancient and near-universal design element.) He theorizes that the figures built along straight lines on elevations were “horizontal observatories to track the movements of the rising sun.”

Kazakhstan, a vast, oil-rich former Soviet republic that shares a border with China, has moved slowly to investigate and protect the finds, scientists say, generating few news reports.

“I was worried this was a hoax,” said Dr. LaPorte, an emeritus professor of epidemiology at Pittsburgh who noticed a report on the finds last year while researching diseases in Kazakhstan.

With the help of James Jubilee, a former American arms control officer and now a senior science and technology coordinator for health issues in Kazakhstan, Dr. LaPorte tracked down Mr. Dey through the State Department, and his images and documentation quickly convinced them of the earthworks’ authenticity and importance. They sought photos from KazCosmos, the country’s space agency, and pressed local authorities to seek urgent Unesco protection for the sites — so far without luck.

2-CA-Turgai Swastika

The earthworks, including the Turgai Swastika, were spotted on Google Earth in 2007 by Dmitriy Dey, a Kazakh archaeology enthusiast (Source: New York Times, originally Credit DigitalGlobe, via NASA).

In the Cretaceous Period 100 million years ago, Turgai was bisected by a strait from what is now the Mediterranean to the Arctic Ocean.

The rich lands of the steppe were a destination for Stone Age tribes seeking hunting grounds, and Mr. Dey’s research suggests that the Mahandzhar culture, which flourished there from 7,000 B.C. to 5,000 B.C., could be linked to the older figures. But scientists marvel that a nomadic population would have stayed in place for the time required to lay ramparts and dig out lake bed sediments to construct the huge mounds, originally 6 to 10 feet high and now 3 feet high and nearly 40 feet across.

Persis B. Clarkson, an archaeologist at the University of Winnipeg who viewed some of Mr. Dey’s images, said these figures and similar ones in Peru and Chile were changing views about early nomads.

“The idea that foragers could amass the numbers of people necessary to undertake large-scale projects — like creating the Kazakhstan geoglyphs — has caused archaeologists to deeply rethink the nature and timing of sophisticated large-scale human organization as one that predates settled and civilized societies,” Dr. Clarkson wrote in an email.

“Enormous efforts” went into the structures, agreed Giedre Motuzaite Matuzeviciute, an archaeologist from Cambridge University and a lecturer at Vilnius University in Lithuania, who visited two of the sites last year. She said by email that she was dubious about calling the structures geoglyphs — a term applied to the enigmatic Nazca Lines in Peru that depict animals and plants — because geoglyphs “define art rather than objects with function.”

Dr. Motuzaite Matuzeviciute and two archaeologists from Kostanay University, Andrey Logvin and Irina Shevnina, discussed the figures at a meeting of European archaeologists in Istanbul last year.

With no genetic material to analyze — neither of the two mounds that have been dug into is a burial site — Dr. Motuzaite Matuzeviciute said she used optically stimulated luminescence, a method of measuring doses from ionizing radiation, to analyze the construction material, and came up with a date from one of the mounds of around 800 B.C.

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One of the enormous earthwork configurations photographed from space is known as the Ushtogaysky Square, named after the nearest village in Kazakhstan (Source: New York Times, originally Credit DigitalGlobe, via NASA).

Mr. Dey, who spoke in Russian via Skype through an interpreter, Shalkar Adambekov, a doctoral student at the University of Pittsburgh, cited a separate scholarly report linking artifacts from the Mahandzhar culture to other figures, suggesting a date as early as 8,000 years ago for the oldest.

The discovery was happenstance.

n March 2007, Mr. Dey was at home watching a program, “Pyramids, Mummies and Tombs,” on the Discovery Channel. “There are pyramids all over the earth,” he recalled thinking. “In Kazakhstan, there should be pyramids, too.”

Soon, he was searching Google Earth images of Kostanay and environs.

There were no pyramids. But, he said, about 200 miles to the south he saw something as intriguing — a giant square, more than 900 feet on each side, made up of dots, crisscrossed by a dotted X.

4-CA-Ashutastinsky Cross

Researchers are hoping to marshal support for investigating the earthen mounds that make up figures like this one, the Big Ashutastinsky Cross (Source: New York Times, originally Credit DigitalGlobe, via NASA).

At first Mr. Dey thought it might be a leftover Soviet installation, perhaps one of Nikita S. Khrushchev’s experiments to cultivate virgin land for bread production. But the next day, Mr. Dey saw a second gigantic figure, the three-legged, swastikalike form with curlicue tips, about 300 feet in diameter.

Before the year was out, Mr. Dey had found eight more squares, circles and crosses. By 2012, there were 19. Now his log lists 260, including some odd mounds with two drooping lines called “whiskers” or “mustaches.”

In August 2007, he led a team to the largest figure, now called the Ushtogaysky Square, named after the nearest village.

“It was very, very hard to understand from the ground,” he recalled. “The lines are going to the horizon. You can’t figure out what the figure is.”

When they dug into one of the mounds, they found nothing. “It was not a cenotaph, where there are belongings,” he said. But nearby they found artifacts of a Neolithic settlement 6,000 to 10,000 years old, including spear points.

Now, Mr. Dey said, “the plan is to construct a base for operations.”

“We cannot dig up all the mounds. That would be counterproductive,” he said. “We need modern technologies, like they have in the West.”

Dr. LaPorte said he, Mr. Dey and their colleagues were also looking into using drones, as the Culture Ministry in Peru has been doing to map and protect ancient sites.

But time is an enemy, Mr. Dey said. One figure, called the Koga Cross, was substantially destroyed by road builders this year. And that, he said, “was after we notified officials.”