A Map of the Voyages of Admiral Zheng He

Admiral Zheng He (1371–1433) was the famous Chinese admiral explorer and diplomat who was of Persian ancestry. His great great great grandfather was a Persian called Shams al-Din Omar, who was appointed as governor of Yunnan during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368). His great grandfather’s name was Bayan.

Chinese Admiral Zheng He is recognized for having sailed with his giant fleet to Europe and Africa. Historian Gavin Menzies has proposed that Zheng He also reached the New World (Source: Chris Heller/CORBIS & The Mail). For more on the exploits of Admiral Zhang He, see here…

Below is a map of the expeditions of a Chinese admiral known as Zheng He (1371–1433):

Persian_GulfThe above map is based on a Chinese original drawn during the 15th century (Source: Ellis & Esler, World History: Connections to Today, Prentice Hall, 1999). Note that the body of water below Iran is clearly marked as “Persian Gulf” and not by any other terminology.

Zheng He is credited with having taught the Siamese water treatment and the fertilization of farmlands. It was in 1911, when the “Zheng He Stele” dated to 1409 was finally discovered in Sri Lanka. The stele not only cites of Zheng He’s generous  donations to the local Buddhist temple. Also, much like his Iranian ancestral spirit of tolerance, Zheng He and his crew paid respect to all of the local deities and customs.

The Zheng He stele which has inscriptions in Chinese, Tamil and Persian languages (Source: 4.bp.blogspot).  It is notable that Zheng He made a determined effort to pay equal homage to all of Sri Lanka’s religions. 

By the time of his passing, Zheng He had visited 38 countries in an epic 28 years. Ironically, in 1433, Zheng He died while returning from a trip to his ancestral homeland, Iran, specifically at the Kingdom of Hormuz within the Persian Gulf! As the case with many great admirals, Zheng He was to be buried at sea.

The Kingdom of Hormuz as depicted in a European map by Bellin in 1746 (Picture source: Map and Maps). Also known as Ohrmuzd, the term “Hormuz” is another variation of the Zoroastrian term “Ohrmazd” (the supreme monotheistic spiritual entity). By the 13th century Hormuz was under the rule of Persia. Zheng He made his final voyage to this island in the Persian Gulf.

Pearls of the Taklamakan

The article Pearls of the Taklamakan” was originally posted in the Tang Dynasty Times. Kindly note that the version below contains images and accompanying captions not included in the original Tang Dynasty posting.


Samarkand and Bukhara– the names still evoke images of the great silk road. Part of the vast Persian empire, it was the Central Asian people of Sogdiana who monopolized these ancient trade routes connecting the East with the West. Known in Latin as “Transoxiana,” or “land beyond the Oxus River,” the place was made famous during Alexander the Great Times, during his great exploits East. During Alexander’s times in 4th century BC, Transoxiana was the northeastern-most point of Hellenistic culture.

Tajik girls celebrate the Iranian Nowruz (New Year) on March 21, 2014 in Dushanbe, Tajikestan... for more see “Course on Silk Road-Origins and History”

Populated by Iranian peoples, Transoxiana was incorporated into the Persian Empire first during the Achaemenid Empire. A colonial outpost of the Persian Empire during later Sassanid times, it became known as Sogdiana.

Map depicting Soghdia in the context of the Sassanian Empire, Central Asia and India and China in the mid-7th century CE (Source: All Empires).

With their “contemplative green eyes flashing” and their “purple beards flying in the wind,” the hardy Sogdian traders of Samarkand and Bukhara led caravans on camel-back and horseback over the treacherous mountain passes of the Roof of the World and across the endless stretches of sand of the Taklamakan Desert toward China. And, it was their language, Sogdian, which was the lingua franca of the East during Tang dynasty times.


The “Shir Dar” (Lion’s gate/doorway) of the Islamic college at Samarkand built originally in 1627 (Nafīsī, 1949, p. 62). The sun motif is characterized by Kriwaczek (2002, picture Plate 1) as ”…the image of Mithra, the rising and unconquered sun, Zoroastrian intercessor between God and Humanity” (Source: Kriwaczek, 2002).

I can well imagine what the fine citizens of ancient Sogdiana were like having spent time in Kashmir. Another Central Asian Persian people, trade is in their blood. With its teeming markets and colorful bazaars, Alexis kept mumbling, “We’re in Central Asia. Finally, Central Asia.” Sultan kept repeating, “To make a sale is to make a friend.” Talking over unending cups of Kashmiri chai– cinnamon and cardamom, and a dash of milk– it was always how business was going, or talk about some purchase–buying a new silk carpet or a Pashima shawl– that dominated conversation. This is how I imagine the Sogdians.

A Tajik lady in a bazaar in Dushanbe displaying the local brand of Persian bread known as “Kulcha” (Photo: Travel Begins at 40). As noted in the article “Dushanbe Lost in Time”: Bar the cheap, Chinese electronics for sale in the ramshackle stalls, this walled-in, colour-soaked bazaar feels like an independent microcosm stuck in an aged Persian time warp”.

Starting at the eastern edge of the Persian empire, the Kingdom of Sogdiana reached almost to Kashgar. There, the Silk Road split into two routes: one north and one south of the desert of death. With a name which means “if you go in, you’ll never come back out,” the Taklamakan Desert is one of the largest sandy deserts on earth. With virtually no available water, it was extremely hazardous to try and cross the desert, and so the Silk Road split into two routes. And, it was along these two routes skirting the northern and southern edges of the Desert that a string of Buddhist Kingdoms dotted the oases.

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.

On the Southern Route, there was the Kingdom of Khotan–famous for its exquisite jade and felt carpets; and Kashgar– which has always been a city of legend. Of course, the world’s most famous Silk Road site, Dunhuang, was also located just west of where the Northern and Southern Routes met back up again. Famous for its library, Dunhuang is also the location of the Mogao Caves of A Thousand Buddhas. Located just West of the Jade Gate, Dunhuang was just West of China proper.

A Tajik woman in Ihkashim (Source: Nick & Dariece – Goats on the Road Travel Blog). While the notion that Tajiks are the direct descendants of the Soghdians remains researched, Tajiks are the descendants of peoples of Iranian stock who dominated much of Central Asia and Eurasia until the arrival of Turco-Hun peoples, especially from the 5th-6th centuries CE.

Along the Northern Route were the oasis cities of Gaochang, Turfan, Urumqi, and of course, Kucha. Gaochang was perhaps the most important Buddhist Kingdom. Built at the foot of the Flaming Mountains, the Bezeklik Caves of a Thousand Buddhas, located close to the ancient city, are renown for their dazzling murals. With paintings of Uighur princesses and Western traders, the place during Tang times was a magnet for people from the four corners of the civilized world.

To me, while I can imagine Sogdiana in all its Persian glory– that there existed flourishing Buddhist Kingdoms which were centers of great scholarship in this inhospitable desert– well, it actually boggles my mind. But, the cities located along the desert were, in fact, places of learning where the greatest minds of the Buddhist world gathered to discuss Buddhist doctrine.

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).

These cultural exchanges were conducted in the languages of scholarship of the day–Tibetan, Sanskrit, Chinese and various Prakrit. One of the most famous translators of Buddhism, Kumarjiva, was from Kucha (his mother was a Kuchan princess while his father was Kashmiri). So brilliant some legends have it that he was carried off by the Chinese. Dragged back to the capital he was made to translate the important Buddhist treatises of the time. Others say he went willingly. Whatever the case were it not for Kumarjiva, China and Japan would probably not have quite the same cast of Buddhism it has today– such was his influence.

The 3rd century CE Iranian prophet Mani as depicted 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). 

The great problem of the time: how to translate abstract philosophical terms from Sanskrit (a language with an extraordinarily rich philosophical lexicon that perhaps more then any language extinct or extant could express abstract concepts with specific vocabulary) into Chinese (a language poor in abstract vocabulary). Words had to be invented.

It was a huge linguistic gap that had to be overcome. Herculean. Kumarjiva, to get the closest Chinese approximation of the Sanskrit possible would engage in long discussions with a hundred students to try and fit a Sanskrit word to the Chinese mind before trying to come up with a new combination of characters.

Something very similar went on when China opened up to the west in more modern times. Both the Chinese and the Japanese had to think quick to come up with new vocabulary to express Western concepts of democracy or freedom (an entire lexicon, had to be come up with for terms used in discussing the fine arts before Japan could participate in one of the legendary World Exhibitions, for example).

Fresco along the Tarim Basin, China depicting an Iranian-speaking Buddhist monk (Kushan, Soghdian, Persian or Tocharian?) [at left] instructing a Chinese monk [at right] on philosophy (c. 9th-10th Century). Iranian peoples of Central Asia were the link between 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“).

They call him the world’s greatest translator. A proponent of i-yaku 意訳 (meaning-oriented translation) over that of choku-yaku 直訳 (direct or literal translations), Kumarjiva is not only known for the tremendous breadth of his translations but also for the beautiful flowing smoothness of the language– which is to say it reads beautifully. And, it needs to be stated again that is is all the more of an achievement because of the fact that he was working in what is the most obtuse area of Buddhist philosophy.

Born a Theravada Buddhist, Kumarjiva converted to Mahayana Buddhism during his student days in Kashgar and spent much time working on advancing the ideas contained in the great Indian philosopher Nagarjuna’s Madhyamaka theory.

“Form is void, void is form” — Heart Sutra

The philosophy is way too complicated for me to even attempt to think about, and due to its slippery slope vocabulary that attempts to explain a state of existence where “nothing comes into being independently” (got that?), the nature of the Chinese language just could not cope. Kumarjiva devoted the later years of his life with the task of translating this body of work, but many gnawing questions remained.

It was to this task that our hero, Xuanzang, the Tang period Buddhist monk who made his historic “Journey to the West” devoted his entire life. If you don’t know who he is– you should. In East Asia, he is a household name– and even in India, most educated people know of the great travels of Xuanzang.

A depiction Xuanzang made during Japan’s Kamakura period (12th– 14th century), currently housed in the Tokyo National Museum (Source: Alexcn in Public Domain).

Passing through the Jade Gate, Xuanzang traveled through all the Buddhist Kingdoms along the Northern and Southern Route before turning south to India. He almost didn’t make it to India, though, so intent was the devout Buddhist King of the Kingdom of Gaochang to keep the pilgrim there that the King tried to hold him there hostage. Rather than from any ill-will, the King quite simply could not bear to let such a stimulating conversationalist and brilliant debater leave his realm.

You can hardly blame him, actually.

Some people consider Xuanzang to be the greatest traveler of all time. Marco Polo perhaps traveled further in terms of distance– but well, that was about 450 years later (and things were more comfortable then). More importantly, though, while Polo traveled for personal reasons of wealth and fame, our man from Chang-an traveled to find the Truth– to understand the nature of reality, not just for himself but for the sake of all sentient beings. His great journey took him first across the desert Kingdoms and then to Kashmir, which was a great center of Buddhist learning at the time. He continued South where he ended up at Nalanda University. There he studied Buddhist philosophy, logic and Sanskrit. Returning to China, he hauled a library of books back with him and spent the remainder of his days teaching and translating.

The Persian Prince Pirooz (Pirouz)

The article The Persian prince Pirooz by Yang Guifei was originally printed in the Tang Dynasty Times.


Sometime around the year 670, a shining prince– the son of the last Sassanid King– arrived in the Tang capital. He was there to beg for protection from the Arab invaders who now occupied his country. Exhausted and covered in dust from the journey, the young prince– who was barely out of boyhood–was led into the Great Hall. It had taken him the best part of a decade to arrive. In fact, he never believed he would actually make it; imagining instead being murdered or perhaps dying from cold and exhaustion somewhere en route over the towering mountains and terrifying deserts through which he had passed on his way East.

A rectangular piece of tapestry coming from the Xingjian Ughur Autonomous Region of China clearly showing Sasanian Persian influences in design and artwork. The physiognomy of the person drawn in the tapestry is Caucasoid as opposed to Asiatic, indicative of the strong Indo-European presence in the region since proto Indo-Europeans (i.e. the Tocharians) first entered the region thousands of years ago (Picture source: Houston Museum of Natural Science). Several Western researchers however suggest that the person depicted above is a Greek.

Somehow, though, he did make it, and arriving at dusk, just before the gates of the great city were secured shut for the night, a regiment of guards from the Chinese Emperor’s Palace arrived to escort him through the city.

And what a city it was.

When he was a child, his father had told him much about the great capital to the East– larger and richer than even Rome or Byzantium. Rome, of course, had been sacked two centuries before, and Byzantium was itself in decline. And then there was his own glorious empire– it still brought tears to his eyes just thinking of it. The Sassanid Empire had been the greatest empire on earth– rivaled only by Byzantium to the West and China to the East, but it now lay in ruins. His family all dead, his heritage scattered like the sands of the desert blown here and there in the wind.

Fresco along the Tarim Basin, China depicting an Iranian-speaking Buddhist monk (Kushan, Soghdian, Persian or Tocharian?) [at left] instructing a Chinese monk [at right] on philosophy (c. 9th-10th Century). Iranian peoples of Central Asia were the link between 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“).

When the Arabs had invaded, he and his family– along with a great entourage of supporters– had fled eastward. Born in 226 a.d. the ancient Persian Sassanid Empire had once stretched from the Levant and Constantinople in the West to the Indian subcontinent in the East and had encompassed all of present-day Iraq, Armenia and Afghanistan; as well as much of Turkey, Syria, Arabia and Pakistan. These lands– as well as the Persian colonies in Central Asia– were all part of the great Persian sphere of influence; whose emperors were held as equals by both the Roman  and the Chinese emperors.

Chinese Admiral Zheng He who was of Persian descent. Zheng He is recognized for having sailed with his giant fleet to Europe and Africa.  (Source: Chris Heller/CORBIS & The Mail).

For 400 years, they had been called Shahanshah– or, the “King of Kings.” And, theirs was the last great Persian empire prior to the invasion of the Arabs and the beginnings of Islam. Zoorastrians by religion, it was a Kingdom ruled by a federation of aristocratic families whose splendid cultural achievements would be taken up by their Arab conquerers with gusto. In fact, much of what later came to be known as Islamic culture– from calligraphy and poetry to garden design and architecture– was borrowed largely from the Sassanian empire.

Tang dynasty depiction of foreign merchant in northern China, (7th century CE) housed at Paris’ Musee Guimet (Source: Per Honor et Gloria in Public Domain).

When the Arab conquerers stormed the Persian capital of Ctesiphon in 637, such were their numbers that his Father’s only choice had been to flee. From Ctesiphon, located on the Tigris, just a bit downstream from Baghdad (founded about 150 years later), on horseback they had raced East in the hope of gathering support for their cause. None of the great families, however, had agreed to help them mount an army to oust the Arab invaders, and by the time they had reached Merv, on the Eastern edge of their empire, they were spent.

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 CE (Slide 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 was there that the greatest tragedy of all happened. His Father had been murdered– right in front of his own eyes. And what had been perhaps the greatest blow was that he had been murdered by a commoner. Robbed and murdered for his purse, the great Shahanshah, Yazdgerd III, had been killed by a miller. It was 651, and they had been in flight for some 14 years.

So, that had been that. With their cause now dead, the aristocratic and ruling families who had followed them East decided to stay and put down roots in Merv, as well as in the nearby Persian areas of Sogdiana, Tashkent and Khotan. Our young Prince, however, would always live with a price on his head. He, therefore, required protection. He thought and thought, but there seemed nowhere to turn– until he remembered his sister. Before he was born, she had already been married off to the great Tang Emperor to the East. And, so he had set out East–to China.

It was the heyday of the Silk Road, so he had just followed the well-worn path of other Persians before him. First into Sogdiana and then crossing the Pamirs, he had had to make it across the unending stretch of sand of the deserts of inner Asia. Skirting the southern edges of the Taklamakan Desert, first he traveled to Kashgar; then on to Yarkand, Khotan, and all the way to Dunhuang. From there, it had just been a matter of descending down off the plateau and heading East, toward the capital.

Chinese girls of ancient Iranian descent (Source: Iranian People Of China (中国的伊朗人) ).

Persian peoples dominated the entire route. The great middle men of the Silk Road, Persian communities (and most notably the Sogdians) had greeted him in every town he passed through along the way. From Merv to Chang’an, whenever he stopped, he had stayed in Persian inns, eaten Persian foods and had spoken in the refined Persian language of the Court– and he was, for the most part– understood.

He would be further stunned to see of his country’s influence in China proper as well. It gave him heart. Yes, theirs had been the greatest civilization of the world– for even the Chinese thought so.

The Chinese capital, though, he had to admit, had surpassed even the Persian capital during its height. As French scholar Michel Beurdeley has noted, “the title of Middle Kingdom was richly deserved by China during the Tang dynasty,” as the high civilization and celebrated cosmopolitanism of the Tang dynasty truly had no precedent anywhere on earth prior to that time– not even Byzantium saw such a rich display of goods and peoples.

The above figure is from a Tang dynasty burial site, now housed now at the museum at Turin, Italy. Curators and scholars continue to debate the figure’s origins; one possibility is that he was of Iranian descent (Picture source: The Wall Street Journal).

While the Tang capital of Chang’an was the largest, most international city in the world of the time, the Second Capital of Loyang was no less impressive. Both cities were inhabited by traders, entertainers and religious teachers and students from places as far-flung as Syria, Oman, Iran, Khotan, Sogdiana, Turkestan, Tibet, India, Champa, Funan, Korea, and Japan, just to name a few. There were Mosques, Jewish, Manichean and Zoroastrian temples, Nestorian churches, as well as Buddhist monasteries of all sects, some of which were great centers of scholarship. Most surprising (considering the inward turn China would take in the coming centuries) was how stunningly exotic and open the city was.

It was a city where wealthy ladies adorned their cheeks with crimson laq from Vietnam and anointed their bodies with perfumed oils of Cambodia; where aristocrats kept falcons from Korea, parrots from the jungles of Java and lapdogs from Samarkand. Sleeping in Turkish felt tents was the latest fashion as were the dance moves from Sogdiana. And, the music. The capital saw glorious performances by dancers from Central Asia and India showing dances of such beauty that the famed Tang poets of the time composed poem after poem about them. Grape wine had also come into fashion and was served in glass ewers from Persia. There were lychees from Canton and those oh-so famous peaches of Samarkand.

Iranian-speaking Tajik women from China. These are mainly clustered in the Karakorum region.

Of all the foreign fashions, the influence of Iran was without a doubt most significant of all. During the Tang, anything Persian– from music and dancing, to clothes, hairstyles and the game of Polo– enjoyed huge popularity at Court and among the aristocracy– indeed, they were considered to be the very height of fashion. This surprising turn in history came about as part of the Tang Dynasty’s political and military incursions further and further West, into Central Asia (to the land of their prized “blood sweating” stallions and jade) as well as into the Middle East (where beautiful glass and the mineral cobalt was secured).

It was the Iranian Sogdian peoples who held the greatest influence. They were the great merchants, traders and entertainers of the legendary silk road. Known in Chinese as hu jen 胡人, their cultural influence among the Chinese aristocrats was remarkable. It is written in the Tang histories that “the food of the aristocrats was hu food, their music hu music, and their women clothed in the most exotic hu robes that money could buy.” Indeed, in the words of one Japanese scholar, the Tang capital of Chang’an was “painted entirely in the colors of hu.”

And so our Persian Prince was pleasantly surprised. Such was the Chinese Emperor’s great appreciation of the accomplishments of the Persian civilization that upon their first meeting they declared themselves brothers. Born and raised the song of a King, the Prince knew not to make eye-contact with the Son of Heaven, and instead fell to his knees. The great Emperor rose to his feet and stepping off his dais, he bent down to bid the young Prince to his feet.

“You’ve come a long way. Have no more fears. For you are my brother and this is your new home.”

Prince Pirooz was to spend the rest of his days within China. He is said to have learned Kung Fu and then went on to become a general in the army. Sent West to fight their mutual enemies the Arabs, the Persian Prince used his remaining money and resources to make whatever trouble he could. He had probably given up all hope of re-taking his empire– still it must have felt good to win a battle or two. The Tang chronicles state that when the Chinese emperor died, Pirooz and his son Narseh were allowed to be stationed along the western border garrisons by the new Chinese emperor. Immediately, they started clashes against the Umayyad Arabs. Soliciting the aid of Turkish tribes, Prince Pirooz spent the rest of his days fighting the Arabs along China’s Western corridor.

A well-preserved Tang vase (8-9th century CE) housed at the Guimet Museum. This bears distinct Sassanian artistic influences.

He died around 700 in the West, still fighting the Arabs wherever he could. His son– who also became a respected general in the Chinese army, wrote this in his diary (from Frank Wong’s article which is pretty much the only thing around online about Prince Pirooz):

Pirooz requested only a simple burial and the Chinese emperor approved. The entire exiled court was in attendance along with the Chinese emperor. The Chinese emperor held Pirooz’s shaking hands. Pirooz looked west and said: “I have done what I could for my homeland (Persia) and I have no regrets.” Then, he looked east and said: “I am grateful to China, my new homeland.” Then he looked at his immediate family and all the Persians in attendance and said: “Contribute your talents and devote it to the emperor. We are no longer Persians. We are now Chinese.” Then, he died peacefully. A beautiful horse was made to gallop around his coffin 33 times before burial, because this was the number of military victories he had during his lifetime. Pirooz was a great Chinese general and great Persian prince devoted and loyal to his people.

And so our Prince died in one of the most remote regions on earth; fighting his enemies till the very end. He was buried facing West.

Visitors to the tomb of Emperor Gaozong (r. 649-683 CE) of the Tang dynasty (618-907 CE) will see that one of the statues guarding the emperor as depicted above has the name of Sassanian prince Peroz (d. 679 CE) (Picture source: Tour Beijing). Peroz was crowned in China after the Arab invasion which toppled the Sassanian Empire in 637-651 CE. There is a tomb and statue in China which bears this inscription: Peroz, Shah of Iran, crowned in Tang dynasty court: Commander-in-chief of Iranian Army, Martial General of the Right [Flank] Guards, Awe-inspiring General of the Left [Flank] Guards. Peroz asked for Chinese military assistance in 661 CE against the Arabs occupying Iran. Peroz’s descendants in China adopted the Tang dynasty’s Imperial Family Name of Li.


One of Iran’s great contemporary playwrights, Bahram Beyzaie, wrote a very popular play about the murder of the last Sassanian King (Pirooz’s father) called the Death of Yazdgard. Put on just after the Revolution in Iran, it was not well-received by the authorities. Still it was made into a film and has been staged several times outside Iran (as recently as 2006, in fact). The play, which is compared to in significance to that of A Streetcar Named Desire or Death of a Salesman, basically explores issues of invasion (on many levels) and good kingship. This article about the Darvag performance in Berkeley and San Francisco is really interesting, especially about how they had to purge the play for any references about the ancient Arab invasion, because “we didn’t want to cause any misunderstandings– especially after 9-11.

Arctic Mummy from Civilization with Links to Persia

The article below by Richard Grey entitled Riddle of the medieval ‘mummy’ discovered in Siberia: Child from unknown Arctic civilization found wrapped in birch barkoriginally appeared in the Daily Mail on July 6, 2015.

The article is of interest as it pertains to the remains of a child or teenager from the 12th or 13th centuries CE. The Body was discovered at the medieval site near Salekhard in Russia, near Arctic Circle.

Five other bodies found previously at the site were covered in copper plates.These are thought to have been part of a civilization with links to Persia.


The remains of a medieval ‘mummy’ wrapped in a cocoon of birch bark has been discovered at the site of a village that belonged to a mysterious arctic civilization.

Archaeologists discovered the remains, which they believe may be a child or teenager from the 12th or 13th century, while excavating near the town of Salekhard in Tyumen Oblast, Russia.

The site, which is 18 miles south of the Arctic Circle, is thought to be a medieval necropolis where several bodies have been buried in ways unlike anything else found in the region.

The Zeleny Yar necropolis was found just outside Salekhard in Russia, just 18 miles from the Arctic Circle (Source: Daily Mail Online).

Experts say bodies found at the site appear to have been naturally mummified in the permafrost as a result of being buried with sheets of copper in their shrouds and frozen conditions.

Archaeologists have now removed the latest body to be discovered from the sandy soil, which is now only frozen for part of the year – it is the first human remains to be found since 2002.

The remains, which are being kept in a special freezer in the Shemanovsky Museum in Salekhard, are due to be examined next week.

The birth bark cocoon is around 1.3 metres (4 feet) long and 30cm (12 inches) wide and initial examination has revealed there is metal beneath the birch bark.

The human remains, which were found wrapped in a birch bark ‘cocoon’ shown above, are thought to have been mummified by a combination of copper buried with the body and the freezing permafrost (Photo source: Vesti Yamal, The Siberian Times). Archaeologists have removed the body in its wrappings from the sandy soil so it can be examined at in Salekhard, Russia.

Experts say it is likely the body inside has been mummified much like others found at the site.

Alexander Gusev, a fellow of the Research Centre for the Study of the Arctic in Russia who led the excavation, told the Siberian Times the birch bark cocoon appeared to have been wrapped around the body. He said:

“It follows the contours of the human body. If there is really a mummy, the head and skull are likely to be in good condition. We think it is a child, maybe a teenager. The find is now in Salekhard, in the Shemanovsky Museum, in special freezer. We plan to return to Salekhard on 15 July and immediately start the opening of the ‘cocoon’ “.

The mummified remains are the first to be uncovered at the site since 2002 and were carefully removed so they could be preserved, as shown above. Scientists hope to open the bark cocoon soon (Photo source: Vesti Yamal, The Siberian Times).

The mummy was discovered at the site of a medieval necropolis called Zeleny Yar, which has baffled some archaeologists due to its closeness to the Arctic Circle.

These images captured by local television crews from broadcaster Vesti Yamal show archaeologists studying the bark wrapped remains before removing them so they can be preserved and examined in more detail (Photo source: Vesti Yamal, The Siberian Times).

Previously they found 34 shallow graves at the site and 11 bodies with shattered or missing skulls.

Five mummies were found to be shrouded in copper and elaborately covered in reindeer, beaver, wolverine or bear fur. Among them was a female child whose face was masked by copper plates.

The bark cocoon (above) appears to have been wrapped around the body of a child or teenager. Experts also used metal detectors and found there is metal – possibly copper – inside covering the well preserved body (Photo source: Vesti Yamal, The Siberian Times).

Three male infants, also shrouded in copper masks, were also found nearby. They were also bound in four or five copper hoops.

A red-haired man, protected from chest to foot with copper plating and buried with an iron hatchet, furs and a bronze head buckle depicting a bear was also found at the site.

Five other mummified bodies have been found at the mysterious Zeleny Yar site, including the red headed man above who was found covered in copper plating and buried with an iron hatchet and covered in furs (Photo source: The Siberian Times).

Geneticists who have used DNA from the bodies recovered from the site recently revealed that their mitochondrial DNA appeared to match those of modern populations living in West Siberia.

Natalia Fyodorova, from the Ural branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences said previously about the discoveries:

“Nowhere in the world are there so many mummified remains found outside the permafrost or the marshes. It is a unique archaeological site. We are pioneers in everything from taking away the object of sandy soil (which has not been done previously) and ending with the possibility of further research.”

This copper facial mask was found on one of five other mummified bodies discovered at the Zeleny Yar site (Photo source: Natalya Fyodorova, The Siberian Times).

Artifacts found at the site, including bronze bowls, have led experts to conclude the people had links to Persia, some 3,700 miles to the south-west.

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 Transoxiana.org.


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.