Friday, June 24, 2022

Mongolia | Xinjiang | Khotan | Rawak Stupa

The Roerich Expedition arrived in Ulaanbaatar on September 12, 1926. 

House where the Roeriches stayed while in Ulaanbaatar, Nicholas Roerich on the right. (Click on photos for enlargements)

House where the Roeriches stayed while in Ulaanbaatar, before it was turned into a museum

While in Ulaanbaatar Nicholas Roerich heard tales about the celebrated Rawak Stupa near Khotan, a city on the southern edge of the Tarim Basin in what is now Xinjiang Province, China, which the expedition had visited earlier: “Many other similar wonders were related to us by educated Buriats and Mongols. They spoke about a mysterious light which shines above the Khotan stupa; about the coming re-appearance of the lost Chalice of Buddha . . . He adds, “ The celebrated Suburghan near Khotan must be the place of one of the manifestations of the New Era. Khotan is the path of Buddha,” and “Khotan remembers the Signs of Maitreya [the future Buddha] over the ancient Stupa.”

The Roerich Expedition had passed through Khotan earlier. It had left the city of Leh, in Ladakh, now administered by India, on September 9, 1925, and after crossing seven high-altitude passes through the Karakorum and Kun Lun Mountains—including18,379-foot Kardong Pass, 17,753-foot Sasser Pass, 18,176-foot Karakorum Pass, 17687-foot Suget Pass, and 17,598-foot Sanju Pass—finally reached the southern edge of the Tarim Basin and the Taklamakan Desert. Nicholas wrote:

Descending the mountains to the sands of Taklamakan, where you meet only Moslems, Sarts, and Chinese, and where you see the mosques and Chinese temples of Khotan, one would not expect to see anything about Shambhala. And yet, just there we again came upon valuable information. Not far from Khotan, are many ruins of old Buddhist temples and stupas. One of these stupas is identified with the legend, that in the time of Shambhala, a mysterious light will shine from it. It is said that this light has already been seen. 

They finally arrived in Khotan October 14. The  Chinese Taotai (senior official) of the city, a man named Ma Darin, and the Amban (representative of the Chinese government) Chang Fu were friendly at first and George was eager to begin explorations:


Having established our headquarters, we began to plan our scientific and artistic activities in Khotan and its vicinity. The ancient site of Khotan, where from time to time landslides revealed miscellaneous objects and remains of old structures had to be explored. We also planned for a brief expedition to . . . the site of the Rawak stupa where shifting sands had uncovered interesting new remains.


Relations between the expedition and local officials quickly soured. Suspicious of the paintings Nicholas was making and the photographs that members of the expedition were taking, the Taotai accused them all of being spies. Their firearms were seized and the expedition was put under what amounted to house arrest. Nicholas was allowed to continue painting, but only with the confines of the house where the expedition was being held. After interminable arguments with the Taotai and other officials, detailed at length in George’s Trails to Inmost Asia and Nicholas’s Altai-Himalaya, on 27 January 27, 1926. the expedition was allowed to leave Khotan and to proceed to Kashgar, at the western edge of the Tarim Basin. Although they been in Khotan over three months they apparently never got the chance to visit the Rawak Stupa as George had hoped. 


Naturally I wanted to see the celebrated Rawak Stupa for myself, so I flew from Ulaanbaatar to Beijing, caught a flight to Urumqi in Xinjiang, and from there took another flight 615 miles southwest to Khotan. It was a perfectly clear day and halfway across the Tarim Basin, at an altitude of 35,000 feet, I was treated to spectacular views of the Tian Shan, the mountain range to the north, with peaks of up to 24,406 feet, and the Kun Lun Mountains to the south, with peaks of up to 23,514 feet. The Kun Lun mountain range is one of the longest in Asia, stretching for almost 1,900 miles along the southern edge of the Tarim and areas to the east. Although the terrain extending from eastern end of the Tarim Basin is relatively low, from the perspective of 35,000 feet it looked like the two mountain ranges completely encircled the Tarim Basin. I could not help but think of Shambhala, which is said to be surrounded by a ring high snowy mountains. Indeed, the Tarim Basin has often been associated with Shambhala.


Shambhala in the Tarim Basin

Well into the twentieth century scholars were still trying to identify Shambhala with some  actual place now known by a different name. Notes one:

There is a very good chance that Shambhala lies hidden time rather than space—as an ancient kingdom that passed long ago into myth. A number of Western scholars agree with the Dalai Lama's opinion that the Kalacakra teachings must have had an actual place of origin: They think that the teachings probably did come to India in the tenth century from a country somewhere in Central Asia.

Writing the beginning of the twentieth, Sir Charles Eliot (1862–1931), author of Hinduism and Buddhism: An Historical Sketch, wrote:

Pending the publication of the Kâlacakra Tantra [it was not available in English at the time], it is not easy to make definite statements about this school which presumably marks the extreme point of development . . . in Buddhism, but a persistent tradition connects it with a country called Śambhala or Zhambhala, translated in Tibetan as bDe-ḥbyuṇ or source of happiness. This country is seen only through a haze of myth: it may have been in India or it may have been somewhere in Central Asia.

Helmet Hoffman, writing in the 1960s, refined this idea:

The land of Shambhala is undoubtedly somewhere outside India, and originally it was in all probability a real area, whereas as time went on it faded into the idea of a purely mythical kingdom . . . Some of the magically embellished descriptions of the way to this mysterious Shambhala rather suggest Tarim [Basin] in East Turkestan [Xinjiang Province, China] . . . Shambhala is described as being surrounded by snow-capped mountains . . . The connection of the Kâlacakra tradition with a strange Central-Asian land, from which . . . the teachings are said to have been introduced into India, is highly significant. There is also at least a probability that the Kâlacakra existed in areas outside India before it penetrated into the land of Buddha.

According to Ur-Shambhalist Edwin Bernbaum, writing in the early 1980s:

Of all the regions of Central Asia, the Tarim Basin . . . comes closest in size and shape to Tibetan descriptions of Shambhala. A huge oval-shaped area enclosed by the Kun Lun, Pamir, and Tian Shan ranges, it could be viewed as an enormous lotus blossom surrounded by a ring of snow mountains. The small kingdoms that have existed side by side in the numerous oases sprinkled around the fringes of the basin may well have provided the model for the ninety-six principalities of the outer region of Shambhala. These small kingdoms included Kashgar, Yarkand, Loulan, Karashahr, Kucha, the kingdom of Qocho, near Turpan, and Khotan. 

Bernbaum continues:

Until shortly before the Kalacakra reached India and Tibet, Buddhism had been flourishing in the Tarim Basin for nearly eight hundred years. During part of that time, caravans following the silk route to China had brought the outside influences of Manichaeism and Nestorian Christianity to bear on the development of Buddhist art and thought in the area. Shambhala may have corresponded historically to the Tarim Basin as a whole or to one of the major oases such as Yarkand, Kashgar, or Khotan. Some scholars have singled out Khotan, the largest and most fertile oasis on the southern rim of the basin. Watered by melting snows of the Kunlun Mountains, it supported a thriving center of Buddhist learning, a people who loved music and culture, and a school of painting that impressed the Chinese and influence Tibetan art. 

Among the productions of this flourishing Buddhist culture was the Rawak Stupa.


Guidebooks to Khotan suggested visiting the Khotan Museum and I thought that this might be a good place to inquire about the stupa. But I could not find the museum. People in the street from whom I tried to get directions were either indifferent or surly. One Uighur woman shouted at me in English: “Go back to England!” I could take the abuse, but being mistaken for an Englishman was downright insulting. Then I was approached by a tall, thin Uighur man in his mid-twenties with shoulder-length black hair, thick mustache, and aviator sunglasses who spoke good English. “How can I help you?” he asked. At first I thought he might be a pimp, but decided to ask about the Rawak Stupa anyhow. He  knew about it and said it was in the desert about twenty miles north of Khotan. I told him I wanted to visit it. “Ah,” he said, “that is a problem. The Rawak Stupa is a Class A Historical Monument and no one is allowed to go there without a guide from the local museum to make sure they don’t damage or steal anything.” And where is the museum I wondered, explaining that I had been unable to find it. The museum, it turns out, had just moved to a brand-new building in a different part of town from the old museum, the one mentioned in my guidebook.  Anyhow, could he arrange a visit to the stupa? He called the museum, talked to the curator, who as it turned out also served as the guide to restricted sites, and found out that he was free at the moment and would be able to accompany me to Rawak Stupa that day. I would, of course, have to pay a fee to the museum. He could also arrange for a four-wheel drive vehicle to drive to the site.  He added that we would have to walk the final two miles or so to the stupa.


The curator is a Uighur man in his mid-thirties. He had studied for several years in Canada and spoke almost perfect English. As we drive northward from Khotan I discovered that he had read in English the accounts of many of the great Occidental explorers of the region, including Aurel Stein and Sven Hedin. He had not, however, read anything by the Roeriches. About ten miles north of the city center the Khotan oasis, lush fields of corn, wheat, rice, cotton, and melons divided by rows of poplar trees, abruptly ends. After a couple of miles of gravelly flats the sand dunes of the Taklamakan Desert begin.


Sand dunes of the Taklamakan Desert

A mile or so into the desert is a checkpoint with a chain across the road to stop unauthorized access to the stupa site. The curator has a key to the lock. From here there is only a track in the sand.  After five or so more miles the track ends and we set off on foot around the sand dunes.


Proceeding to the Rawak Stupa on foot

Sand dunes of the Taklamakan Desert

Sand dunes of the Taklamakan Desert

Sand dunes of the Taklamakan Desert

After about two miles we come to the stupa. The curator says that it was built circa 150 A.D. (Aurel Stein dated the stupa to the late third to early fourth century). It was probably abandoned around the time of the the arrival of the Islamic Turks in the late tenth century. The Hungarian-born archeologist Aurel Stein rediscovered the stupa half buried in the drifting sands in 1901, as he describes in his Sand-Buried Ruins of Khotan.

The Rawak Stupa

The Rawak Stupa

The Rawak Stupa

I had brought a copy of Nicholas Roerich’s Shambhala with me and I read a passage to the curator:

In Khotan, the sands cover the remains of Buddhism and yet, in this place, is the great ancient Suburgan, the hope of all Buddhists; because on this spot the Age of Maitreya shall be acclaimed by a mysterious light over the ancient Stupa. 

The curator was unaware of any legends about lights appearing over the stupa or any other unusual phenomenon connected with the site. I asked him what he knew about Shambhala. “You mean the song by Three Dog Night back in the 1970s?” he replied. It turned out he was a big collector of Occidental pop music. In 1973 Shambala had reached Number 3 on the Billboard Hot 100. The lyrics read in part:


Everyone is helpful, everyone is kind

On the road to Shambala

Everyone is lucky, everyone is so kind

On the road to Shambala . . . 

How does your light shine

In the halls of Shambala?


Were the Roerichs aware that Khotan had been singled out by historians as one of the possible sites of Shambhala? Probably. George was a world-class scholar and translator who had studied Asian history, religions, and languages, including Sanskrit and Tibetan, at London University, the Sorbonne in Paris, and Harvard in the USA and would have no doubt been cognizant of research done about the Kalachakra and Shambhala. Thus it was not surprising that Khotan turned up on the itinerary of the expedition. It was just one of the stops on their khora around Shambhala.

1 comment:

  1. As it turned out Nicholas Roerich was some 100 years ahead of his times. True War of Northern Shambhala is upon us now as many pieces of puzzle are falling into places. Ah the interesting times- the hardest times- the most catharsic times.

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