Sanskrit culture on the Silk Road: Buddhist paintings at Kucha

Leiden University and IIAS are organizing a Masterclass on Silk Road art by Prof. Dr. Monika Zin of Munich University.

This master class is intended for students of Asian arts, archaeology, history, languages and cultures (BA, MA, PhD levels), teachers and others interested.

The venue

Matthias de Vrieshof 2, room 2 at the Witte Singel-Doelen complex of the Faculty of Arts, Leiden University. Please note: the venue replaces the room mentioned on the poster. 

The masterclass

On the northern fringes of the Taklamakan Desert lay the kingdom of Kucha, first explored by German ‘Turfan Expeditions’ from Berlin between 1902 and 1914. The expeditions carried the name ‘Turfan’ after their main objective: the area of Turfan on the eastern side of the northern Silk Route. Indeed, Grünwedel and Le Coq did concentrate on this area, examining sites such as Chocho, Sengim and Murtuq. The most significant research findings on the influences of Indian culture on Central Asia were however from the area of Kucha, at the sites of Kizil, Kumtura and Simsim.

Since the region of Kucha is about 1000 – almost impassable – kilometers away from even Gandhara, the discovery that the art of the region was a proximate offshoot of Indian art was an unexpected revelation. Evidence brought to light that the kingdom of Kucha was dominated by Buddhist monastic culture. It was in the man-made caves not too far from the capital, which were used as monastic complexes, that the Sanskrit manuscripts were discovered as well as magnificent wall-paintings.

According to the ‘traditional’ view advanced by German researchers, the approximate date assigned to the Ist Indo-Iranian Style is the end of the 5th century. The 2nd Style was estimated to be about 100 years later. The third style differs greatly from the first two in that it reveals Chinese influence. It started in the 7th century and is called the Sino-Buddhist Style (or 3rd Style).

The paintings in the area of Kucha are fascinating, as, despite being traceable to Indian prototypes, their style shows influences from the Mediterranean world, from the Syrian-Iranian cultural sphere, and later from East Asia as well.

Most of the paintings are narrative in character: they illustrate Buddhist stories with themes taken from texts such as the āgamas, the vinayas and jātaka collections. In general, the paintings correspond closely with the art of Gandhāra. More surprisingly really, often they often show an even closer affinity with art of further south in the subcontinent.

The ‘Master’ Speaker

Professor Monika Zin studied art history, Indology and dramatics in Krakau and Munich. She finished her dissertation on the Plays from Trivandrum in the history of development of the Udayana narrative in 1991 and her habilitation on the topic of Ajanta paintings in 2000. Between 1994 and 2016 she taught Indian art history and Indology at the Institute for Indology in Munich.


Admission is by confirmed registration only. Please send a mail message to Heleen van der Minne at h.m.van.der.minne@iias.nl. In case of overbooking, students and teachers will get priority access. Those who have registered receive an information package in pdf with some relevant readings for the master class. You can also download this package below.