Paintings brought back from the Thousand Buddhas caves in Dunhuang by Aurel Stein, together with an Introduction and a Description.


The Thousand Buddhas

Ancient Buddhist paintings from the Cave-Temples of Tun-Huang on the Western Frontier of China

Recovered and Described by
Aurel Stein, K.C.I.E

with an introductory essay by
Laurence Binyon


Aurel Stein:


to the memory of
to whose devotion to far-eastern art
the study of these paintings owes most
this album which he had helped to plan
is dedicated
in admiration, affection, and sorrow.




This is an adapted transcription of Aurel Stein’s book, which was originally published in 1921, but here I have added many more colour photographs than he was able to provide. The original publication had 23 colour plates, whereas here I have managed to include 39 (55 photographs in all, out of 70). Many of these were found on the British Museum website, where they are released under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA 4.0) license. The other photos are high-quality scans of the original publication, downloaded from the Toyo Bunko Digital Archive website. In the original the Plates were printed separately from the Description, but here they are placed inline with the text. Also, I did not have the restriction of having one plate to cover two or more paintings, and so have divided the text accordingly. Additions by me are in square brackets [] and omissions are marked with …

Most of the books and other publications referenced by Stein in this work can be found in high quality scans on the Toyo Bukyo website which has many resources related to the Silk Road, including the following works by Stein himself: a popular report of his expedition and findings in two volumes called Ruins of Desert Cathay and a scientific report in five volumes called Serindia. The Thousand Buddhas itself, of which this is a version, is on the same site – Ānandajoti Bhikkhu



[ix] The purpose of this publication is to place before students interested in Eastern art reproductions of select specimens from among the great collection of ancient Buddhist paintings which in the course of the explorations of my second Central-Asian journey, carried out in 1906-8 under the orders of the Government of India, I had the good fortune to recover from a walled-up chapel at the ‘Caves of the Thousand Buddhas’ near Tun-huang. [This is the old spelling of what we now transliterate as Dunhuang]. The essential facts concerning their discovery will be found summarized in Mr. Laurence Binyon’s Introductory Essay. Those who may wish for details of the circumstances attending it, and for some account of the local conditions which explain the preservation of these relics of ancient Buddhist art in the distant region where the westernmost Marches of true China adjoin the great deserts of innermost Asia, will find them in my personal narrative of that expedition. See Ruins of Desert Cathay (Macmillan & Co., London, 1912), ii. pp. 20-31, 163-234. They have been recorded still more fully in Serindia, the final report on the results of my explorations, recently issued from the Oxford University Press. See Serindia, Detailed Report on Explorations in Central Asia and Westernmost China, carried out and described under the orders of H.M. Indian Government by Aurel Stein, K.C.I.E., Indian Archaeological Survey (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1921, vols. i-v, Royal 4to), pp. 791-825.

ln Mr. Binyon’s Introductory Essay there will be found a lucid exposition, by the hand of a competent expert, of the reasons which invest those paintings with special interest for the study of Buddhist art as transplanted from India through Central Asia to the Far East, and with great importance, too, for the history of Chinese art in general. There light is thrown also on the manifold problems raised by the variety of art influences from the West, the South, and the East which are reflected in different groups of these paintings and which some of them show in striking intermixture.

But throughout it is Buddhist inspiration and legend, as propagated by the Mahāyāna system of Buddhism in Central and Eastern Asia, which furnish the themes of these paintings and determine the presentation of individual figures and scenes in them. For the proper appreciation of their art some knowledge of the traditional elements in subjects and treatment is indispensably needed. It has hence been my aim in the descriptive text referring to each Plate to supply such iconographic information as the non-specialist student may need for the comprehension of the subject and details, and as the present state of our researches permits to be safely offered. ln the same descriptive notes I have endeavoured to record information also as to the state of preservation, character of workmanship, colouring, and similar points in each painting.

Having thus briefly indicated the object and scope of this publication, it still remains for me to give some account of the labours which had to precede it, and to record my grateful acknowledgement of the manifold help which alone rendered the realization of this long-cherished plan possible in the end. ln Mr. Binyon’s Introductory Essay reference has been made to the protracted and delicate operations which were needed at the British Museum before the hundreds of paintings, most of them on fine silk, which had lain, often crumpled up into tight little packets, for centuries under the crushing weight of masses of manuscript bundles, could all be safely opened out, cleaned, and made accessible for examination. The far-reaching artistic interest of these pictures had already greatly impressed me when I first beheld them in their original place of deposit. But only as the work of preservation progressed did it become possible fully to realize the wealth and variety of all these materials, the novel problems they raised, and the extent and difficulties of the labours which their detailed study and interpretation would need.

[x] The mixture of influences already referred to revealed itself plainly in features directly derived from Graeco-Buddhist art and in marks of the change it had undergone on its passage through Central Asia or Tibet. But the preponderance of Chinese taste and style was all the same unmistakable from the first. On the iconographic side, too, it soon became clear that the varied imagery displayed by the paintings, though based on Indian conceptions and forms, bore the impress of important changes undergone on its transition to China and after its adoption there. The chief hope of guidance for the interpretation of this Pantheon lay manifestly in comparison with the artistic creations of the later Mahāyāna Buddhism of the Far East, especially of Japan, and in the Chinese inscriptions displayed by many of the silk paintings. It was obvious hence that for this part of my collection a collaborator was needed who, with knowledge of Buddhist iconography, would combine the qualifications of a Sinologue as well as familiarity with Far-Eastern art in general.

Through Mr. Binyon’s friendly intercession I was able in the autumn of 1911 and towards the close of my stay in England to secure this collaborator, and one exceptionally qualified, in the person of M. Raphael Petrucci. Already distinguished in more than one field of research, M. Petrucci combined enthusiastic devotion to Far-Eastern art as a critic, connoisseur, and collector, with Sinologue studies begun under such a master as M. Chavannes. A series of important publications on the art of China and Japan bears eloquent testimony to his eminent fitness for what was bound to prove a difficult task. During the following two years M. Petrucci devoted protracted labours to the study of our paintings and their inscriptions. The results were to be embodied in an extensive Appendix to Serindia, probably requiring a separate volume.

In 1913 he supplied me with the draft of his introductory chapter dealing with the votive inscriptions of our paintings, and after my start that year for a third Central-Asian expedition he discussed in a separate essay those elaborate compositions or ‘Maṇḍalas’ which form the subject of some of the largest and artistically most interesting of our paintings. These contributions have since been printed in Appendix E of Serindia, pp. 1392-428, after having been carefully prepared for publication by M. Chavannes, with the assistance of common friends, MM. Foucher and Sylvain Levi. In addition to the above M. Petrucci had collected a great mass of Chinese textual materials for the identification of Jātaka scenes, individual divinities, &c., represented in the paintings, when the invasion of Belgium cut him off from his home at Brussels and all his materials. Under the conditions created by the world war he was unable to resume his task in earnest. But he found occasion even then, in the midst of voluntarily undertaken medical duties under the Belgian Red Cross, to revisit our Collection, to assist with his expert advice in the cataloguing of the Tun-huang paintings, and to publish in the Annales of the Musee Guimet a short but very instructive and stimulating conférence on them. See Petrucci, Les peintures bouddhiques de Touen­houang, Mission Stein (Annales du Musée Guimet, Bibliotheque de vulgarisation, xli, 1916, pp. 115-40).

When returning in May 1916 from my third Central-Asian expedition, I found M. Petrucci at Paris, still full of vigour and eagerly bent upon carrying through his task. When a few weeks afterwards I was able to inform him of the fortunate chance which, as will be explained presently, had offered to make select specimens of our Tun-huang paintings accessible in adequate reproductions to a wider circle of students of Far-Eastern art, he most willingly undertook to contribute the main portion of the text which was to accompany them. But some months later he began to suffer from an internal ailment, and though in the autumn of 1916 he was still strong enough to take a very helpful share in the selection of the paintings to be reproduced in The Thousand Buddhas, his condition became serious enough to necessitate a grave operation in February 1917. This he overcame with apparent success, only to succumb a week later to diphtheritis contracted in the hospital. Deprived thus by a cruel blow of Fate of a most valued collaborator and friend, we must rest content with dedicating to his memory this publication in which he was to have borne a principal share.

In accordance with the plan sanctioned in 1911 by the Secretary of State for India, [xi] the Detailed Report on the results of my second Central-Asian expedition was to include also a systematic survey and full descriptive list of all the art relics brought away from the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas. With this object in view I had taken care, at the same time when enlisting M. Petrucci’s collaboration, to use as many plates of Serindia as the claims of abundant finds from other sites would allow, for the reproduction of characteristic specimens among the different classes of paintings, drawings, and wood-cuts recovered in the walled-up chapel. See Plates LVI-CIV in Serindia, vol. iv. But it was clear from the first that the limitations imposed by the number and size of the Serindia plates, and even more perhaps by the cost of colour reproduction, would not allow adequate justice being done to the artistic, as distinguished from the iconographic and archaeological, value of the paintings. It was equally easy to foresee that, however numerous the small-scale reproductions in the plates of Serindia might be, and however thorough the description and analysis of the new materials in its text, the very character, bulk, and correspondingly high price of that detailed report would prevent it from making those paintings sufficiently accessible to students interested mainly in their art.

For these and cognate reasons I had been anxious from the outset to arrange for a separate publication like the present. But the attempts made in this direction before my return to duty in India at the close of 1911 failed from want of needful means, and subsequently distance and absorbing exertions in the field, as implied by my third Central-Asian expedition (1913-16), precluded their effective renewal. That auspices proved more favourable on my return from that journey was due mainly to the generous interest which a far-sighted statesman, the Right Honourable Mr. Austen Chamberlain, then H.M. Secretary of State for India, was pleased to show in the plan. His appreciation of the importance of these pictorial treasures and of the need of securing an adequate record of them before their impending division between the British Museum and Delhi was largely instrumental in inducing the authorities of the India Office, with the ready co-operation of the Trustees of the British Museum, to sanction the present publication at a cost not exceeding £1,900. Regard for the special difficulties then prevailing owing to the war is an additional reason for Mr. Chamberlain’s timely help being remembered by me with profound gratitude.

The execution of the plates, both by three-colour and half-tone process, was entrusted to Messrs. Henry Stone & Son, of Banbury, whose establishment, under the expert direction of Mr. J. A. Milne, C.B.E., had already proved its special fitness for such work by producing the colour plates for my Desert Cathay and Serindia. Seven of those in the latter work have, with the kind permission of the Delegates of the Clarendon Press, been used also here. I feel all the more grateful for the great skill and care bestowed by them upon the truthful rendering of the paintings, and for the success achieved, because I learned to know the considerable technical difficulties which had to be faced, particularly in the case of the colour plates. After my return to India in the autumn of 1917 Mr. Binyon kindly charged himself in my place with all the arrangements which were needed in connexion with the reproduction work.

It was under the constant and ever-watchful supervision of Mr. Laurence Binyon that the exacting labours needed for the safe treatment and future preservation of the Ch’ien-fo-tung paintings, and extending over a period of close on seven years, had been effected in the Prints and Drawings Department of the British Museum. To his unfailing knowledge and care all students of these remains of Buddhist art owe gratitude for the ease with which they can now be examined. But to those whom the present publication is intended to reach he has rendered a service equally great by contributing to it his Introductory Essay. The expert guidance it affords as regards the evolution of Buddhist pictorial art in the Far East and with regard to a variety of kindred questions helps appreciably to reduce the loss which The Thousand Buddhas has suffered through M. Petrucci’s untimely death, and for that help I feel deeply beholden.

That lamented event left me with a heavier obligation than I had anticipated in regard [xii] to the text both of this publication and of the corresponding portion of Serindia. In meeting this obligation I realize fully the limitations of my competence. Though familiar with the iconography of Graeco-Buddhist art and of such remains of Buddhist art in Central Asia as I had the good fortune to bring to light myself, I had never found leisure for a systematic study of the religious art of the Far East or Tibet. There was enough in the archaeology of the sites I had explored through the whole length of the Tarim Basin and along the westernmost Marches of China and in the geography and history of those wide regions fully to occupy my attention. In addition, my want of Sinologue qualifications made itself sadly felt.

Fortunately I had taken special care to secure a sufficiently detailed description of all pictorial remains during the years of my renewed absence in Central Asia and those immediately following. This Descriptive List, now comprised in Serindia, See Serindia, Chapter xxv, section ii, pp. 937-1088. was prepared mainly by the hand of Miss F. M. G. Lorimer, whose painstaking scholarly work as assistant at my British Museum collection has proved throughout a very valuable help. Besides M. Petrucci’s interpretations there was embodied in it also much useful information received on artistic points from my friend and chief assistant Mr. F. H. Andrews, and on Chinese inscriptions from Dr. L. Giles and Mr. A. D. Waley of the British Museum, as well as many helpful iconographic explanations kindly furnished by two Japanese experts, Professor Taki and Mr. Yabuki. This Descriptive List made it possible for me to provide in Serindia a systematic review of all our pictorial relics from Tun-huang, See Serindia, Chapter xxiii, sections i-ix, pp. 831-94. and this in turn has greatly facilitated the preparation of the descriptive text for the present publication. For details which could not find mention in it reference to the chapters of Serindia already quoted will prove useful.

It only remains for me to add my grateful acknowledgements for the care which my friends Mr. F. H. Andrews, Mr. L. Binyon, and Mr. C. E. Freeman have been kind enough to bestow, whether on plates or on print, and to express the wish that the reception accorded to The Thousand Buddhas both in the West and the East may justify the hope which prompted the sacrifice incurred for their sake at a time of great strain and stress.

Aurel Stein.
Camp, Mohand Marg,
June 2, 1921.


Aurel Stein:


Photographs by British Museum

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