Miran, xinjiang uyghur autonomous region, china
In conversation with LIU Yunxiao: the air at Miran smells different – perhaps it is the desert, perhaps the mystery of long buried lives – whatever swirls around makes you yearn for the freshness of grass. Silence pervades such that you can hear the tiny movements of lizards scrambling across the sand, the call of eagles on the hunt, lowing of sheep. The wind blows away the emptiness unique to this site which was long ago a busy centre of Buddhist learning. Kroriana, Han, Kushan, Gandhara and Tibet all inhabited and left their unique texts, religious frescoes and other material culture at the site (Whitfield 2004). Remains consist of a walled city, Tibetan fort, Buddhist monastic sites, and complex irrigation system. If you are a curious human you will want to visit the site but if you don’t do your homework ahead of time you’ll find the experience confusing in terms of what exactly you are looking at. The remains are obscured and easily overlooked, indeed they appear to be uninteresting grassy knolls passed by a nearby highway (Figure 1). But if we remove the modern highway the site appears much as it has for a millennium.
One can now contemplate the uses and lives of people who lived at the site during its tumultuous existence: Buddhists and soldiers. For a British Library exhibition in 2004 Susan Whitfield edited a wonderful volume which brought to the public insights into the stresses, hopes and expenditures of individuals in the region as well as the complexity of life as a Buddhist and a soldier. The example of a commissioned Avalokitesvara-sutra likely as a result of the individual who ‘prayed to the bodhisattva while in a difficult situation, promising at the time to copy the sutra if he was saved’ (Whitfield 2004, cat. 97, p. 193-4). Lacquered leather armour scales (cat. 109, p. 197) discarded by Chinese soldiers evidence the tumultuous circumstances of being stationed in a dangerous place. Tibetans, who occupied the outpost during the 8th and 9th centuries left behind numerous woodslips which detail the provisioning of the fort and other hill stations with supplies of materials and guards who also watched over the foodstuffs against ‘marauders’.
Today, a local family live at the site and are engaged to perform daily checks – guarding against looters (shall we call them marauders?) and the general condition of the site.
Buddhist wall paintings dating to the early 4th century from Miran attest to the skill of an international group of artisans and practitioners. Their Gandharan style manifest the material, technological, ideological systems that travelled and evolved along the Silk Roads for centuries before coming to rest in architecture and itself becoming a place of refuge and worship. Ongoing excavations at Miran by the Xinjiang Institute of Archaeology continue to reveal past lives but many murals and objects have already been removed, studied, and are housed in museums across the globe.
The area includes the Loulan Museum in Ruoqiang, some 80km from Miran town and archaeological site. The museum, which stores and displays material remains from a much wider geographic region promotes Loulan culture.
Loulan is the Chinese term for the country of Kroriana which included oases towns at Niya, Khotan and Miran before it was inhabited by the Chinese in the 2nd century BCE. Preexisting long-distance trade across a vast region into Central Asia and India are best exemplified in the Karoshti script (a relative of Sanskrit) used to write the Gandharan language. Texts held at the British Library (publicly accessible) exemplify mainly the ordinary daily life of the people (as opposed to the military outpost woodslips at Miran). Fruit, grains, wine as well as ginger are among the items mentioned in varying contexts (Whitfield 2004, p. 174). Recent excavations by the Xinjiang Institute of Archaeology at the site continue to reveal texts in Karoshti and can only add to the corpus of knowledge about the people and places they describe.
Abutting a proposed archaeological park boundary are agricultural fields and residences for some 7000 inhabitants of modern Miran, the management building and viewing tower. There is hope that the site which in 2015 was included on a national register will be developed and attract tourism and the desired economy which comes with foot traffic. Pursuant to this, site interpretation and management plans are in the process of implementation. With some degree of criticism among professionals, reconstruction of several elements of the site have taken place (Figure 2). The spirit of Miran as a fertile stop along a series of stops linking larger urban centres and cultures with each other continues and current inhabitants of the town as well as those in (relatively) nearby Ruoqiang look wide-eyed into the future of development and tourism.
It is important to acknowledge the importance of digitising archives and making them publicly accessible. The IDP project at the British Library and Sir Aurel Stein’s volume 1 Serindia (Digital Library of India Item 2015.45711) from the collection of the Digital Library of India provided me many a lost hour wandering with the explorer and because the records are available, you can too. More importantly, we are also able to use these detailed observations and photographs of the landscape and archaeological remains to compare changes over the past 100+ years.
by Kim TE WINKLE
Whitfield, Susan. 2004. The Silk Road: Trade, Travel, War and Faith. Chicago: Serindia Publications Inc.