Hyecho's Journey

Hyecho's Journey


From Zabulistan, I traveled north for seven days until I arrived in Bamiyan. The king is of the Hu, and the country is not subject to any other nation. The military is strong and large, and none of the surrounding countries dare attack them. For clothing, they wear die (cotton or fine-wool) shirts, furs, wool garments, and the like. The resources here include sheep, horses, zhan (wool), and an abundance of grapes. The weather here is very snowy and cold. Most people live in the mountains. The king, chiefs, and commoners all greatly revere the Three Jewels. There are many monasteries and monks and both Mahayana and Hinayana are practiced. The men cut their hair and shave their beards as they do in Zabulistan and elsewhere. While the customs here are more or less the same as in Kapishi, there are many differences. Their language is different from that of other places.

—Hyecho's journal

Standing Buddha at Bamiyan
Standing Buddha at Bamiyan, Afghanistan in 1930s. By Walter Koelz, Walter Koelz Papers: 1873-1989, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan.


Afghanistan was a major center of Buddhism and home to the temple of one of the most famous relics of the Buddha: his crown protrusion (ushnisha), which is one of the thirty-two marks of a superman that adorn the body of a buddha. The study of Gandharan Buddhist sculpture makes it clear that originally the ushnisha was simply a topknot on the Buddha’s head. Over time, however, it evolved into what was considered a fleshy protuberance on the top of the cranium, something that only a buddha possessed. This is clear from the Chinese translations of the term, which include rou ji (“bun of flesh”), ding gu (“bone on the crown of the head”), ding rou ji (“flesh topknot on the crown of the head”), and rou ji gu (“bone of the flesh topknot”). Afghanistan’s temple of the crown protrusion, located near the modern town of Hadda, was visited by both Faxian and Xuanzang, two of Buddhism’s most famous Chinese pilgrims. Faxian visited the temple and describes the crown protrusion, saying that it was four inches across and shaped like a wasp’s nest or an arched hand. Some two centuries later, Xuanzang visited the same shrine, and described it as twelve inches around.


Sunrise in Bamiyan Valley
Sunrise in Bamiyan Valley, 2010. Courtesy of Afghanistan Matters via Flickr.

Hyecho visited five places that fall within the boundaries of modern-day Afghanistan. Falling under the rule of a succession of indigenous and foreign rulers, the region is often included in the cultural sphere of neighboring Gandhara, and their Buddhist communities and artistic traditions were clearly connected. As economic tides shifted, Gandhara’s wealth waned as Afghanistan saw prosperity, resulting in an efflorescence of Buddhist patronage there. From the fourth through sixth centuries, new monasteries and temples were built, old ones were renovated, and countless artworks were made to fill them. Among the great achievements of this period are the monumental buddhas at Bamiyan, famously destroyed by the Taliban in 2001. In the early eighth century, Hyecho witnessed the fruits of this golden age, noting many monks and monasteries, and widespread Buddhist practice across Afghanistan.

In the vicinity of Kabul, Hyecho observed Gandhara’s continued political dominion and cultural influence. The Turkic king of Gandhara, together with his chiefs and military forces, ruled over the local people. As Hyecho traveled further west, however, he encountered a different political situation. He found Tokhara, a region encompassing parts of modern Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, subjugated by the Arab army. Hyecho arrived in western Afghanistan during a period of transition. Muslim armies had begun taking control of Central Asian lands in the 650s, but allowed the practice of local religions, including Buddhism, to continue. Hyecho notes that the local king and common people of Tokhara revere the Three Jewels and do not practice “heterodox religions.” As the newly established Muslim caliphs instituted excessive taxes, rebellions arose and were quelled by the powerful Arab army. These areas where religious pluralism persisted thus became increasingly Islamicized in the decades following Hyecho’s journey.


Buddhism began its slow decline in areas comprising Greater Gandhara beginning in the fifth century, as a result of invasion by the Huns and the subsequent waning of Buddhist patronage. A century before Hyecho, Xuanzang observed deserted monasteries, ruined temples, and decayed stupas. In Afghanistan, however, Buddhism was still thriving well into the eighth century at major sites and provincial centers, as witnessed by Hyecho and as evidenced by artistic production, the remains of which survive at archaeological sites and in museum collections.

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Fragment of a painted cupola

Fragment of a painted cupola
  • Kakrak Valley (SE of Bamiyan), Afghanistan, 6th-7th century
  • Painting on plaster of earth and straw
  • H: 1 m W: 3 m
  • Hackin expedition 1930
  • Guimet Museum of Asian Art (Musée National des arts asiatiques Guimet)
  • MG 12901
  • Image © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY

Stupas, temples, and monasteries in Afghanistan were embellished with elaborate murals that, when accompanied by brightly painted clay or stucco sculptures, would have created a sacred space rivaling Europe’s most Baroque cathedrals. This mural fragment depicting roundrels and rows of buddhas, once decorated the domed ceiling of cave-temple in the Kakrak Valley in a basin of the Hindu Kush mountain range. Three groups of caves comprise this site located at Bamiyan, which is most famous for its monumental Buddha sculptures. The Kakrak group consists of about one hundred caves that dot the cliffside along the eastern bank of the Kakrak River. This basin was once situated on an ancient crossroads of trade routes leading to India, Persia, and Bactria. The Bamiyan cave group, located alongside the massive Buddhas on the northern cliff, run parallel to the old caravan route—one can imagine the dramatic effect this must have had on those, like Hyecho, who traversed this course.


Seated Bodhisattva Maitreya

Seated Bodhisattva Maitreya
  • Near Kabul, Afghanistan, 7th-8th century
  • Schist
  • H: 77.8 cm
  • Rogers Fund, 1920
  • The Metropolitan Museum of Art
  • 20.58.15
  • Image courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Discovered near Kabul, this image of Maitreya, a bodhisattva and the future buddha of our world, is indicative of the eccentric sculpture created in eighth-century Afghanistan, just before Islam’s complete eclipse of Buddhism. Seated in lotus posture, he holds his requisite water flask with both hands and wears his distinctive stupa-ornamented crown. While Maitreya’s jewelry—bracelets, armlets, earrings, necklace, and cross-body amulet string—reflects earlier Gandharan art, his broad shoulders, stiffly draped robe, and mask-like face echo the latest works from the region of Greater Gandhara. Maitreya’s unusual topknot hairstyle, moreover, points to Afghani Hindu sculpture of this era. A bricolage of artistic styles from the past and present, this sculpture represents the latest and last tradition of Buddhist art in Afghanistan. The production of Buddhist sculpture abruptly ceased in the ninth century, with the Saffarid conquest of 869-70.


Buddha adorned with three-cornered cloak

Buddha adorned with three-cornered cloak
  • Fondukistan Monastery (Niche D), Ghorband Valley, Afghanistan, 7th century
  • Unbaked clay
  • H: 72 cm W: 24 cm
  • Musée Guimet
  • MG 18960
  • Image courtesy of R. Bloom

Sculptors in Afghanistan primarily used clay, stucco, and terracotta in their work. Traces of decoration that remain on these images indicate that they were painted with brightly-colored pigment. This clay Buddha from the monastery of Fondukistan has traces of pigment on his snail-shell curls and three-point cloak, or chamail. This distinctive poncho-like garment originated in Central Asia but appears over several centuries in artworks from Gandhara to Kashmir to the caves at Ajanta. The chamail often identifies assembly members or donor figures as foreign, but here the luxurious vestment is a local symbol of prestige bestowed upon the Buddha.

Fondukistan Monastery is one of four major Buddhist sites, including Bamiyan and Kakrak, that shared a common cultural milieu. Dating from the sixth to the ninth centuries, these sites benefited greatly from new trade routes through their region. Fondukistan is located halfway between Kabul and Bamiyan, on the road that Hyecho likely followed, and this sculpture is representative of the Buddhist images he saw in the monasteries of Afghanistan.


Tara seated on a lion throne

Tara seated on a lion throne
  • Swat Valley or Afghanistan, 650-750
  • Bronze with silver inlays
  • H: 5 cm W: 3.4 cm D: 2.3 cm
  • Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford
  • EA1997.200
  • Image © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

This tiny sculpture of the Buddhist goddess Tara, measuring only five centimeters high, is perfectly sized for portability. It would fit nicely in a small portable shrine or, like a talisman, in the pocket of a traveler’s clothes. A female buddha and embodiment of compassion in female form, Tara is the protector of those on the Buddhist path and the mother of all buddhas. Her name means “savior,” as she intercedes in matters both spiritual and worldly. But she is perhaps best known for her protective powers and miraculous interventions, appearing when summoned by a devotee’s recitation of her mantra. One of her most popular emanations is Green Tara, who protects from the eight great fears, which include disease, thieves, fire, drowning, snakes, lions, and elephants—the very dangers that threaten merchants, pilgrims, and others on the road. For a traveler like Hyecho, it would make sense then to carry a tiny image of Tara in case of emergency.