The Patterns of Kucha Wall Paintings


The goal of this chapter is to analyze and explain the many different patterns of Kucha wall paintings, such as how they are composed or arranged, and how they utilize different colors. Kucha wall paintings are paintings that are on the walls of caves. The goal of this chapter is to analyze them and explain what they signify.  Their use of color is fascinating, as the Kucha wall paintings are extremely detail-oriented and demonstrate how naturalistic Japanese art is.

The images that this chapter focuses on are from Kizil, which is from Chinese Turkestan in the 6th and 7th centuries, as well as the eighth and ninth centuries.  There are several key considerations within the Kucha wall paintings: How are the figures organized? How was color used intentionally within the wall paintings? What is being depicted in these works of art? How do the artists respond to damages and iconoclasm to the wall paintings? For example, some of the colors in these paintings represent an element: red represents fire/sun, green represents nature, and blue represents the sky.  Additionally, all of these figures are knights or Buddhas.  We should look at these paintings in a group to see how mighty figures like Buddhas were portrayed in art in the fifth century throughout the thirteenth century. This chapter examines all of these questions and considerations.

Example 1: Figures Holding Swords

Creator: Unknown

Date: 6th-7th Century A.D.

Size: 22 inches

Location: Peacock Cave, Kizil, Chinese Turkestan

Repository: Indische Kunst Abteilung, Staatliche Museum, Berlin (Dahlem).

In the wall painting, “Figures Holding Swords” in the Peacock Cave, there are figures arranged in three overlapping rows, which is similar to the Gandhara relief sculptures. The painting depicts six figures, each holding a green sword. This type of composition is interesting because “it combines side-profile views with three-quarter views and ambitiously fits six figures into this small space by overlapping them” (Rowling 156-157). Each figure fits into the painting by taking different positions: one figure is kneeling at the bottom, three figures are standing in the middle row, and two figures are standing in the top back row. The way the figures are arranged also could mean that they are standing on top of each other’s shoulders or that there is depth in the wall painting. The figures are wearing jeweled bracelets on their hands, necklaces on their body, and hair bracelets to hold their long hair up. Although there are many scholarly interpretations of this piece, the wall painting likely depicts Siddhartha learning the art of war, or explains the dispute between the Mallas for possessing the Buddha’s relics. Siddhartha was a name of a person, and once he became a religious icon he was associated with Buddhism. Each sword being held by the figures is painted copper green. This copper green, however, is different from other examples, such as the one in Bamiyan which is not quite as bright. However, the painting also contains the colors ocher and white.  All of the Indian style paintings at Kizil show a fondness for flat patternization of figures and an emphasis on linear definition. 

Example 2: The Self Immolation of a Bodhisavatta

Creator: Unknown

Location: Cave of Musicians, Kizil, Chinese Turkestan.

Size: 12 inches

Date: 6th-7th Century A.D.

Repository: Indische Kunst Abteilung, Staatliche Museum, Berlin (Dahlem).

The next wall painting is titled, “The Self Immolation of a Bodhisavatta”, which is located in the Cave of Musicians. It has a height of twelve inches and was either created in 6th or 7th Century A.D. This wall painting shows a male figure who is about to cut his own throat, presumably in an effort to save the child who is dying. There is also a woman figure kneeling on the ground holding the child. As she is sitting down her face looks sad, which could mean that she is crying because her husband is about to commit suicide in order to save their child. The woman’s eyes are closed and she has a frown on her face; her blue robe is also torn a little bit meaning that the family could be poor. The way the male figure is positioned suggests that he is ready to kill himself because he has one arm on his hip and the other arm holding on to his knife.  He is also smiling which might also express that he wants to die in order to get away from his family life. The brilliance of copper green and lapis blue is amazing; it contrasts with the chalky white of the figures’ flesh and the dark flower-strewn ground.  The floral forms in the background are “decorative details in a magnificent flat pattern; they are isolated like the shapes in a Greek red figure vase painting against the black background” (Rowling 166).  The floral background expresses life, death, and rebirth. Flowers grow in the spring, die in the winter, and then bloom again as a new flower the next year.   In this case, the male figure will kill himself in order to heal his child, and there may be a good chance that the male figure will be reborn again. Also, the painting could also mean that the flower background is dying as well as his son, so the male figure is going to sacrifice himself in order to prevent the life of all creatures from dying. 

Example 3: Group of Donors

Creator: Unknown

Location: Cave of the Sixteen Sword Bearers, Kizil, Chinese Turkestan.

Size: 63 inches

Dates: 6th-7th Century A.D.

Repository: Indische Kunst Abteilung, Staatliche Museen, Berlin (Dahlem).

Another wall painting, “Group of Donors”, depicts Chevaliers wearing long mantles with wide flaring lapels. The painting has a height of sixty three inches and was created in 6th or7th century A.D. It is found in the Cave of the Sixteen Sword Bearers in Kizil, Chinese Turkestan. The Chevaliers are called Tocharian Knights and they have Indo-European origin.  The coats worn by the Chevaliers have silk of a floral design and wide boards of various patterns.  Below the garment you can see the knight’s pants and boots. People probably can’t see the pants and boots when they first look at the painting because the shading makes them blend in with the whole painting, showing the naturalism of Japanese artists. The Chevaliers have swords attached to their belts made of leather disks. The most noticeable pattern is seen in the background with many luminous circles, appearing almost like stars in a night sky. This wall painting style borrows heavily from Byzantine art as it contains elements of classical visual imagery. Imitations of the Donors were found “in the caves on the walls of the side passages to the left and right of the niche for the cult images” (Metropolitain Museum 167-168). The imitations of the Donors were created because there is not much known about them in the second half of the first millennium of Central Asia. The imitations were created to honor the original image of The Knightly Donors. This wall painting shows what depictions of the Knightley Donors were like during the other half of the first millennium.

Example 4: The Cowhead Nanda

Creator: Unknown

Location: Cave of Statues, Kizil, Chinese Turkestan.

Date: Unknown

Size: 60.0 x 33.0 cm

The next painting is called, “The Cowherd Nanda.” This painting is located in The Cave of Statues in Kizil, and has a width of 60.0 x 33.0 cm.  It depicts the Nanda who watches over the animals while listening to the Buddha’s teachings. The Nanda is the Buddha’s half brother.  Cowherd Nanda is located in the Cave of the Statues in Kizil.  Buddhist literature has many references to lectures that the Buddha has preached while he is out walking.  The literatures are cited “in order to pass on to the faithful the moral tenets they enjoy” (Metropolitain Museum 66-67). The Buddhist literature wanted to promote Buddhism by talking about how the Buddha can convert people to Buddhism. The Buddha is not fully seen in this wall painting but his mandorla, hands and knees are visible.  The Buddha raises his hand in order to teach.  The figure in the center is the Nanda who is dressed in a robe of silk green and a blossom of red. There are two cows in this painting, one black and one white. The viewer will notice among the reddish brown blending at the bottom of the wall painting that the Nanda is crushing a frog with his stick while being converted to Buddhism. Because he was not paying attention, he killed the frog by accident. According to Buddhist tradition of reincarnation, the frog is being reborn as a god, which is significant because he is given another chance at life in a new form. 

Example 5: Gandharva

Creator: Unknown

Location: Kinnari Cave, Kumtura

Date: 8th-9th Century A.D.

Size: 41.0 x 68.0 cm

The last wall painting example is called Gandharva which depicts a Gandharva flying to a Budda bringing him blossoms in his hands. The Gandharva is a celestial being: he has pinkish skin, long black hair that’s tied into a bun, and no legs. He flies on two streams of magenta that come from the little cloud on the left of the painting. The Gandharva might be using smoke in order to fly since he is a celestial being. The painting is located in Kumtura’s Kinnari Cave, where it was created between the eighth and ninth centuries. The Gandharva is wearing a scarf that is red and green. The background of the Budda’s palace is very similar to a carnival or carousel.  The Gandharva painting is one of the first murals “from the four Kumtura caves that were painted entirely of the Buddhist Chinese style” (Metropolitain Museum 122-123). Not that many Kumtura paintings survive today because they were either destroyed or blown up. It is unknown if this painting has Indo-Iranian styles because the Indo-Iranians produced stereotypical works of Kumtura wall paintings.  This painting has a more casual brush technique which gives scope to individual forms of expression.  This leads people to have multiple emotions about this painting; it could be a happy scene since the palace is just like a carnival, or it could be interpreted as a sad scene, since the Gandharva is forced to bring flower blossoms to the Buddha in order to avoid being punished.The colors range from deep red and dark green to radiant yellow. This wall painting is perhaps in poor condition; much of the paint has chipped off, leaving the cave wall exposed.  


These images have multiple connections with each other. Not only are the paintings all stylistically similar but most of these images have men holding swords, most likely depicting them as warriors who are noble to fight for justice or to die with honor. The paintings have colors that easily blend in parts of figures such as half of a knight’s clothing, or the entire figure of a Buddha.  Three of the images have knights that are doing noble things, while two of the images have Buddha depicted in them. All of these wall paintings are from different caves in Kizil. The paintings represent how people die and how they are reborn once again as a living creature or reborn as Gods. Asian Art is knowing what patterns of colors, styles, shades, and how the organization would appeal to people when they look at a painting. The correct patterns of color and shading can hide parts of a figure that people will have trouble seeing when they first look at a picture.  The organization of figures in an object can lead people to make multiple opinions about what the meaning of the artwork is like whether it is a male is sitting down or a woman planting a lotus.  Beyond the literal interpretation and meaning of the paintings,all of these paintings have a similar theme which is being noble and brave, as well dying  and being reborn.  Japanese art often includes themes of bravery and death by depicting heroes such as knights, Buddhas, or Ganharvas defeating immortal creatures such as Evil Gods and other Asian mythical creatures. These paintings fit into Japanese art by showing the religious and social values of the 6th-9th centuries through the lens of knights and Buddhas. 

Reading List: 

Rowland, Benjamin. “The Chivalric Art of Kucha and Kizil.” In The Art of Central Asia (Art of the world), 151-174. Crown Publishers, Inc, 1974.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Along the Ancient Silk Routes Central Asian Art From The West Berlin State Museums. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1982.

Author: Joseph Gendron

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