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Gods, Deities, and Demons in the Paintings of Kucha

(Leipzig Kucha Studies 4) by Monika Zin.

This book changes our perspective on the paintings in the Buddhist caves of Kucha on the Northern Silk Road (today’s Xinjiang Province, an autonomous region of the People’s Republic of China) by showing the important role spirit-deities – both benevolent and malevolent – and demonic iconography in general played in the pictorial programmes of the caves. The Kucha paintings show things that were never popular in South Asia: demons attacking the Buddha, but also worshipping him. The message is clear: they are all controlled by the Buddha. Whether these numerous renditions are merely generic apotropaic images, or rather a reaction to an actual threat by the Huns remains an open question.

The Kucha painters were familiar with the iconography of Viṣṇu and Śiva, although we do not know how they understood them: endowed with demonic attributes, the two Indian gods appear among the demons. Furthermore, in some cases, iconographical patterns such as nāgas shown anthropo-morphically but with snakes behind the head were adopted from South Asia, while other iconographical models, such as the kumbhāṇḍas, were thoroughly reinvented: thus, the kumbhāṇḍas of Kucha are bald. This book deals with representations of deities and demons as decorative elements in the caves but also in the context of narrative illustration. It is indeed surprising how many of such narratives were depicted in Kucha. Obviously, knowledge of Sanskrit can be detected as Sanskrit names were sometimes taken literally and rendered figuratively. For example, there is not just one Kumbhakarṇa but a whole class of demons shown with pots instead of ears, and the gandharva Pañcaśikha is always presented with five tops on his head.

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