Transmission of the “World”: Sumeru Cosmology as Seen in Central Asian Buddhist Paintings Around 500 AD

Wanderung der „Welt“: Sumeru-Kosmologie in zentralasiatischen buddhistischen Wandmalereien um 500 n. Chr.


This paper considers the process of how the image of Mount Sumeru, the axis mundi of the Indian Buddhist cosmology, was transmitted from the Indo-Iranian cultural sphere to the Chinese cultural sphere in the fifth and sixth centuries. The research focus is mainly on the representations of Mt. Sumeru in the wall paintings of two monumental Buddhist sites from this period, the Kizil Grottoes (Kucha) and the Mogao Grottoes (Dunhuang), with reference to a relevant image in the Yungang Grottoes (Datong). As the monks of Kucha were in direct intellectual contact with contemporaneous India via the Sanskrit language, it is a purely Indian Buddhist cosmological worldview that is reflected in early Kizil paintings. In Dunhuang, on the other hand, the earliest-extant Sumeru representation clearly shows the visual syncretism of Buddhist and Taoist cosmologies. These visual symbols of the “World” are composites of multiple historical factors, such as languages, geopolitical situation of regional powers, and ideological trends of the regions.


Dieser Artikel betrachtet, wie die Darstellung des Berges Sumeru/Meru – die Weltachse der indischen buddhistischen Kosmologie – vom indoiranischen Kulturbereich in den chinesischen Kulturraum im 5. und 6. Jahrhundert übertragen wurde. Der Forschungsschwerpunkt liegt hauptsächlich auf den Darstellungen des Meru in den Wandgemälden zweier monumentaler buddhistischer Stätten aus dieser Zeit, und zwar den Höhlenklöstern von Kizil (Kucha) und von Mogao (Dunhuang im Vergleich mit einem relevanten Relief im Höhlentempel von Yungang/Datong). In Kucha, wo Mönche über das Sanskrit in direktem intellektuellem Austausch mit dem zeitgenössischen Indien standen, war es eine rein indisch-buddhistische kosmologische Weltanschauung, die sich in den frühen Wandmalereien von Kizil widerspiegelt. In Dunhuang hingegen zeigt die früheste Darstellung des Meru eindeutig einen visuellen Synkretismus buddhistischer und taoistischer Kosmologien. Diese Symbole der „Welt“ reflektieren den Einfluss verschiedener historischer Faktoren, wie etwa Sprachen, geopolitische Situation der Regionalmächte sowie ideologische Strömungen in jeder Region.

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  1. 1.

    Lower levels of heaven are located on Mt. Sumeru itself, such as the Cāturmahārājikayika heaven and the Trāyastriṃśa heaven (cf. Kirfel 1920: 187–188; Kloetzli 1983: 29; Dietz 2003: 212; Zin 2015: fn. 47).

  2. 2.

    For representations of inhabitants of the celestial layers of the Kāma- and Rūpadhātu in Buddhist art, see Zin (2015). Beings of the Ārūpyadhātu (sphere of non-form) exist only as discarnate intellects and therefore cannot be visualized.

  3. 3.

    For the analysis of the Sumeru world system (which is called the Cakravāla Cosmology by Kloetzli after the name of the mountain ranges encircling the entire world) as described in canonical literatures of early Buddhist schools, see (Kirfel 1920: 178–207); Kloetzli (1983: 23–50); Dietz (1994); Dietz (2003); Sadakata (2011: 201–245). Another recommended reading is Huntington (2019), providing the overview of textual accounts about Buddhist cosmology (especially in Chapter I) with helpful pictograms and rich illustrations of relevant visual arts, mainly from Himalayan regions.

  4. 4.

    The classification of Kuchean paintings of the regional style into the “First Indo-Iranian style” and “Second Indo-Iranian style”, and the dating of each of them respectively as around 500 and after 600 was proposed in the pioneer study by Waldschmidt (1933). This view had been challenged by a number of scholars (for example Klimburg 1974; Su 1983; Howard 1991; and so forth). At least concerning the “First style”, however, recent studies by Hiyama (2016; 2018) argue that some specific motifs typically depicted in the paintings of this style can be dated to around 500 AD on the basis of comparison to the better datable materials in surrounding areas.

  5. 5.

    For the detailed record of this cave in the condition of 1906 see Grünwedel 1912: 102–112. The wall paintings of this cave were partly detached by the third and fourth German expeditions, and brought to Berlin. About a half of the detached paintings was damaged during the WWII; the rest of the mural fragments are presently kept in Berlin and St. Petersburg.

  6. 6.

    In fact, some specific motifs inserted in the mountainous landscape of this cave can be the representation of Buddhist cosmogony. See Hiyama (2010; 2012).

  7. 7.

    For the new iconographical reading of the ocean friezes painted along the cornices of several caves in Kucha, see Konczak-Nagel (2020) and Zin (2020).

  8. 8.

    Since Nāgas often symbolize water in Buddhist visual art, these two Nāgas could have symbolized the surrounding ocean as well. In this case, the lower half of the mountain under the “knot” of the coiling Nāgas could be intended to represent the subterranean sphere.

  9. 9.

    Several canonical texts narrate the following story; once an Asura king, the ruler of the subterranean territory, was jealous of the sun, moon, and celestial beings who fly around the Trāyastriṃśa heaven above his head. Accompanied by his Asura army, he attempted an invasion of heaven. At that time, two Nāga kings, Nanda and Upananda, coiled themselves around Mr. Sumeru sevenfold and shook the mountain causing it to rain. They also struck the ocean, so that the sea level rose up to the top of Sumeru. Due to these unusual events, the inhabitants of the heaven were warned of the invasion. Cf. Howard (1986: 15–16); Hiyama (2010: 366–367); Hiyama (2012: 148–149).

  10. 10.

    These two commentaries of the Abhidharmakośa are the works of Puguang (T 1821: 189a11–26) and of Fabao (T 1822: 618b19–23), two disciples of the prominent monk Xuanzang in the seventh century. Both texts explicitly describe the shape of Mt. Sumeru with the top in the same width as the base, and the middle part narrower than the top and the base —as compared to the shape of a hand drum in the former. The text that these two commentaries reference, namely the Chinese translation of the Abhidharmakośa by Xuanzang (T 1558), is a translation of the Sanskrit original text by Vasubhandu. It is tricky, because neither the description of this Chinese translation (T 1558: 59a16–60a26) nor its Sanskrit original text (for English translation see Pruden 1988: vol. 2, 462, verses 63–64) refer to the hour-glass shape of Mt. Sumeru.

  11. 11.

    For illustrations see Mural Paintings in Xinjiang of China (2009: vol. 1, figs. 9–13). For the detailed record of this cave in the condition of 1906 see Grünwedel 1912: 100–102.

  12. 12.

    The wall paintings of Mogao Cave 249 are closely related to those of Mogao Cave 285 from the stylistic and iconographical perspective, the level of similarity is such that the same artisan group may have participated in creating both caves. The latter includes the donative inscriptions referring to the Year 4 and 5 of Dadai Dawei Datong = 538 and 539 AD. For the recent study on these inscriptions, see Ishimatsu (2010).

  13. 13.

    For recent studies on political and cultural impacts on Dunhuang by the appointment of Yuan Rong see Rong (2013: 29–30); Tabayashi (2013); Wang (2017: 241–267).

  14. 14.

    For studies on the Hephthalite’s expansion into Central Asia and its cultural impact see Grenet (2002: 209–218); De la Vaissière (2005: 101–111); Neelis (2010: 159–170); Yoshida (2011: 22–25) (in which Yoshida proposed to the designation of Pax Hephthalica); (Alram 2016: 63–122).

  15. 15.

    For the extensive survey of Yungang Cave 10 see Mizuno and Nagagiro (1952), especially see pp. 17, 45, pls. 22–23, fig. 12 for the documentation on the Sumeru representation. Also see Su (1989) for the chronology of the site. Even though the chronology of the Yungang Grottoes is still under discussion, there is a general consensus about dating the pair of Caves 9 and 10 to the 480s. For the iconographical studies on this Sumeru image, see Yagi (1994: 6–7); Li (2003: 39–40). The author expresses her deep gratitude to Prof. Hidenori Okamura (Kyoto University) for generously providing the digital data of the original photograph used for pl. 23 of Mizuno & Nagahiro (1952), kept at the Institute for Research in Humanities of Kyoto University.

  16. 16.

    Among numerous prominent studies, especially notable contributions are He (1982); Duan (1983); Ning (1990); Koyama (1995); Saito (1995); He (2006); Tabayashi (2011: 240–241). In addition, the author expresses the deepest gratitude to Dr. Daniel R. Tuzzeo (Stanford University) for sharing his unpublished paper which summarizes the previous studies and elaborates the Buddhological reading of this representation. The publication of his dissertation, Crafting Cosmologies: Buddhist Cartography and the Spatial Imagination in Medieval China (successfully defended at Stanford University in May 2019), from which this paper was developed, will greatly benefit the field.

  17. 17.

    Since Mount Kunlun was also regarded as the world axis linking the earth and heaven, the imagery on Kunlun and Sumeru could overlap with less conflict. In fact, in the tenth volume of Shi Yi Ji (Forgotten Tales), a mythological treatise compiled by a Taoist writer Wang Jia in the late fourth century, explicitly mentions that Mt. Kunlun is called Mt. Sumeru in the West. See Saito (1995: 51).

  18. 18.

    Saito rather associated this motif of heavenly gate with Tuṣita heaven by comparing it with the same motif depicted in the middle of the balcony with heavenly musicians, which can be found on the northern wall of Mogao Cave 248 (1995: 53–54). It is a fact that the worship for Bodhisattva Maitreya in the Tuṣita heaven became a religious fashion in China in the fifth to sixth centuries. Nevertheless, whether the representation in Cave 248, and the related wall paintings in Kizil Caves that Saito cites as the evidence for her argument (based on the interpretation by Miyaji 1992: Chapter III-2), indeed illustrate specifically the Tuṣita heaven, needs a careful reexamination, since the musicians on the balcony can also belong to other heavenly layers such as the Trāyastriṃśa heaven.

  19. 19.

    In fact, Yuan Rong seems to have carried out another attempt along the same lines in Mogao Cave 285, another representative cave from the Western Wei period, for presenting the syncretistic visions of heavens by amalgamating astral motifs of Buddhism, Taoism, and even Brahmanism/Hinduism into one visual system. See Hiyama (in press a, in press b).

  20. 20.

    By describing it as an intermediate form, the present argument is simplified by focusing on the silhouette of Mt. Sumeru and the shape of the Nāgas coiling around it. The element that specifically appears in Yungang Cave 10 is the animal figures inserted within each mountain range forming Sumeru, and two Indian-looking deities carved at each side of Sumeru. The former seems to derived from the Han art tradition (Mizuno & Nagahiro 1952: 45); especially related type of art object could be the so-called Chinese Hill Censer or Boshan-lu, a traditional incense burner in a form of mythical mountain inhabited by various animals (Saito 1995: 48). This had been another established visual symbol of the worldly mountain since Han dynasty (Rawson 2006). The Han connotation of the Sumeru representation and its relationship with two Indian-looking deities flanking Sumeru needs further in-depth study.


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Hiyama, S. Transmission of the “World”: Sumeru Cosmology as Seen in Central Asian Buddhist Paintings Around 500 AD. N.T.M. (2020).

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  • Buddhist cosmology
  • Dunhuang
  • Kucha
  • Silk road cultural history
  • Sumeru
  • Yungang


  • Buddhistische Kosmologie
  • Dunhuang
  • Kucha
  • Kulturgeschichte der Seidenstraße
  • Sumeru/(Berg) Meru
  • Yungang