Chinese archaeologists have discovered a temple, dating back more than 1,500 years, in the southern rim of the Taklimakan Desert in northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.
About seven kilometers from the Damagou Township of Cele County, the Tuopulukedun Temple is 2.25 meters long and two meters wide, with walls about 1.3 meters high.
The temple is wood-and-mud structured and has fine frescos of Mahayana scriptures on the four walls. A Buddha statue, about 0.65 meters tall, stands in the central part of the temple. In the middle of the northern parts stand other Buddha statues, wide-shouldered and thin-waisted.
The Tuopulukedun Temple is so far the smallest ancient temple that has been discovered in the world, said Wu Xinhua, head of the Xinjiang Archaeological Team of the Archaeology Institute under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
"The temple is also the sole ancient temple which is comparatively intact and with the best-reserved frescos and Buddha figures discovered in the Taklimakan Desert," Wu said.
Approximately 3,000 years ago, the Yutian Kingdom was established in the southern rim of the Taklimakan Desert, the largest desert in China and the second largest desert in the world. Buddhism was introduced into the Yutian Kingdom around the year of Our Lord, according to a historical document.
The Yuchi family, which began ruling the Yutian Kingdom around 2,000 years ago, were devoted Buddhists and made great efforts to promote Buddhism inside the kingdom by building many temples and Buddhist pagodas. Thus Yutian was held sacred by Buddhism believers, from where the Mahayana scriptures were introduced into inland areas of China.
In the mid 8th century, the Kalahan Kingdom in the western part of the Taklimakan Desert launched a religious war against the Yutian Kingdom and defeated the Yutian Kingdom in 1006. Since then, Islam was introduced and became prevalent in the territory of the former Yutian Kingdom. Many temples and pagodas built by former Yutian Kingdoms were destroyed in wars and from changes of regimes and religions over the past more than 1,000 years.
The Tuopulukedun Temple, which has been buried under the sand for about 1,500 years, was accidentally discovered by a cowboy recently.
Archaeologists in Xinjiang and from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences made an excavation in areas within a radius of 100 meters around the temple from September 30 to October 12 this year, but found no other valuable relics.
The Tuopulukedun Temple opened a new window for archaeologists to study the ancient Buddhist Yutian Kingdom, said Wu, with the Xinjiang Archaeological Team, adding that shape and structure of the temple, frescoes and other relics unearthed from the temple are of significant value in the study of Buddhism, Buddhist belief among common people and fresco painting in the ancient Yutian Kingdom, as well as the spread of Buddhism in northwest China and inland areas of China.
The temple is also material evidence of exchange between eastern and western cultures along the ancient Silk Road, a famous commercial route linking China with central and west Asian more than 2,000 years ago.
About 500 meters westward from the temple is a 30-meter-wide ditch running from the south to the north. An area along the ditch was once the central part of Bimo Kingdom, a mall kingdom built on an oasis, which was later taken over by Yutian Kingdom. The ditch is called by locals "Damagou".
Wu said the name of "Damagou" actually originates from ancient Indian Sanskrit "Dharma", and "Kho", an affix used by ancient people in the area to describe location. "Damagou" means "A pool of Buddha's teachings".
Archaeologists discovered large quantities of relics in the Damagou area which prove the history of the Yutian Kingdom and the ancient history of the southern part of Xinjiang.