The project seeks to shed light on the different typologies of monasteries and the possible common characteristics of those that have been referred to as "great monasteries" in the oases of the Tarim Basin and Central Asia more widely during the 1st millennium CE. This was a pivotal area for the spreading of Buddhism during these centuries. Monastic institutions have played a multifaceted role in the history of Buddhism. They were, and still are today, not only places of living Buddhist monasticism but centers of learning and scholarship involved in the keeping and creation of Buddhist knowledge; places of interaction between lay and religious communities; and strongholds of state protection beneficially coexisting with the political establishment. Over time, the major monasteries whose names and related facts have been preserved through historical literature of the Buddhist tradition became vital pilgrimage centers attracting the Buddhist community. Their reputation inspired emulation in regions outside the Indian subcontinent and the foundation of equivalent institutions all over Asia.
The project’s methodological basis is the cross-disciplinary study and contextualization of archaeological, art historical and historical sources. Within the Indian context, the relevant literary and epigraphic sources contain a variety of terms used to refer to the monastic residence. In addition to saṃghārāma, vihāra, lena and guhā, some are referred to as mahāvihāra or mahāsaṃghārāma, literally "great monastery" or "great convent". In the Chinese context, monastic institutions became closely connected to the strongly centralized political establishment, especially during periods when Buddhism flourished and enjoyed state support. In Chinese sources, we find equivalents of the terms mahāvihāra and mahāsaṃgharama, namely dasi, da(seng)jialan or dajingshe. While the Chinese counterparts were unmistakably inspired by the Indian mahāvihāra, the question remains how closely related these institutions were to this Indian monastic concept.
The project will systematically cross-reference the relevant available archaeological, artistic and literary evidence as well as critically reassess data and results derived from previous studies on the basis of newly available material. It will focus on three of the ancient oases of the Tarim (Khotan, Kucha and Turfan) as case studies, which share outstanding importance as Buddhist centers, close interrelation with China and therefore the availability of historical information in various Chinese literary sources.
The resultant study will deepen our knowledge of the systems and patterns of operation and functioning of Buddhism’s "great monasteries" in Eastern Central Asia and improve our understanding of the dynamics of Buddhist expansion through its religious institutions.