Buddhist monastic institutions have played a multifaceted role in the history of Buddhism, and to a certain degree continue to do so today. They were not only places of living Buddhist monasticism but also centres of learning and scholarship where Buddhist knowledge was both created and maintained, including an important library tradition hosting large collections of manuscripts. They acted as places of interaction between lay and religious communities, thus providing space for the public performance of collective institutionalised rituals and services of physical aid and healing. Ultimately, they were institutions which were able to beneficially coexist with the political authorities, largely exhibiting a symbiotic relationship with governments and offering legitimisation through religious services in exchange for support and protection.
The FWF funded project “Contextualizing Ancient Remains: Networks of Buddhist Monasteries in Central Asia” (FWF P32186) documents different typologies of monasteries in the Tarim area (Xinjiang Uyghur Region, China) during the 1st millennium CE, identifying, among them, those that are recorded as being Great Monasteries, and studies the possible common characteristics of such institutions.
Three important centres of Buddhism —Kucha, Khotan and Turfan— serve as case studies. Each of them features different modes of absorption of Buddhism and covers different chronological ranges, with a total timeframe of about ten centuries (3rd–13th c. CE). The research is built upon three main categories of sources: a) Documentation from primary archaeological research and architectural and art historical studies on the excavated material; b) Historical and philological studies based on primary textual evidence; c) Comparative examples from other regions of Buddhist Asia, particularly India, China and Tibet.