The battle for the soul of the Heart of Asia

Kumārajīva was one of the early translators of the Buddhist canon into Chinese. His father’s lineage was reputedly Indian, while his mother was from the elite of the city of Kucha, on the northern edge of the Tarim basin. It was one of the cities where a form of Tocharian was spoken. This enigmatic Indo-European language family is extinct and known from only a few examples in this region of the world (the different forms of Tocharian seem to have been mutually unintelligible, suggesting a long history in this region of the world for these languages). But Tocharian was not the only Indo-European language group that was represented in the Tarmin. Along the southern and western edge of the Taklamakan Iranian dialects were more common, such as in the city of Khotan.

Over the last 1,000 years, the Tarim Basin has undergone major changes. First, the collapse of the ancient Uyghur Turk Empire resulted in their retrenchment to the Tarim Basin. A previously pastoralist people, they became settled city-dwellers. By the time Genghis Khan rose to power, the Uyghurs had become a predominantly Buddhist people, with a focus around Turpan. They seem to have absorbed the predominantly Tocharian city-states of the eastern portion of the Tarim Basin.

But after 1000 AD a second change began to occur. A group of Turks, who spoke a Karluk dialect, converted to Islam and conquered Kashgar in the west of the Tarim Basin, and began to push eastward, conquering and converting the Buddhist city-states in turn. By 1400 the cultural expansion and military conquest reached the eastern fringe of the Tarim Basin, as Turpan and Hami were absorbed into the Islamic cultural sphere. With this, a new identity unified the city-states of the Tarim Basin. In language they spoke Karluk dialects, and in religion they were Muslim. In the 20th century the Uyghur ethnonym was resurrected in what was known as East Turkestan, but the cultural descendents of the ancient Uyghurs are actually the Yugurs (whose traditional language descends from that of Old Uyghur). Read More