Remarks on the Sogdian Religious
The ancient part of Samarkand, commonly
known with the evocative name of Afrasyab, has been interesting students of Sogdian
art since its accidental discovery happened in 1965. The more interesting
paintings are certainly the scenes reproduced on the walls of the room commonly
known as the “Hall of the Ambassadors”. This name is due to the representation
of diplomatics from several parts of the ancient Asiatic kingdoms in contact
with Sogdiana arrived at the court of the king of Samarkand Varghuman (about
the middle of the 7th century) to present their gifts. Such
interpreation is supported also by a Sogdian inscription which mentions the
ambassadors from Chaghanyan (a part of the historical region of Tokharistan)
and Chach (Tashkent). Unfortunately, the upper part of the whole composition in
the Hall of the Ambassadors was completely destroyed by a bulldozer during the works
for the contruction of a modern road, so the interpretation of the scenes has
been very enigmatic and conditioned by the Sogdian inscription mentioned above.
For more than ten years the Franco–Uzbek archaeological expedition has
started the researches interrupted in the Sovietic period with very important
results. The two partner teams had also the opportunity to confront their
conclusions with the knowledge of other scholars such as Boris Marshak, Chiara
Silvi Antonini, Etsuko Kageyama, etc. In particular, Marshak’s intuitions
deserve special attention because they shed new light on the interpretation of
the religious meaning of the scene painteded on the southern wall at Afrasyab
Here a procession can be observed moving from the corner with the western wall
onward. Among the riders on the right part of the scene there is also Varghuman
himself represented bigger in size than his attendants. On the left part, the
procession is led by a white elephant that probably carried the wife of Varghuman
followed by three female riders.
As observed above, much of the paintings were destroyed but, thanks to
the reconstructions proposed by Markus Mode and Frantz Grenet it is now
possible to argue about the more probable original scenes on strong bases.
An important detail is constituted by the building at the end of the scene,
clearly the target of the procession (fig. 2).
to Marshak interpretation, this is the temple of the ancestors of the king of
Samarkand. This ipothesis is further supported by the Chinese sources: in fact,
in the Beishi and in the Suishu it is reported that the king of
Chach accomplished the sacrifices for the ancestors on the occasion of the
festival of the New Year (Marshak, 1994: 14–15). It is commonly accepted that
this last festivity (we could even say the Festivity par excellence in the
Iranian lands: the Nouruz) is the one reproduced on the western wall at
Afrasyab (fig. 3)
In figure 2 one can observe the state of preservation of this part of the
painting (the terminal part of the building and the feet of four people), while
in figure 1 it was proposed a reconstruction clearly based on other Sogdian
mural paintings (especially from Panjakand).
Among the people of the procession of the southern wall there are also
some sacrifical animals and priests or, as it was recently proposed, even
nobles who received the honour to lead and probably to kill the animals. They
can be recognized by the special masks on their mouths normally used by
Zoroastrians not to pollute the rituals with the breath and by the sacrificial
maces in the hands of the two camel riders. The sacrifical animals are four
birds and an harnessed horse. According to Grenet, the horse is destined to the
while the four birds are for Zurvan, the Iranian god of time worshipped also by
the Sogdians. Unfortunately there are no discoveries of Sogdian works of art
with representations of Zurvan however, according to the sources, this divinity
was one of the most important gods of the Sogdian pantheon. As it is commonly
accepted among scholars, since the 6th century the Sogdians have
used the Hindu iconography for the representation of their own gods: in this
way Ahura Mazda–Adbagh was associated to Shakra (Indra), Zurvan to
Brahma and Weshparkar–Vayu to Mahadeva (Shiva). In Sogdian Buddhist sources
also Vaisharavana and Narayana–Vishnu appear but they are not associated to
Mazdean gods. However, they are described according to their Indian attire: an
armour was the carachteristic of Vaishravana and sixteen arms the one of
Narayana–Vishnu. Every Sogdian god was associated with an animal which could be
represented also as his vahana
according to Hindu concept.
For this reason Grenet proposed to link the harnessed horse in the mural
painting at Afrasyab with Mithra and the birds with Zurvan, in fact, among
ancient Iranians and Indians (but also among the Greeks) the horse was the
animal associated to the solar god and, in Hindu culture and art, the swan was
the vahana of Brahma.
So, if we have to accept Grenet’s idea (perfectly fitting with Marshak
interpretation), the birds should be regarded as the sacrificial animals for
The Sogdian religion was not
aniconic, on the contrary, archaeological excavations led at the site of
Panjakand revealed several representations of gods and goddesses. At this
point, one could suppose that inside the temple represented at the end of the
procession on the southern wall at Afrasyab there could have been images of the
ancestors of the king as suggested in the Chinese sources. However, it is not
possible to deny that inside the temple there could have been also images of
the gods to whom the animal sacrifices were destined. As already observed
above, the fragments of the part of the painting with the temple show the feets
of four people (fig. 1–2). According to Marshak the three people inside the
building should be considered keepers of the temple or priests and the one just
outside the temple clad in harmour should be considered a soldier. However,
they could even be considered representations of the gods, most likely statues
or even paintings. Just the textile decorations typically Iranian of the four
people of the temple (the so–called “pearl roundels”) could constitute the key
for the identification of these divinities. As it was already attempted to
demonstrate by this writer in another study, the iconography chosen to fill the
decorative roundels on some textiles recovered at Turfan (repeated practically
identical in the Sogdian paintings) could have had some links with its
employement in a funerary context. In fact, the preference accorded in those
cemeteries to the winged horse decoration could have alluded to the fact that
the pegasus was considered a psychopomp for the ancient population of Turfan
(in part also Sogdian) such as for the “Indo–Europeans” people in general
(Compareti, 2003: 36). The same hipothesis could be considered true for proper
Sogdiana where, in the part of the painting of the southern wall considered
here, the figure wearing a cloth embellished with pearl roundels containing
birds could have been just Zurvan, while the one with a robe embellished with
winged horses could have been Mithra. The subject inside the pearl roundels of
the third figure from the right has desappeared but the last one clad in armour
should be identified with Vaishravana. On these bases, then, the third figure
could be identified with Adbagh or with Weshparkar and, consequently, the pearl
roundels on his robe could have been filled with elephants or boars: two subjects
quite diffused in other Sogdian paintings and at Afrasyab as well (Al’baum,
1975: figs. 4, 11, pls. VI, XVI, XXII, XXVI).
Another scholar of Central Asian
art, Ju. Motov, proposed a similar system based on the textile decorations in
order to recognize the Sogdian gods at Afrasyab (Motov, 1999). On the contrary,
as already observed above, Boris Marshak does not see in the four figures just
mentioned the representation of Sogdian gods. Also Frantz Grenet does not agree
with such identification. The latter, in fact, argues that the textile
decorations on these four people recur on the clothes of other figures who are
clearly not divinities in the same paintings at Afrasyab and, then, they could
be considered gods only if their dimensions were bigger in size, for example
like those of Varghuman. Although the four figures around the temple could be
considered as reproduced of normal size because they are supposed to represent
statues or paintings, other objections could be advanced against the hipothesis
under consideration. For example, the birds on the garment on the supposed
Zurvan seem peacokcs and not swans; then, in the procession, among the
sacrificial animals there should be at least one bull destined to Weshparkar.
There is the possibility that the white elephant represented the sacrificial
animal for Adbagh but this interpretation would completely contrast with the
one commonly accepted that considers the elephant as a transportation for a
All the ideas just exposed do not
want to be a definitive answer to the identification of this part of the
painting of the southern wall at Afrasyab, on the contrary, they constitute a
series of hipotheses which need more exhaustive study even if scholars such as
Marshak and Grenet have already expressed themselves against them. In this
brief article it was thought to attract the attention on a detail that, in a
country of merchants of precious textiles, should have been absolutely not
Compareti, 2003: M.
Compareti, “Note sull’iconografia del pegaso e del cavallo bardato nell’arte
iranica”, in: Il falcone di Bistam.
Intorno all’iranica Fenice/Samand: un progetto di sintesi per il volo del
Pegaso iranico tra Ponto, Alessandretta e Insulindia, a cura di M.
Compareti e G. Scarcia, Venezia, 2003: 27–37.
S. Cristoforetti, Il Natale della luce in
Iran. Una festa del fuoco nel cuore di ogni inverno. Ricerche sul sada:
occorrenze , rituale e temi mitologici di una celebrazione cortese tra Baghdad
e Bukhara, secc. IX–XII, Milano, 2003.
Grenet, 1993: F.
Grenet, “Trois nouveaux documents d’iconographie religieuse sogdienne”, Studia Iranica, 22, fasc. 1, 1993:
Grenet, 1995/96: F.
Grenet, “Vaiśrava³a in Sogdiana. About the Origins of Bishamon–ten”, Silk Road Art and Archaeology, 4,
F. Grenet, “The Self–Image of the Sogdians” in: Proceedings of the Beijing
Conference “Les Sogdiens en Chine”,
2002: F. Grenet, M. Samibaev, “Hall of
Ambassadors” in the Museum of Afrasiab (middle of the VII th Century),
Humbach, 1975: H.
Humbach, “Vayu, Śiva und der Spiritus Vivens im ostiranischen Synkretismus”,
in: Hommages et Opera Minora. Monumentum
H. S. Nyberg, I, Acta Iranica, 4, 1975: 397–408.
Marshak, 1994: B. I.
Marshak, “Le programme iconographique des peintures de la «Salle des
ambassadeurs» à Afrasiab (Samarkand)”, Arts
Asiatiques, XLIX, 1994: 5–20.
Mode, 1993: M. Mode,
Sogdien und die Herrscher der Welt.
Türken, Sasaniden und Chinesen in Historiengemälden des 7. Jahrhunderts n.Chr.
aus Alt–Samarqand, Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, New York, Paris, Wien,
Motov, 1999: Ju. A. Motov, “Izobrazhenie
misterii prazdnika Michragan v nastennych rospisjach Afrasiabskogo dvorca”, in:
Istorija i archeologija Semirech’ja,
Almaty, 1999: 57–81.
Riboud, 2003: P. Riboud, “Le cheval sans
cavalier dans l’art funéraire sogdien en Chine: à la recherche des sources d’un
thème composite”, Arts Asiatiques,
58, 2003: 148–161.
Shishkin, 1963: V. A. Shishkin, Varakhsha, Moskva, 1963.
1989: C. Silvi Antonini, “The Paintings in the Palace of Afrasiab (Samarkand), Rivista degli Studi Orientali, LXIII,
2004: Yang Junkai, “Newly Discovered Burials of Sogdian Community Leaders in
China: a Preliminary Decoding of the Illustrations on the Stone Sarcophagus of
the Sabao Shi of Liangzhou Dating
from the Northern Zhou Period”, in: ed. Rong Xinjiang, Zhang Zhiqing, From Samarkand to Chang’an: Cultural Traces
of the Sogdians in China, Beijing, 2004: 17–26.
 According to Marshak, in the upper part of the painting of the
southern wall now lost, there should have been the representation of the
goddess Nana: Marshak, 1994: 6. For other scholars there should have been a
king: Silvi Antonini, 1989: 116–117; Mode, 1993: 48–75; Grenet, forthcoming.
For a third possibility, see: Motov, 1999.
 Some reproductions are available both in internet and in form of a
small brochure published by the Museum of Afrasyab:
http://www.orientarch.uni-halle.de/ca/afras/; www.afrasiab.org; Grenet,
Samibaev, 2002: 6–7.
 On the horse sacrifice among the Sogdians: Grenet, 1993: 61 n. 44;
Compareti, 2003. See also: Riboud, 2003: 158–159. Also the Persians had similar
habits: Cristoforetti, 2003: 267–273.
 This problem was the subject of the unpublished PhD dissertation of
the present writer: M. Compareti, Gli
apporti indiani nell’arte della Sogdiana e il ramo marittimo della “Via della
Seta”, Tesi di dottorato di ricerca in “Turchia, Iran, Asia Centrale” I°
ciclo nuova serie, Università degli Studi di Napoli “L’Orientale” Dipartimento
di Studi Asiatici, 2002–2003. See also: Humbach, 1975; Grenet, 1995/96:
 Consequently, the vahana of
Weshparkar was the bull since the animal of Shiva was the bull Nandi
and the vehicle of Ahura Mazda–Adbagh was the elephant.
According to this new interpretation, the god with the trishula sitting on three bulls represented on a Sogdian
sarcophagus excavated in the region of Xi’an could be identified with
Weshparkar: Yang, 2004: fig. 3. In the same way, the god sitting on a white
elephant fighting with monstruous animals in the paintings at Varakhsha could
be Ahura Mazda–Adbagh: Shishkin, 1963: pls. I–XI.