History of Statuebuilding


In the area of present day Afghanistan, on the trade route from Kabul to Bamiyan, clay and loam blended with straw chaff was the preferred material for the lining, the reliefs and sculptures of Buddhist caves in the 8th century.

Before and during the Tibetan occupation of the town oases on the Silk Road about 650 A.D. to 850 A.D. significant sculptures were made of unfired clay and mural paintings for the Buddhist cave temples along the former trade route.

The cave temples in Kizil, the Kirin cave in Shorchuk, in Kuntura and the cave temples of Dunhuang were decorated with painted clay statues and mural paintings.

Along the northern Silk Road in the eastern part of Central Asia (China) one used clay and loam for the arrangement of the caves in Kucha, Turfan, Dunhuang,

Shorchuk and Kizil ¹, while on the southern Silk Road stucco was predominantly taken.

Some examples of the unfired clay statues from the 4th century AD come from the caves along the Silk Road

and are now housed in museums of the countries that carried out the first expeditions to the Buddhist caves at the end of the 19th century. Also in the Museum of East Asian Art in Berlin Dahlem paintings and statues from the 8th century can be admired. Today one can be glad about the appropriation of these art treasures. Thereby they were preserved from the destruction by other cultures. They were protected against destruction by other cultures. The statues in the Berlin Museum often consist of a wooden framework around which the clay mixed with straw chaff was modelled. Fractures on the sculptures reveal material and technique. The sculptures are painted matte.

In Tibet the first clay sculptures were produced by means of different techniques. Mostly clay was modelled around a core of stone and wood. Smaller statues were often made completely of clay.

The clay sculptures in the cave temples from the 5th to the 8th century along the Silk Road show that plant fibers were added to the clay, apparently in order to obtain more stability and to keep the shrinkage on drying lower.


The plant fibres combine the otherwise adjacent clay particles, which, unfired, do not form a durable compound.

In his extensive work 'Buddhist sculpture in clay', the Tibetologist Christian Luczanits thoroughly treats the subject of the clay statues in the Western Himalayas from the 10th to the early 13th century.

Here you can see wonderful examples of clay statue building in the early days.

Along with the well built statues, one can find carelessly made clay statues built by the end of the13th century.

The core was now often made of straw, which was wrapped around a wooden frame. Around the straw a relatively thin layer of clay was modelled.


During the Chinese cultural revolution², the Chinese troops destroyed many of the sculptures, limbs were broken, the thin clay surface was damaged. Most of the Tibetan sculptures from the temples did not survive the cultural revolution and are preserved only in the photographs of early Tibetan travellers such as the Italian Orientalist Guiseppe Tucci.³



After the cultural revolution, clay sculptures were and are still being built in Tibet to the present day. Today, clay is mixed with coarse-fibred paper (similar to Japanese paper) and the sculptures are built hollow.

Due to the construction technique and the thin, but stable material,

sculptures that are not larger than life-size are easier to transport.


Regardless of the political developments in Tibet, the Buddhist artists in Ladakh were able to pass on the tradition of statue building incessantly.


Also in the Kingdom of Bhutan unfired clay statues are still being built. The Bhutanese artists have further refined the technique having reached a leading mastery.


The clay sculptures from Bhutan are exceptionally finely worked. Initially, plant fibers were used, which were added to the clay and through which the unfired clay statues obtained an inner stability. Today, cotton wool is added.



Since the 1970s, when Buddhism came to Europe, statues for temples and Buddhist centers have also been commissioned here. In France, where traditionally lived, monastic Tibetan Buddhism is strongly represented, the temple de mille bouddhas (Temple of the 1000 Buddhas) was built in La Boulaye in 1974 under the direction of Kalu Rinpoche (1904-1989).

For the meditation hall, Bhutanese artists built three huge statues of Guru Rinpoche, Buddha Shakyamuni and the Green Tara. The statues, up to six meters high, were modelled with cotton-lined clay around a core of masonry, wood, fabric, and mantra-rolls. Artistically ambitious Buddhists in Europe had the unique opportunity to attend and participate in that event. Thus, the knowledge about statue building with the Bhutanese clay sculpture technique came to the west for the first time.