TO JULY 7, 2002

Think of them as the Silk Road’s version of a Christian Science reading room. All along the ancient trade route from India to China, caves were turned into Buddhist places of study, devotion, and contemplation. The largest surviving Buddhist cave complex in Central Asia is Qizil, in what is now Western China (and, these days, on the edge of the desert where China tests its nuclear bombs). Some 250 caves have been found there, about half of them relatively intact, dating from the third to seventh centuries A.D. and decorated with artwork that illustrates Buddha’s life and teachings. The chambers were designed as minibiographies, culminating with a smaller final room showing Buddha’s achievement of nirvana. The 15 pieces in this show, mostly from the same cave, were painted on gypsum plaster that was applied to the cave surface because the existing rock was too soft and crumbly to be useful; what’s left of the paintings today is fragmentary and badly damaged. Artistically, the pieces are generally not that interesting, although the rendering of a near-ectoplasmic devotee in “Three Figures” is striking. Still, they offer fascinating evidence of a cosmopolitan culture in an area that’s now considered one of the world’s most remote: The paintings clearly depict a multiracial and multicultural religious community, showing worshipers of various appearances alongside Indian and Iranian cultural artifacts. With Central Asia today a place of festering hatreds and bristling borders, these paintings are relics of what seems to have been a golden age. The exhibition is on view from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily, to Sunday, July 7, 2002, at the Sackler Gallery, 1050 Independence Ave. SW. Free. (202) 357-4880. (Mark Jenkins)