The Mazar of the Seven Maiden

Tim Grose
Rose Hulman Institute of Technology, Terre Haute, MN

 

Until the most recent crackdowns on religiosity in the region, otherwise loosely connected Uyghurs communities of the Tarim and Junggar Basins (present-day Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region), were associated — and their identities crystalised — through constellations of sacred tombs called mazar. Meaning ‘holy place’, ‘pilgrimage’, and ‘to witness’, mazars marked the final resting spots of important scholars, nobles, clerics, martyrs and local heroes, many of whom helped to spread Islam in the region. They were often visited in hopes the saint’s spiritual charisma (baraka) could cure sickness, make barren women fertile, resolve disputes, and strengthen one’s relationships with the Divine. Yet, they functioned more than a place for mystical religious expression: they were venues for social interaction. Mazars provided communities with sanctified places to visit the graves of loved ones, recite holy texts, gather for festivals and offer charity to the poor. As a Uyghur colleague from Turfan explained to me: ‘Uyghur people are linked through social institutions that span outward from mähällä (neighbourhood unit) to jäm’iyät (community), to mosque, then mazar and finally bazaar. Indeed, mazars connect people as much with each other as they do the Divine.

The Mazar of the Seven Maidens — located near Turfan — was still an important site of local piety in 2015. Before visiting that summer, I had an extended conversation with world’s leading scholar on Uyghur mazar Professor Dawut — who has since been arbitrary sentenced to life in prison — about the site. She wrote about this location in her canonical 2001 book, ‘The Mazars of Uyghurs’ (Uyghur mazarliri), which I translate in full here:

The Mazar of the Seven Maidens is located above a mountain that is situated approximately one kilometre south from Putuq Hamlet of the Chuwanqir Mähällä in Lämjin Village, Pichan County.[1] The location’s geographic coordinates are directly at 89°56’12” longitude and 42°51’67” latitude. It is 320 metres above sea level.

The Mazar of the Seven Maidens is seven domed tombs built in a row northwest of a cemetery. According to legend, during fighting against Buddhists, seven girls escaped and arrived at this spot. Then, the Buddhists chasing the girls slaughtered them. Afterwards, people commemorating them had a tomb built and named it Mazar of the Seven Maidens. In a valley opposite of the location of the Mazar of the Seven Maidens stands a mountain, which is the site of the Mazar of the Seven Lads. According to legend, these boys were also martyred during the war with Buddhists. It is said, during the summer at dusk the seven maidens and seven lads swim in the river of this valley and eat watermelon together.

Figure 1: Mazar of the Seven Maiden

According to estimates, the cemetery of Seven Maidens’ Mazar was established between the Tang Dynasty and the Idiqut Dynasty. The sacred land of the Mazar of Seven Maidens includes an area of 150 thousand square meters. Due to local people tilling the land and excavating the earth and salt, part of the cemetery has been destroyed. Generally speaking, however, the cemetery has been preserved quite well. The tombs can basically be divided into three different types: (1) tombs of loose rocks measuring two meters in diameter and being 50 centimetres tall; (2) tombs built facing one direction and separated by a distance of two-four metres and the diameter and height being the same as the first type of tomb and; (3) tombs that are surrounded on four sides by a square structured formed from piled rocks.

The Mazar of the Seven Maidens’ cemetery is designated as a cultural site protected by the Autonomous Region.

The mazar appeared desolate upon my arrival. Close to noon local time, the domed tombs barely casted shadows on the dusty mixture of golden sand and gravel.[2] They stood still in the barren desert and bore down at distant green fields as if the tombs were reminding locales of their mortality. A bier (Uy. täwut) rested in an otherwise empty structure.[3] Turning my gaze to the ground, I was met by an overturned sheep’s skull —  a common offering at mazar called sädiqä — bleached from the intense sun.

Figure 2: Sheep Skull

Wind gusts violently striking flags (Uy. ‘alam), scarves and strips of cloth produced a cadence that sounded as though boots — maybe of past pilgrims or the seven maidens themselves — were marching up the nearby mountain. The rustling of the flags breathed abundant life into the location, which was otherwise marked by stillness and symbols of death. Uyghur communities in the Turpan region, especially, use flags to heal sickness. For example, if one becomes ill, the matriarch will borrow a strip of cloth from seven families. Each piece of fabric represents the respective family’s elemental deity — i.e., heaven, earth, the underground, hell, water, fire, and air — which the pieces of cloth will arouse and gather to heal the sick.

Figure 3: Tugh-‘alam

Indeed, offerings — and therefore petitions — were abundant. A simple qorchaq (doll) formed from two sticks near the opening of a domed tomb was likely placed by a young woman who hoped to bring new life into the world.[4] Below the main ritualistic pole (Uy. tugh), which was decorated with brightly-coloured ‘alam, was a sparkling green dastihan tablecloth set with two bowls deliberately held down by seven stones. The spiritual meal may be a gesture to a roaming spirit that is causing minor ailments or bad luck after its head had been accidentally trampled. Pilgrims had also recently ‘burned lamps’ (Uy. chiragh qilish)[5] for the saint or deceased loved one at this spot.

Figure 4: Qorchaq placed at opening of a tomb

 

Figure 5: Bowls set on dastihan

Indeed in 2015, the site was still very much a ‘living shrine’. As Thum as shown in his work on Uyghur sacred space, the Mazar of Seven Maidens marked an important place in Uyghur imaginings of their land and inscribed meaning in an otherwise meaningless space of vast desert. Through the constant replacing of ‘alam, providing offerings and reciting prayers handed down from parents and grandparents, this mazar — like so many others — provided a transtemporal yet tangible link among pilgrims past and present, local history and the Divine.

However, Chinese officials have severely curbed mazar practices. Many sites were desacralized and transformed into tourist attractions decades ago. More recently, in 2018, the government ordered the razing of the Jä’firi Sadiq and Ordam mazars. In Khotan and Kashghar, checkpoints block would-be pilgrims from nearing these holy sites. The destruction and desecration of these holy sites add to the growing list of the CCP’s prohibitions against Uyghur expression of Islam.

Yet, according to satellite imagery, the Mazar of the Seven Maidens still stands atop its mountain perch in Pichan. Although this mazar is unlikely to attract activity under current political conditions, it exists to be rediscovered and revived. It possesses the potential to link future pilgrims to the Divine, to their pasts, to each other and to the land.

Figure 6: Google Earth, 1/5/2024


[1] Pichan County is under the jurisdiction of Turpan Prefecture and is located approximately 90 kilometres east of Turpan city. In 2010, its population stood at 231,297 people, 66 per cent of whom were Uyghur.

[2] We also visited on Monday. Mazar activities more commonly occur on Wednesdays and Thursdays.

[3] Professor Dawut does not identify this building in her description. Judging from its lack of mihrab and minbar, and being simply constructed, I suspect it is a meeting place for mystics (Uy. haniqa).

[4] Of course, not having interviewed the individual who offered this qorchaq, this interpretation is speculation. To be sure, qorchaqs are often left by women wishing to become pregnant, but they can also be offered to cure ailments.

[5] Rian Thum (personal communication) offers two explanations. Noting he had never seen two bowls placed on a dastihan, he raised the possibility that they were used as oil lamps and lit to commemorate the dead. Additionally, the bowls may have been used for a sacrificial meal even though this ritual is usually performed by groups of at least a dozen pilgrims. See also Bellér-Hann, 2008: 366.



Cite this blog post
Red Gold (2024, February 20). The Mazar of the Seven Maiden. RedGold. Retrieved June 18, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/vvz3

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