Sandal wood in the Horyuji Temple

These rare items are preserved in the treasury of the Horyu-ji Temple in Nara. According to ink inscriptions on the wood, these pieces had reached Japan at some point before 761 CE, (Yoshida, 1993, 256; Yajima, 1989, 137), and attest to the wide international network of Sogdian trade. The sandalwood, highly praised for its scent’s ability to help meditators maintain alertness, must have originated from India or Sri Lanka and come to Japan via China or Sumatra. It is inscribed in Pahlavi script and marked with a Sogdian brand. From the style of writing, these inscriptions were made en route as exported goods, and they were the first of the kind to arrive to Japan at that time (Tono, 1987). The Pahlavi inscriptions represent the same word, most likely the name of the owner, and are made in late Sassanian cursive script (Kumamoto, 1987, 16). The Sogdian brand, in its turn, represents an inscription and a cross, surrounded by a square frame. The inscription may signify the price or the weight of the sandalwood, while the cross may be the trademark of a Sogdian merchant (Yoshida, 1987, 17). Considering the crude non-carved shapes of the pieces they were likely intended to be burnt, but instead were kept in the Buddhist treasury. The items were probably delivered directly to Nara, which was the capital of Japan between 710 and 794 CE. The arrival of these sandalwood pieces to Japan is likely to be connected with Buddhism, as this kind of wood is mentioned in the Pali canon and is considered to be an attribute of Amitabha Buddha, whose cult had been popular since the earliest appearances of Buddhism in Japan. Although the first Japanese Buddhist pilgrim didn't make it to India before 818 CE (Pratt, 1980, 476), Buddhist pilgrimage travels from India and Sri Lanka to China are well attested, and there were also steady cultural and religious contacts between T’ang China and Japan (Sen, 2014, 42-43), while T’ang China itself was a bustling multicultural center. Thus, in 733, the Japanese emperor Shomu dispatched four ships as an embassy to the T’ang court. When it returned in 736 it brought, among others, an Indian Buddhist monk Bodhisena and a Persian Li Mi-I (Hayashi, 1976, 85). There is evidence that Sogdian seafaring merchants based in Southeast Asia were involved in the Buddhist interactions between South Asia and China as much as on the mainland, and that Chinese Sogdians were involved in spreading the religion by the northern routes (Sen, 2014, 48). Two kinds of “Silk Road”, the overland and the maritime, coexisted for most of the first millennium AD, and in mercantile activities of both sets of travellers had a major role (Sen, 2014, 41). The maritime routes connecting Sri Lanka and South India to China via Sumatra were well travelled and represented a viable alternative to the overland road, while the connections between China and Japan could only be maritime. These sandalwoods could have arrived to Japan either by a combination of the overland and the sea roads, or else directly by ship from Sri Lanka or India. Images at Mount Kongwang in northern Jiangsu Province and the biography of a Sogdian monk Kang Senghui are evidence of Sogdian merchants activity on the section of this maritime trading network connecting South Asia and China as far back as 3nd century CE (Sen, 2014, 43). Further evidence is found in the diary of the Buddhist monk Vajrabodhi, who documents his travels on a “Persian ship” from South India to Sri Lanka, before reaching China after a stop in Śrīvijaya around 719 or 720 CE (Sen, 2014, 52). Some other items, such as ivory rulers, Gigaku masks representing Persians, or Persian glass bowl with cut facets, which are kept in Shoso-in, the treasure house of Todai-ji in Nara, belong to the same period and might have traveled to Japan via the same route at approximately the same time (Hayashi, 1976, 89). - Maria Slautina


Yoshida, Yutaka. “On the Sogdian Brands”, ”, in Museum, Tokyo National Museum, August, 1987, p. 17. (MS)

Yoshida, Y. "Review of N. Sims-Williams, Sogdian and Other Iranian Inscriptions of the Upper Indus", in Indo-Iranian Journal, 36/3, 1993, p. 256. (MS)

Yajima, Hikoichi. “The Stamped Aromatic Woods from the Treasure House of Horyuji and the Early Islamic Indian Ocean”, in Journal of Asian and African Studies, 37, 1989, pp. 123-141. (MS)

Tono, Haruyuki. “Inscriptions on the Scented Woods in the Horyuji Treasures and Ancient Incense Trade – with Special Reference to Pahlavi Inscriptions and Sogdian Brand”, in Museum, Tokyo National Museum, August, 1987, pp. 4-15. (MS)

Kumamoto, Hiroshi. “On the Pahlavi Inscription”, in Museum, Tokyo National Museum, August, 1987, p. 16. (MS)

Sen, Tansen. “Buddhism and the Maritime Crossings”, in China and Beyond in the Mediaeval Period: Cultural Crossings and Inter-Regional Connections, Amherst and Delhi, 2014, p. 42. (MS)

Pratt, James Bissett. The Pilgrimage of Buddhism and Buddhist Pilgrimage, 1980. (MS)

Hayashi, Ryoichi. The Silk Road and the Shoso-in, New York; Tokyo: Weatherhill/Heibonsha, 1975. (MS)



8th century

Additional Research Metadata


Bears a brand in Sogdian and inscription in Pahlaviscript. Indication that the Sogdians were also active along the maritime Silk Road.



“Sandal wood in the Horyuji Temple,” Telling the Sogdian Story , accessed August 9, 2020,