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Mogao Cave 45 (High Tang 705-781AD)
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Figure 1: Statues in the main niche, west wall

Dating from the golden age of Dunhuang, this is one of the outstanding caves in all of China.

The splendid group of statues in the main niche (Figure 1) is original and the paintings are well preserved. The Buddha sits in lotus position, looking at the devotees serenely and compassionately. He is healthy, sturdy and mature; it might be an attempt to replicate the great Tang Emperor Taizong (Li Shi-min, reigned 627-649). Beside him are his two disciples, a young and an old monk. Both wear luxurious robes with detailed patterns and gilded edges, reflecting the prosperous and splendid life of the great empire. It also displays the contrast between the clever, handsome and calm face of the younger one, and the weather-beaten face and protruding ribs of the older ascetic. The young disciple is Ananda. The old disciple has been identified as Kasyapa by most scholars, but he could be Maudgalyayana (as indicated in inscriptions found in manuscripts currently in the Guimet Museum, Paris, France) or Sariputra.

Figure 2: Bodhisattva and devaraja, niche

The statues of the flanking Bodhisattvas are famous for their feminized appearance and their resemblance to the celebrated and enchanting Yang Guifei (the Imperial Chief Concubine Yang) in the High Tang. In Figure 2, the Bodhisattva (left) on the north side of the niche is portrayed in a delicate mood, plump (the very symbol of prosperity) but not fat, with arched eyebrows and a double chin. His body is soft and sinuous like the wave in the “Three-Bent style,” almost like the curves of the letter “S.” On their dhoti (loin cloth) are designs of clustered floral pattern and palmette with gilded lines. They look like noble court ladies more than Bodhisattvas. Although it was a fashionable depiction of Bodhisattvas in the High Tang, the priests were not happy about it.

At the outer edges of the niche are two devarajas, dressed as generals, but holding their fists tight in a wrathful form. From Sui onward, the Four Heavenly Kings are usually depicted in this way.

The images painted in the Late Tang outside the niche are Avalokitesvara, the Saviour from Suffering (on left/south) and Ksitigarbha, the Saviour from Hell (on right/north), who is also very popular in China since the mid-Tang. Ksitigarbha holds a jewel symbolizing wisdom in his right hand, and is the only great Bodhisattva appearing in monk form. These two images are not as rich in design nor bright in colour as the statues in the niche that were made earlier.

Figure 3: Guan-yin became the main theme of belief, south wall

On the south wall is Guan-yin jingbian. A large image of Guan-yin (Avalokitesvara) stands in the centre, with numerous figures depicted among a landscape scene on either side (Figure 3). He is depicted as a handsome man, strong and healthy, with green eyebrows and red lips.

The whole mural is skillfully arranged and painted. According to the Lotus Sutra, Guan-yin will appear to rescue people who call on him while encountering peril, such as when someone is being robbed, about to be jailed, or about to be killed. The main figures are Chinese in the Tang appearance, and the interpretations of faith are portrayed more pragmatically; that is, the distance between sainthood and secularity may be shortened to make the religious goal more attainable.

Figure 4: Non-Han merchants are robbed, south wall

The Silk Road was always full of peril for the caravans, as they might be attacked by brigands, or suffer from starvation or lack of water. According to history, sometimes 200 to 300 fake robbers were sent by the kings of the small and poor kingdoms along the route to “rob” for their kingdoms’ coffers. In the painting (Figure 4), the opposite is depicted: the merchants appear to be central Asian while the robbers appear to be Han.

On the north wall is a depiction of the Pure Land. The preaching Buddha in the centre is Amitayus (Amitabha), with all the auspicious and distinctive signs of a Buddha, such as the unisha and the long, pendent earlobes. In this grand paradise, there are canopies, luxuriant plants and a lotus pond. Two dancers are performing vigorously.

Figure 5: Queen Vaidehi calling for the Buddha

On the vertical margins at both sides of the paradise image are two illustrations providing more explanation on ways to reach paradise. On one side is the story of Prince Ajatasatru, who usurps the throne and kills his father. His mother, Queen Vaidehi (Figure 5, from the bottom up), smuggles food for the poor king but was found out by the son. She is imprisoned and in deep pain. Therefore, she calls on the Buddha and asks whether there is a paradise for her to be reborn, since she feels hopeless in this world. Buddha tells her about Amitabha’s Pure Land, and teaches her the way to be reborn there.

The other side of the paradise image depicts the 16 ways of visualization in Vaidehi’s practice. Buildings and landscape are still used to separate the scenes, which look orderly but without the rigidity of frames and borders. The paintings from the prominent “Bright Green Landscape” school can be seen again here.