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Mogao Cave 428 (Northern Zhou 557-581AD)
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Figure 1: Cave 428, the largest cave in the Northern Dynasties

This central-pillared cave is the largest constructed in the Northern Dynasties (Figure 1).

The gable ceiling has painted red rafters, imitating the wooden Chinese architecture. It also has floral ornaments interspersed with Mani Pearl, paired peacocks, reborn-from-lotus souls and other auspicious features describing the scene in paradise.

On the flat ceiling around the central pillar is an interlocking pattern of floret, also called chess board design in Chinese. In each square (Figure 2) is a multi-pedal lotus, framed with several squares placed diagonally. The pattern inside the reddish-brown bands is palmette leaves, which became a favourite design in China. Each of the four outermost corners has a naked apsaras. Naked images are popular in India but very rare in China because of the different sensitivity to being naked.

Figure 2: Interlocking floret pattern and naked apsaras  

The murals in this cave are varied and rich in content. There are jataka tales; several preaching scenes; the Enlightenment; the Nirvana; a group of five stupa; and “Sakyamuni Sitting Side-by-Side with Buddha Prabhutaratna”.

One of the striking jataka is about Prince Sudana’s generous charitable giving. The story is depicted in three registers in a zigzag sequence. The figures, costumes and lifestyle are all Chinese. Landscape and architecture are used to separate the different scenes. Each scene is in an irregular space. The mountains are smaller than the figures and the buildings have no front walls, so that the figures inside the buildings can be seen.

A Buddha image in this cave is unique among the mural paintings at Dunhuang (Figure 3). Some scholars identify him as the universal Buddha Vairocana, who is discussed in the Avatamsaga (Flower Adornment) Sutra, while some suggest he is the historical Buddha Sakyamuni.

This Buddha wears a reddish-brown robe, with the right hand in Dispelling Fear mudra and the left one grasping the end of his robe. The robe is covered with figurative designs representing the six realms of sentient beings in samsara (the endless circle of birth and death). In the centre of his upper torso, King of asura (one realm in the samsara) stands in front of the hourglass-shaped Mount Sumeru, which is the same as the theme in the Western Wei Cave 249. Here the King of asura, the cosmic Mount Sumeru, and the centre of Buddha all converge, symbolizing the perfect unification of the Buddha and the universe.

Figure 3: Vairocana, north wall  

The north and south walls are divided into three big horizontal bands. A Thousand-Buddha motif in bas-relief is at the top, with a reddish-brown background that is popular in the Northern dynasties. In the middle are depictions of various jatakas. The bottom band at the dado consists of rows of donor images and a triangular valance decoration below them.

At 1,189, this cave has the most donor images in Dunhuang. Of these, 699 are of monks and nuns, most of whom are not locals. They supported the construction of this cave from far away, indicating that it was a big event not only for Dunhuang, but for a vast surrounding area. In 574 and 577, Emperor Wu of the Northern Zhou issued edicts to persecute Buddhism, but Dunhuang was not affected because of its great distance from metropolitan China. It might be one of the main reasons that priests were flocking into this area — constructing caves and monasteries to preserve their faith.

The original colour in this cave must have been very bright. The shading method of yun-ran was applied, which still looks attractive even though the colour has faded. Also, a new image style called “the rounded and ravishing face”, which blended well the styles from metropolitan China and Central Asia, became the standard of beauty and was fashionable in paintings of that time.