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Mogao Cave 285 (Western Wei 534-556AD)
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This cave has a pyramidal ceiling with a square zaojing. It was constructed between 538 and 539, and is the earliest one with a precisely dated inscription in the cave. It is also the largest of the vihara (monastery) style caves in Dunhuang (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Northwestern part of Cave 285  

This cave has a pyramidal ceiling with a square zaojing. It was constructed between 538 and 539, and is the earliest one with a precisely dated inscription in the cave. It is also the largest of the vihara (monastery) style caves in Dunhuang (Figure 1).

It is one of the most special caves in Dunhuang, based on its design, rich contents, religious objects, esthetic ideal and art form. It also stands witness to the fusion of Chinese, Indian and Central Asian cultures.

The overall theme of this cave is meditation practice. Below a range of mountain peaks painted along the top of the walls all around the cave are 35 monks, each meditating in a cave.

There are four real meditation cells on each of the south and north walls, as well as two (each with a meditating monk statue) flanking the Buddha in the main (west) wall. Remains of a stupa built in the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368) still exist inside or outside some of the cells, indicating that they might have actually been used for meditation. The depictions of natural scenes, heaven and the peaceful forests show that people were longing for a paradise — especially during times of turmoil, with its pervasive suffering and slaughter.

Figure 2: East slope  

The murals of the whole cave are extremely innovative and well-preserved, with brilliant undimmed colour and lively depictions.

The arrangement of the paintings on the four slopes, including many images from Chinese and Indian myths on a white background, is very similar to that of Cave 249. On the east slope, two serpent-tailed figures are flying towards a Mani pearl supported by a lotus held by two wrestlers (Figure 2, centre). This serpent-tailed couple are the first ancestors of human beings in Chinese myth — Fuxi, the male, is holding a set-square and Nuwa, the female, is holding a compass. Some of the figures are painted in the skillful Bai-miao, an outline drawing technique adopted from metropolitan China. Examples of this technique can be seen in the apsaras playing harp and floating in the blue clouds on a white background (Figure 3).

Figure 3: Apsaras  

The most important mural (and more than 6 metres long) in this cave is The Forest of Recovered Eyesight. In it, 500 robbers (represented here by just five men in each scene) are defeated by the troops (Figure 4), then rendered blind and sent into a forest. There they convert to Buddhism and finally regain their eyesight and enjoy monastic life. The mural expresses the Buddhist thought that even an evil person, if he confesses and repents, still can reach enlightenment. The depiction of cruel scenes in the battlefield and harmonious life in the forest creates a compelling contrast.

The main niche in the west wall is deep and large, and its lintel are filled with complicated scrolling floral patterns. The Buddha’s robe hangs over the throne and legs in raised spiral folds. His halo and mandorla are composed of six different kinds of flame borders, perhaps the most elaborate in Dunhuang. The apsaras above the Buddha and the attending Bodhisattvas behind him are drawn with fine ink lines in the yun-ran technique (the coloured shading technique to show three dimensional effects using highlights). They are very good examples demonstrating the high level of skill required of the technique.

Figure 4: Robbers defeated by troops, south wall

Most of the remaining figures on the west wall are not Buddhist. At the top are two series of ovals. The sun god Surya in a two-wheeled chariot drawn by four horses is in the oval at the far left. The six Bodhisattvas in the six ovals to his left have been identified as star deities in the sun god’s entourage (Figure 5). Immediately below Surya are two wrestlers in a four-wheeled chariot. One holds a shield in the shape of a human face and drives the chariot drawn by a team of birds, while the other apparently supports the oval above.

The arrangement is mirrored at the northern end of the wall. Moon god Candra is in the farthest oval to the right supported by two wrestlers in a four-wheeled chariot drawn by the lions. His accompanying entourage in the seven ovals to his right appear to be Brahmins. They may also be star deities (the Dipper).

Figure 5: Sun god Surya and his retinue, south end of west wall.  

Beneath the two gods and their entourage, on the second register at both sides, are Hindu deities adopted from Central Asia. The first one on Buddha’s left is Narayana, with three heads and six arms, the equivalent of Visnu, who is one of the three main gods of Hinduism (the other two are Brahma and Siva). Below him are Sakra (also called Indra) and another deity. Two of the four devarajas are at the bottom.

A similar arrangement is repeated on Buddha’s right, where the large figure is Mahesvara, or Siva, also with three heads and six arms, along with his mount Nandi, the blue bull. Below him are his two sons, the elephant-headed Ganesa (also called Vinayaka) and Kumara, who sits on a peacock, with the other two devarajas below them.

These important Hindu gods and the immortals from Chinese myth were assimilated into Buddhism as dharma protectors, demonstrating that local traditional beliefs could be mixed with Buddhism in order to make the religion more easily acceptable and also to reinforce its status.

On the north wall, above the niches, are seven groups of preaching scenes. In each of the first six groups, counting from the entrance, is a different Buddha flanked by Bodhisattvas. The group closest to the west wall consists of Prabhutaratna (long-extinct Buddha) and Sakyamuni (present Buddha) sitting together.

During the 6th century (under the influence of southern China) being slim and elegant, and dressed in loose attire with big sleeves and long flying sashes was fashionable in Western Wei caves. The images were drawn to look like Chinese immortals — tall and slim (the proportion of the head to the body is 1:8, instead of the actual 1:6.5), and demure and feminine.


Figure 6: The donors, north wall

Beneath the six preaching triads and above the niches are six groups of 70 donor figures painted in a band about 18 cm high. Reasons for the donations are inscribed under the Buddhas, and after each figure is the inscription of their names (Figure 6). The males are in nomadic garments, called “hufu” (the barbarian dress) by the metropolitan Chinese, while the females are in long striped skirts, which were the epitome of fashion in metropolitan China. According to their names they could be Sogdians, who were long active in cultural integration in China. Some suggest they were the royal Toba clan of the Xianbei tribe. However, those people had already changed to follow the Han customs, and had changed their names to that of Han when the Emperor Xiao-wen of the Northern Wei ordered them to be sinicized in 494. Hence, during the construction of this cave, men of the Xianbei tribe were no longer clad in nomadic garments.