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Mogao Cave 96 (Early Tang 618-705AD)
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This cave has a more popular name — the Nine Storey Building, and is Mogaoku’s landmark (Figure 1). It was built for the protection of the colossal Buddha inside the cave. It had four storeys when it was first built in the late 7th century; then increased to five in the 9th century; restored in 966 and rebuilt to seven in 1898; and then finally extended to nine storeys in 1935. It is almost as tall as the cliff. The ninth storey is octagonal and has a three metre vase at the top. This magnificent building seems to be protecting the whole area.

igure 1: Nine Storey Building

It was one of the Great Cloud Temples built in every prefecture under the edict of EmpressWu Ze-tian in the Tang dynasty. Wu was a Buddhist, but took advantage of the people’s faith in Maitreya (the Buddhist Messiah) and claimed herself to be the reincarnation of Maitreya according to the forged Great Cloud Sutra.

Figure 2: Head of the Northern Giant Buddha  

Inside the cave is a colossal Buddha (35.5m high), made of clay stucco over a sandstone frame. It is the largest in Dunhuang and is also called The Northern Giant Buddha (Figure 2). The statue is that of the Future Buddha Maitreya. His right hand is in fearless mudra and his left is in charity mudra, which means that he can dispel vexations and bring happiness to sentient beings. Having been restored many times, some of the original features are lost but it is still grandiose. The Buddha’s round face, the three lines on his neck and the wave-like hair are characteristics of early Tang sculptures. The whole statue was repainted in 1928 and the design (known as “dragon in clouds”) of the bottom end of the robe is in Qing style (Figure 3). His hands were redone by the Dunhuang Academy.

Figure 3: Maitreya’s robe  

This statue was actually the fourth largest stone Buddha in the world. Unfortunately, when the second and third largest statues (located in Bamiyan and built in the 6th century) were destroyed in 2001, it became the second largest.

Because it was housing such a big statue, the cave was dug starting from the top, and the frame of the huge statue was carved from the rock at the same time. Maitreya is sitting with legs pendent, so the lower part of the cave is wider than the top. When the artist realized that more space was needed to stretch his legs, they had to dig deeper. Therefore the floor inside the cave is lower than ground level.

In 1999, archaeological excavation discovered many levels of floors restored in various dynasties. The original ground floor was 1.5m lower than the present level. The tiles on each level are different and they are now on display inside and outside the cave.

Serious earthquakes in the 10th century destroyed all the original murals and wooden structures. However, the Buddha’s image remained.

Visible outside the cave are the rafters used to support the projecting eaves, as well as the figure of a traditional Chinese mythical animal (chi-wen) used to protect buildings (Figure 4).

Figure 4: Wooden structure outside of the cave

The faith in Maitreya in China reached its apex between the 4th and 5th centuries, after the sutras introducing him and his paradise were translated. Since then, many huge Maitreya statues were built because his followers, according to the sutras, believed that they would gain great merit by doing so.

Every year, on the 8th day of the 4th month of the lunar calendar, locals come to pay homage to the Buddha and do circumambulation. Males walk in a clockwise direction around the Buddha. Interestingly, females walk in a counter-clockwise direction, which is not the Buddhist way.