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Mogao Cave 322 (Early Tang 618-705AD)
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This cave has some Sui and earlier features, but at the same time consists of new structures and decorative features that marked the beginning of the ascendancy of the Tang. It reflects dynamic vitality, mirroring the rising power and prosperity of the empire.

Figure 1: The niche, west wall  

The double recessed niche (Figure 1) in the main wall contains seven striking statues, which are mostly original. Unlike those of the Sui, they are almost fully detached from the wall. The style of the Buddha sitting in lotus position and raising his hand in Dispelling Fear mudra was prevalent in the first half of the Tang.

The two Bodhisattvas beside him are life- size, and dressed simply: partly naked upper torso with shawls draped over the shoulders, and long dhoti, decorated without the usual Sassanian diamond shapes. They are tall, slim and elegant, although their arms look stiff because they have been restored and are not the originals (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Statues on south side of the niche  

In this group of statues, the two outermost devaraja are distinctive. Each tramples on a yaksa, a broad class of nature-spirits that had been incorporated into folk Buddhism as “lower deities” supervised by the Heavenly Kings. They wear helmets and armour (neck-guard, shoulder-mantle, breastplate, skirt of overlapping scales and long boots), personifying a virile Tang warrior. The one standing on the north side (Figure 3) has hairy eyebrows and big eyes; straight and sharp nose; and a wide mouth. He looks like a minority, and it reflects the fact that there were many minorities in the military of the Tang Empire.

Figure 3: Devaraja, niche  

All the statues and painted images look more like human beings in the earthly world than deities in heaven.

In the Northern dynasties, the colour theme was rustic and simple. They usually used reddish-brown, green, blue, white and black for the statues. In the Sui, it became more delicate, displaying lots of different patterns on Bodhisattvas’ dresses. In the Tang, it was more elaborate. The colouring technique was the final (and most important) part in making the statues perfect.

The murals in this cave are also exquisite. From the Sui and the beginning of Tang, it was popular to have Sakyamuni’s life story painted on the two sides of the main niche. In this cave, the Conception (the Bodhisattva descending from heaven to his mother’s palace) and the Departure (the young prince leaving the palace to search for the meaning of life) (Figure 2, left top) are depicted on both inner sides of the niche. Behind the statues are eight more disciples, in different poses, painted on the niche wall. The pair of Bodhisattvas painted beside the niche are as graceful as the statues.

Figure 4: Preaching scene, south wall  

In the preaching scene on the south wall (Figure 4) is a Buddha seated with his legs pendent and escorted by six Bodhisattvas. The one to his right wears a jewelled crown, holding a lotus in his left hand and a blue transparent bowl in his right hand, and stands slightly tilted.

The composition of this scene is symmetrical and complicated. Now the Bodhisattvas are no longer simply flanking the central Buddha — rather, they begin to gather in groups among themselves.

The Thousand-Buddha motif covering the rest of the walls and ceiling is painted in blue, red, green and brown in a repeated pattern in each row, like slanted rays striking the walls. The colours and patterns are bright and conventional.

Decoration at this time is enriched by illustrating foreign plants, though using such patterns was still in its infancy. Grapes are depicted on the niche lintel, while palmette is on the zaojing, weaving the lotus shape as the central pattern.

Along the walls are willow branches twisted into several hook-like objects (see top of Figure 1), which might have been used for hanging votive banners or other objects.