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Mogao Cave 254 (Northern Wei 439-534AD)
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Figure 1: Cave 254

This cave is one of the most fabulous constructed in the fifth century (Figure 1).

It has a square central pillar with niches on each side and a flat ceiling with painted coffering. The front portion of the cave has a gable ceiling with bas-relief simulated rafts in red. This design combines Chinese and Central Asian architectural features.

The design, with a pillar in the centre, functions as a stupa for worship or walking meditation, and is a feature from India; the gable ceiling, as well as the style of four small niches above the murals in the front part of the cave, is typically Chinese.

There is also a window of Chinese style above the entrance on the east wall, which is quite rare in Dunhuang caves. Sun shines through the window onto the main Buddha creating a halo on his head and upper torso, which seems to emphasize his stateliness.

Entering this cave, one is attracted by the calm azure colour. On the front (east) face of the pillar is a niche in which sits the cross-ankled Buddha. The beautiful blue of his halo and mandorla is made of lapis, which was imported from present-day Afghanistan, and was as precious as gold at that time. Some scholars suggest that this statue illustrates the episode in which Maitreya descends to Earth in the future, while the small figures in Bodhisattva’s form in the niches on the side walls represent him meditating in Tushita Heaven now. On the other hand, some insist that this is the statue of Sakyamuni, and that the Bodhisattvas in the small niches should not be Maitreya since it is not logical to repeat the same theme in a row along the walls.

Figure 2: Mahasattva jataka, south wall  

The murals of this cave are very significant. They are mostly depictions of the jataka, previous life stories of the Buddha. Their unique and painstaking compositions convey a sense of firmness and resolve, attracting numerous artists. The Mahasattva jataka on the south wall (Figure 2) illustrates Prince Sattva offering himself to a starving tigress and her cubs. The scene consists of several episodes within a single rectangular space.

It starts from the top centre (1) with Prince Sattva and his two brothers looking down at the tigress and her seven cubs. The story continues on the right. (2) The prince kneels and pierces his neck with a bamboo stick, and (3) then dives with an outstretched left arm from the cliff to feed the tigress. The figures of the Prince touch each other to form a beautiful curve. (4) Then his remains are found by his saddened family. A Chinese style stupa built to commemorate the event concludes the story. The stupa was depicted in a very unusual way. The three storey building is shown in a bird’s eye view but its front steps are at ground level, refocusing the attention on the main theme. This story is depicted in a circular sequence. It is a sad episode but not meant to be frightening and no gore is depicted.

Figure 3: Buddha's Enlightenment (also called ‘The Subjugation of Mara’)  

There are more principal scenes, including Buddha’s Enlightenment (the Subjugation of Mara), on the same wall. Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha’s lay name), is meditating under a fir tree (figure 3, centre). When he is about to attain enlightenment, Mara (king of demons) and his soldiers attack him with all sorts of weapons and poisoned arrows, but everything fall before reaching him. Mara’s three beautiful daughters (left bottom corner) seduce him but turn into old and ugly women (right bottom corner) right away. All these attacks serve as a foil for the Buddha. He subjugates Mara, who personifies all kinds of temptation and vexation, and attains enlightenment. His right hand is in an ‘earth touching’ mudra which means he is calling upon the earth to be his witness of becoming a Buddha (an enlightened one). Indian fir tree has been renamed to Bodhi (enlighten) tree thereafter. As a protagonist, Buddha’s outsized figure is at the centre. The artists demonstrated outstanding achievement by creating a sharp contrast between the Buddha who is dignified, calm and full of compassion, and the demons who look wrathful, cruel and aggressive.

On the north wall are scenes of the preaching Buddha, together with Nanda (his younger brother) Entering Monastic Life, and King Sivi jataka.

Figure 4: King Sivi jataka, north wall  

The King Sivi jataka panel (Figure 4) illustrates one of the most popular themes in the early caves. In it, the king offers his flesh, including his whole body, to save a dove’s live from a hawk.

The outsized figure of the king sits in a lalita pose, turns to one side in a three-quarter view, and is flanked by rows of figures in the assembly. On his right, each of the sad-looking court ladies has a different appearance. One of them is embracing the king’s knee and begging him not to cut his flesh. The artists skillfully narrated the rich content in a single picture. The costumes of figures and the painting style of the murals in this cave are strongly influenced by the art of Central Asia.

Figure 5: Buddha in white robe, west wall  

Behind the pillar on the west wall is a Buddha dressed in a white robe, which is quite unusual (Figure 5). Many interesting suggestions have been put forward to explain why his robe is white. Recently, the paints in this cave were analyzed by the Dunhuang Academy. Arsenic was found, suggesting the original colour of this robe could have been beige or light yellow.

The remaining area of the wall is painted with the Thousand-Buddha motif. These Buddhas are in the same foreign style as that of the jataka; however, each of them (1,235 in total) was inscribed with Chinese names. These miniature images represent Buddhas from the past and future kalpa (literally: aeon). Together with the statues and paintings of Sakyamuni and Maitreya, both belong to the present kalpa. The arrangement of this cave focuses on the Buddhas in all times.

In Buddhist tradition, the replication of the image of the Buddha is a valid method of spreading Buddhism and of attaining merit for oneself. Also, visualizing Buddha is one of the key methods of meditation. Therefore, the Thousand-Buddha motif has always been popular.

At the top of all walls is a frieze depicting a heavenly scene. Each of the musicians plays a different instrument, and dancers in various poses perform under an arched opening. It illustrates the bliss of heaven.