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Mogao Cave 196 (Late Tang 848-907AD)
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Figure 1: Original Tang wooden structure

Because of its high location on the cliff, this cave is well preserved.

It has a uniqueTang wooden eaves structure (Figure 1) in the antechamber, and is the only example of such a Tang building in Mogaoku and a very important reference for the study of ancient architecture.

This cave is also called “Master He’s cave” since its main donor was a monk whose lay surname was He as stated in the inscription beside his father’s image. His image, together with his father’s and that of a group of monks, is on the lower part of the east wall. According to the inscriptions, these monks were masters ofvinaya (monks’ precepts) studies and practice.

The statues of this cave are representatives of Late Tang art. Originally, the Buddha, two disciples, four Bodhisattvas and twodevaraja were on the horseshoe-shaped altar. Unfortunately the two Bodhisattvas on the south side were destroyed by fallen debris from the roof.

Figure 2: Bodhisattva, central altar

All the statues are taller than two metres. The most prominent one is the Bodhisattva on the north side of the Buddha. He is round and stout, sitting in thelalita pose (Figure 2). He is naked above the waist with only an off-the-shoulder scarf. His silkdhoti freely flows over the throne, displaying the soft and delicate nature of the textile. The human body is shaped realistically and accurately, but with a transcendent smile.

Most of the paintings in the antechamber of other Late Tang caves no longer exist, this cave is the exception. On the west wall above the entrance are images of seven Buddhas. On the south and north wall are depictions of an ordination ceremony. It indicates that the donors of this cave wanted to emphasize vinaya.

On the two walls of the corridor are four other donors’ images (Suo Xun and his sons) with an entourage carrying fans, bags of bows and arrows, trays, bottles of wine, etc. The inscriptions record their names and titles. Suo was the son-in-law of the local magnate Zhang Yi-chao who expelled the Tubo and restored Chinese rule in Dunhuang as an independent warlord. When Zhang died, his nephew inherited thesovereignty. Suo, Zhang’s son-in-law, killed Zhang’s nephew and usurped the knight in 890, was then admitted formally by the Tang emperor in 893. A year later he was killed by Zhang’s other son-in-law. Therefore, we know this cave was completed before 894.

Figure 3: Sariputra, west wall

Figure 4: Raudraksa, west wall  

In the main chamber, the four slopes are covered by a Thousand-Buddha motif with a preaching scene in the centre, instead of the then popularjingbian topic.

Figure 5: Heretic cleaning his teeth

On the entire west wall is the illustration of the contest between Sariputra, one of the Buddha’s disciples famous for his wisdom, and thehereticRaudraksa. The composition of the complicated story is excellent: the two groups (Figure 3 & 4) compete by performing miracles one after another, and of course Sariputra is the winner. After the exciting competition are relaxing scenes described humourously: Sariputra sits serenely while the heretics are preparing for the conversion (to be ordained): gargling, shampooing, and cleaning their teeth with willow branches (Figure 5). One is touching his newly shaved head with one hand and covering his eyes with the other. These images are depicted in a very lovely, relaxing and lively way.

Below each of the south and north walls are fifteen panels, each with a Bodhisattva or donor inside. Some of the images are painted very beautifully.

In the Late Tang, the trend was to paint more jingbian in caves to introduce more sutras. This cave has seven. Also every jingbian is framed with detailed and neat floral patterns which are also popular on brocade and area rugs.