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Mogao Cave 465 (Yuan 1271-1368AD)
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Figure 1: Main chamber  

This cave is located in the north end of the cave area, far away from the other decorative caves mostly located in the southern half of the cliff. It is the only cave in Dunhuang containing Vajrayana (also called Tantrayana) Buddhist iconography in typical Tibetan style. Murals in this cave are the oldest of such art preserved outside Tibet.

The content depicted on the truncated pyramidal ceiling and the four slopes is a special design consisting of five groups with a main Buddha in the centre surrounded by four other Buddhas. Together they are called theDhyani-Buddhas, or the Five Direction Buddhas: Vairocana (with a white-coloured body) in the centre (at thezaojing), Akshobhya (blue) of the east, Ratnasambhava (yellow, but oxidized black now) of the south, Amitabha (red, but white now) of the west, Amoghasiddhi (green) of the north. The art form of each of the five Buddhas is almost identical. All are in traditional Buddha form with auspicious signs like unisha and long ear lobes, and seated in a meditative position; but are distinguished by their characteristic colours,mudras, mounts and the directions. They represent the five types of transcendent wisdom of the Buddha. Each Buddha has two smaller Buddhas or Bodhisattvas with their small entourage in a well arranged background to emphasize the key images. This indicates that the whole cave is arranged as a mandalasymbolizing the universe in esoteric practice.

This cave has no altar, a common feature in other caves. Instead there is a stucco ritual object (middle of Figure 1), which could be an inner part of the mandala, built in the centre of the main chamber. It should have had five tiers, but only four remain now. All the statues and most of the murals on it have been lost, but the remaining paintings are still prominent.

Figure 2: Chakrasamvara and consort, west wall  

On the walls are illustrations of the popular tutelary deities in Tantrayana. These images are vital, dynamic and full of symbolism. Each of them is a potent symbol and a meditational deity for tantric practitioners with its own mantra and rituals. There are nine in this cave; each is painted in a rectangular panel surrounded by 19 - 20 small images of related deities or prominent masters of the particular lineage.

In the centre of the main (west) wall, Chakrasamvara (Figure 2) is depicted with a blue-coloured body, three eyes and a skull crown with a crossed thunderbolt on top. His arms cross in front of his chest, holding a thunderbolt and a bell in his hands, and embracing his consort Vajravarahi, painted in red (now brown). These two deities have appeared in Hinduism individually, and now their divine embrace is a metaphor for the union of eternal bliss and sunyata (the impermanence of phenomena), or wisdom and compassion.

In the panel on the north side of the west wall, Vajravarahi (literally vajra sow, in Tibetan: Dorje Phagmo) is depicted with a red-coloured body and a third eye in the middle of her forehead. A sow head emerges from her right ear, since she symbolizes a loving mother of the beings as a sow feeding her farrow and will nurse them with blood should her milk go dry. She wears a five-skulled crown and a garland made of 50 human skulls. She brandishes a curved chopper with her right hand, holds a cup made from a skull in her left hand and a magic staff against her shoulder by her left arm. She stands in a dance pose with her left foot on a corpse lying on its back. The swaying sashes and streamers reinforce the movements of her body and conjure up the sound of rattling bones that accompany her dramatic dance. She is often associated with triumph over ignorance.

Figure 3: Hevajra and consort, north wall

Hevajra (Figure 3) in the centre of the north wall, is depicted with a blue-coloured body, three eyes, eight faces (one is on his crown) and 16 arms; and embracing his consort Nairatmya (Vajranairatma). He wears a skull crown and a garland made of 50 human heads. He holds a white skull cup in each of his sixteen hands, with a deity or an animal inside each cup.

Hevajra practice is believed to have originated in India between the late 8th and the 10th century. The Chinese version of this practice was translated in 1054 or 1055.

At about the same time, a great Tibetan master learned the practice in Nepal& India, then returned to central Tibetand taught the founder of the Sakya Monastery (built in 1073). This was the beginning of the close relationship between the Sakya Order & Hevajra practice. This practice became well-known after the Yuan Emperor Khubilai received this teaching from a Sakya master in the 13th century.

The third patriarch of the Kargyu Order, Marpa (1012-1097), received this teaching, as well as Chakrasamvara and other practices in India. These practices are also very important for this lineage.

There are different opinions on the construction time of this cave. Some scholars suggest that it was as early as the late Tang (9th Century). However, from the history of the lineages, it is obvious that it would not have been made before the 11th Century.

Figure 4: Palden Lhamo, east wall

Beside the entrance in the east wall, Palden Lhamo(Sanskrit: Shridevi) (Figure 4) has a totally different appearance than in the earlier period (Tang-mi) during which she appeared as a peaceful noble woman. Here she is depicted with a brown-coloured body, three eyes and four arms, and in a wrathful form. She is riding a mule, whose rump is marked with an eye, saddled with a flayed human skin. She holds a sword and a spear in her right hands, atrisula (trident) and a skull cup in her left hands. She wears a skull crown and a garland made of 50 human heads.

Palden Lhamo, the later form of the ancient Indian goddess Shridevi (Glorious Goddess), is now an important dharma protector and the only female among the Eight Great Guardians of the Dharma in Tibet. She was introduced to Tibetca. the 10th century, and often appears in early Tibetan paintings as a subsidiary protector. Currently in Tibet, besides serving as one of the main protectors, she also can lead practitioners to divinatory powers for divination.

Figure 5: Bodhisattva, south slope

Depictions of the tutelary deities in this cave are in the 12th-14th century style which could be different from those in the contemporary esoteric texts — especially those of different lineages. Hence there are different suggestions on the identification of many of the images. Vajrayana is the third (last) phase of Indian Buddhism and it combined many influences from Hinduism. Its teachings are esoteric which means one can only receive the teachings from a guru of the specific lineage(s). Also, a teaching might be developed differently according to the understanding of different masters. Thus multiple forms of the deities have evolved over time. Therefore some images are very difficult to identify.

Also, the style is extremely different from the other caves in Dunhuang, since the depiction here is totally executed in Tibetan form with very strong influences from India and Nepal. Vajrayana iconography must be painted under very strict rules of colour, proportion and appearance of the images (including mudra and objects held in them), so the artists had to follow the rules. In contrast, for the depictions of the minor images, such as the entourage of the main images and the great masters, the artists could paint with more freedom. An example is the small Bodhisattva (Figure 5) beside Ratnasambhava Buddha on the south slope, who is offering the Buddha a lotus wholeheartedly. From his contemplating smile, it seems that he is immersed in the Buddha’s preaching. This depiction is quite humanized and the simple outline drawing is fabulous.