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Mogao Cave 427 (Sui 581-618AD)
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This cave has an antechamber constructed of wood with an eave (Figure 1) supported by octagonal pillars and doors. The pillared entrance has four columns. It is of traditional Chinese architecture, in which the structure is based on a wooden beam and column framework that supports the roof without load-bearing walls. The sloping tiled roof is “resting” on a special system of tier-brackets called “dou-gong,” which in turn transfers the weight of the roof back onto the beams and columns.

Figure 1: Wooden structure built in 970 AD  

The antechamber, with its tiled floor, is rectangular in shape. It is three bays wide and one bay long (‘bays’ are the spaces between columns). According to the inscriptions on one of the beams and on the wall paintings, it was built in 970 AD, the Northern Song dynasty. However, the six large stucco statues inside (Figure 2), consisting of four devaraja (Heavenly King) and two vajrapani (dharma protector), are original, although they were repainted. Each of the devaraja, two on each of the north and south walls, tramples on a prostrate yaksa (a broad class of nature-spirits that had been incorporated into folk Buddhism as “lower deities” supervised by the Heavenly Kings). The two vajrapani, naked to the waist, are flanking the opening of the entrance corridor. They are muscular and in wrathful form, such expressions being two of the traits of the dharma protectors in the Sui.

Figure 2: Inside the antechamber (northeast corner)  

In the main chamber is a central pillar. Its front (east) side is flat with a Thousand-Buddha motif, and serves as the backdrop to the grouping of a large Buddha and two Bodhisattvas.

There are two more groups of the triad in front of the north and south walls under the gable ceiling (Figure 3). The three Buddhas are showing the same mudra, dispelling fear in the right hand and charity in the left. Their robes are simple and rustic in style and tone. There are different opinions as to their identification. The most popular belief is that they are Buddhas of the past, the present and the future; while another suggestion is that they represent trikaya, the threefold embodiment of Buddha symbolizing his infinite forms.

Figure 3: Triad, south wall (left) and east side of pillar 

These statues are all in standing pose. Their big heads, stout builds and short legs are characteristics of Sui statues.

Each of the other three sides of the pillar has a niche with a Buddha in meditation and flanking disciples inside. The niches have dragon head lintels and lotus columns in bas-relief. Buddha’s halo, Bodhisattvas, apsaras and other figures are painted inside the niches, while the jataka tale of Prince Sudana is outside. The jataka is painted in an area 0.3 m high and 11 m long along the protruding parts of the three niches. Most of it is blurred, but the legible part remains detailed and lively.

The three pairs of flanking Bodhisattva statues are smaller than the Buddhas. They are dressed as royalty in male form, but smile like demure young ladies.

One of the magnificent features of this cave is the depictions of fabrics of the clothing of the Bodhisattva statues. The six Bodhisattvas are all dressed in similar fashion: a top garment with scarves draping from the shoulders and a dhoti fastened at the waist with a long belt. The garment of the flanking Bodhisattva at the right on the south wall, for instance, has white pearl circles and blue floral patterns within diamond shapes. On his dhoti are two other designs: one has diamond checks with white dotted borders; the other has a twill pattern on a green background. The left one in the same group has confronting birds within the diamond shapes on his top garment. Those paintings of fabrics represent the different kinds of silk and brocade, while the patterns are derived from Sassanian fabric designs, which were fashionable in Western and Central Asia at that time.

In addition to the beautiful patterns, gilded details can also be seen in Bodhisattvas’ dresses and on the Buddhas’ robes, as well as on the robes in the Thousand-Buddha motif. 

The Thousand-Buddha motif serves as a foil for the huge groups of statues. It fills all the wall space except for the dado area which has donor images, and scenes of preaching (at the centre of the north, south and west walls under the flat ceiling). The rows of Buddhas are in alternate coloured patterns on green, grey, blue and red, with gold tones on the robes. They look like diagonally radiating lights in the cave.

Most of the paintings in the main chamber are original, except for the donor images, which were painted in the Song.

Figure 4: Floral pattern under gable ceiling

The decorative designs in this cave are also very famous, such as the band of floral design (Figure 4) under the gable ceiling. On the dark green background, lotus and palmette weave to form curve-like waves, which compose many circular patterns. Some of the lotuses have a reborn-soul in each. These reborn children are playing musical instruments (Figure 4, right) or singing, indicating that they are enjoying life. It vigorously depicts the scene of the Western Paradise, where sentient beings can be reborn from a lotus instead of suffering from birth like human beings.

At the top of the four walls is a frieze of 108 apsaras flying from the back of the cave, one after another towards the front. Most of them are naked to the waist and have long dhotis and sashes (Figure 5). They are either diving or floating in clouds, holding a lotus, playing a musical instrument, joining palms or contemplating. The depiction is very lively and vigorous.

Figure 5: Apsaras, top of west wall

Each of the walls, except the entrance wall, has a preaching scene in the centre under the flat ceiling. The Buddha on the south wall is identified as the universal Buddha Vairocana (or the historical Buddha Sakyamuni) with figures painted on his robe similar to the ones in Cave 428. These figures include the six categories of sentient beings within the endless cycle of birth-and-death (samsara), which are the realms of deva (or devi for female, literally the heavenly beings); human; asura; animals; starving ghosts; and hells. According to Buddhism, sentient beings suffer in this cycle until they attain enlightenment to liberate.

In the corridor, the life-sized image of the donor, Cao Yuan-zhong, the ruler of Dunhuang between 945 and 974, and his wife are on both walls. Exaggerating the donors’ images to assert their political power was a trend at that time.