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Mogao Cave 249 (Western Wei 534-556AD)
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This cave has a truncated pyramidal ceiling with zaojing, which was a new fashion in the Western Wei, following the earlier prevailing central-pillared style. This kind of roof provides a broader view of the cave and more freedom for the motif arrangement (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Main chamber of Cave 249  

All the images in this cave were painted in contemporary ideal standard — tall and slim, and demure and feminine, in order to look like Chinese immortals. They are floating on clouds with long flying scarves, as if the cave was really breezy and expressing the scene of heaven.

Around the zaojing, on the four slopes, are Buddhist images, which are accompanied by immortals and gods from Hindu and Chinese mythology. This design is very similar to that of Cave 285.

On the west slope (Figure 2), the four-eyed and four-armed giant at the centre is King of asura, which is one of the six categories of sentient beings in samsara (the endless circle of birth and death). He is holding the sun and the moon, and standing on the ocean with his legs partially submerged to below the knees. Above him are Mount Sumeru (the cosmic mountain) and the Heaven Gate. Beside him are gods of Wind (the one holding a billowing bag, to the left of the King’s raised arms), Rain (below the Wind God and close to the edge of the slope), Thunder (the one playing a circle of drums, to the right of the King’s raised arms) and Lightning (the one holding a drill or vajra, below the Thunder God and close to the edge of the slope). These gods are all animal-headed.

On the east slope are two wrestlers holding the Mani pearl, a wish-fulfilling jewel and a metaphor for Buddha’s wisdom. A small difference from Cave 285 is that the two serpent-tailed Fuxi and Nuwa (the first ancestors in Chinese mythology) flying towards the pearl are not depicted here.

Figure 2: King of asura and other gods, west slope  

On the north side, two of the four Chinese mythological protectors, Scarlet Bird (of the south) and Snake-turtle (of the north) are next to one of the wrestlers. Also on the slope are heavenly beings (Wu-huo) with two horns and two wings; and the three mythological creatures (Kai-ming) with 13, 11 or 9 human heads on tiger bodies, who might be the gods of Heaven, Earth and Humans, respectively.

Figure 3: Western Mother Queen, south slope  

The north and south slopes depict two immortals traveling in heaven and escorted by a procession. The one on the south slope, riding in a four-phoenix chariot, is identified as the Western Mother Queen (Figure 3, centre) who existed a long time ago in Chinese mythology. The one on the north slope, riding in a four-dragon chariot, is the Eastern King who appears much later than the Queen. Originally they were described as half-human and half-beast creatures, and then humanized as royalty. According to legend, they meet once a year, but are not clearly described as husband and wife. They are in charge of everything in heaven and earth. If one can see them, it means one has attained immortality. The popularity of their images began in the Han dynasty (206 BC-220 AD).

Some scholars have different opinions on the identification of many images in this cave. Some suggest these two figures are Indra and his consort. Indra is an important god in Hinduism, but assimilated into Buddhism as a chief in one of the many heavens. According to Buddhism, god (deva) and goddess (devi) are considered as a kind of sentient beings within samsara.

Figure 4: The hunting, north slope

At the bottom of the slopes are landscape and hunting scenes. In the hunting scene (Figure 4), a hunter on a galloping horse is turning back to shoot. This posture is known as the Parthian shot since it was a military tactic made famous by the Parthians, ancient Iranian people. The Parthian cavalrymen usually shot the enemy while retreating or pretending to retreat. This scene was prevalent in Persian art of the time, while the plain mastery outline technique for the images of boars and ox (not shown in Figure 4) was typically Chinese.

Figure 5: Musicians, south wall  

Around the top of the walls are musicians performing in heaven’s balcony. Each is in an open cell facing outward, as if they are on stage (Figure 5). One is energetically blowing a conch, as another is calmly playing a lute. Their darker skin, the costumes and poses indicate that they are from Central Asia or India. The thick bold outline is a simple but distinct characteristic.