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Mogao Cave 220 (Early Tang 618-705AD)
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This is a square cave with zaojing (inset ceiling) and a single large niche in the main (west) wall. For about 300 years (nine generations) it served as a private cave-temple of the local dignitary Zhais. The family built it in 642 and restored it many times until 925. The inscription “The cave dedicated by the Zhai Family” can still be seen inside.

Among the statues, only the lower part of the two disciples and Bodhisattvas are original, and still provide good information about the realistic style of art in the Early Tang period.

The brilliant colours of the original murals had been covered over by a new layer painted in the later Tang, Five Dynasties or Song. Most of the upper layer in the main chamber was removed in 1943. The Song murals (upper layer) in the corridor, which were originally constructed and painted in the Five Dynasties, were skillfully removed in 1975.

Figure 1: Amitabha’s Pure Land, south wall  

For the first time in Mogao, a single jingbian, the illustration of a sutra, fills the entire south and north walls. One big painting consisting of a single theme is totally different from the episodes depicting jataka tales earlier.

The prominent jiangbian are the Amitabha’s (Western) Pure Land and Medicine Buddha’s (Eastern) Paradise, painted in the Early Tang on the south and north walls, respectively. By the painting technique, the architecture and other information in the murals, one can see that the great empire assimilated a number of cultures, and welcomed artists, styles and techniques from foreign countries.

In the Western Pure Land (Figure 1) on the south wall, Amitabha and his two principal flanking Bodhisattvas, Avalokitesvara and Mahasthamaprapta, are seated on thrones with their entourage standing by the side.

Figure 2: Souls reborn-from-lotus, south wall

In the lotus pond below them, there are many lifelike children. Two of them are standing in the water wearing red, V-necked T-shirts and green shorts; one is doing a handstand while others are playing. They are the souls reborn-from-lotus. According to the sutra, sentient beings are reborn in Amitabha’s paradise from a lotus; therefore, they don’t have to suffer from the act of birth. In the mural, they are depicted as children playing in the water. Those not yet sufficiently mature to be reborn are still inside the closed buds (Figure 2, centre).

Two Bodhisattvas leaning on the railings are watching the performance. Musicians, eight in a group sitting on an area rug, are playing various musical instruments. They are obviously from different countries, due to their appearance. The two dancers in the centre below the pond are performing the “Non-Han Spinning Dance,” which was extremely popular in the Tang Empire. The postures and the flying sashes show that they are moving very quickly and vigorously (Figure 3, centre).

Amitabha’s paradise is the most popular in Mahayana Buddhism. The mural in this cave is one of the best depictions in Dunhuang.

Figure 3: Entertainment in Western Pure Land, south wall  

The Medicine Buddha’s paradise (Figure 4) on the north wall has similar entertainment, but with a greater variety of musical instruments.

The composition of this Eastern paradise is unique, since there are seven Buddhas in a row, instead of the usual single Buddha. They are standing on lotuses, each supported by a jeweled terrace, and flanked by eight Bodhisattvas. On their left, four more Bodhisattvas are each clasping their hands or offering lotus to the Buddhas to show respect.

To the right of the Buddhas are twelve yaksa (here they are Medicine Buddha’s assistants) dressed like generals. On their crowns are the twelve zodiac animals of the Chinese calendar, which originated in India. Below the terrace are three multi-tiered candelabras and the entertainment. There are four dancers and 32 musicians performing songs and dances as offerings. To be reborn in Medicine Buddha’s pure land, one needs to recite his sutra or his name, burn incense, scatter flowers, make an offering of light for 49 days, hang 49 feet banners, and so on. In this illustration, the depiction on the multi-tiered candelabras and other details, such as the colourful clouds, the luxurious jewelled decorations and the beautiful canopies, are spectacular.

The faith in Medicine Buddha’s paradise in China started in the Sui (581-618) when the sutra was translated into Chinese. The depiction had been simple at that time but became elaborate and magnificent in the Tang. Although Dunhuang has 96 murals in this theme, the one in this cave is the best.

Figure 4: Medicine Buddha’s Paradise, north wall

In general, these illustrations of paradise are grand and ravishing. The Indian abstract imagination of paradise is displayed in a realistic form, allowing the practical Chinese to really “see” them. There was quite a difference between what the Indians and the Chinese demanded in art form. This accommodation was developed to its apex in the Tang in order to fulfill the need.

Figure 5: Vimalakirti, east wall  

Another striking mural in this cave is the popular “Debate between Manjusri and Vimalakirti” on the entrance wall. The rich layman Vimalakirti (Figure 5) is depicted on the south side of the entrance. He sits in his curtained chamber and is expressing his points with gestures using his fan, made of zhu’s (a kind of big deer) tail. This fan was one of the must-have accessories of intellectuals in the Southern and Northern Dynasties, and was used for emphasizing their philosophical points of view during discussions. Vimalakirti looks very energetic and powerful while making his points. The colour shading (yun-ran) technique was applied as skilfully as the outline of his face. This image of him is the best in Mogao.

On the other side of the entrance, the depiction of the Chinese emperor among the audience beneath Manjusri is also outstanding (Figure 6). He is dressed in full ceremonial attire, with 12 richly embroidered symbols (e.g., sun, moon, and dragon) on it. The pose and spirit conveyed are comparable to the works of the most famous artists in China, such as Yan Liben of the Tang dynasty. The images of his entourage are smaller and less important, but are still depicted with detailed facial expressions.

Figure 6: Emperor attending the dharma debate, east wall  

On the north wall of the corridor is “Manusri in New Style”, which was painted in the Five Dynasties. Manjusri became more popular from the mid-Tang onward because the Tubo (Tibetan) and Khotanese rulers were especially fond of him. Here his image is large, facing front and is the main character of the mural, as opposed to previous murals showing his side profile facing his counterpart Samantabhadra. The person taming his vehicle, the lion, is the Khotanese king instead of the usual dark-skinned slave. This also reveals the close relationship between Khotan and Dunhuang at that time.