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Mogao Cave 420 (Sui 581-618AD)
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Figure 1: Scene of Cave 420 

This cave is of a typical Sui style. It is a square assembly hall with a truncated pyramidal ceiling. A niche opens on each wall except the entrance wall (Figure 1).

The main niche on the west wall is large with a double recess —­­ a new feature in the Sui. This design can house more statues in the niche without the impression of overcrowding. Also, it allows for more ornaments on the niche lintels.

The inside lintel of the niche is decorated with a clay trunk-twisted lotus and palmette; the outside lintel has a flame pattern pointing towards the ceiling. There is also a pearl border along the main niche, as well as between the top of the wall and the ceiling. Most of these motifs, of Sassanian origin, became fashionable at that time.

There are three groups of stucco statues in this cave: the Buddha with two disciples and four Bodhisattvas are in the main niche; while the Buddha and two Bodhisattvas are in each of the north and south niches.

The Buddhas are of similar form: sitting in meditation pose, their right hands in dispelling fear mudra and the left hands in charity mudra. Their heads, torsos and limbs are well-rounded and stout. They look calm and compassionate.


Figure 2: Bodhisattva, West wall 

The Bodhisattvas are demure and feminine. Although they have mustaches and are dressed in male form, they look like fair ladies with a motherly smile (Figure 2).

The upper torsos of these statues are still a bit longer, but much more proportional, compared with those in the earlier period. Also at this time, the artists started paying attention to the curves of the human body and the details on the textile.


Figure 3: Bodhisattva’s dhoti, West wall 

All the textiles of the clothing are thinner and more elegant, with many different patterns on the robes of the Buddhas and the dhoti of the Bodhisattva. For instance, there are large pearl-bordered medallions enclosing pig heads, lions, winged tigers, flying horses and even complicated hunting scenes. All those patterns reflect strong influences from Central Asia (Figure 3).

On the north and south walls, other than the square niches, a Thousand-Buddha motif fills the rest of the space except the dado area below the niches. This is where rows of Bodhisattvas were painted in the Western Xia period, 400 to 600 years later.

The space on the four slopes of the ceiling is densely filled with narrative sequences in three horizontal registers. But because there are no ruled borders, the successive episodes are distributed across the whole picture instead of proceeding horizontally. The zigzag blue buildings are a wonderful unifying motif.


Figure 4: Guan-yin narrative 

These narratives include depictions of the chapters of Parables and Gateway of Universal Salvation from the Lotus Sutra. Although both were in vogue at the time, the Gateway of Universal Salvation, which is about the Bodhisattva of Compassion, Avalokitesvara (Guan-yin), was especially so. Guan-yin’s belief is the most popular and far reaching in Mahayana Buddhism. In the murals (Figure 4), there are two sections to describe this saviour: one with a depiction of how he rescues people in peril; the other contains his 33 manifestations. Thirty-three is not an exact number, but just used to represent the countless forms in which he appears in order to help suffering beings. The different kinds of perils depicted also show the real dangers travellers might encounter at anytime on the Silk Road.

Except for the stories of Guan-yin and “Two Buddhas Sitting Side-by-Side”, the depictions of all the other content from the Lotus Sutra are new in the caves of the Sui dynasty. This cave has the richest explanation of this sutra among the many Sui caves.