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Mogao Cave 259 (Northern Wei 439-534AD)
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This cave has a square chamber with a flat ceiling at the back and gable ceiling at the front. The east wall and part of the south wall collapsed, and have been restored. The dado part of the other walls is painted in white, and covers the original painting.

Figure 1: Main niche in front side of pillar  

Instead of having a central pillar (a popular style in earlier caves), the pillar is attached to the west wall. That is, the west wall has a rectangular protruded portion with an opening that serves as the main niche. It is the beginning of a style, seen in later caves, that omits a central pillar (Figure 1).

In the main niche on the west wall are two identical Buddhas seated together. It was a very popular theme in the Northern Dynasties and this pair is the earliest found in Dunhuang.

According to the Lotus Sutra, the long-extinct Buddha Prabhutaratna appears in a stupa to celebrate Sakyamuni on his preaching on the doctrine of the best path to salvation (i.e., to practice the all-embracing Mahayana teachings), and invites him to sit side by side in the stupa. It emphasizes the importance of the doctrines of the Lotus Sutra by the approval of a past Buddha. Also, the Buddha from the past symbolizes the infinite Buddha nature.

This main niche still functions as a stupa, except it cannot be circumambulated. Each of the two Buddhas has his own halo, mandorla and canopy with triangular valances, which were popular features at the time. The Buddhas are in identical poses, making Dispelling Fear mudra with their right hands. On their robes one can see clay lines that are parallel, ridged and gently-waved.

Other than the two Buddhas’ canopies, 14 Budhisattvas and 10 apsaras are also painted on the niche wall, and several heavenly musicians are painted on the bas-relief lintel. The small columns on either side of the niche are in bas-relief, and appear as if wrapped with silk. On the west wall, and on the west end of the south and north walls, is a Thousand-Buddha motif on a reddish-brown background.

Figure 2: Buddha in meditation, north wall  

On the north wall, under the gable ceiling, is a preaching scene with a Buddha, two Bodhisattvas and eight apsaras. Underneath is a group of four niches on top and three bigger arched ones below. The four on top are in the Chinese style, with tiled roofs and gate-towers (que) at both sides. Unfortunately, all the protruding roofs were lost and only the mortises for rows of the supporting brackets are left. (Complete and undamaged niches of the same style can be seen in Cave 275.) Inside each niche is an image of Bodhisattva; in two of them they are sitting cross-ankled, while the third one is in a pensive pose. The fourth one is missing.

The three larger niches are in a style possibly influenced by India. Each has a round arch and is surmounted by pointed-top canopy, while at its lower end is a palmette or dragon head. The tops of the small columns on either side are in bas-relief and appear as if wrapped with silk. Each niche has a Buddha sitting inside, either in lotus position or with legs pendent. The one on the east end closest to the entrance is the best preserved (Figure 2).

This Buddha’s robe hangs over his seat in three smooth loops of drapery folds. The light carving on his robe is a traditional Chinese technique, providing a simple yet natural and beautiful appearance. His eyes are slightly downcast with a serene smile, showing that he is immersed in deep meditation. He has different appearances when one looks at him from different angles. His smile is one of the most attractive and innovative traits of the Northern Wei Buddhist sculptures, making this statue one of the outstanding examples found in Buddhist art.

Figure 3: Bodhisattva, west wall  

The flanking Bodhisattvas are in relief except for their heads. They are dressed in Indian style but with a Chinese appearance. The carvings of their faces and crowns are quite detailed, especially noticeable on the statue located on the south side (Figure 3). His head and body are in a proportional ratio of 1:6.5. He smiles in a calm and mysterious way.

Meditation practice (Sanskrit: dhyani), originally from India, is a very important activity of every Buddhist in all schools. It was a very significant theme in the caves constructed in the Northern Dynasties, since it was the emphasis in northern China; meanwhile theoretical study was the focus in the south. This dissimilarity was due to the different characteristics of the Chinese in these areas at that time.