Mogao Cave 158
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Stucco statue of Buddha in Nirvāṇa
Mid Tang dynasty
Statue of Buddha in Nirvāṇa: Copy by Du Yongwei, Li Lin and Wang Kun
This cave was constructed in the period when Dunhuang was under Tibetan rule. It is one of the finest Nirvāṇa caves at Mogao.
Nirvāṇa cave is where the image of the Nirvāṇa Buddha is used as the theme of the cave. To give the viewers a comprehensive and unobstructed view of the reclining Buddha, all Nirvāṇa caves are rectangular in shape. The length of the original reclining Buddha in this cave is 15.8 metres; his head about 3 metres long. This is the largest among all images of Nirvāṇa Buddha at Mogao.
The standard reclining posture of the Nirvāṇa Buddha is called ‘Lion's Posture', introduced from India. The Buddha is portrayed as lying on his right side, his head resting on his right hand (this is also one of the standard sleeping postures of the monks), the left hand resting gently on his body, and the feet stacking up with the upper surface of the feet facing outward. This posture is different from lying on one's back as adopted by the dead of the mundane world, indicating that entering nirvāṇa does not mean death.
This nirvāṇa image of Buddha shows a neatly groomed cranial bump with snail-like curls, a peaceful expression and a subtly smiling face. The image has not the faintest suggestion of pain and sorrow as in the case of mundane death, but resembles falling into sleep with joy and gratification. The entire image bespeaks the ultimate realm of enjoying spiritual tranquility.
The most representative murals in this cave are the painting of bodhisattvas and arhats (luohan) behind the reclining Buddha, the ‘Mourning scene of the ten principal disciples' on the south wall and the two murals namely ‘Mourning princes from various kingdoms' and ‘Lady Māyā (mother of the Buddha) on hearing the bad news' on the north wall.
Painted images of bodhisattvas (upper register) and arhats (lower register) (Figure 1)
The facial expressions of the bodhisattvas and arhats are completely different. Since the bodhisattvas realise what nirvāṇa is about, they show an envy expression on their face. Since the awakening level of the arhats is much lower, they think that Śākyamuni has died in the mundane sense and therefore they wail aloud.
Mourning princes from various kingdoms (Figure 2)
This mural painted in the Tibetan period shows the Tibetan king (also known as Tsanpo) standing in the front. Unfortunately his head is missing from the painting. On his right is a Han-Chinese emperor escorted by two court ladies. Other figures are identifiable by their costume as lords and dignitaries from the Western Regions. Some figures are severing their ear and nose, or stabbing their own chest with a knife. The practice of self-mutilation was associated with the funerary customs of the Western Regions. The scene illustrates the extreme grief expressed by the secular followers of the Buddha when they hear of the latter entering nirvāṇa.