Life story of the Buddha
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East slope of the gabled ceiling of Mogao Cave 290
Northern Zhou period
Copy by Chen Zhilin
This paintings mainly based on the content of the Cāryanidāna (Biography of the Buddha). This text deals with the life story of Śākyamuni starting from his conception to his awakening.
This painting is in the traditional form of a narrative scroll of the Han and Jin periods. The painting consists of 87 sequential scenes running through the upper, middle and lower registers in an ‘S' fashion, narrating the life of Śākyamuni, upon whose teaching Buddhism was founded, from his conception to his first sermon after attaining buddhahood. The entire painting is very rich in content and meticulous in details. The imported biography of the Buddha has been elaborated and recreated to incorporate strong Chinese flavour. This is a fine example among murals of the same theme painted during the Northern Zhou period.
This painting is a copy of the first 50 scenes on the original mural. These scenes run in an ‘S' fashion through three registers, namely the upper, middle and lower. The episodes depict mainly the conception and birth of Prince Siddhārtha (Śākyamuni), the thirty-two auspicious phenomena appearing after his birth, and his being ordered by his father King Śuddhodana to receive education.
Taking seven lotus steps (Figure 1)
The newborn baby prince walks seven steps and at each step a lotus flower appears on the ground. He raises his hand and proclaims, "I am the most Supreme Being in the universe." As soon as he says this, the sky and earth shake vigorously. Brahma, Indra, the four Heavenly Kings and their retinues come to attend to him.
Nine dragons showering water (Figure 1)
The baby prince stands on a lotus pedestal while the nine dragons surrounding him shower fragrant rain to cleanse his body.
Phenomenon (Figure 2)
Streets become naturally clean and stinky places naturally fragrant, represented by two figures sweeping the ground and a squatted figure relieving himself in a toilet.
Although the life story of the Buddha took place in India, this mural has incorporated many Chinese elements and traditional painting expressions, thus adding strong Chinese flavour to the biographical account of the Buddha.
The characters in the painting are mainly in Han Chinese costumes. The wide-sleeved and cross-collared robe, long skirt and other items worn by Queen Māyā in this painting are notably of Han Chinese origin. (Figure 3)
In painting the figures, the technique called ‘shading the protruding parts and leaving the recessed parts' used in traditional Chinese painting is employed. A colour deeper in shade than the basic complexion colour of the figure is used to highlight the cheeks, upper eyelids, chin to heighten the sense of three-dimensionality.
The architecture shown in the painting is of Han Chinese style, comprising a foundation platform, walled structures and the roof. The platform is paved with grey bricks while the tiled roof is in the form of a hipped roof with four slopes and an ornamental owl-tail projection on either end of the ridge. (Figure 4)