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Mogao Cave 275

(Please click for enlarged image)

The object image

Figure 1

The object image

Figure 2

The object image

Figure 3

The object image

Figure 4

The object image

Figure 5

The object image

Figure 6

Northern Liang period

Copying of murals and stucco statues
West wall: Wu Rongjian
South wall: Guan Jinwen and Gao Shan
North wall: Wu Rongjian and Wang Feng
Cave ceiling: Wu Rongjian and Guan Jinwen
Stucco statues: Du Yongwei, Li Lin and Yan Yumin

Architectural form

This cave was constructed during the Northern Liang regime in the end of the Sixteen Kingdoms period. It is one of the earliest extant caves at Mogao. It belongs to the category of Hall Caves.

The principal wall (west wall) holds a statue of Bodhisattva Maitreya sitting cross-ankled on a throne flanked by a pair of lions. Chiselled in the upper section of each the two sidewalls (south wall and north wall) are three niches, two eaved niches emulating the que-watchtower and one with a canopy formed by the spreading branches of two trees. Each eaved niche holds a bodhisattva sitting cross-ankled and with hands in a different mudrā (symbolic gesture). Each Double-Tree-Canopy niche holds a bodhisattva in pensive pose. The lower sections of the sidewalls are decorated with murals.

Painted stucco statues

Cross-ankled Bodhisattva Maitreya statue (Figure 1)

Principal wall (West wall)

The statue of Bodhisattva Maitreya on the principal wall is 3.4 metres tall. Maitreya is sitting cross-ankled on a throne flanked by a pair of lions. The varada mudrā shown by his left hand expresses his commitment to fulfil the wishes of all sentient beings. He wears a crown with the image of a Transformation Buddha in the front, upon his curly hair which falls over the shoulder. He dresses in style of the Western Regions baring the upper body, his lower body wrapped in a skirt, with bracelets around his arms and ornaments over his chest. The expression on his rotund face bespeaks serenity and solemnity. His chest and abdomen show no undulation and his legs have the same thickness throughout. The skirt clinging closely to his legs have contours and drapery folds modelled by appliqué clay and incised lines. This method of representing folds on clothes is found on the sculptures of Gandhāra (around present-day Afghanistan and North Pakistan) art of the 4th and 5th centuries. Likewise, similar style of triangular backrest carved with brocade motif in bas-relief has also been found in the rock-cut caves of Xinjiang and Afghanistan. The iconographic origin of this type of cross-ankled bodhisattva statues can be traced back to Afghanistan, generally believed to have come to Dunhuang from the Western Regions. These iconographical characteristics reveal the adoption of Buddhist art of the Western Regions in earlier Dunhuang caves.

Bodhisattva Maitreya statues inside the eaved niches (Figure 2) (Figure 3)

North wall and south wall

The bodhisattva statues inside the eaved niches are sitting with ankles crossed. A kind of niche design, the eaved niche looks like the façade of a building with a principal eave above the centre flanked by a higher and a lower eave on either side. Known as que in Chinese, its design is the most distinctive among all niche designs at Dunhuang. Que originally referred to the ceremonial watchtowers flanking the palace entrance. Later on the term was generally used to denote palace entrance, palace buildings and the residence of the emperor, and became the symbol of supreme sovereignty. This cave is the first cave to adopt the architectural form of que of the Han dynasty on niche design to represent Tuṣita, the celestial abode of Bodhisattva Maitreya. This innovative niche design is also found in a number of Northern Dynasties caves at Dunhuang, but is rare in caves of the Northern Zhou and other later periods.

Bodhisattva Maitreya statue inside the Double-Tree-Canopy niche (Figure 4)

North wall and south wall

Double-Tree-Canopy niche is a kind of niche design emulating the trees. The trunks of two trees form the side columns while the spreading branches meet at the top of the niche to form the lintel. The statue enshrined in the niche is Bodhisattva Maitreya in pensive or meditative pose under the Dragon Tree (nāgapuṣpa). Legend has that this iconography of Maitreya was inspired by his frequent commitment in solving problems for his devotees in Tuṣita his celestial abode.


Jātaka tales (Figure 5)

North wall

Painted on the north wall is a number of jātaka tales, which are stories about Śākyamuni's virtuous deeds in his countless previous births. All the five jātaka tales depicted on the north wall are meant to indicate the protagonist's ease of manner in the face of adversities and to emphasise his self-sacrifices (especially physical ones) and stoical acceptance of suffering, which are requisites for attaining enlightenment.

King Sibi Jātaka (Figure 6)

King Sibi was the ruler of the Sibi Kingdom in ancient India. As a devout Buddhist, he pledged to save all sentient beings from suffering. In order to test him, Indra and his minister Viśvakarman transformed themselves into a hawk and a dove. The hawk chased after the dove trying to eat it. The dove then sought refuge in King Sibi. However, the hawk begged the king to let him eat the dove otherwise he would die of starvation. In order to save the dove as well as the hawk, King Sibi decided to offer his own flesh to feed the hawk.

The hawk accepted the offer with the condition that the amount of flesh he received from the king be equal to that of the dove. King Sibi promised and let a butcher cut out his flesh, which was placed on one side of the scale while the dove was placed on the other side. However, after cutting out nearly all his flesh, the scale still showed that the dove was heavier. Then King Sibi sat on the scale to indicate that he was offering his entire self. Moved by King Sibi's virtuous deed, Indra finally restored his flesh.