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Apsaras playing musical instruments

(Please click for enlarged image)

South wall of Mogao Cave 285
Western Wei period
Copy by Ouyang Lin

This frieze painted with 12 apsaras (celestial maidens) playing musical instruments is a masterpiece among Dunhuang murals of this theme.

All the apsaras on the frieze are depicted as flying towards the principal wall of the cave. Ten of them are playing music with different kinds of instruments, giving a glimpse of the variety of musical instruments in the Western Wei period.

This cave was constructed under the auspices of Yuan Rong during his tenure as Commander of Guazhou. He was a descendant of the royal house of Northern Wei and a devout Buddhist. When he came to Dunhuang from Luoyang during the Western Wei period, he brought with him large numbers of sculptors of Buddhist statues. Buddhist art from the Central Plains was thus introduced to Dunhuang, subsequently weakening the influence of the Western Regions and strengthening the influence of the Central Plains over Dunhuang grotto art. The figures depicted on Western Wei murals are of typical ‘elegant and refined style', characterised by their lean faces, widely spaced brows and eyes, breezy demeanour and loose robes girded with broad straps. The same images are also adopted by the apsara figures on the murals, as exemplified by the present painting. The apsaras in this painting are lean and slender, with a long skirt tied around the narrow waist and streamers fluttering in the wind. They look very elegant and relaxed while performing music and dance amid celestial flowers and trailing clouds. Their movement bespeaks rhythmic and feminine beauty.