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Thousand-Hand-and-Thousand-Eye Avalokiteśvara

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The object image

Figure 1


The object image

Figure 2

The object image


Figure 3




Yulin Cave 3
Western Xia period
Copy by Gao Shan

The Thousand-Hand-and-Thousand-Eye Avalokiteśvara depicted in the painting has 51 faces in total stacked up atop the head like a tower. This is the only extant example of Thousand-Hand-and-Thousand-Eye Avalokiteśvara with 51 faces. The multitude of hands are holding different ritual objects, precious items and production tools in mirrored images on left and right. The pair of gigantic hands stretching downward are giving protection to the believers.

The most noteworthy of the painting is the symmetrically arranged production scenes (such as grain husking, iron smithing, wine brewing, tilling, and carrying loads using a pole) and production tools (such as plough, hoe, rake, sickle, saw, axe, bushel, carpenter's square and traction cattle) in addition to images representing a multitude of trades and handicrafts. There are 166 scenes in total. These production and social scenarios of the Western Xia period are not entirely from the Buddhist texts, but rather the unique creation of the Western Xia painters. The images are of great historical, artistic, scientific and technological value. No other similar extant examples are found among Dunhuang murals illustrating Esoteric Buddhist sūtra.

Selected images

Grain husking:A farmer operating a husking machine. The farmer is holding onto the handrail of the machine while treadling a lever connected to the pestle. (Figure 1)

Wine brewing: The square utensil placed atop a stove is probably a steamer. There are two women by the side of the stove. The squatting woman is inserting firewood into the front opening of the stove while another woman with a bowl in her hand is possibly tasting the newly brewed wine. Depicted on the ground are wooden bucket, wine ewer and stemmed bowl. (Figure 2)

Iron smithing: The painting shows a man pushing and pulling the two blades of a wooden bellow to generate wind to maintain the flames in the furnace. On the other side of the bellow are two ironsmiths working around an iron anvil. One of them is holding a pincer gripping a piece of wrought iron placed on the anvil while the other ironsmith is holding up a hammer with both hands ready to strike down. This is the earliest extant painting depicting ‘wooden bellow blacksmithing' in China. (Figure 3)