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Mogao Cave 220

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The object image

Figure 1

The object image

Figure 2

The object image

Figure 3

The large orchestra (left section) depicted in the Bhaiṣajyaguru Sūtra tableau on the north wall


Early Tang dynasty

Copying of murals and stucco statues
West wall: Zhao Junrong, Wu Rongjian, Niu Yusheng, Hua Liang, Shao Hongjiang, Xie Chengshui and Ma Yuhua
South wall: Li Qiqiong, Fan Xinggang, Wan Gengyu, Ouyang Lin, Li Zhenfu, Liu Yuquan, Duan Wenjie, Li Fu and Jiang Hao
North wall: Gao Peng and Zhao Lihui
East wall: Shen Shuping and Li Qiqiong
Cave ceiling: Li Kaifu, Niu Yusheng, Xie Chengshui and Wu Rongjian
Passageway: Li Zhenfu and Niu Yusheng
Stucco statues: Li Lin, Yan Yukun, Yan Yumin and Yan Xiaomin

Construction history

This cave is a representative cave of the early Tang dynasty and one of the very few firmly dated Dunhuang caves. Since this cave was constructed by the illustrious Zhai family at Dunhuang, it is also called the Zhai Family Cave. Cutting of the cave began in the 16th year of the Zhenguan reign (642) of the Tang dynasty.

Architectural form

This cave belongs to the category of Hall Caves with a truncated pyramid ceiling. The principal wall (west wall) holds a rectangular niche that is wider on the outside and narrower inside. Five statues are enshrined in the niche. The other three walls are painted with sūtra tableaux, namely the Sūtra tableau depicting the Paradise (Pure Land) of the West on the south wall, the Bhaiṣajyaguru Sūtra tableau on the north wall and the Vimalakīrti Sūtra tableau on either side of the cave entrance on the east wall. Painting the respective scenes of the Western and Eastern Paradises on the opposing sidewalls is a typical layout format found in early Tang caves.

Painted stucco statues (Figure 1)

Five statues exist inside the niche, featuring Buddha Śākyamuni flanked by his principal disciples Kāśyapa and Ānanda and then a pair of acolyte bodhisattvas. Since all the statues had undergone refurbishment in later ages, with the exception of the statue of Kāśyapa which has basically retained its early Tang appearance, the original appearance of the other statues are no longer visible. The wall behind the statues is painted with the images of eight disciples of the Buddha. Together with the statues of Kāśyapa and Ānanda, they make up the Ten Principal Disciples of the Buddha.


Sūtra tableau illustrating the Paradise of the West

South wall

Depicted on this mural are the amazing scenes in the Paradise (Pure Land) of the West presided by the Buddha Amitābha. This tableau is the earliest and grandest sūtra tableau illustrating this theme at Mogao Caves. This cave is also the first cave to paint a single sūtra tableau on one single wall.

The Buddha Amitābha occupies a central position in the painting. He is depicted as sitting in padmāsana (lotus posture) on a lotus throne decorated with the Seven Treasures. His hands are at chest level displaying the dharmacakra pravartana mudrā (wheel-turning gesture). He is flanked by Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara and Bodhisattva Mahāsthāmaprāpta, both sitting. The triad is known as ‘The Three Holy Ones of the West'. Surrounding them is a retinue of over 150 members showing different postures and expressions.

On either side of the lotus pond is a two-storey palatial building in which are bodhisattvas and other figures engaged in various activities. A bodhisattva is kneeling on a lotus flower borne on a central stem rising from the pond. From this stem grows nine lotus buds. Inside each bud is a Transformation Lad in standing or sitting posture. Some more Transformation Lads are playing in the water, enhancing the liveliness of the scene. According to the Buddhist text, sentient beings taking birth in the Buddhist Paradise of the West will be born in a lotus. This kind of birth is called Transformation Birth. The Transformation Lads are children resulted from this kind of birth.

Above the Buddha Amitābha is the Double-Tree Canopy. Images of buddha and bodhisattva are flying down from the sky right above and on either side of the Buddha Amitābha. Also on the sky are self-sounding musical instruments.

The land in front of the pond on the foreground is the Ground of Seven Treasures mentioned in Buddhist text. Musicians and dancers are performing in the centre. A standing buddha and his large retinue of bodhisattvas are depicted on either side, indicating that there are many bodhisattvas in the Paradise. The peacock, Jīvajīva the human-headed bird and crane are spreading their wings and dancing gracefully by the shore of the pond on the Ground of Seven Treasures, accentuating the atmosphere of joy and peace.

Transformation Lads sitting or standing inside the lotus buds, or playing in the water. One boy is doing handstand and another one in a dungaree is standing in the water. The depiction is reminiscent of mundane fun. (Figure 2)

Tableau illustrating the Bhaiṣajyaguru Sūtra (Figure 3)

North wall

This tableau is an illustration of the scenes of the Paradise of the East, based on the description contained in the Chinese version of the Bhaiṣajyaguru Sūtra (Sūtra of the Medicine Buddha) translated by the Indian monk Dharmagupta during the Sui dynasty. This early Tang tableau is the first illustration of this sūtra on Dunhuang murals and the only example of its time found in Tang caves. Moreover, it is the only tableau at Mogao Caves illustrating Bhaiṣajyaguru as the principal deity of a unique grouping known as the Seven Medicine Buddhas, all in standing posture.

According toBuddhism, Bhaiṣajyaguru is the Lord of the Paradise of the East, with the power of healing people, hence also called the Medicine Buddha. Depicted in the centre of the tableau is a lotus pond. Amid the lotus pond is a luxuriant terrace lavishly paved with lapis lazuli . On the terrace is a row of seven standing Buddhas, known as the Seven Medicine Buddhas. However, it does not mean that all seven Buddhas are Bhaiṣajyaguru. These seven Buddhas are the Lords of seven Buddha fields (buddhakṣetra) in the East. The second one from the left holding a bowl in his left hand and displaying the vitarka mudrā (gesture of discussion) with his right hand should be Bhaiṣajyaguru. The hand gestures, aureoles, attire and lotus throne of these seven Buddhas differ from each other. Except for the central Buddha who is flanked by two bodhisattvas on each side, the other Buddhas only have one bodhisattva between them. Thus, there are eight acolyte bodhisattvas altogether.

Over the head of each of the seven Buddhas is an exquisitely decorated Double-Tree Canopy. Apsaras are flying in the sky above them. Two bodhisattvas are sitting sideway leaning onto the parapet at the front of the terrace on either side. They are holding a lotus and joining their palms to pay homage to the Buddhas. Their expressions and postrues bespeak beauty and grace. The terrace is flanked by large numbers of guardian figures and other members of the celestial retinue. Above the guardian figures are asuras (a class of divine beings); below them are vīras (divine beings with Herculean might).

The worship of Bhaiṣajyaguru is strongly associated with the offering of light in the form of candles or oil lamps, which is also illustrated in this is sūtra tableau. Depicted in front of the seven Buddhas are wheel-like chandeliers originated in the Western Regions and a pagoda-shaped lantern originated from the Central Plains. In fact, offering of light is not exclusive to the worship of Bhaiṣajyaguru but a common way of making offers in Buddhism. During the Tang dynasty, large-scale lantern festival organised by both the religious and lay communities was held on the 15th day of the first lunar month. Therefore the depiction of huge wheel-like tiered lamps is in fact a true reflection of the social life of the time.

Also depicted in this painting are large-scale music and dance performance.