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Entering the womb riding on an elephant

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North part of ceiling above the niche of west wall of Mogao Cave 329
Early Tang dynasty
Copy by Li Qiqiong

The conception scene depicting Śākyamuni entering his mother's womb riding on an elephant is the most representative scene among the murals illustrating the life story of the Buddha. Murals of this theme are found in a number of caves of the Northern Wei, Northern Zhou, Sui, Tang and Five Dynasties periods at Dunhuang. The life story of the Buddha gives a comprehensive account of the different stages of his life from conception and early life to his departure, ascetic practice, awakening, preaching and nirvāṇa.

The conception scene in Cave 329 is considered the most inspirational example among murals of the same theme found in Dunhuang. The half-naked bodhisattva riding on the elephant wears a jewelled crown around his topknot. He is escorted by a train of celestial beings in front of and behind him. The elephant is marching across the sky in big strides. Under the feet of the elephant are cushions of lotus flowers supported by celestial figures. A figure riding on a dragon guides the way while another figure following the elephant guards the rear. Hovering above are celestial musicians playing music and apsaras spreading flowers. Their beautiful long scarves float elegantly in the air. The scene is very colourful and highly ornamented.

This scene illustrates the episode of Queen Māyā dreaming of a bodhisattva entering her womb riding on a white elephant. Since King Śuddhodana and Queen Māyā of the Kapilavastu Kingdom of ancient India remained childless for many years, they worried about the problem of finding an heir. One night, Queen Māyā dreamed of a bodhisattva riding on a white elephant descending from the sky and entering her belly through her right flank. After waking up she sought advice from a fortune teller and realised that a divine being had entered her womb. Eventually in the garden of Lumbini she gave birth to Siddhārtha through her right flank. The prince was later known as Śākyamuni, the founder of Buddhism.