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Leaving the kingdom at midnight

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

According to Buddhist scriptures, the secular life of Śākyamuni began with his entering his mother's womb riding on an elephant and ended with his departure from his kingdom. Therefore murals depicting respectively the conception scene and the departure scene often couple up to face each other or placed side by side in Dunhuang Caves.

The episode is also called The Great Departure. It tells of Prince Siddhārtha (Śākyamuni) leaving the city at midnight to take up ascetic life. After growing up, Siddhārtha always fell into deep contemplation seeking the true means of relieving sentient beings from suffering. One night at age 29, enlightened by the Divine, he abandoned the throne and his loving wife. He mounted a horse and left his kingdom to practise religion. On the night of his departure, all the people of his kingdom went into a coma. To prevent the horse hooves from making sounds, the celestial beings lifted them above the ground. Thus the horse galloped silently through the air. When the horse arrived at the gate of the kingdom, the celestial beings made the gate open silently. The prince left the city and began the long journey of ascetic practice.

This painting is a copy of the episode depicting Prince Siddhārtha leaving his kingdom at midnight on horseback. The prince is wearing a jewelled crown and holding the rein in hand. The horse is galloping across the sky; each horse hoof is supported by a heavenly king. A celestial being riding on a tiger guides the way in the front while celestial maidens and vīras (celestial males with herculean strength) act as rearguard. Hovering above are celestial musicians playing music and apsaras spreading flowers. Their colourful streamers twirl to the rhythm of their body movement. The entire scene is imbued with dynamism.