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Sakyamuni Buddha, Cave No. 260, Northern Wei

Sakyamuni Buddha, Cave No. 260, Northern Wei



We Have brought out this volume to introduce Dunhuang art to a wider readership of English language within and outside India. Our book features a picture of Dunhuang art vividly painted by its greatest authority, Professor Duan Wenjie, a man who has spent a lifetime preserving, studying, documenting and propagating the art of Dunhuang. Now in the seventy-eighth year of his life, Duan Wenjie is still the doyen of the Dunhuang studies in China besides being the active Director of the Dunhuang Academy. There is a certain history attached to the fact that this volume, the first of its kind in India, is brought out by the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA), New Delhi.

A Historic Meeting

On 12th October 1990, a historic meeting took place in the Mogao Grottoes between Dr. Kapila Vatsyayan and Professor Duan Wenjie. The former is an exponent of Indian art as well as an administrator dispensing with matters of art and culture in the Government of India for four decades. The latter is a representative of Chinese culture and art, an art historian and analyst, a custodian of cultural relics in Dunhuang for over four decades. This writer was present at that meeting as a go-between. Another person present in the meeting was Ms. Fan Jingshi, Vice-Director of the Dunhuang Academy.

After a gap of three decades this was the first direct meaningful exchange of views on the art and culture of India and China between their own scholars . The meeting, in a sense, reflected the determination of the two great civilizations to begin a vigorous dialogue and a direct transmission of ideas and exchange of information and insights concerning the two great civilizations of mankind.

Dr. Kapila Vatsyayan was, then, Member-Secretary of IGNCA. She and Professor Duan Wenjie, Director of Dunhuang Academy, initiated a meaningful start of a long-term collaboration between the two institutions. In her usual style of do-it-here-and-now, she made the following offers to Prof. Duan:

1) IGNCA to invite a delegation from Dunhuang Academy to visit India to see Indian cultural relics and interact with Indian scholars and experts;

2) IGNCA to invite Dunhuang Academy to exhibit the reproduction of the Dunhuang murals in New Delhi to bring them to inform and educate the Indian public;

3) IGNCA to sponsor two scholars from the Dunhuang Academy to study Sanskrit and Indian history and culture in India; and

4) IGNCA to translate Chinese studies on art and culture and publish them in India for the benefit of Indian experts as well as general readers.

The first three proposals have already been translated into reality. This book is an implementation of Item 4, the first of a series to be brought out by IGNCA about Chinese art and culture. This is a humble contribution from Dr. Vatsyayan and myself personally, and from IGNCA and its Area Studies Division, East Asian Programme institutionally, to the development of Sino-Indian friendship and understanding for future generations.

I must not fail to mention another significant event arising from the first-ever visit to India of the Dunhuang delegation comprising Director Duan Wenjie and his senior colleague in the Academy, Professor Shi Weixiang. Taking advantage of their presence in New Delhi in November 1991, a seminar on the "Cave Art of India and China" was organized under the auspices of IGNCA in collaboration with National Museum and Archaeological Survey of India. Apart from seventeen Indian art historians, archaeologists, museologists and other scholars, scholars from USSR, France and Germany also participated in the Seminar. Mr..N.Deshpande;M.N.Deshpande, former Director-General of Archaeological Survey of India, was the Convenor of the Seminar. The valedictory address was delivered by Dr. Shankar Dayal Sharma, then Vice President and now President of India.

The Seminar was complemented by three well-attended special lectures on the art of Mathura, Ajanta and Dunhuang on three consecutive days.1 These lectures became an extension of the Seminar, and brought about a wider interaction between the participants and scholars from other fields. On December 23, 1991, Professor Duan Wenjie also delivered a lecture on Dunhuang at the National Museum to mark the opening of the Dunhuang Art Exhibition in New Delhi.

The Seminar and the four lectures, in addition to the Dunhuang Exhibition, initiated what Dr. Vatsyayan and Professor Duan had desired a year ago --- a vigorous dialogue between the two great cultural traditions of India and China. In addition to the free flow of information and insight, the Seminar and lectures also helped to set aside misinformation and misunderstanding sprung up during long period of separation between the two cultures.

The Exhibition which was on view from December 23, 1991 to February 3, 1992, was a significant cultural event in the Indian capital. The President of India and the Prime Ministers of India and China, the Acting Minister for Culture of the Chinese Government, and Mrs. Sonia Gandhi sent messages of congratulations to IGNCA on the occasion of the Exhibition.

In his message the President, . Venkataraman;R. Venkataraman wrote: "The paintings of these caves were inspired by the message of the Buddha, especially in the form of Avalokite¿vara. The Thousand Buddha caves are a testimony to the devotion, concentration and artistic skills of self-denying monks, the creators of the paintings." He added that "the initiative of a few Chinese scholars and painters who have organized this Exhibition will enable Indian viewers to experience the beauty and exquisiteness of the originals." He felt confident that "this Exhibition will, furthermore, stimulate comparative research in Indian and Chinese cave art." President Venkataraman visited the Exhibition on January 18, 1992 and viewed the paintings with keen interest.

The Prime Minister of India, Mr. .V. Narasimha Rao;P.V. Narasimha Rao, said in his message:

"Two great civilizations --- India and China --- have been in mutual dialogue for centuries. Both the dialogue as also the distinctiveness have been inspired in no small measure through the spread of Buddhism. Pilgrims from each country have visited the other. The pilgrimage and trade routes provided opportunity for the flowering of creative energies in both the countries. The paintings and sculpture of the Dunhuang caves represent this cultural synergism as do the Ajanta caves of India."

In his message Mr. Li Peng, Premier of the People's Republic of China, said:

"There is a long history of cultural exchanges between China and India. As far back as two thousand years ago, the introduction of Buddhism to China ushered in such exchanges. The opening up and extension of the silk road served as a bridge for direct contacts between the two countries. That was followed by a constant stream of religious, cultural and commercial interchanges. The exploits of the famed Tang Dynasty monk Xuan Zang who went on a pilgrimage to the west for Buddhist scriptures in the seventh century has long been a household story and is viewed as a brilliant chapter in the annals of Sino-Indian friendship. This exhibition of China's Dunhuang Murals in India both testifies to the achievements of our centuries-old exchanges in the religious and cultural fields and plants the seeds for further blossoming of our peoples' friendly contacts. As a link between the past and the future, it is an event of great significance and an occasion for congratulations."


The Dreamland of Dunhuang


Interior of Cave No. 431, Northern Wei

Interior of Cave No. 431, Northern Wei

Dunhuang is situated at the westernmost end of the Gansu Corridor . It is in a valley flanked by the two mountain ranges of Qilian and Beishan, with the confluence of two rivers, Sule and Danghe, forming a series of lakes and saline beaches and the Yushuquan basin --- places which attracted settlers in the past, and tourists in the present.

Dunhuang is a little oasis in the vast Gobi desert which a large number of foreign traders and pilgrims had succeeded or failed to reach in historical times because of the endless ocean of sand separating it from the densely peopled areas to its west. Yet, today, it is probably the most fancied oasis on earth. The dead silence of the surrounding desert is pounded by the thunder of modern jetliners for two to three hundred times a year. In the last several decades it has attracted visitors not only from among scholars, specialists and art lovers, but also politicians and state leaders of China and foreign countries.


Dunhuang is situated at the westernmost end of the Gansu Corridor . It is in a valley flanked by the two mountain ranges of Qilian and Beishan, with the confluence of two rivers, Sule and Danghe, forming a series of lakes and saline beaches and the Yushuquan basin --- places which attracted settlers in the past, and tourists in the present.

Dunhuang is a little oasis in the vast Gobi desert which a large number of foreign traders and pilgrims had succeeded or failed to reach in historical times because of the endless ocean of sand separating it from the densely peopled areas to its west. Yet, today, it is probably the most fancied oasis on earth. The dead silence of the surrounding desert is pounded by the thunder of modern jetliners for two to three hundred times a year. In the last several decades it has attracted visitors not only from among scholars, specialists and art lovers, but also politicians and state leaders of China and foreign countries.

Contrary to historical experience, the entry into Dunhuang today no longer lies from the west. Dunhuang is just about halfway between New Delhi and Beijing. But the most convenient way to reach Dunhuang from New Delhi is to fly first to Beijing, and then, transfer oneself to Chinese domestic flights of the Beijing-Lanzhou and Lanzhou-Dunhuang sectors. Once in Lanzhou, the capital city of Gansu province, a visitor finds himself in the midst of the attractions of Buddhist cave art which lie all around him/her.

A one-day tour can be easily undertaken by getting off at the modern monument of Liujiaxia Dam and hydro-power station on the Yellow River, and then taking the launch to sail upstream along the newly created reservoir which now forms a widened course of the river. An ancient Chinese saying goes "Shenren chu, Huanghe qing" (The Yellow River will have green water only if a sage emerges). The foreign tourist today enjoying a cruise from Liujiaxia to the Binglingsi Grottoes riding on green waves all the way may feel the presence of modern sages who are trying to give a facelift to this relatively backward part of the country. He may feel greatly excited when suddenly a huge 27-metre statue of an ancient Indian sage, Buddha, stands before him among the grotesque old rock formations on the right bank. This is Binglingsi which is a Tibetan name meaning the "Temple of a hundred thousand Buddhas". The grottoes have preserved sculptures and murals created from the 5th to the 16th century, comprising 34 caves and 149 niches, 900 square metres of murals, 694 stone-carved and 82 stucco images/dunhuang of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.

Southeast of Lanzhou, in the vicinity of Tianshui city is another renowned cluster of caves --- Maijishan Grottoes. Maijishan or "Hill of Heaped Wheat" is actually a huge 150-metre-high bamboo-shoot-shaped rock so densely adorned with Buddhist shrines that when one looks from a distance one sees only a mass of honeycombs. The shrines date from the 4th to the 12th century. Although there has been much destruction over the years, including a severe earthquake in the year 734 which split the rock into two and destroyed all the shrines in the centre, there are still 194 caves with more than 7,000 rock-cut and stucco images/dunhuang and 1,300 square metres of mural paintings.

There are a score of other ancient Buddhist grottoes around Lanzhou, including the three giant Buddha figures carved in relief in the Lashaosi cave near Wushan county (the central Buddha figure being 60 metres in length), but the foreign visitor's first destination from Lanzhou is surely Dunhuang, at a distance of three hours of non-stop flying over the Gobi desert and the snow-capped Qilian range. There is an evident attempt at afforestation in Dunhuang county, and an old visitor always finds new trees, new fields and new modern hotels on every successive trip. If the oasis of Dunhuang is thriving today it is mainly because of the importance of the Mogao Grottoes. In earlier times, it must have been much more prosperous and dynamic, otherwise the extravaganza of Buddhist art in Dunhuang would not have been there.

The magical name of Dunhuang had existed long before Sir Aurel Stein publicized it to the world after he had discovered it in 1907. We have in the Dunhuang Manuscripts six hand-written versions of twenty poems entitled "Dunhuang nianyun" (Twenty Hymns to Dunhuang) which were in circulation in the 8th century or even earlier.2 The sixth poem says:

"Thousands of miles

Connecting the site

With the Western States;

The famous Yang Gate

Has been here

A thousand years."3

"Yangguan" (the Yang Gate) lies just a few hours' bus journey away from the Mogao Grottoes to the west. The famous Tang poet, Wang Wei (701?-761), wrote his immortal song "Yangguan qu" (Song of the Yang Gate) expressing these sentiments:

"A morning shower rinsed away

The dust that'd covered Town of Wei,

Green, green, the place I stay,

Weeping willows fresh and gay.

Come, my friend, another drink to cheer

While you are here at the border area,

Once you go beyond the Gate of Yang

No friend of old will you find around."4

There was another Gate, Jiayuguan, in the vicinity of Dunhuang which is just a stop away by air from Lanzhou or Dunhuang. Historically, the two gates had controlled the gateway to China from the Han Dynasty onwards until the area of Xinjiang (Chinese Turkestan) was brought into Chinese territory during the Manchu Dynasty (1644-1911). Dunhuang, as the administrative headquarters controlling these two gates and the adjacent areas, became itself the gateway of China for one-and-half-millennia. Although it was an oasis deep in the Gobi desert, garrison troops, transit caravans and travelling diplomats and other officials frequented it and contributed to its importance and prosperity.

I remember my first trip to Dunhuang by train from Lanzhou in 1983. The nearest railway station, Liuyuan, was about two hundred kilometres away from Dunhuang. A jeep sent from the Dunhuang Research Institute (now the Dunhuang Academy) carried the two of us, the driver and myself, bumping all the way in the endless desert at night. I suddenly felt that I had entered a world without living beings; the only things moving were two men and the machine of four wheels. But, there was something pulling us ahead. I recalled what the fifth century Chinese pilgrim, Faxian, had written when he was travelling across the desert (the same as I was crossing): there was neither a road, nor a sign to read. The only road-signs available were the skeletons of the dead. Wherever the dead lay, there lay the road to India. What a thought!

How admirable were the pioneers who in their quest for Buddhadharma had set aside all other personal considerations; not even the sight of the dead lying all over the desert could daunt their enthusiasm for their travels! At that moment, I was overwhelmed by a current of warm emotion that I, too, was on the same track. Being the descendant of Faxian and Xuanzang, I was on my way to rediscover the brilliant chapter in the annals of Sino-Indian contacts which was written by the spirit of dedication and self-sacrifice which the Gobi Desert has stood as our witness.

I had seen the caves of Ajanta, Ellora and Aurangabad in India, and those of Yun'gang and Longmen in China before my first visit to the Mogao Grottoes. At the other cave sites you could see something extraordinary even at a distance, and you automatically exclaimed "Wow!" even before entering the caves. Here at Dunhuang, the external appearance was ordinary, if not unimpressive; but no sooner had you stepped into any one of the dark rooms than were you suddenly seized by the feeling of entering into another world.

Once you were inside the caves it was hard to believe that the celestial beings of Mogao were ever exposed to the elements or subjected to the wear and tear of time; you were surrounded by an atmosphere of ageless preservation. Here you saw for yourself 492 caves sheltering a total of 45,000 odd square metres of wall paintings in addition to 2,415 colourful stucco images/dunhuang of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. When you saw the murals you immediately remembered Ajanta; but, Mogao was not just one replica, but several hundred times as large as Ajanta. Ancient paintings covered every inch of the surface of the well-preserved caves except the floors. They were there on the ceilings extending right through the passages. They were composed with such a wealth of details that you could spend a whole day viewing the contents of just a single cave. The staff of the Dunhuang Institute who accompanied me for two days told me that even those who had spent decades of their lives in the Grottoes could not exhaust their chances of coming across hitherto unnoticed details. Both Professors Duan Wenjie and Shi Weixiang made similar observations during the 1991 Seminar in New Delhi.

I still recall my conversation with the driver who had driven me through the desert. As we conversed, I suddenly found the bumpy road giving way to a smooth highway. We had a comfortable ride for about ten kilometres and then returned to the bumps. The driver told me that the government had run out of funds and could not continue the construction of the highway as the mud needed for paving the smooth road had come from hundreds of miles away. Later, when I stood before the wall-to-wall Mogao murals and its huge Buddha statues I was wondering from what great distance had come all the materials required to build up such magnificent and gigantic art edifices and what immense costs all this had involved. For the creation of art on such a grand scale, not only good mud had to be brought from hundreds of miles away, but much greater efforts were required to bring artists, craftsmen, instruments, paints and other materials from faraway stations transported on human and animal backs. The art of Dunhuang was made possible by a combination of pious devotion, generosity in donation on the part of the Dunhuang elite, and self-denying sacrifice and immense toil and suffering on the part of the labourers. The quantity of talent, knowledge, wisdom and imagination which had gone into the edifices were unmeasurable. It was the immense human efforts which had created this Dunhuang treasury --- one of the most noble and meaningful creations of human civilization.


Exterior view of Mogao Grottoes, Dunhuang

Exterior view of Mogao Grottoes, Dunhuang

Facing the Mingsha hill where the Mogao Grottoes are situated is Sanwei hill. According to legend, these two hills form a "holy shrine of Buddhism" because one can see "lingguang" (the holy light of the Buddha's magical power) emitted from the Sanwei peaks during sunset. Actually the miraculous scene in the sky is emitted from the mica rocks on top of the hill. Today, the real miraculous sight is not the one above the Sanwei hill, but what we see at the foot of Mingsha hill --- the Mogao Grottoes, which are truly the holy shrines of Buddha.

The Mogao Grottoes are known in Europe variously as the "Museum in the desert" and "Library on the walls". Today, it is a "longtou" (dragon's head), i.e., fulcrum of modern international tourism enshrined in the magical name of the "Silk Road". In the decade between 1978 to 1988, the Mogao Grottoes have received more than 890,000 visitors which included 110,000 foreigners. In the last five years the frequency of visitors has increased many times.

History of Dunhuang and Mogao

Created by nature to be an important stop-over in the Gobi desert as well as a defendable stronghold, Dunhuang was destined to be a geographical and strategic keylink in history. Its importance was first discovered by Emperor Wu of Han (140-87 B. C.) who established his forward posts here to fight China's arch enemy from her northern neighbourhood, the Hun (Xiongnu ) tribes. The emperor sent out an important courtier, Zhang Qian, to strike alliances with the kingdoms in Central Asia. Following him, later military expeditions despatched from Dunhuang went further afield. It was at this juncture that the Dunhuang area fell under Han imperial administration. Dunhuang was the westernmost of the four new juns (provinces) of the Hexi Corridor established by Emperor Wu to break the backbone of the Hun tribes. A military command was established at Jiuquan which was flanked by Dunhuang on the west and the two other provinces of Wuwei and Zhangye on the east.

Two well-known stories dating from Emperor Wu's westward expansion are connected to Dunhuang. The emperor obtained a gift of a special breed of horse known as "Hanxue Ma" (literally, "A horse that sweats blood"). The emperor was so elated that he christened the steed "Tianma" (Celestial Horse) and composed a song celebrating his booty. Long before the Dunhuang caves were carved out and celestial horses painted on their walls here had been a real "celestial horse" which had journeyed across Dunhuang on his way to the Han imperial stable.

The emperor added a more important item in his booty from the possession of a vanquished Hun chieftain. This is referred to in Chinese historical documents as "Jinren" (metal/golden men), i.e., a couple of metal statues of the Buddha. In Cave No. 323 of the Mogao Grottoes cut in the beginning of the Tang Dynasty in the 7th century, there is a mural painting which identifies this booty as having inspired the despatch of the reason behind the Zhang Qian mission. The inscriptions on the painting say that the two metal statues (each more than ten feet in length) were installed in a shrine in the Ganquan (Fountain of Amrita) Palace, and the emperor regularly paid homage to them. As the emperor could not identify the deities, he despatched Zhang Qian to the "Western Kingdoms" (xiyu ) to find out the truth.5

We know that Zhang Qian was the first Chinese on record to have heard about the existence of India while he was in a state called "Daxia" (identified as Bactria), and his report to Emperor Wu about his "discovery of India" led to a number of futile missions sent from the emperor's court with an aim to establish direct contact between the Han Empire and India as early as the 2nd century B.C. However, as far as I know this early Tang painting is the first reference to the statues being attributed as Emperor Wu's motive behind despatching Zhang Qian to Central Asia. One may suspect that the creators of this painting were keen to establish that the advent of Buddhism in China was a consequence of the two historical events about the Buddha statue and the Zhang Qian mission.

The importance of Dunhuang as the gateway of ancient China's contacts with the outside world is clear from the above discussion though we have only used the legend and painting as evidence. Undoubtedly, Dunhuang lay on the route of the outward journeys of Zhang Qian and many Chinese ambassadors and generals towards foreign lands on the one hand and the incoming journeys of "Celestial Horse" and "metal statues" and people and objects entering China, on the other.

Dunhuang also has a close connection with the famous "Yumen" (Jade Gate) in history. The famous historian, Xiang Da, believes that the location of the "Jade Gate" during the Han Dynasty was at Dunhuang itself, but the administrative setup of the namesake moved towards the east of Dunhuang during the post-Han period.6 The treasured commodity of jade was used as a symbol in the name "Jade Gate" to suggest that it was the gateway for prosperous foreign trade.

That Dunhuang and its surrounding areas saw heavy concentrations of military and civil personnel and were the locus of much activity is substantiated by the modern discoveries of a large number of wooden and bamboo messages which had been used in these areas during Han times. Incidentally, the first modern discoverer of these long buried Han messages was the same European discoverer of the Dunhuang caves, Sir Aurel Stein. He undertook excavations in both of his expeditions, in 1906-8 and 1913-15, and obtained 789 pieces of these bamboo and wooden messages which are now preserved in the British Museum, London.

Following in the footsteps of Stein, the Chinese undertook two excavations of the Han ruins in trans-Dunhuang area. The first excavation took place in 1944 which yielded 830 pieces of the Han messages. The second took place in 1979 which yielded 1,217 pieces of Han messages, most of which were made of wood rather than bamboo.

One hundred and fifty kilometres of the Great Wall along with 70 odd watch-towers built by the Han defenders still exist in Dunhuang county. This fact and the contents of the Han messages reveal that Dunhuang was the headquarters during the Han operations against the Hun tribes. Troops of the four Han commands --- Pingwang (Conquest of Wang); Pohu (Breaking the Huns); Tunhu (Swallowing the Huns) and Wansui (Ten thousand years of longevity for the Chinese emperor), participated in the operations, and extensive cash awards in gold were given to the fighters of meritorious deeds.7

Very recently, the ruins of a Han postal station were unearthed 64 kilometres to the east of Dunhuang, leading to the discovery of more than 17,000 pieces of cultural relics which included wooden and bamboo messages and papers. The antiquity of these pieces could be traced back to the year of 94 B.C. during the reign of Han Emperor Wu. This discovery may lead us to conclude that present-day Gansu, i.e., the Hexi Corridor, was the earliest region in the world to invent and use paper (170 years before the renowned Chinese inventor of paper, Cai Lun). Here we have an additional evidence of the importance and prosperity of trans-Dunhuang area during the Han Dynasty.

Scholars are still debating on the earliest date for the Mogao Grottoes; many posit their origin in early 4th century. The usual date, which is 366, is based on Li Junxiu's book,Fokan ji (An Account of Buddhist Shrines), written during the reign of Tang Empress Wu (684-704). This dating is corroborated by an inscription on the northern wall of Cave No. 300 of Zhang Daqian's index. In both the accounts the name of a monk, Yuezun, appears with a legend of his vision of many Buddha images/dunhuang at the site of the present Mogao Grottoes, which eventually inspired him to cut out the first cave on that spot.8 Scholars often cite this legend as the origin of "Qianfodong" (Thousand Buddha Caves), the name by which the Mogao Grottoes used to be known.

In the course of our Seminar on "Cave Art of India and China" (November 1991) it was suggested that the term "Thousand Buddha Caves" (originating from the writings of Stein) was a misnomer; the correct translation of the Chinese term "qianfo" should be "thousands of Buddhas".9 I am inclined to uphold the usage of "a thousand Buddhas"; since as a literal translation of the Chinese "qianfo", "thousands of Buddhas" is no better than "a thousand Buddhas". This is because the Chinese usage of "qian" in this context is symbolic, not an indication of any specific number. There are "Qianfodongs" in the Longmen grottoes as well as in others, and the term "qianfo" only indicates that there are innumerable images/dunhuang of the Buddha painted or carved on the walls. "Qian" (thousand) merely underscores this phenomenon of innumerable statues. Anyone who is familiar with Dunhuang art knows that apart from Mogao there are other caves being called "Qianfodong" (Thousand Buddha Caves), e.g., a "Xi qianfodong" (Western Thousand Buddha Caves), a "Dong qianfodong" (Eastern Thousand Buddha Caves) and a "Xiao qianfodong" (Small Thousand Buddha Caves) in the surrounding areas, although numerically, the Buddha images/dunhuang in these three grottoes do not add up to the figure of one thousand. There are also "Wanfodong" (caves of ten thousand Buddhas) which are of much lesser scales than the Mogao grottoes. Thus the logic of translating the word "qian" into "many thousands" does not hold good. Furthermore, the Chinese term "qianfo" is also a slang, connoting "miniature Buddha figures". I suspect that only the caves which had either miniature Buddhas painted or carved on the walls, or had a substantial number of Buddha images/dunhuang would have earned the name "Qianfodong" --- which is the real meaning of "Thousand Buddha caves".

In his "Mogao Yulin er ku zakao", Xiang Da has cited a reference from Jinshu (Annals of Jin Dynasty) which says that an officer by the name of Suo Jing (who died in 303) had inscribed the words "Xian'yan" (Fairy Rock) at the site of Mogao; this could mean that it had already been an important Buddhist shrine in the beginning of the fourth century. But the early creators of the Mogao caves have largely escaped Chinese written history. The names of Yuezun and Faliang have come down without any biographical details.

The earliest patron of the Mogao grottoes who can be traced in Chinese history was, according to Xiang Da, Yuan Tairong (or Yuan Rong), the governor of Guazhou during the Northern Wei period. He was a peer of the Toba ruling family holding the rank of a duke and was posted as the overlord of the Dunhuang area at least in the thirties of the 6th century. In various historical accounts he is credited with the creation of the illustrations of a number of sutras in the Mogao caves.10

A unique feature of the history of Dunhuang was its relative political stability in contrast with the chaos prevailing in north China between the third and the seventh centuries. In the wake of the Western Jin, sixteen political regimes emerged in north China most of which were of alien origin. The only exception was the Northern Liang (301-376) which was established by the Chinese governor of Hexi, Zhang Gui, and his descendants.

At the time when the Zhang family had a firm control over the trans-Dunhuang area, the other parts of north China were in utter confusion. Those in the politico-economic centres who could afford to migrate to other provinces took refuge either south of the Yangtze where Chinese ruling regimes still held sway, or westward to the realm of Zhang at Dunhuang and the surrounding areas. This added to the importance of Dunhuang as a cultural centre.

In a sense, Dunhuang was not politically disturbed from the Han Dynasty onwards upto the seventies of the fourth century and could therefore sustain a continuous development of the indigenous Han culture represented by both the Han and Jin dynasties. This provided a strong cultural base for Dunhuang enabling it to both absorb Indian traditions of Buddhist culture and art and to further develop Buddhist art in newer directions.

During the Tang Dynasty, the Dunhuang area witnessed much increased international trade and border tension. Tubo (Tibet) and Tujue (Turk) emerged as the two powerful and ambitious neighbours ready to intrude into Chinese territory. The Tang government augmented its garrison forces in the area to meet the new challenges. Population of Liangzhou province where Dunhuang was located increased from 33,000 to 1.28 million in about a hundred years after the establishment of the Tang empire.11 The Tang government took two important decisions which had a great impact on the development of the Dunhuang area. The first was to develop the horse industry by patronizing private horse farms. The government left no stone unturned to import the good breeds of horses from Central Asia. The second was to ask the garrison troops to reclaim virgin lands and produce foodgrains for their own consumption. This was necessary since the state supply machine could not raise and transport enough foodgrains for the huge garrison troops in the Dunhuang area. Many official and unofficial documents about the Tang garrison farming system had been preserved in the Dunhuang caves which are now scattered in various libraries in London, Paris, and other places.

As we know Dunhuang art reached its highest development during the Tang period. This is closely related to the great importance of the Dunhuang area in the governance of the Tang Dynasty. The distance between Dunhuang and the Tang capital, Chang'an, was greatly shortened by the imperial court's close monitoring of the affairs of the Dunhuang area and the brisk communications between the imperial house and the garrison generals of the Dunhuang area. Dunhuang seemed to respond to the intentions of the imperial court very promptly. Empress Wu was keen to prove the point that she was the reincarnation of a Bodhisattva, hence fit to become China's reigning queen. She ordered that Buddhist temples, particularly the Dayun si (Great Cloud Monastery), be built up all over the country. It was this directive which enabled us to see many gigantic caves with paintings, stucco images/dunhuang and a huge carved Buddha come up in Dunhuang during the reign of Empress Wu.


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