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Dunhuang Art During the Sixteen Kingdoms and the Northern Dynasties...


The murals may be divided into five categories on the basis of their contents:

1. Paintings of the Deities


Cave No. 435, Northern Wei

Cave No. 435, Northern Wei



Cave No. 285, Western Wei

Cave No. 285, Western Wei



Cave No. 272, Northern Liang

Cave No. 272, Northern Liang

These mainly comprise the preaching Buddhas for the viewers to pay their homage --- either Buddhas of the three periods, past, present and future; or the "Trikaya"; or episodes of Buddha's life stories showing him preaching at different times and places to different audiences. On the northern wall of Cave No. 263 is a large canvas with Buddha in the centre surrounded on all sides by graceful dancing Bodhisattvas. Above him are the flying figures showering petals. Below the Buddha's seat is the dharmacakra below which lies a pair of deer. The scene refers to Buddha's "turning the dharmacakra" at the Deer Park (S¡rn¡th) where he gave his first sermon after he had attained enlightenment.

The painting of "The preaching Buddha" in Cave No. 249 is slightly different from the one just described. The Buddha stands solemnly and his hands seem to be in the dharmacakra-pravartana ("cakra-turning") mudr¡ A canopy adorned with twin-dragons is placed above him. Below is the ratna-studded lotus pond. This treatment of the "Preaching Buddha" already bears the rudiments of later illustrations of Sukh¡vat¢.

Paintings of the preaching Buddha from the last phase of Northern Wei are grand spectacles crowded with celestial figures. Both the paintings on the north and south walls of Cave No. 248 have large canvases. Buddha is seated in the centre in padm¡sana. His appearance is both sacred and majestic while attendant Bodhisattvas are shown on either side in lively and varied postures, some whispering to each other, others dancing with their flowing sleeves, some offering flowers with devotion, others playing around arm in arm. The earlier atmosphere of solemn religiosity is giving way to the worldly life of mankind.

Celestial musicians and flying figures are a part of the attendants of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. The musicians are placed on top of the four walls, inside the celestial mansions. Only half of their figures are visible; with their jewel-studded headgears and thin capes they have quite the appearance of Bodhisattvas. Some of the celestial musicians play the lute (pipa ), some play the harp (konghou ), some others play the round lute (ruanxian ). Some beat the waist-drums and others play the flutes. Dancers vie with the musicians in this heavenly bliss, waving their arms and swinging their waists making the viewers feel:

"What a joyous scene

Music and dance in mid-Heaven!"16

Flying figures called "xiangyin shen" (literally, gods of fragrant music) or Gandharvas present a graceful artistic genre in cave art. In their early appearances they flaunt a Western style with a naked upper torso, jewel-studded headgear, scarf and dhoti. In later periods they have a sinicized appearance with handsome faces and charming figures, beautiful clothes and long scarves. They hover around the ceilings, fill in the corners of the chessboard designs, form a part of Buddha's halo and fly above the venue of Buddha's preaching.

The flying figures are shown in various kinds of dancing postures: some ascending with spread arms, some descending with straight heads, some flying in a group with the ones in front beckoning their followers, showering petals as they fly. There are others carrying lotus with both hands and with legs arched over their heads in the dhanur¡sana. What a rich fare of dynamic postures and colours! Most striking are the flying nudes both male and female with their legs extended; they are shown in circular dancing movements full of ease. In the paintings of Northern Zhou, celestial musicians soar from the Heavenly Palaces and form the vast column of flying figures: hundreds of figures dance in the azure sky with the ornamented mansions below them.

Warriors who are the guardians of dharma appear on the lower portions of the four walls. They have a grotesque appearance and a muscular and powerful build; some are painted with upraised arms as if carrying the universe, some are engaged in a martial contest, some are playing musical instruments, yet others dance with their scarves or stand upside down or bounce into each other as though enacting a range of folk operas.

The most numerous representations of Buddha are the miniature "Qian Fo" (Thousand Buddhas). Though somewhat stereotyped, they form groups of four or five and compose a totality of myriads of illustrious figures with varying colour combinations, shrouding the entire cave in a layer of religious mysticism.


2. Illustrations of Stories (also called "Jing Bian" or illustrations of sµutras)

These were composed with the aim of inculcating the Buddhist ideology into the viewers. This forms the most important component of early murals, possessing an even greater appeal than the paintings of Buddha.

About twenty kinds of story paintings from the early period in about thirty pictures have been preserved. These may be divided into three categories. The first category comprising the life stories of á¡kyamuni is a theme which dominates the early murals. In almost every early cave one may see the four or eight episodes of Buddha's life represented either in painting or in sculpture. The life story in Cave No. 428 probably contains 12 episodes, including the Holy Birth and Nirv¡¸a on the same wall, which is rather unique. The life story of Buddha in Cave No. 290 is arranged in six parallel panels serially illustrating all the scenes from á¡kyamuni's birth up to his departure from home. Such a lengthy composition is seldom to be found among the Buddhist story paintings which we have discovered so far in China.

The second category comprises the J¡taka stories which propagate á¡kyamuni's "good deeds" in his previous births, and stories arising from the religious belief that the soul is indestructible, and that past, present and future lives are linked with karma of rewards and retributions. Among the early murals are illustrations of "King Chandraprabha donating his head to a heretic"; "King áibi feeding the hawk with his own flesh"; "Prince Sattva feeding himself to the hungry tigress"; "The nine-coloured deer rescuing a drowning man"; " Sush¡nti offering his flesh to feed his parents"; "S¡maka's loyalty and filial piety"; "Sudana giving alms generously"; and "King Bilengkali willingly being nailed a thousand places on his body", etc. These are all popular themes but they have been rendered in a variety of ways.

The third category is made of stories of Hetuprataya which propagate the magical power of Buddha in coming to the rescue of suffering people such as: "Sumati burning incense to invoke Buddha's blessings"; "BhikÀun¢ S£kÀm¡ preaching her own experiences"; " Conversion of 500 robbers"; "Kaly¡¸ak¡r¢ J¡taka"; "Sundar¡nanda being induced by Buddha to renounce the world"; and "ár¡ma¸era observing the á¢la by committing suicide".

Northern Zhou was dominated by "Sanjiejiao" (the Three Phases or Schools of Buddhism), which professes that "if you dispense with your wealth, you will get a great fortune."17 An incomplete illustration of "Futian" (cultivation of the field of fortune) is to be found in Cave No. 296. According to the relevant S£tra there should be seven events of alms-giving but only five are painted in this cave. They are: building st£pas, building Buddhist shrines and quarters for the monks; planting orchards and constructing tanks and bowers for travellers; offering medicines and curing sickness; building bridges for the weak; and digging roadside wells for thirsty passersby. In this painting we find separate depictions of living conditions but no religious atmosphere. This theme is also found in the Sui Dynasty Cave No. 303 in an even more vivid depiction than the earlier cave. The Sanjie teaching was propounded by Xinxing and prevailed in "heartland" China. But its impact was felt even in the remote Dunhuang caves.

The majority of the topics of the story paintings are related to dhyana and the "cultivation of the six p¡ramit¡s". But the different stories have been interpreted in different artistic presentations which I shall briefly discuss below.


(1) King Chandraprabha offering his head to the heretic: 18 It is said in the scripture that Chandraprabha was a benevolent ruler doing his best to help the poor and distressed and was "like a parent to the common people". He incurred the jealousy of King Pinosina, who announced that if anyone who could bring him the head of Chandraprabha he would be rewarded with half the kingdom and the hand of his daughter in marriage. The heretic Raudr¡ksa enlisted himself for this job and after overcoming various obstacles he entered the palace and begged King Chandraprabha for his head. The King was willing "to abandon this sinful head to fetch Raudr¡ksa a good fortune". The queen, the princes and the courtiers tried in vain to dissuade him; the determined King told Raudr¡ksa, "Come and cut off my head and let it fall into my hands, then take it away." When Raudr¡ksa raised his sword, the Tree God used his magical powers and turned Raudr¡ksa's head towards the opposite direction, paralysed his limbs and made the sword fall to the ground from where none could raise it. At this point the King told the Tree God, "In the past, I had offered my head as alms 999 times under this very tree. This will be the thousandth time that I shall offer it. Please do not stop him." Thereupon Raudr¡ksa took away the King's head leaving behind the mourning queen, princes, courtiers and subjects.

The earliest painting based on this story shows only a single scene of Chandraprabha offering his head. Chandraprabha is seated in the centre. An attendant holds a tray in front of him with three heads in it, symbolizing the King's having offered his head a thousand times, yet never losing his countenance. The composition and characterization are extremely simple, betraying a certain immaturity in the treatment of the story.

Sattva Jataka, Cave No. 254, Northern Wei

Sattva Jataka, Cave No. 254, Northern Wei

(2) Prince Sattva feeding himself to the hungry tigress: 19 The Buddhist scripture says that the King of Baodian had three sons, the youngest of whom was named Mah¡sattva. One day the three princes went to the forest and saw a tigress with her cubs. Compelled by hunger the tigress was about to eat her own cubs. Sattva offered his own life to save the cubs. He went close to the tigress and stretched himself before her. The hungry tigress was too weak to devour her prey. Sattva climbed a mound, found a sharp stick and pierced his own neck. With the blood dripping from his wound he jumped down and lay before the animal. The hungry tigress first licked his blood, then feasted on his flesh. The other two brothers who had found Sattva missing retraced their tracks and finally saw their brother's remains. They ran to the palace in panic and informed the King that Sattva had fed himself to the tigress. The King and Queen rushed to the site and found only the scattered bones of their son. His mother held his head and the father his arm and they cried in grief. Later the two brothers collected the remains in a jewel-studded casket and built a st£pa as a monument.

Only two paintings based on this story are found among the murals of the early period. They are in Cave Nos. 254 and 428 of which the one in Cave No. 254 is the earlier. This painting has seven scenes accommodated on one picture: the three princes spotting the hungry tigress in the mountain; Sattva stabbing his neck and jumping off the cliff to feed himself to the tigress; the Queen embracing the body of the prince and crying bitterly; and the family members gathering the remains and building a st£pa to remember the prince.

This theme propagated the idea of "Sacrificing oneself to rescue all beings". Along with obliterating class differences in society, Buddhism regarded all forms of life --- bird, beast, fish and insect --- equal to man, thus advocating toleration of endless humiliation and sacrifice. The composition of this painting is unique, interweaving as it does different episodes taking place at varying moments into an integral entity. There is a refreshing treatment of certain scenes in the painting such as the prince piercing his neck, jumping from the cliff and feeding himself to the hungry tigress, all of which appear in a row. But the tigress' feasting on his flesh and leaving scattered part of the body does not find place in the canvas. On the contrary, Sattva's body, clothes, ornaments are shown intact as if he was alive or rather asleep when the tigress greedily feeds on him and particularly when he is held as a corpse in the arms of his crying mother. This imaginative and new treatment has succeeded in erasing the cruel and terrifying element of the story, creating instead a harmonious composition.


(3) The nine-coloured deer saves the drowning man: 20 According to the scripture there was a citizen who cried out for help as he was about to drown. The nine-coloured deer jumped into the water risking its own life and rescued the man from the water. Grateful to the deer for saving his life, the man knelt down and expressed his willingness to be its slave. The deer declined the offer but wanted him only to keep its whereabouts a secret. The man made a solemn pledge to this effect and left. Meanwhile the queen of the region had a dream in which she saw a deer of nine colours and silver horns. The following day the queen told the king about her dream and asked him to capture the deer so that she could make a dress out of its skin. Thereupon the king announced a reward promising the one, who could capture the deer, a share of his territory and wealth. On hearing about the reward the man, who had been saved by the deer became too covetous to abide by morality; he went to the palace and informed the king of the deer's whereabouts and led the king to the mountain to capture the deer. Meanwhile the deer lay sleeping in his hideout, unaware of these developments. When the deer's good friend, the crow, saw the king approaching with a huge army he awakened the deer with loud cries. Roused from his deep sleep, the deer found itself surrounded on all sides by the king's soldiers and could not escape. Then, in the presence of the king, the deer accused the man whose life it had saved of betraying his own saviour. Appreciating the service that the deer had rendered to the man, the king allowed the deer to return to the mountain. He also passed an order throughout the country banning anyone to capture the deer. The treacherous man found himself covered with sores all over the body while the queen died in fury and dismay.

Deer King Jataka (detail), Cave No. 257, Northern Wei

Deer King Jataka (detail), Cave No. 257, Northern Wei

Though imprinted with the stamp of Buddhism, the story is a fine specimen of folk tale. This painting follows the traditional horizontal scroll composition beginning the narrative from both ends and concluding it in the centre. Six episodes are depicted crowning its illustrations with the treachery of the informer. The king dressed in the Western style is seated in a palace of Chinese architecture. The queen who is made up in the Kuca fashion, sits beside the king leaning against him with her head turned to gaze upon the informer. Her right arm rests on the king's shoulder, with her index finger raised as if in an up-and-down movement. From beneath her long skirt which touches the floor, a bare foot may be seen; it is as if her toes shake unconsciously. These vivid details of an enchantress reveal the inner excitement of a selfish person who is urging the king to capture the deer. Even more noticeable is the deer's characterization departing from the conventional treatment of the scripture where the deer is kneeling for a long time beseeching the king. The pitiable creature seen in the murals and carvings of India and other Western Regions is transformed into a fearless standing deer, accusing the man of unethical behaviour. Such a treatment brings out the artist's understanding and evaluation of the deer and also the concentration of his own feelings in his portrayal of the deer.



Cave No. 257, Northern Wei

Cave No. 257, Northern Wei


dunb104.jpg (10496 bytes)

Sramanera observed the Sila, Cave No. 257, Northern Wei


Cave No. 257, Northern Wei

Cave No. 257, Northern Wei

(4) ár¡ma¸era committing suicide to observe the ¿¢la: 21 It is told in Xianyu jing (S£tra for the Wise and Foolish) that there was an elder who sent his son to be initiated into monkhood. The guru taught him all the disciplines to be observed by a monk. One day the guru asked the disciple to go for alms to a house whose members had gone to a feast leaving behind a young girl of sixteen. The monk knocked on the door and asked for food. The girl opened the door and fell in love with the monk as soon as she saw him. She expressed her love for him quite frankly but the monk remained unmoved. In order to save himself from further temptation he stabbed himself to death. According to the Indian custom, if a monk died in a layman's house, the latter had to pay a fine of one thousand cash. The elder of the house rushed with gold, silver and other treasures to the king to pay the compensation. The king cremated the monk in the flames of aromatic wood and built a st£pa in his memory.

There are two paintings of this theme, one in Cave No. 257 and the other in Cave No. 285. The theme advocates Buddhist asceticism and forms the teaching material to admonish the monks against impurity. It is no accident that the painting reappears twice in the caves of the Northern Dynasties. In north China, a large number of monks and nuns often observed the ¿¢la of the monastic order in the contravention. The renowned monk Kum¡raj¢va lived together with the princess of Kuca in a hideout, drinking and making love. Later, while in the Chinese capital he did not live in the temple but in a special villa, openly entertained by enchanting girls.22 DharmakÀema eloped with the younger sister of the king of Shanshan to Liangzhou where he was honoured as a holy man by Juqu Mengxun, who even sent his daughter and daughter-in-law to the residence of the "holy man" to receive "the secret of childbearing".23

During the Northern Wei Dynasty, monks and nuns became even more licentious. In the city of Luoyang, imperial ladies entered the monks' rooms in the day time while the holy disciples cohabited with the nuns at night. A contemporary folk song went:

"Flippant young men of Luoyang

Quick on the run to become árama¸as,

There the bhikÀu¸is of the nunnery

Have been virtual brides in secrecy."

A painting by artist Liu pointed out instances of abortions in the monasteries which he found too numerous to describe.24 This was why the mural painting of "árama¸era observes the ¿¢la and commits suicide" reappeared now and then.

The two paintings of the theme belong to two different periods. The artists' selection of the scenes also shows different treatments of the theme. The one in Cave No. 285 is not as complete as that in Cave No. 257, but it is richer in artistic expression. In the painting, the inner excitement of the daughter at meeting with the begging monk is not shown through any overt representation of flirting, but by drawing a monkey on the roof to suggest the young girl is in a state of "xin yuan yi ma" (mind caught by the monkey and mood like a running horse). This is a more subtle depiction as compared to the painting in Cave No. 257.

(5) Lady Sumati invoking Buddha: 25 According to the scripture, a gentleman by the name of "Anabindi" arranged a big banquet for his son's marriage and invited six thousand non-Buddhists. On seeing the boorish heretics, Sumati shut herself up in her room declining to see the guests. On his friend's advice the father finally acceded to Sumati's desire to invite her guru á¡kyamuni to attend a vegetarian banquet. Sumati dressed herself splendidly, burnt incense and prayed on the terrace to invoke the presence of Buddha. The entire family reverently waited outside the house for Buddha's descent. Buddha smelt the incense and promptly sent his messenger Gandha who descended with a cauldron. Following him were ten Buddha disciples who also descended, one after another.

Monk Kunti descended in the form of five hundred flowering trees.

Suddhipanthaka descended on the back of five hundred calves.

R¡hula descended riding on five hundred peacocks.

Kapphina descended riding five hundred garudas.

Uruivilva K¡¿yapa descended riding five hundred dragons.

Subh£ti descended with five hundred beryl mountains.

K¡ty¡yana descended riding five hundred celestial swans.

Revata descended riding five hundred tigers.

Aniruddha descended riding five hundred lions.

Mah¡ K¡¿yapa descended riding five hundred horses.

Maudgaly¡yana descended riding five hundred elephants.

á¡kyamuni along with his attendants was the last to descend to the elder's house. He used various magical powers to subdue the heretics. All the members of Sumati's family were greatly impressed and became his disciples.

We have this story painted in seventeen scenes in a comic-strip composition. Particularly skilful is the depiction of deities descending from Heaven and descriptions of various steeds. There is vividness in the toughness of the calves, the swiftness of dragons, galloping of the horses, clumsiness of the elephants, the light-winged flight of carefree gambols of the celestial swans, the imposing solitude of the mountains, each with its particular character and charm. Although imaginative, the descriptions of the special features of different animals reveal a mastery of form.

Sumati Invoking Buddha, Cave No. 257, Northern Wei

Sumati Invoking Buddha, Cave No. 257, Northern Wei


(6) Prince Sud¡na gifting away the country's elephant: 26 It is said in the scripture that Sud¡na, the Crown Prince of Yebo state, was a generous person whose fame had spread to the neighbouring states. He made a vow of not disappointing anyone who comes to make a demand from him. The King had a white elephant called Sudhayan which was so strong that it was capable of taking on 60 elephants. The country never lost a battle because of this elephant. Unfriendly neighbouring states treated it as a terror and bribed eight brŒhmaÄas who travelled to Yebo and begged the Prince for the elephant. The Prince would not break his vow, and so gifted away the white elephant. The courtiers complained before the King that the Crown Prince knew no restraint in his generosity, that the coffers were about to become empty and that the elephant which had been the main defender of the state was now given away to the enemy. The King was furious on hearing this and exiled the Prince as punishment. The Prince took leave of the King and Queen and after giving away all his property to the people, left the palace with his wife and sons. The people of the state bid him a tearful farewell. The Prince left home on a chariot which he himself drove. On the way he met a br¡hma¸a who begged the Prince for the horse. After gifting away the horse, the Prince resumed the journey pulling the carriage. There came another br¡hma¸a who wanted the carriage and this request too was granted. A third br¡hma¸a wanted his clothes and the Prince parted with his own. The Prince went on foot to a wild field. Suddenly, he came across a wonderful city which was created by Buddha's magical power for him to rest. The inhabitants of the city greeted him with music, clothes, food and drink. The Prince proceeded and went to a mountain where he saw celestials learning the dharma. The Prince halted in the mountain and lived on wild fruits and spring water. He constructed a small wooden house of three rooms: one for his wife, one for his two sons and one for himself. The two sons played with monkeys and lions of the jungle. The wife plucked vegetables and fruits to feed the family. After some time there came a br¡hma¸a to ask the Prince for the two sons to be his wife's slave boys. The Prince washed the br¡hma¸'s hands with water, tied the sons with a rope and handed them over to the br¡hma¸a. The two boys were unwilling to leave their beloved parents whereupon the Prince thrashed them till they bled. When the wife returned with the vegetables and fruits, she found her two sons gone and cried bitterly not wishing to live anymore. Later, the br¡hma¸a took the two boys to the market for sale and were brought by the King's men into the palace. After seeing his two grandsons, the King made enquiries and sent his courtiers to the mountain to bring back the Prince. We have an illustration of this theme drawn as a composition in comic-strip series. There is a total of seventeen scenes, beginning with the Prince's gifting away of the elephant up to the episode of giving away his sons. The human figures and their costumes are all in Chinese style. Landscape and houses fill in the spaces to both separate and connect the different episodes; this serves to properly place the figures into their specific context and makes the portrayal life-like. This is a new development in the early story painting as a result of influences from "heartland" China.


Cave No. 285, Western Wei

Cave No. 285, Western Wei

(7) Conversion to Buddhism of Five Hundred Robbers:27 The scripture refers to 500 robbers who often robbed the travellers in the kingdom of Magadha resulting in "the royal highway being cut off". The King sent a huge army and captured the bandits. He sentenced them to cruel punishment, cutting off their nose and ears and gouging out their eyes, and afterwards banishing them to the forests. The bandits cried out in sorrow and their cries were heard by Buddha. By his magical powers Buddha brought them medicine from Gandhamadana and restored their sight. He then preached to the bandits. The 500 bandits were converted and ordained into monkhood, and they practised dhyana in the deep forests.


The painting depicting this theme in Cave No. 285 is composed of eight scenes. The first scene shows the intense battle and the last shows bandits being ordained as monks. The painting of the robbers' conversion appeared again and again during Western Wei and Northern Zhou clearly in close connection with the peasant uprisings during and after the later period of Northern Wei. The Hexi region was also threatened by the peasant uprising. Especially when the gang of Zhang Bao of Guazhou city slew its governor, Chen Qing, and the gang of Lu Xing of Jinchang killed their governor, Guo Si, the ruler of the area felt threatened as is evident in his observations. He said sorrowfully, "The fields lie wasted. The road to the government is obstructed. Etiquette is not observed between the ruler and subjects. This chaos has been with us for many years."28 The peasant uprisings blocked the communication line between Dunhuang and the capital, Luoyang, so that Yuan Rong was unable to pay homage to the Emperor. He then constructed Buddhist shrines in a big way, copied a lot of Buddhist scriptures, banking on the blessings of Buddha. His ardent hope was that "people in all the four directions become Buddhists and robbers are disbanded" to maintain law and order in his domain.


(8) á¡kyamuni's life story: 29 The painting of Buddha's life story in Cave No. 290 of Northern Zhou is mainly based on the text of Xiuxing benqi jing (S£tra on Causations). It is mentioned in the S£tra that M¡y¡dev¢ dreamt of a Bodhisattva riding a white elephant descending upon her amidst celestial music. When the King asked the gurus to explain the omen, some of them confirmed the happening of "a deity entering into the womb". The Queen was indeed pregnant. All the subordinate rulers hailed the auspicious omen. At the end of the tenth month the Queen was amusing herself in the garden: when she stretched out her hand to touch the A¿oka tree, a baby was born from her right side. The new-born Prince could not only walk but with every step he took, a lotus blossomed in his footstep. Nine dragons in the sky ejected water for the Prince's bath. The Queen and Prince returned to the Palace riding the dragon carriage. Celestial musicians played music while other deities formed the entourage. The King and all his courtiers and officials lined up to welcome the new-born. The King dismounted from the horse and saluted the Prince, then carried him into a temple. The spiritual guru christened him Siddh¡rtha. The return of the Prince to the Palace was accompanied by the appearance of thirty-two auspicious scenes such as: roads and streets cleaning themselves; filthy spots being transformed into fragrant places; empty wardrobes and stands filling up with clothes; all the rivers purifying themselves; celestial jewels glittering all over the palace; five hundred cattle simultaneously giving birth to calves; celestials from all directions offering jewels; a jewel-studded open chariot descending as an offering by the deities; five hundred lions surrounding the city gates; N¡gar¡jas and Nagin¢s encamping around the palace; all the activities of the Hell coming to a standstill and all poison and affliction vanishing; vicious pests disappearing while auspicious birds start singing; hunters and fishermen suddenly became merciful and all hatred is erased; the udumbara blossoming* and lions emerging from flowers creating a sense of awe among all supernatural beings! Then an Ërya saint descended to the palace. He bathed and changed his dress in preparation for the royal audience in which he requested to see the Prince. He saw the Prince and congratulated the King for the arrival of the holy being.

The King built four seasonal palaces for the Prince, selected 500 famous girls to play music, sing and dance to keep the Prince happy and another 500 servants to look after the Prince's studies. However the Prince was overtaken by grief from the time of his arrival in the palace. The King consulted his courtiers and decided to arrange his marriage with the daughter of King of Xubofu. The princess arranged an open contest for the princes of various states who sought her hand and she promised to marry the winner of the contest. As Siddh¡rtha was on his way to the contest, a white elephant blocked the entrance to the city; the Prince threw the elephant outside the city gate. In the course of the contest the Prince overpowered his cousin Ënanda and his arrow shot through seven iron drums; then he tossed his garland right on the princess. Even after his marriage, the Prince was still depressed. The King consulted his courtiers and arranged two more marriages for his son. Believing him (i.e., the Prince) to be settled in life, the King asked the Prince to go out on excursions from the palace. Outside the east gate he met an old man. Outside the south gate he met a sick person. Outside the west gate he saw a funeral. Outside the north gate he met a monk. He went to the countryside and was pained by the sight of animals and birds preying upon one another. How transient was life, he thought. He then sat under a tree pondering upon the miseries of birth, old age, sickness and death. At night he tossed about in bed, unable to sleep. Then he rode on a white horse and left the city at midnight under the escort of the angels. After seeing him out of the city the horseman kissed his feet and returned to the palace with the white horse. His wife embraced the horse and wept bitterly. The entire palace was wrapped in sorrow. The Prince entered the jungle, changed his clothes and started practising austerities along with other ascetics.

The painting of Buddha's life story in Cave No. 290 is 25-metre long in comic-strip design of about 80 main scenes. The description is rich and full. It is the best preserved amongst such paintings on Buddha's life in China.

Artistically, the style of this painting shows further sinicization. The costumes are of the styles of Han and Jin. The Indian King Sudhodana is painted like Chinese emperor. M¡y¡devi is attired like a Chinese queen. The dragon carriage which brings the Prince back to the palace is similar to the cloud chariot in Gu Kaizhi's "Painting on the Goddess of River Luo": it is adorned by dragon-head designs with a canopy in addition to carvings of fish guards on the sides. The line drawings, characterization and colouring are all done in Chinese technique. The tendency is towards suggestive depiction: for example, the theme of death is introduced by showing a hearse instead of a corpse. The treatment of main characters is original. At the time of birth, the Prince is an infant and after taking seven steps he has attained manhood. When the Ërya saint holds him in his arms the Prince is an infant and after returning to the palace he is a fully grown person. The flexibility in treating the details according to the space of the canvas is evidence of a superior artistic imagination.


(9) BhikÀu¸i SukÀm¡ speaking of her own experiences: 30 The scripture says, SukÀm¡ married a Brahmach¡r¢ of a family of the same social and economic status. She first had a son and when she was pregnant again, her husband escorted her to her parents' home. On the way he was bitten by a poisonous snake just at the time when SukÀm¡ delivered her baby. She sorrowfully continued her onward journey with her children and came to a river. She first waded through the river and placed her second son on the other shore. When she returned to fetch the elder son, the child was so eager to be with his mother that he rushed into the water before she could reach him and was drowned in the current. When SukÀm¡ turned back to the other bank, a hungry wolf had already devoured her infant son. She was too grief-stricken to live after this sudden death of her husband and children.

At this time she met an old Br¡hma¸a, a friend of her parents. On enquiry, SukÀm¡ was shocked to know from the old man that only the preceding night both her parents had been burnt alive while the house was gutted by fire. SukÀm¡ had no place to go and was taken to the home of the kind elder. Not long after she married a Br¡hma¸a of the neighbourhood. The husband was of a careless sort and came home extremely drunk one night. Suksma was just then giving birth to a child and was therefore unable to open the gate for him. The Br¡hma¸a broke open into the house in a fit of rage. He beat up SukÀm¡, fried the infant and forced SukÀm¡ to eat it up. SukÀm¡ was horrified and ran away at midnight. She found herself in a cemetery. A young Br¡hma¸a was mourning beside his wife's tomb. The sufferers fell in love with each other and got married. Unfortunately after seven days the husband died of illness. According to the Indian custom prevalent at that time the widow had to be buried as a sacrifice along with the dead husband. After she was buried alive, a group of robbers came to plunder the grave at night. SukÀm¡ was brought back to the world yet again. The robber chief was attracted by the beauty of SukÀm¡ and made her his wife. However, he was soon caught by the government and was beheaded for his crimes. SukÀm¡ was once again buried alive. Hungry wolves dug up the grave to eat the corpse and SukÀm¡ was once again saved. Thereupon she came out naked to see Buddha to whom she narrated all her misfortunes in life; she was finally ordained as a bhikÀu¸i.

The paintings of this story at Mogao highlight karma. The first scene shows that in her previous birth SukÀm¡ killed her husband's first wife's son with a needle-- this becomes the seed for future retribution. Then the scroll unfolds horizontally narrating the life story of the woman and leading to the climax of her becoming a bhikÀu¸i. Finally, after being buried alive the final stage of karma is arrived. SukÀm¡'s story of being forced to marry thrice, of being buried alive twice, of her family being repeatedly destroyed and her dear ones killed --- all this is a mirror of the afflictions of the women in feudal society. They were kept at the bottom of the social pyramid.


(10) Prince Kaly¡¸ak¡r¢ going to the sea in search of the mani: 31 It is said in the scripture that the King of Baokai state had no sons. He entered the deep jungles to seek the boon of two celestial persons who then agreed to reincarnate to create posterity for him. The golden fairy was reincarnated as the first wife's son who was christened "Kaly¡¸ak¡r¢" (Shanshi ). The second celestial was reincarnated as the second wife's son who was christened "Aghak¡r¢" (Eshi ). Both the King and the Queen loved Kaly¡¸ak¡r¢, and built him a comfortable palace for each of the three seasons: a warm palace during winter, a cool palace during summer and a central palace for enjoying spring and autumn. When Kaly¡¸ak¡r¢  went out of the palace in an elephant-driven chariot, people lined up the streets and peeped out from high buildings to cheer him. When the Prince saw the old and sick beggars on the roadside, he felt pity for them. When he saw living creatures being hunted, captured, slaughtered and butchered for the food and clothing of man he felt saddened. He requested the King to open up the chests and warehouses to dispense charity among the people. By and by the royal coffers became empty. The courtiers complained. The Prince consulted various people and decided to enter the sea to request N¡gar¡jas for jewels. Aghak¡r¢ came to know of this and joined the expedition but because of his greed, the overloaded ship capsized and all those on board fell into water. Kaly¡¸ak¡r¢ landed in the N¡gar¡jas's palace, found a priceless ma¸i (jewel) and hid it in his top knot. When the wicked Aghakari came to know that Kaly¡¸ak¡r¢ had got the ma¸i, he blinded Kaly¡¸ak¡r¢ in both eyes with a sharp bamboo, took away his ma¸i and returned to the kingdom. Fortunately, the King of Bulls and the shepherds found the unconscious Kaly¡¸ak¡r¢ lying on the ground, they saved his life and presented him with a harp. Kaly¡¸ak¡r¢ left the shepherds and wandered in the streets playing the harp and begging for food. A gardener of the King hired him to scare away the birds in his orchard. Kaly¡¸ak¡r¢ did so by ringing a bell which was tied to a long rope. In his leisure he played the harp to amuse himself. One day the princess came to the orchard and saw Kaly¡¸ak¡r¢. They fell in love with each other and became inseparable companions. The princess vowed before the King that she would not marry any prince but only to become the wife of the blind watchman of the orchard. The King did not wish to go against the wishes of his daughter and thus the princess and Kaly¡¸ak¡r¢ were married.

A painting at Mogao depicts the first half of the story. There are over thirty scenes revolving around the contrasting characters between Kaly¡¸ak¡r¢ and Aghak¡r¢. Good and evil, however, are interpreted by different classes. Kaly¡¸ak¡r¢ is the embodiment of Buddhist good. In his view, destitution and disease are conditions resulting from one's own karma. Hunting and fishing are sinful acts: as he observed, "killing lives to feed oneself will accumulate sin and invite unthinkable retribution." His solution to resolve social contradictions was to beg for the blessings of God and the benevolence of the rulers. This painting is only partially done. There is a lot of space which the artists have not filled up. The painting ends with Prince Kaly¡¸ak¡r¢'s love marriage after he has gone through all the perils of life. This does not tally with the original concept of the scripture.


(11) S¡maka's filial piety: 32 In the state of Kapilavastu there lived a blind couple with a son named S¡maka who embodied the virtue of filial piety and practised ten good deeds. When he grew up he followed his parents to the mountains to cultivate spiritual values. He built a straw hut to live in and fed his parents with wild fruits and spring water. One day the King of Kapilavastu went to the forests to hunt and chased a herd of deer along a stream. S¡maka (who wore deerskin) had come to fetch water at the side of the stream; the King shot him, mistaking him for a deer. S¡maka cried in agony, "This arrow has killed three persons." When the King heard the cry and came to S¡maka, he was told that they had been in the forest for twenty years. The King cursed himself, found the blind parents, told them about what had happened and led them to where S¡maka was lying. The blind parents arrived only to find him dead. They cried over the dead body and were too grief-stricken to live. S¡maka's filial piety moved both heaven and earth. The god of heaven fed elixir into S¡maka's mouth and the poisonous arrow dropped from his body. He was resurrected.

The story that we have painted at Mogao has been developed into several scenes. The final scene which shows the blind parents embracing their son's body and wailing in anguish represents poignantly the grief of parting. The tragic tale ends on a happy note with the solution of Buddha's magical power resurrecting S¡maka.

The painting composed is tightly structured with a clear focus on the theme. People's activities are interwoven with the landscape --- hills, trees and the stream --- making it a realistic representation. The whole picture is steeped in feudal ideas of loyalty and filial piety. When the King is repenting for his mistake S¡maka tells him, "You have not done any wrong. All this is destined."


(12) Sush¡nti feeding his parents with his own flesh: 33 The scripture says that the King of Teyishili state had ten sons, each ruling a sub-kingdom. Meanwhile, the usurper R¡hu assassinated the King. After enthroning himself, he sent troops to wipe out the ten princes. The King's youngest son Sasthiti ruled the farthest domain. One day a Yaksha appeared and informed him that the usurper R¡hu had sent troops to vanquish him. Sasthiti hurriedly fled with his wife and son with food enough to last them seven days. They fled in a wrong direction to a place where they could not get food. Being without food for seven days, Sasthiti wanted to kill his wife so that he and his son could stay alive for the period. The son, Sush¡nti, saw his father drawing out his sword to kill his mother, he beseeched him, "Do not harm my mother. I am willing to feed both of you with my flesh so that you may reach safely." Sush¡nti cut off three portions from his own body daily to feed them and himself. The King of the neighbouring state received them and was moved by the son's filial piety. He despatched his troops to vanquish R¡hu and instated Sush¡nti as King in his own state.

We have a painting of this story at Mogao composed of seven or eight sequences describing the YakÀa bringing the news, King Sasthiti fleeing with his wife and son, going in the wrong direction, the King wanting to kill his wife, the son offering his own flesh, the neighbouring King receiving them and sending troops to recover the kingdom for them. All the sequences are strung together naturally with special focus on the Prince's cutting his own flesh to offer to his parents. Thus this story was used to illustrate how the filial piety may enable one to recover lost territory.

Although the Northern Zhou Dynasty was the regime of the Xianbei nationality, it advocated Confucianism exactly as in "heartland" China. Zhou Emperor Wu held Confucianism as the first religion followed by Taoism and Buddhism in order of merit. He considered that etiquette, righteousness, loyalty and filial piety constitute proper behaviour in life.34 Indebtedness to parents was profound and the national law did not permit even a monk to defy it. He even excommunicated monks so that they might return home to perform acts of filial piety. Among the murals of Northern Zhou, we see three paintings depicting the theme of loyalty to the King and filial piety to the parents. This was not unconnected with the advocacy of Confucian ideology.

The paintings of the above-mentioned stories are composed either as single paintings or group paintings, or in comic-strip patterns. These are done both with pictures and inscriptions. This two-in-one combination has inherited and developed Chinese painting tradition of the Han and Jin Dynasties in what is known as "painting on the left and writing on the right".

The majority of the story paintings of the early period emphasize the central theme of "enduring humiliation and sacrificing life" with illustrations of tragic scenes, such as parting in life, bereavement by death, drowning, burning, snake bite, being devoured by the wolf, stabbing oneself, jumping from a cliff, gouging out the eyes, driving nails onto the body, beheading, being buried alive, being fried alive, etcetera. The appearance of these scenes in large numbers was not accidental. The Northern and Southern Dynasties were times of secessionist regimes, frequent wars, exorbitant taxation, excessive corvee, with "corpses covering the plains and skeletons piling up as high as mountains". The paintings are but reflections of such historical realities.

Besides the above-mentioned scenes of horror and misery, we see also depictions of actual life, such as people tilling, hunting, fishing, slaughtering, building stµupas and temples, digging wells for water, watering the camels, driving vehicles. Also shown are the cavalry in action and people drawing water, gathering fruits, shooting targets, boxing, ferrying, curing illness, reading, greeting relatives and playing music and dancing, besides scenes of divination, courtly consultations in palaces, journeys in sedan chairs, traffic of foreign traders and so on. These mirror with objectivity and vividness certain facets of the actual social life of that time. Therefore these paintings are not only art but are also historical records.


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