Himalayan Art Resources

Region: Dunhuang, China

Dunhuang | China Main Page

Subjects, Topics & Types:
- Dunhuang Cave Sites Description (below)
- Five Principal Sites (below)
- Iconographic Programs
- Masterworks
- Confusions
- Others...

Five Principal Dunhuang Sites:
- Mogao Caves
- Western Buddha Caves
- Eastern Buddha Caves: (officially closed, now part of a limited access nature preserve)
- Yulin Caves
- 'Five Temples' Caves
- Others...

Unique Caves:
- Xixia Tantric Cave, Mogao
- Manjushri & Maitreya in Dialogue, Yulin
- Maitreya Buddha, Seated, Cave
- Shakyamuni Buddha, Parinirvana Posture, Cave
- Vimalakirti Nirdesa Sutra Cave(s)
- Others...

Dunhuang is an historical location because of its importance along the Silk Road and because of the vast number of Buddhist sites and caves at each of those principal sites. The cave were created over many centuries, spanning the middle of the 1st millennium up to the 19th century, creating a chronological record of construction with varying cave architecture and artistic styles painted on the walls within. The iconographic programs are almost entirely Mahayana Buddhist with some Vajrayana (Tantra) exceptions, notably with the Xixia caves dating to prior to the Yuan period. Five sites are most commonly included within the Dunhuang sphere and under the administration of the Dunhuang Academy. Recently, local informants state that the Eastern Buddha caves have been returned to local government administration and those caves are now included within a closed nature preserve and no longer open to the public and the local tourist economy.

The Mogao site is by far the largest and contains several important and memorable caves. First, and visually impressive, is the large Maitreya Buddha, in a seated posture, said to be the second largest in China after that of Leshan in Sichuan Province. Secondly, in its own cave, is the Buddha in a prone posture, exhibiting the parinirvana. The cave is also completely filled with various murals depicting figures and narratives. Thirdly, a Xixia inspired cave of the Yuan period is filled with Indian Buddhist Tantric deities following a Tibetan Buddhist (Kagyu Tradition) iconographic program. Fourthly, the 'library cave' is for many academics and text scholars, the most important historically because of the vast cache of old, ancient and rare manuscripts discovered at the turn of the 20th century. The library contained many different types of texts in a number of different languages. An interesting narrative program can be found in one or more caves depicting Manjushri in dialogue with Vimalakirti, a scene from the famous Vimalakirti Nirdesa Sutra.

In the Western Buddha Caves, the subjects of the One Thousand Buddhas and Lokeshvara dominate the murals interspersed occasionally with donor figures or personal Buddhist subjects chosen by those donors. It is interesting to note that no Avalokiteshvara (Lokeshvara) images among the many Dunhuang sites appear to depict Lokeshvara as Kuan Yin - in a female form. The Bodhisattva Manjushri is easily recognizable atop a lion mount and the same with Samantabhadra atop an elephant. The bodhisattva Kshitigarbha appears absent possibly because he was not so popular in the India of the first millennium.

The now closed Eastern Buddha Caves, according to locals, have more Tantric themes and appear to be the product of Xixia patronage during the Yuan period.

The Yulin Caves follow a similar theme to that of the Western Buddha Caves along with some exceptions. Cave number four contains Tantric figures and mandalas along with a depiction of Manjushri and Maitreya in dialogue. This subject relates back to the 11th century murals of Drathang Monastery located outside of Lhasa (see the Manjushri & Maitreya in Dialogue Page). Cave number three has a large depiction, on the back right and left sides, of the female deities Ushnishavijaya and Marichi, both exhibiting three faces. These two deities have the primary function of increasing longevity and removing common life obstacles. There are several mandala paintings in Yulin that appear to follow a Yoga Tantra iconographic program.

The 'Five Temples' Caves with a smaller presentation of murals follows the more common of the iconographic programs of the Mogao Caves, Thousand Buddhas, Shakyamuni, etc.

The mural paintings in all of the caves are extensive with some dated early and others dated to the Qianlong period of the 18th century. Extensive scholarship from various different disciplines have been done on many aspects of the Dunhuang Cave sites. Many Buddhist programs have been documented with some still holding onto their mysteries and meanings. The styles of painting are both varied and subtle and made more complicated in their interpretation by conservation, restoration and repainting, in some caves, extending back a thousand years.

The awe inspiring charm of Dunhuang is because of the sheer number and scale of the individual Buddhist caves along with the dramatic sand dunes and desert scenery, interrupted occasionally by the bright green vegetation of an oasis. The individual caves are generally fully painted, walls and ceiling, colour, patterns and figures, sometimes accompanied with large or small sculpture. While the eyes may take in all of the colour and shapes, the mind must adjust and sort out the figures and changing patterns to make sense of the different sections, narratives and iconographic programs.

However, a close analysis of the murals reveals that the painting technology is not as advanced as other locations in China and Asia in general, likely due to the fact that Dunhuang was not a large city but rather an oasis along the Silk Road, albeit an important oasis, dependent on travelers and trade goods passing by.

The majority of the cave paintings are in a rudimentary provincial style. The surface of the caves are smooth and firm enough to hold the coloured pigments. The line work in most examples is rough, mere outlines of figures. The colour is added between the lines, with some basic shading added, but not layered and with no three dimensional visual effects. There is no building of the painting with multiple layers of paint allowed to dry over several days and then reapplied creating a layered three dimensional effect. There are a very small number of examples where 'impasto' has been employed for the crowns and jewelry of some figures.

The Dunhuang guides, based on their current level of training, are quick to say that many of the pigments are made of precious stones such as lapiz lazuli (dark blue) and malachite (green), all travelling long distances to reach Dunhuang. This would actually seem unlikely with the majority of pigments observed of a poorer quality and readily obtainable in the local region. The light green colours, created from a soft stone, dominant in many of the mural sites is easily obtainable and commonly used by Tibetan artists in the Gansu area. The local stone can create several shades of green colouring. It is the custom of artists to always try and use the cheapest and most locally available colours. Because of this, paintings can often be recognized for their region based on the common local regional pigments available.

The Dunhuang caves have varying levels of status and access. There are caves open to the general public. Caves open to the public for a higher fee. Caves that are closed for renovation and restoration (possibly for a year or more). Caves that are currently closed but possibly available for scholars and officials. And finally, caves that are always closed and not available. Cave access will also rotate between the public caves so that no single cave is overly visited. There are also many caves that are simply of no interest artistically, or too small for general public access.

It must be emphasized that there are many caves, counted in the several 100s, when including all of the sites. A stay in Dunhuang of many days is required to see even a part of the various sites. Regardless of the amount of time spent, Dunhuang is a spectacular adventure and a window into Silk Road Buddhism!

Jeff Watt 7-2019

(The images below are only a selection of examples from the links above).