Mogao Cave 257 (Northern Wei Dynasty)

This article is provided by the Dunhuang Academy. All text and images published are authorized by the Dunhuang Academy.

Mogao Cave 257 was built in the Northern Wei Dynasty. It has a characteristic central pillar (stupa) in the main chamber. A large niche was carved on the east face of the pillar, with a statue of the sitting Buddha preaching the Dharma inside and a statue of the Heavenly King outside. A palace-shaped niche was carved on the upper part of each of the south and north faces of the pillar, with a Bodhisattva statue insdie. A double-tree shaped niche was carved on the lower part of the south face, while a round-arched niche was carved on the north. Inside each is a Buddha statue in meditation. Two round-arched niches were carved on the upper and lower parts of the west face of the pillar with a Buddha statue in meditation in each.

The images of a Bodhisattva enshrined on a lotus was painted repeatedly between the rafters on the gabled ceiling of the antechamber. A pattern of children swimming among lotus flowers, flying apsaras, and honeysuckles was repeated on the checkered ceiling in the main chamber.

Mogao Cave 257 interior

Paintings  on the surrounding walls inside the cave are divided into three sections. Musicans performing in the heavenly palaces were being depicted on the top part of each wall. Three-thousand Buddhas and Buddhist stories were painted on the middle section. The bottom part was painted with Yaksha.

On the south wall, a standing Buddha was painted on the east side, the “Samana Committing Suicide” and the “Evil Dog” karma story was painted on the west side. On the west wall, the middle was painted with the “Deer King Jataka”. On the northwall, a Buddha preaching Dharma was painted on the east side, while the karma story of the “Sumati” was on the west. The painted stories in this cave are interesting, the characters delineated are vivid and lifelike, and the mural compositions inherited the horizontal scroll style on stone relief from the Han Dynasty, making them look like “comic strips”. These paintings provided us with valuable image data on ancient architecture, clothing, and folk customs.

Scene of a Samana committing suicide, Mogao Cave 257 south wall west

In the afore mentioned Samana Suicide story, the novice monk cut his throat as an act to obey his abstinence in the effort to refuse the temptation of a girl. The mural painting was arranged in the sequence of the story’s development in seven scenes from the east to the west: 1) There was a begging Monk well-known far and wide for his wisdome and virtues; 2) An elder sent his son to be shaved and become a novice monk under the famous monk’s teaching; 3) The begging Monk teaches the novice monk on the strict religious disciplines; 4) The begging Monk asked the novice to ask for food at the  home of Upasaka. The couples were not at home, but a girl opened the door. The girl was impressed by the handsome novice monk and attempted to attract him. The novice monk refused by cutting his throat. The girl was shocked; 5) When Upasaka returned home, the girl described what had happened in tears; 6) Upasaka reported the incident to the king and paid a fine for it; 7) The king was moved by the novice monk’s miserable experience, and had a pagoda built to enshrine him. The mural features the complete story, proper characterizations of each figure, and elegantly depicted the surrounding mountains, thatched cottages, houses, and palaces in the background.

The karma story of the “Evil Dog” on the same wall is the only painting of this story in Dunhuang. The story is about an evil dog that bites whoever passes by. However, after being enlightened by a monk, the dog was no longer evil. It reincarnated into a human, became a monk, and converted to Buddhism. The painting shows the earliest image of a bed, a bed which the monk laid on. This bed has four legs without horizontal support fixating them. The height of the bed is equivalent to that of the beds used by us today.

The story of the Deer King Jataka was painted on the west wall center. An animated film was produced by the Shanghai Animation Film Studio inspired by this painting, which made it well-known in Chinese households. The story of the jataka goes that a beautiful nine-colored deer saved a person who was drowning in the Ganges River in return to keep the secret of the mythical deer otherwise have sores covering his body. But the queen dreamed of the deer one night and pleaded the king to capture it and to make an outfit out of the deer skin. The king thus put up a notice, offering a reward for the deer. Tempted by the reward, the man reported the deer to the royal court and led the king in pursuit of the deer. When the crow woke up deer, the king had arrived with his hunting troop. The deer, however, showed no fear but told the ungrateful story of the man. The king was deeply moved and abandoned his hunt and ordered for the deer’s protection. The man who was saved by the deer, however, ended up with his mouth foaming and sores all over his body.

Deer King Jataka painting, Mogao Cave 257 west wall center

The painting adopts the form of a horizontal sequential comic strip. It starts from the two ends and ends in the middle. The first scene on the left shows the nine-colored deer saving a drowning man. In the picture, a man is depicted riding on the back of the deer, holding onto its neck as the deer carried him out of water. The next image shows the man being rescued kneeling in front of the deer, promising to keep the secret. The first scene on the right shows the queen flirting with the king asking him to make an outfit with the deer’s skin. In the picture, the king and the queen are sitting in the palace. The queen is turning her head towards the king while hugging him with her right arm and her foot pointing outwards. Outside, the man informs the king of the location of the deer. In the immediate next scene, the king and the queen was in the chariot led by the ungrateful man. In the middle of the picture, the group met the deer, and the deer is telling the story of the ungrateful man. Behind the king’s entourage, the betrayer’s body is covered with white sores. The carriage in this painting is the earliest image of carriages among Dunhuang murals. It is a passenger carriage with double shafts and wheels, pulled by a single horse. It featured a fully-closed hood and a round, bow-shaped cover. The horse is advancing with elegance, showing the nobility of the royals, and the shape of the carriage is also very delicate and unique. Decorations on the carriage are not to luxurious, maybe because it was used for hunting in the mountains.

The center of the north wall was painted with the Dharma story of Sumati. The story goes that Sumati believed in Buddhism, but her husband’s family observed other religions. Her father-in-law Man-cai heard that the Buddha was mighty powerful, and thus asked the daughter in law to invite the Buddha to a home banquet. The Buddha knew the man’s intent and thus led his disciples to the banquet. The disciples showcased their magic powers while arriving at Man-cai’s house. Man-cai’s family was amazed to see the various powers of the Buddha and his disciples, and all converted to Buddhism.

Buddha and his attendants attending Sumati’s banquet, Mogao Cave 257 north wall center

The picture in Cave 257 is composed of 14 scenes: 1) Sumati burned incense to invite the Buddha; 2) Jha-dhu arrived carrying a big caldron on his back; 3) The Samana Kunti flew in with five hundred trees in bloom; 4) Panthaka flew in on five hundred black oxen; 5) Rahula arrived riding on five hundred peacocks; 6) Kapphina flew in riding on five hundred garuda; 7) Uruvilva-kasyapa rode in on five hundred dragons; 8) Subhuti flew in on five hundred glass mountains; 9) Mahakātyāyana rode on five hundred white pigeons; 10) Revata flew in on five hundred tigers; 11) Aniruddha arrived on five hundred lions; 12) Mahakashayapa flew in on five hundred horses; 13) Maudgalyayana flew in on five hundred white elephants with six-teeth; 14) Sakyamuni arrived last surrounded by his attendants.

Besides the amazing mural paintings on the walls, there is a vivid picture of swimming on the checkered ceiling above. Four children are having fun chasing each other naked around a big lotus flower in a green pool, surrounded by water plants. The characters are in a relaxed yet elegant style, showing the free and happy life in the Buddhist world. Naked figures are relatively rare in Dunhuang murals, and there is only this one free-swimming image in this cave. This image was selected to represent ancient swimming to be used in the Olympic promotion poster representing the Mogao Grottoes.