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Mogao Cave 275 was built in the Northern Liang Dynasty (397 A.D. – 439 A.D.). A corridor leads to the cave’s main chamber. The main chamber has a longitudinal rectangular floorplan and a truncated pyramid roof. During the Northern Song Dynasty, a wall was built inside the cave that divided it into front and back chambers. The wall was not removed until the early 1990s.
On the main west wall of Mogao Cave 275 sits a statue of the Maitreya Bodhisattva in cross-legged position. Surrounding the Bodhisattva are paintings of guadian and offering Bodhisattvas. On both of the south and north wall of the cave are two palace-shaped niches and a double-tree niche. Inside each are statues of the Maitreya Bodhisattva and Contemplative Bodhisattva. The statues all appear sturdy and balancely scaled with natural, tranquil, and unworldly demeanors. In the middle section on the south wall is the paintings of the Buddha (backthen a prince) witnessing the birth, aging, illness, and death of the world, which motivated him to become a monk and follow the doctrines of Buddhism. The lower part of the south wall was painted with the Danapati Bodhisattva and draperies. On the other side of the cave, in the middle of the north wall was painted with jataka stories such as “The King with A Thousand Nails”, “The King Carving His Body for Lamps”, “King Shibi Exchanging Flesh for A Pigeon”, “The King Cutting off His Head” and “The King Offering His Eyes”. These pictures are concise and compact in layout to highlight the main characters’ self-sacrifice. The lower part of the north wall has paintings of male donors. Female donors were paintined on both sides of the entrance gate on the east wall with illustrations of the Guanyin Sutra. Above the gate is paintings of the scene of the Dharma preaching. The four slopes of the cave’s ceiling were painted with Northern Song Dynasty style flying Apsaras and Three-thousand Buddhas.
The main statue of the cave sits in the middle of the west wall with a height of 3.34 meters. It was well preserved expected for the head was slightly re-painted and the hands were damaged. The Bodhisattva sits on a high square double lion throne, leaning against a triangular backrest, with his left hand resting on the knee forming the mudra of supreme generosity, his right hand damaged, and his legs crossed. The Bodhissatva has a slightly long round face, a straight nose to the eyebrows, long eyebrows, round eyes, plump upper lip, semi-circle lower lip, wide shoulder, flat chest, and a sturdy body built. He is wearing a three-beaded Dharmakaya crown on his head, with his hairs let down to the shoulders, necklace of precious stones on his neck, cape on his shoulders, bare upper body, more draping necklace to his chest, and a turned-up dress around his waist. The pleats of the dress were shown with added clay strip layers, decorated with incised carving to show the texture. This status has a solemn expression, balanced scale, bright colors, and simple technique. The style, upholsteries, and costumes all showed Western Buddhist art influence, and distinctive features from the Sixteen Kingdoms period.
The Que-styled niches on the upper parts of both the south and north walls are from traditional Chinese architecture. Que, a common feature flanking the sides of ancient Chinese buildings. means “absence”. “When the middle is empty, it is the path”. Que is built for surveillance and military purpose, which is similar to the structure of “Guan”. Together with the palace roof in the middle, they represent the heavenly palace of Buddhism. In the niches, the Bodhisattvas are either sitting cross-legged, or in contemplation. They should belong to the category of “Standby Bodhisattvas”. Before they came to the world, they were contemplating on how to attain Buddhahood.
The double-tree arch niche, also on the upper part of the south wall, originated from the Western Regions or India. It also intend to represent the Bodhisattva contemplating quietly under trees. The niches were re-painted in the Song Dynasty, but the overall style of the characters was preserved, all showing features from the Western Regions. There are two trees standing symmetrically on both sides of the niche. The trunks of the trees look more real with a branch textures, and the upper part tried to illustrate lush leaves that appear neat and orderly. Under the trees, the Bodhisattva is sitting on a high throne, with her left foot on the floor, and her right leg bent on the left knee, and her left hand touching her right foot. Although her left arm was damaged, it still could be pictured that it was holding the chin in contemplation. The Bodhisattva’s face is round, with a natural expression, who seems to be absorbed in contemplation. The necklaces of precious stones around the neck and on the chest are thick and heavy, carrying the decorative characteristics for the kings in the Western Regions. The early Buddhist Bodhisattvas were mostly dressed in similar styles as members of royal families in the Western Regions and India, which is evident here.
The karma story painted in the middle of the south wall shows how Sakyamuni attained his Buddhahood. After the prince got married, he disliked entertainment, and was eager to become a monk. His father, King Suddhodana, was very worried. After discussing with his ministers, he decided to let the prince leave the palace and to have some fun. However, he saw an aging man at the east gate, a sick man at the south gate, a dead body at the west gate. He witnessed three major sufferings of the human world, namely aging, illness and death. Later, he met a monk at the north gate. The monk was in high spirits, who seemed not being bothered any of that. The prince was more determined to become a monk. The whole picture adopts the traditional form of horizontal comic strips common in the Han and Jin Dynasties, in which the characters and landscapes are placed side by side regardless of distance scales. The images and costumes of characters were obviously influenced by the painting styles of the Western Regions, which appear relatively simple and rough.
Among the scenes, the two plots of the prince meeting the old man and the monk were well preserved. The prince rode a horse out of the city gate, guided by musicians playing harps and pipas, greeted by attendants and folks on the ground, and accompanied by flying Apsaras in the air. The plot on the right side shows the scene of the prince meeting an old man with white hair, eyebrows and beards, a haggard face, a hunched back, who is only wearing a pair of shorts. On the left is the plot of encountering the monk. The monk is wearing a cassock, looking high-spirited, calm and natural in his manners. His left hand is holding the cassock. His health and composure forms a striking contrast to the old man.
The jataka stores were painted on the opposite north wall in Cave 275. Stories of this kind in this cave are quite typical. All the protagonists in the stories are previous incarnations of the Buddha, who gave away his eyes, head, body and even life for the pursuit of Dharma. This set of images also adopted the form of horizontal comic strips, telling the stories from the west to the east.
The King with A Thousand Nails: there was a king who was fond of listening to Dharma’s teachings. There was a Brahmin called Raudraksa, who claimed that he would preaching Dharma to anyone who was willing to be nailed with a thousand nails on his body. The King was very happy upon hearing this. He allowed the Brahmin to nail his body for the Dharma preaching. In the picture, the Brahmin is holding a nail in one hand, and a hammer in the other, and hammering nails into the body of the King. The King appears calm and painless while immersed in the joy of the sound of the Dharma.
The story of a King Carving His Body for Lamps: there was a King, who was upright and fond of listening to the teachings of Dharma. Raudraksa came upon the King’s calling for people preaching the Dharma, offering to explain a Buddhist verse to him if he would carve 1,000 holes in his body for lighting lamps. The ministers and people were trying to persuade the king not to do so, but the king was fearless. In order to hear the verse, he cut out his flesh decisively. The Dharma protector of Buddhism, Sakro devanam indrah, was moved by the king’s sincerity, and eventually restored the King’s body. The mural is slightly damaged. The king is sitting upright, with flying Apsaras spreading flowers from the air. In front of him, a man is cutting out flesh from the body of the king, and another person is watching the scene in fear.
The King Shibi Jataka: there was a King who was kind and fond of Buddhist Dharma, and he was always ready to salvage any living being out of their sufferings. The Sakro devanam indrah and Visvakarman incarnated themselves into a falcon and a pigeon, in an attempt to test his piety. The falcon chased the pigeon fiercely, and the pigeon fled to the King for protection. The falcon said to the king, “If you did not give me the pigeon, I will starve to death too.” The king, in order to save both creatures, cut his own flesh to feed the falcon. The falcon demanded equal flesh weight as the pigeon’s. However, even when the king cut all his flesh, the weight on the scale was still less than that of the pigeon’s. In order to show his sincerity, he sat his whole body onto the scale. The heaven and earth started to shake, as the Sakro devanam indrah transformed back and applied his magic power to restore the King’s body. On the left side of the picture, the King is holding a green pigeon in his right hand while the executioner is cutting his flesh. On the right side of the picture, a person is holding a large scale to weigh a small pigeon on one side and the king with his palms together on the other.
The story of a King Cutting Off His Head: there was a Moonlight King who was kind and benevolent, and treated his people like his own sons. There was another king who was very envious of the Moonlight King and offered a reward for someone who could fetch the head of the Moonlight King. The non-Buddhist Raudraksa responded to the call and came to the Moonlight King, begging for his head. The Moonlight King agreed to give his head without hesitation, and said that he had already given away 999 heads in his previous lives. It would add the number to 1,000 when he gave away his head this time. He tied his hair onto the branches and asked the Raudraksa to cut off his head. This picture consists of two scenes. On the left, the Moonlight King is sitting upright on his throne, pointing at his own head with his left hand. In front of him, an attendant is holding a tray and on the tray are three heads, which indicates that the Moonlight King has given away his head for many times in his previous lives. On the right, the Moonlight King ties his hair onto a tree, and behind him an executioner lifts an axe in the air, which indicates the plot of Raudraksa cutting off the king’s head.
The story of the King Offering His Eyes: In Fulgaroba City, there was a king with bright eyes and a kind heart, who liked to give to charities and was praised by all people. Under him, there was a king of a small state called Borotavarman, who was arrogant and never obeyed the orders from the King. The King sent a punitive expedition against him. In order to escape the punishment, Borotavarman sent a blind Brahmin to ask for the King’s eyes. The king was very glad and said that by giving away his eyes, he would be able to get eyes of supreme wisdom from the Buddha, so he ordered his subordinates to cut out his eyes and give them to the Brahmin. The mural here is severely damaged, which vaguely shows that the king is sitting upright with a man stabbing his eyes in front him.
The portraits of donors painted on the south and north walls of Cave 275 are of distinct characteristics of the time. The Juqu family that established the regime of the Northern Liang were descendants of the Huns. These donors show some characteristics of the Huns. They are all wearing Kuzhe dress, a traditional dress of the northern minorities, which was worn by all people from the king and lords to the soldiers and ordinary folks. Zhe is for the upper body, which is similar to today’s short overcoat with a round collar or a crossed collar. It narrow-sleeved with buttons on the front runing down or on left overlaps. In the picture, the male donors are wearing a kerchief on their head, and a narrow-sleeved Zhe dress on the upper body. Left overlapping coats were only worn by the northern minorities and Hu people in the Western Regions during the time, which was different from the right overlapping tradition of the Han people. The so-called “right overlapping” means the front piece of a coat overlaps at the chest, with the left piece pressing on the right one, and tied into a knot below the right armpit. In the dress of northern minorities, the right is on top of the left, which are tied together under the left armpit, so it’s called “left overlapping”. Ethnologists think that donors in this cave carry Huns characteristics.