This article is provided by the Dunhuang Academy. All text and images were authorized by the Dunhuang Academy.
Mogao Cave 55 is a central altar cave. It was built around the third year of Jianlong (962 A.D.) in the Song Dynasty, during which time the owner of the cave was Cao Yuanzhong. The cave was built along a rectangular floorplan, with a horseshoe-shaped Buddhist altar set slightly to the rear center of the main chamber. There is a corridor leading to the altar and a backscreen connecting the altar with the ceiling of the cave. The ceiling of the cave is designed with an inverted-funnel-shaped caisson in the center and four shallow niches at the corners each decorated with painting of one of the Four Heavenly Kings.
The 10th century was an era of war for the Central Plains. Dunhuang, however, was relatively stable with its location near the border. The Cao family, who ruled the area at the time, were devout believers of Buddhism. They constructed many large caves in the Mogao Grottoes. The Cao family subsequently created a unique Buddhist culture in Dunhuang, of which Mogao Cave 55 had survived from its illustrious beginnings to the present.
The scale of these projects was a feature of the caves carved during the reign of the Cao family. The cave covers a large area of about 140 square meters, and is about 9 meters high. The center of the cave features a Buddhist altar with a back screen. Ten Buddhist statues were arranged into three groups on the altar. The statue group is a masterpiece of Song dynasty Mogao Grotto statues. It depicts the scene from the three Dharma assemblies of the Maitreya Buddha.
Each of these statues is full and plump. Together with their costumes showed the legacy of the Tang Dynasty, albeit on a much larger scale. The events of Maitreya Buddha’s three Dharma assemblies was recorded in the Maitreya Sutra. The sutra text states that the average lifespan in the world of the Maitreya was 84,000 years, crops could be harvested seven times a year, and clothes grew on trees. Furthermore, nobody would pocket anything left on the road, doors were unbolted at night, and there were no atrocities of war. After the Maitreya became Buddha, he held three large Dharma assemblies to preach the doctrines of Buddhism to all living creatures. 9.6 billion people were released from their sins in the first assembly, 9.4 billion people in the second, and another 9.2 billion in the third. These three groups of statues thus represent the three Dharma assemblies and people’s longing for a better life. Next to the Maitreya Buddha statue is a statue of a Vajra guardian with one hand on his hip, vigorously shouldering the Buddha’s throne. His posture is full of valor and vigor, contributing to the grandeur of this great grotto.
The west slope of the ceiling and the east side of the south wall are each painted with a mural of the Maitreya Sutra transformation, echoing the Maitreya Buddha’s three Dharma assemblies on the Buddhist altar. This combination in Cave 55 is the the only occurrence in Mogao Grottoes, making them invaluable. A large-scale Dharma assembly scene occupies the center of the the transformation mural, in which the Maitreya Buddha sits in the middle while surrounded by an audience of holy beings. In the lower part of the painting, the Dharma’s preaching is illustrated with stories, such as the demolition of a pagoda by Brahmin monks.
The open caisson ceiling was painted with a light green theme. Two dragons dominate the top sunken panel. In ancient India, dragons were portrayed as patron saints of Buddhism. The dragons are surrounded by a variety of traditional patterns to mimic a solemn and heavenly world.
The east slope of the ceiling is painted with the Lankavatara Sutra transformation, the south the Saddharmapundarika Sutra, and the north the Avatamsaka Sutra. The east wall of the main chamber is painted with an illustration of the Golden Light Sutra and the Mahāyāna Ghana Vyūha Sūtra. From the east side, the south wall was painted with illustrations from the Maitreya Sutra, Amitayurdhyana Sutra, Requitting Kindness Sutra, and the Avalokitesvara Sutra. From the east side, the north wall was painted with illustrations from the Devata Question Sutra, Medicine Buddha Sutra, Brahma-viśeṣa-cintī-paripṛcchā Sutra, and the Usnisa Vijaya Dharani Sutra. The west wall is painted with illustrations of Raudraksa’s Battle with Sariputra. The lower section of the three main chamber walls were painted with illustrations from the Sutra on the Wise and the Foolish in the form of screen paintings. These sutra transformation murals were painted according to the corresponding sutra texts, reflecting people’s faith, enthusiasm, and interpretation of Buddhist thoughts at the time.
It was speculated that all portraits of the Song Dynasty Cao family donors in the corridor of the cave were covered when the cave was rebuilt during the Tangut reign. In modern times, the later covers were somehow destroyed accidently to expose the portraits underneath. Notes on the Dunhuang Grottoes, written by the French sinologist Paul Pelliot in 1908, already recorded the name inscriptions of the donors from the Song Dynasty.
The Cao family, who commissioned these cave buildings, established a painting academy specializing in grotto construction. They used a large amount of green pigment, so caves decorated with green hues were fairly common during that period. Heavenly Kings being painted in shallow niches on the ceiling are also a feature of Cao’s caves. They are the gods guarding the four cardinal directions. King Vaisravana guards the north while holding a white pagoda on his left hand. King Virudhaka guards the south while holding a bow and arrow. King Dhatarattha guards the east while holding a Chinese lute. King Virupaksa guards the west while holding a sword. In that way, the four Heavenly Kings would always guard this large cave at all times.
During the Five Dynasties and the Song daynsty, ethnic minority states around Dunhuang continued to grow. In order to survive and develop, the Cao family formed alliances with these nearby states through marriage and trade, and thus achieved long-term economic development. With a strong economic foundation, the Cao family continuously organized craftsmen to build more caves. A total of 55 caves were built during the Cao family’s more than one hundred years of rule. Cave 55 is one of them that reflects the faith and enthusiasm that people had toward Buddhism at the time.