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Mogao Cave 96 was built in the early Tang dynasty. The red wooden eaves built along the cliff covering Cave 96 are 45 meters high, appearing imposing and magnificent. It is a splendid nine-story edifice, thus commonly known as the Nine-Story Temple. It is the icon of the Mogao Grottoes.
In Cave 96, you can find a huge statue of the Maitreya Buddha built along the cliff. It is 35.5 meters high, thus the largest statue in the Dunhuang grottoes. It started to be called the “Northern Giant Buddha” during the Tang dynasty. Among the Buddha statues built in the past, this statue is second only to the Leshan Giant Buddha (with a sitting height of 62 meters) and the Rong County Giant Buddha (36.67 meters), both in Sichuan. For indoor Buddha statues, the Northern Giant Buddha is certainly the largest in China. The building and completion of this cave can be considered a great feat in the history of the Mogao grottoes, as well as a symbol of the national strength, social stability and economic prosperity of the early Tang dynasty.
The statue is of a sitting Maitreya Buddha. In Buddhism, the Maitreya Buddha will be the next Buddha after Sakyamuni, and is expected to be born in 5.67 billion years. According to the Mahayana Sutras, the world in which the Maitreya attains Buddhahood will be extremely rich and peaceful. These are ardent hopes of the people at the time for a happy and peaceful life.
The giant Buddha was build in several steps. First, its general shape was carved out of the cliff. After that, the statue was depicted using straws and clays. Then the statue was further refined with loam. Finally, the whole thing was colored with pigments. The Maitreya Buddha statue is in a sitting posture, slightly leaning forward looking down. The Buddha’s two legs are hanging down naturally, granting it a tall and majestic appearance. The right hand of the Buddha is raised in the Abhaya mudra, meaning eradicating all sufferings, while the left hand is stretched out in the Varada mudra , meaning satisfying the wishes of all living creatures.
According to records like the Mogao Grotto Inscriptions on the north wall in the antechamber of Cave 156, Mogao Cave 96 was built in the second year of Yanzai in the Tang dynasty (695 A.D.), and was in a four-story double-eave architectural style. The statue was painted with gold. In the 9th century, a five-story edifice was built, and later rebuilt over subsequent dynasties of the Song, Western Xia and Qing. During the Republican period, a nine-story building with a single-slope-gabled roof was built on top of it.
In 1924, when Landon Warner visited Dunhuang, the upper part of the Buddha Hall was already in collapse. He took a photo of the head of the Giant Buddha through the tree branches. The Giant Buddha features a full and round face with bright eyes and broad eyebrows, and a wavy mound of flesh on the head, typical of early Tang dynasty styles. It can be inferred from his picture that the Buddha was only repainted when it was renovated in past dynasties.
From 1928 to 1935, local people in Dunhuang converted the wooden structure outside Cave 96 from a five-story tower to a nine-story one, and fully renovated and repainted the Giant Buddha. In 2000, the Dunhuang Academy excavated the inner chamber and peripheral of the Buddha Hall. As shown by the ruins inside and outside to the north of the cave, the Buddha Hall dating to the early Tang dynasty actually lies 1.5 meters below the modern floor, and was also of a grander scale.