The Attractions of Dunhuang Art Treasure

In the centre of the Gobi Desert there is an oasis named Dunhuang where there are more than 500 caves, 492 of which shelter a total of 45,000 square meters of wall paintings and 2,415 colour statues of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. Dunhuang is an extravaganza of Buddhist art with an unrivalled magnitude and historiography. It is a unique temple on Chinese soill propagating a religion of Indian origin. Prof. Tan Chung, Professor-Consultant of IGNCA, who has long associations with Dunhuang and Chinese scholars on Dunghungology, gives us an over view of the treasure of Dunhuang and introduces to our readers about IGNCA’s Dunhuang study project as a part of its Sino-Indian studies programme.

Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts has been attracted by the Dunhuang art treasure amounts to 45,000 square meters of wall paintings and 2,415 colourful stucco statues created from the 4th to 14th century and have been preserved for about seventeen centuries in fairly good condition. This art treasure is an outstanding achievement of world art. As IGNCA looks at culture and art of the entire world as various manifestations of one entity, it considers Dunhuang an important target of its probing focus and searchlight. Second, Dunhuang is one of the greatest treasure houses of Buddhist art of the world, which, through its continuous development and conservation, is also a repository of cultural heritage of both India and China.

Here we have 492 caves some extremely large and some extremely small. Except the floor spaces, all the caves are fully covered with eleven centuries of drawings to propagate the teachings of Gautama Buddha – the great ancient Indian philosopher. In no single site in India have we seen such persistent diligent historical endeavour in art creation to disseminate, elaborate and expound the Indian cultural tradition in such an extravagant discourse and display of lines, figures, symbols and colours. Naturally, this dimension which belongs to the Civilizational Area Studies fall into IGNCA’s academic networking.

“Mogao Caves” is one of the historical names of Dunhuang, while its another world famous historical name is Qian Fo Dong (the “Thousand Buddha Caves”). The Chinese world quian Fo is a technical term to indicate miniature Buddha figures which are closely painted in rows to create an impression that Buddha appears everywhere inside the caves of Dunhuang. Chinese have just used the word thousand Buddhas” (qian Fo) to describe this omnipresence of Buddha but not to enumerate the exact numbers of the Buddha figures. In fact, the largest patch of such miniature Buddha figures appear on the eastern wall of Cave No. 224 with 610 figures only. In other places the thousand Buddha miniature figures fall far short of the numeric thousand – in some places there are just a few dozens of them, and even less now after the wear and tear of history. However, in all the 492 caves, 296 of them feature the phenomenon of miniature Buddha figures. It is for this reason that the Dunhuang caves have been called “Thousand Buddha Caves” for centuries. In other words, clusters of miniature Buddha images are a distinct feature of Dunhuang art. Most of these were painted during the Sui Dynasty (581-618 AD) and Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD). They generally figure on the four slopes of the dipper-shaped ceiling, and sometimes concentrate around the doorways. We see in this kind of deployment of the miniature figures the deliberate intention of giving the omnipresence of Buddha a striking visibility, not for the purpose of filling up blank spaces for the paucity of motifs.

Besides these miniature figures, Dunhuang is replete with images of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, particularly Avalokitesvara – all being painted and carved prominently. One can safely say that Dunhuang has the largest gathering of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas among all Buddhist shrines on earth.

Jataka stories are vividly illustrated in the Dunhuang paintings, some covering very large spaces. They form one of the main themes in the caves of the early periods like the Northern Wei (439-534 A.D.) and Western Wei (535-556 A.D.). Some of the paintings are not only the finest illustrations of the Jataka stories, but are among the earliest of all Jataka paintings extant in the world. They become valuable reference materials for Indian scholars to study the visual effect of this genre of ancient Indian literature.

In order to make the illiterate masses of China understand the sophisticated teachings of a foreign (Indian) philosopher, the Chinese preachers of Buddhism resorted to illustrating the central ideas of the Buddhist sutras in vivid pictures. Such illustrations form the central focus of the visual presentations of Dunhuang. We know that many important works of the Mahayana sutra literature had been taken to China and translated into Chinese while their Sanskrit origins have been lost to India. In this way, we see in Duhuang art the historical transformation of the ancient Indian spiritual teachings into visual moral lessons on Chinese walls. Drawing such sutra illustrations was no easy task. It needs not only a profound understanding of Buddhist teachings but also a familiarity with the ancient Indian civilization and culture. Perhaps, the creators of the Dunhuang art had availed of Indian expertise in both designing and detailed depictions. This makes the Dunhuang sutra illustrations all the more important to the study of Indian cultural heritage.

The gigantic art museum of Dunhuang is located in the heart of the Gobi desert. Today, even with modern means of transportation taking a trip to Dunhuang is an experience of multiple difficulties. Just imagine how hard it was in good old days when everything needed by the craftsmen and painters – from food to colours – had to be transported to the spot from hundreds of miles away on animal and human backs tracking through unhospitable sand-oceans. Without devotion, noble thoughts, and spirit of self-sacrifice such a brilliant jewel of human art of culture with such a magnitude would not have been wrought. It makes one wonder why the marvelous ability of Chinese culture which can create the Great Wall has not built up a second art treasury comparable with Dunhuang on non-Indian and non-Buddhist topics. This one-only scenario of Dunhuang art makes it the crystallization of Chinese labour and talent with Indian ideology, iconography and inspiration. Let us not forget that these caves were originally created as temples, as the venues for meditation and conservation, as environment for the human mind to enter the sukhavati -–the realm of heavenly bliss.

Here I have touched upon a social phenomenon that I call “Temple Culture” – the society investing enormous resources and manpower in building up the magnificence of religious shrines, making temples the centre of cultural, social and even economic activities. While this Temple Culture is an obsession of Indian civilization throughout history, ancient China had only the Palace Culture – building up magnificent palaces both above ground and under ground for the emperors and aristocrats in life-time and after death. However, after Buddhism exported the Indian Temple Culture to China, we see China emerging as the second superpower of Temple Culture on earth. Cave Culture which is a part and parcel of Temple Culture is virtually the monopoly of the two nations – India and China. It is just not enough for the modern Indians and Chinese to fee proud of their caves, or make a little money available to attract foreign tourists to se them. The scholars of these two great civilizations should make a joint endeavour to take stock of what the two nations have created in this exclusive field of Sino-Indian cave art, and to gain an insight of its true values and contributions to world art and culture.

In the last couple of centuries both India and China received a violent attack from the modern western civilization. The two oriental civilizations have just physically and mentally recovered from the attack and stood up once again as respectable members of the comity of nations in the modern world. Yet, spiritually both the nations are still in flux. The world is going to enter into the third millennium of our common era while humanity has already travelled to the end of the modern industrial civilization. It is too late in the day for India and China to embrace whole hog the western spiritual superstructure which is going downhill in the western societies. India and China are facing a serious task of building up their own spiritual superstructures to cross the threshold of the third millennium (or the 21st century). Intellectuals in Indian and China are shouldering a historical task of re-understanding the traditional cultural values, and creating a new spiritual system on the foundation of national heritage, incorporating all the best achievements of scientific discoveries of the mankind. If, in the past, the two old civilizations had collaborated so well in building up cultural and art edifices, there is no reason why the two young modern nations cannot join their hands once again in a new venture of spiritual synergism. This makes it all the more important to introduce Dunhuang to the Indian academia.

The Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts considers the art of the world as one Atman whereas the art treasures in various countries are but different manifestations of it. It is with this in view that we endeavour to develop Sino-Indian studies in which the study of Dunhuang occupies an important place. We are now entering a new phase of joint collaboration with scholars of Dunhuang Academy to close examine specific topics of cave cart of India and China in special reference with Dunhuang. We look forward to participation of Indian scholars in this endeavour.

Dunhuang in Chinese Press

Lanzhou, August 6 (Xinhua)-Great progress has been made in studies of grotto art, Buddhist Aesthetics, Dunhuang music and dance and other major subjects relating to Dunhuang studies, according to Duan Wenjie, Director of the Dunhuang Institute in Dunhuang, Northwest China’s gansu province.

Duan was speaking on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Institute studying the Dunhuang relics.

The relics include some 500 grottoes carved from the 4th to the centuries, more than 2,000 coloured statues, over 40,000 sq m of wall frescoes and 40,000-50,000 other relics.

Duan said that breakthroughs have been made especially in translating dance manuals, analysing religious frescoes, and studying the history and art of the Huihe (Ouigour), an ancient ethnic group in China.

“The Chinese researches of Dunhuang studies have now entered the heart of the Kingdom-historical Science, Philosophy, Aesthetics and comprehensive research”, Duan said. The Insitute led by Duan, is the largest organization of Dunhuang studies in the world, the Chinese researches now lead the world in the field, Duan said, adding that the old saying that “Foreign countries lead Dunhuang studies although Dunhuang is in China” is no longer true.

Based on archaeological studies on the grottoes, the Institute has published a general catalogue of the grottoes and a book on inscriptions written by benefactors.

In recent years the Insitute has excavated 250 caves used as meditation abodes for monks, unearthing relics never seen before in the magao grottoes.

Research on special subjects has been carried out, one of the rewarding studies was on the pictures based on fairytales among the frescoes, scholars studied their structure, their meaning and artistic values, and the integration between traditional and foreign styles. Based on the studies, the Institute has published some 20 illustrated books, including the five volume “magao grottoes in Dunhuang”, “Dunhuang Frescoes”, “Dunhuang colored statues”, and “Dunhuang flying goddesses”.

The 120-member Institute has also contributed 20 monographs and 500 thesis on Dunhuang studies.

Xinhua News Bulletin



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