Tag Archives: sculptures

Behold A White Horse

31 Jan

About 15 months after my visit to the Ajanta and Ellora Caves in India, I was in a small town in western China called Dunhuang. When the Silk Road trading routes were at their height of use and long caravans filled with spices, silk, grains, teas, fruits, gunpowder, precious stones, and other in-demand goods were busy treading back and forth from the East to the West in the 4th to 15th Centuries A.D., Dunhuang was a boomtown. It sat at a key crossroads of the southern Silk Road trade route and offered weary travelers an oasis of refuge as they battled the elements of the Gobi desert in the northeast and the Taklamakan desert in the west.

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Not a mirage – megadunes of Mount Mingsha looming over dusty Dunhuang, Gansu, China (2016)

Since the easternmost starting point of the Silk Road was the city of Xi’an in east-central China, I guess it made sense that I had to transit there in order to catch the only connecting flight to Dunhuang. I began the first leg of the journey on a China Eastern flight from Shanghai to Xi’an which was about a 2-hour flight. In Xi’an, I had a 2-hour layover and then hopped on the once-a-day flight from Xi’an to Dunhuang which took another 3-hours. Everywhere in China is on Beijing standard time. So, although I was over 3000km (nearly 2000 miles) from Shanghai when I landed in Dunhuang, I lost no hours. I was still in the same time zone from when I started, but other than that, I was in a completely different world.

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The mythic oasis of Crescent Moon Spring Temple where travelers gave offerings to the Bodhisattva Guanyin for safe passage through the desert

To use a “Star Wars” analogy, Dunhuang is like the outer rim desert trading outpost of Tatooine. The town sits in Gansu province which extends from Sichuan province at its most southern border all the way to the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region at its northwest border. Its population reflects this positioning since I saw many Uighur people who live and work in their own district in Dunhuang (packed with Uighur food vendors, restaurants, mosques, and schools), while a good chunk of “new” Dunhuang is filled with the neon lights and hot pot glitz that I’ve seen in Sichuan’s capital city, Chengdu. From the moment I arrived in Dunhuang, I found no one who spoke English and it was a major feat just to finagle a taxi ride from the airport to my hotel. After I was able to check-in at my hotel (which required the use of a translation app by the front desk clerk), I wandered through Dunhuang’s downtown and noticed that all the stores, restaurants, and other public establishments had thick, clear plastic curtains that one parted like the Red Sea in order to enter. It didn’t take a genius to figure out why these obstructive curtains were everywhere.

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Climbing up the dunes near Mingsha

There are “megadunes” of desert sand that frame Dunhuang like a massive mountain range. These ginormous sand dunes are known to make “chiming sounds” (which is what “Mingsha” — the name of the highest dune means) and shift quickly when the wind rustles through them. The town gets blanketed with sand when powerful gusts blast the dunes. So, the plastic curtains on all the doorways are an absolute necessity. Luckily, I had arrived in late winter, and aside from the brisk temperatures, the winds were calm. I had come to Dunhuang for one purpose: to see the fabled Mogao Caves.

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Approaching the Mogao Caves

These caves were first dug into the side of what I would call a massive “petrified” sand cliff in the the 4th Century A.D. The very first cave was carved out because of the vision seen by a Buddhist monk who had settled in Dunhuang. On a meditative walk through the desert plains outside the town, a near-blinding, shining halo consisting of a Thousand Buddhas appeared before him. Determined to capture his vision on the spot, he began digging into the side of the sand cliff where he saw the Buddhas. After this cave was dug, he dedicated it as a shrine to his vision and began using it for prayer and sharing it with others. This socialization of the cave naturally lead to other monks creating their own similar caves alongside the first cave and this went on and on for 1000 years all the way through the 14th Century. Each subsequent cave iterated on previous caves in some way and pushed the artistic envelope by getting bolder and more intricate with the paintings, sculptures, and design & size of the caves themselves. Word of these stunning caves in the desert soon spread and attracted a wide-ranging group of pilgrims, traders, religious leaders of other faiths, and tourists of the day who stopped at Dunhuang with their trade caravans.  A mind-boggling total of 732 caves (that have been excavated) were dug.

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Exterior views – Mogao Caves

When the Silk Road routes began to wane in the 15th Century, Dunhuang also shrunk in size and significance. As a result, the Mogao Caves were largely swallowed whole by the sand with a remaining few used as a temporary homes for squatters, and later, as jails. In 1900, the world rediscovered the unparalleled collection of Buddhist art at Mogao, when a local caretaker who was curious about the strange path of cigarette smoke followed it to a blocked cave. Inside this cave (today called Cave 17 or the “Library Cave”), there was a treasure trove of old manuscripts, woodblock paintings, scriptures, musical instruments, ritual artifacts, and other Buddhist art.  Within a few years, there was a rush of international archaeologists eager to gather the spoils of the find, and as result, much of these artifacts ended up spread around the world or sold to private collectors. Fortunately, the Chinese government has come to recognize the importance of the Mogao Caves and has done a commendable job in preserving these fragile caves for posterity to behold.

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Exterior views

As part of their preservation efforts, there is a strict daily quota placed on the number of visitors who may enter the Mogao Caves. Additionally, only a small portion of the over 700 caves are open during any day for ticketed visitors. The rest of the caves are kept locked. I had been unable to register for a ticket in advance through the official Mogao website, but since it was the low season for tourism in the area, I felt good about my chances to buy a ticket directly at the ticket office.  I had a bit of a challenge in finding the right bus to get to the Mogao park headquarters (about 25km from Dunhuang) due to the language barrier, but my hand gestures combined with repeating “Mogao, Mogao” finally resonated with a local who scribbled directions to the bus stop on a piece of paper and pointed me to a driver who then read the note and took me there.  At the bus stop, I jumped on the first green-colored bus I saw (I had read that the bus to Mogao was green). I paid my fare directly to the collector on the bus and about 30 minutes later the bus pulled up to the park gates.  I saw a small queue of people and walked to the back of this line. As a foreigner, I had to buy the foreigner ticket admission which was tied to a specific timed entry to the cave complex. After sitting in a waiting area for 15 minutes or so, I was ushered by park staff into a state-of-the-art dome theater that showed a high quality animated & live action film about the history of the Mogao Caves.  

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Exterior Cave 437 and Cave 444

Once the film finished, everyone in the theater was chaperoned to shuttles which took us up a small hill to the entrance to the caves. I walked towards the turnstiles of the entrance when I got off the shuttle, but was stopped and told to wait until my guide arrived. No visitors are allowed into the cave complex without a guide. The guides have keys to those caves that are designated as open on any day, and the guides open and lock each cave as they take the visitors around the cave complex. Since I was the only English-speaker that day, I received an English-speaking guide who provided me with a very intimate, one-on-one experience through the caves. She liked the fact I was asking many questions and demonstrated my curiosity about the caves and the Buddhist art inside because it allowed her to practice her English in a more comprehensive way. She also unlocked and took me inside many additional caves that were usually not open to visitors in order to continue our discussions. It was like having a private, VIP tour of the all the art held in the Vatican.

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Colorful Buddha image painted on the outside wall of one of the Mogao Caves

In most of the caves, there are no lights whatsoever, so my guide and I used our own flashlights to shine on the multi-colored fresco paintings and stucco sculptures inside. As our flashlights moved along the walls above and around us, it was like a slow reveal of the mysteries of the universe. Because of the fragile state of these wall and ceiling paintings, no photos are allowed in any of the caves and only the larger caves housing the mammoth-sized statues have a few electrical lights installed in them. The rest of the caves are more or less kept as they were centuries ago aside from some temperature control equipment. In certain caves, I saw smoke residue blackening wall paintings and my guide told me that was due to people living in certain caves in the early 20th Century. Unlike the paintings inside the Ajanta Caves, which have largely faded or been damaged, the cave paintings at Mogao are very much intact and their colors are still vivid — no doubt due in part to the arid desert climate and cold interior of the caves. There also has been international collaboration in order to digitally map and restore certain sections of the caves, so that the Mogao Caves may continue to be analyzed and studied without the need for physical intrusion.

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Exterior Cave 16 and 17 (the Library Cave)

Two highlights at the Mogao Caves are the “Giant Buddha” in Cave 130 and the “Reclining Buddha” in Cave 148.  There are a few other large Buddha statues tucked within the belly of Mogao, but these 2 sights are the ones that I will always remember. Cave 130 is the centerpiece of Mogao and the Buddha inside is colossal. It is the third largest stone constructed Buddha in the world. 

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Cave 130 – housing the “Giant Buddha”

As I entered Cave 130, I had to almost immediately lift my eyes upwards because there was little room in the cave to see anything else other than the colossus above. This statue rises up 6 floors. The full length of the interior walls and ceilings are all beautifully painted with colorful Buddhist iconography and decorative themes. The Giant Buddha was built in the 8th Century A.D. and is over a 1000 years old. Yet, other than some grime, soot, and a little fading here and there, the statue is in very good condition. Clearly, it was built to last through the ages.

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Sign outside Cave 130 with image of the Giant Buddha inside

Cave 148 houses a long Reclining Buddha and behind it are over 30 life-sized statues of disciples, arhats, and other monks. The cave is a tight, claustrophobic space with a low ceiling. I felt I was inside a tube-like kaleidoscope of thousands of cascading Buddhas painted above me as stories from the Buddha’s life filled the side walls.  The Reclining Buddha statue itself reminded me of a 14-meter long Reclining Buddha I had seen 4 years earlier at the Dambulla Caves in central Sri Lanka. The Dambulla Caves are thought to have first been dug in the 1st Century B.C., so they are older than the Mogao Caves and likely influenced the Buddhist art and sculptures at Mogao. In comparing a photo I took of the Reclining Buddha in Dambulla (known as the “Cave of the Divine King”) with a photo of the Reclining Buddha at Cave 148 in Mogao (as shown in the sign outside the cave), there is a strong similarity in the depictions of the flowing Buddhas on the ceiling of each cave and the coloring and certain features of the statue.

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Reclining Buddha at the “Cave of the Divine King” – Dambulla Caves, Sri Lanka (2010)
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Sign outside Cave 148 with image of the Reclining Buddha inside

As I was writing this blog and looking over my photos from my trip to Dunhuang, I remembered that although I had come to Dunhuang to see the Mogao Caves which were beyond staggering and jaw-dropping in their artistic genius and beauty, I was most touched by a tale of a horse named Tianliu or “White Dragon”. On the outskirts of Dunhuang, just across the Danghe river, is an old Buddhist monastery called Puguang Temple.  In the courtyard, there is a rather unassuming pagoda called the White Horse Pagoda. It was originally built in the 4th Century A.D. as a shrine to the beloved white horse of an Indian Buddhist monk named Kumarajiva who had ridden this horse through treacherous desert conditions as he ventured out of what is today the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Kumarajiva’s goal was to preach about Buddhism all the way east until he reached Xi’an. He had stopped at the Puguang Temple in Dunhuang to teach there for a few days.  The night before he was to leave Puguang for Xi’an, his horse fell ill. On that same night, Kumarajiva had a dream where the horse spoke to him and explained that it would not be able to continue the journey. A despondent Kumarajiva chastised the horse for abandoning the duty to spread the Buddhist scriptures right when they had reached the half-way point to their final destination. The horse replied: “I have fulfilled my task. Ahead of you, not far from here, you will find Crescent Moon Spring where the heavenly steeds gather. There you will find another white horse waiting for you. It will accompany you to the East.”

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White Horse Pagoda – Dunhuang

The next morning, the horse had died. Kumarajiva first built a small altar for the horse and performed Buddhist rites of mourning there for 9 days. Still overcome with the emotion of the loss, he directed his grief towards the building of White Horse Pagoda. Unfortunately, the original pagoda which had stood for over 1500 years was destroyed during China’s Cultural Revolution, but in the early 1990s it was rebuilt. A solemn mood washed over me as I stood looking at the replacement pagoda. There was a lone prayer scarf tied to the protective gate around it. Other than this, the pagoda had no signs of any offerings or ritual items. In fact, there was no one else at the temple and it felt deserted. Just as I gathered myself and was about to turn and go, a breeze billowed through the dormant trees and the tiny bells atop the pagoda began to chime in step. The high-pitched pinging grabbed my attention. There was something familiar about the sounds that rang out — like a cheerful call of the spirit, or just maybe, the triumphant neigh of a horse.

The Hammer & Chisel

17 Jan

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Ajanta Caves, Maharashtra state, India (2014)

Legend has it that in the early-19th century an English hunting party (chasing tigers, of course) was treading through the thick brush above the Waghura river in central India, and when peering at the gorge in front of them, saw what appeared to be openings in the cliff face. The group then maneuvered its way down and was met by a local boy who guided them into one of the openings in the cliff face where magnificent Buddhist rock carvings and wall paintings emerged. We know this story actually took place because Captain John Smith who was part of the hunting party carved his name and date in one of the colorful murals in the large temple cave now known as “Cave No. 10”.  Smith’s name is still visible today with a piece of clear plastic protecting it from people who may want to scrawl their initials or names over it.

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Cave No. 10 (200 B.C.) – Ajanta

It is hard to provide appropriate context for the immense size and head-scratching impact of Ajanta. There are about 30 caves of Buddhist worship tunneled into sheer rock. The rock itself is a type of basalt that has volcanic origins. It is near black in color and hard to the touch. Beginning in 200 B.C. and continuing through the 7th Century A.D., the Buddhist monks and their followers in the area took on the herculean task of patiently hammering, chiseling, and removing debris, and then repeating this manual process for what must have felt like an eternity. Their tools may have evolved slightly between each generation who took over the work, but the human hands powering these tools did not change. Just hands, no machines. That was it. But, the power of their beliefs and focus on creating ever-lasting temples in stone must have allowed for a divine hand to propel their backbreaking daily toil. These stone crafters not only created open spaces that would fill with outside light and serve as large prayer or assembly rooms, but also strategically left other portions of the interior rocks intact for specific sculptural, decorative, or structural purposes. In addition to all of this, highly skilled artisans painted murals on the sides of the cave walls depicting scenes of the Buddha’s life and filled the roofs with geometric patterns, floral motifs, and other symbols. Each cave was designed like its own Sistine Chapel.

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Interior ceiling – Ajanta Cave No. 2

I ducked in and out of all the caves of Ajanta and each one had its own unique elements. While many of the murals and ceilings have decayed and vanished, most of the rock sculptures are in fairly good condition.

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Interior ceiling with floral motif

In one of the smaller caves, I was pondering a particularly beautiful stone Buddha in the teaching mudra pose (dharmachakra) and I noticed something. At first I thought my mind was playing tricks on me. I was in a dark area near the back of the cave and there were a few electrical lights on the floor which illuminated the Buddha. These lights appeared to cast shadows around certain features of the statue. I gazed intently at what the totality of the shadows created which was a perfect outline of a bell-shaped Buddhist stupa. I was dumbstruck and did a double-take. The outline of the stupa was unmistakable. I couldn’t believe it. Was this just a coincidence? Or did the monks who sculpted this Buddha statue (and others like it in the other caves) know that when the sun sat in the right spot in the horizon and its light poured through a specific cave window, the Buddha would reveal a secret — the hidden stupa?

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The shadow outline of a bell-shaped stupa is revealed

The stupa’s bell-shaped design is thought to have been based on the shape of ancient burial mounds, and similar to a burial mound, the stupa’s purpose was to serve as a ceremonial monument that was to enshrine a sacred relic (usually connected to the Buddha himself). I remember reading something about precise dimensions always being used to build stupas in India and Sri Lanka and those dimensions had some correlation with the design of Buddha images. But, I had never heard of this interplay between a Buddha image being engineered in a way that would allow a hidden stupa to be formed by the shadows cast off from its design.  I wanted to ask someone about this, but I’ve kept the moment to myself until now. I‘m sure what I saw was no random accident. I’ve seen and read enough at this point in my life where I no longer underestimate the ingenuity of earlier generations who understood the natural world and knew how to work in concert with it.

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Cave No. 4 – Ajanta

Ajanta represents perhaps the zenith of Buddhism’s artistic and cultural influence in India which was sparked from the time of India’s first Buddhist king, Ashoka, who ruled over most of the subcontinent in the 2nd Century B.C.  Within a few centuries afterwards, Buddhism’s hold in India began to precipitously decline and its teachings transmigrated and diverged as they spread east across the rest of Asia. Interestingly, while no more caves were dug into the gorge at Ajanta after 650 A.D., about 100km away in Ellora, massive new rock temples were being sculpted out of the same kind of basalt rock.  Were these craftsman the last generation of monks and artisans from Ajanta who simply hit the “wall” (so to speak) and decided to pick up and apply their skills to the Ellora site? Having a strong king to sponsor such a move would definitely have helped. And that seems to be the prevailing theory — pointing to King Krishna I, who ruled in the 7th Century A.D. and oversaw the spectacular cutout of massive temples from the hillside rock at Ellora.

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Ellora Cave No. 32 – Maharashtra state, India (2014)

The Ellora caves are not – in key areas – actual tunnels dug into rock face like at Ajanta. Instead, Ellora features a long, sloping embankment of basalt rock where huge temples have been carved out and lay in the open.  The most famous Ellora sights are its Hindu rock temples. Kailash Temple (Ellora Cave No. 16) is the largest single rock temple in the world. Dedicated to the Hindu deity, Shiva, it is a masterpiece of human achievement and throngs of tourists and pilgrims walk around it, climb up its ancient stairs, and lay offerings inside the temple.  There are elephants, bulls, and other Hindu sculptures clustered around an elaborate gateway that leads to the temple which has an antechamber, assembly hall, inner sanctum, and towers.  There are multiple floors and you can walk up the cliff above Kailash Temple and enjoy a viewpoint that shows the temple’s intricate roof with its lion-like statues and mandala-like central piece.

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Kailash Temple (Ellora Cave No. 16) – view from cliff above it

Although Kailash Temple is Ellora’s most commanding sight and must have absorbed most of the time and skill of the craftsmen, the other cave temples are not all similarly Hindu in design and spiritual purpose.  Ellora consists of more than 30 caves or rock temples and there are several Buddhist and Jain caves built alongside one another around the same time as the Hindu temples were created. Ellora is a rockside smorgasbord of these 3 faiths — each born in India with its own distinct thematic artistic flourish and iconography, but all having a shared sense of how to create a sacred place of worship that was both contemplative and functional.

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Kailash Temple

The grandest of the Buddhist caves at Ellora is Cave No. 10 or the “Carpenter’s Cave”. It has at least 2 floors and served as a monastery. The monks’ rooms were carved into the second floor above the prayer hall. The stone “ribs” that make up the roof of the temple are very similar to those in Cave No. 4 at Ajanta, so there must have been shared engineering knowledge between these craftsmen. The large Buddha image in the back center of the main hall is seated in the teaching mudra position and is flanked by two disciples. Rising behind and above this Buddha is a bulbous stupa with some decorative ornamentation encircling it.

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Ellora Cave No. 10 (known as “Carpenter’s Cave”)

When I first walked out of the sunlight and into this cave, my eyes needed a few seconds to adjust to the darkness. When I was able to see inside, I locked eyes with what was clearly a supreme being seated before me. The sense of its power is immediate and concrete.  This may be because of the solid rock that surrounds you which is devoid of any “give”.  In the hard, dank cave one is stripped bare and vulnerable. There is a stark absence of distraction and I don’t recall there being any kind of echo.  The Buddha is not there to judge, but to provide a spiritual focal point. The stupa behind the Buddha represented to me the sacred that is to be unlocked within oneself.  That’s what I felt in the room. I then thought of the heightened spiritual vortex that must have gripped this cave when it was alive with all those monks who had lived there. I imagined them sitting on the cave floor, chanting, meditating, and perhaps even being transported to other spiritual dimensions or worlds.  Maybe that show, “Ancient Aliens”, wasn’t too far off with its theories about who (or what) built these things?

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