With its fabled and welcoming atmosphere of an oasis, with its cherries to be against golden dunes Dunhuang would not need much more beauty to be decorated with. Yet, sometimes fate is capricious and give more beauty to those already beautiful , or like we say in italian “the sun always kisses the beautiful” (or for the moody personalities “it always rains where it is already wet). And so it happens that some of the most admirable and intriguing works of arts are hosted in the nearby caves , Mogao caves are the most famous but equally interesting are Yulin caves and historically and geographically also the Western Xia ones.
Before talking about of how the beauty inside the caves, there something definitely intriguing to be told about them and . The word Silk Road evokes fabled images for most people , camels, dune, treasures , jade and silver , lapislazuli and bolts of silks but as Valerie Hansen shows in her recent book, it was a much smaller business of crisscrossing roads and shifting oasis. The silk was indeed used at some point in place of money, because in such remote places on the edge of desert it was difficult for the small minting volumes to reach. The desert was not an easy thing to cross, the lenghts to be covered were limited for people and camels, so every place with water and food would make an attractive halt. Sometimes these places were not farther from each other than a couple of days caravan. Every halt would also the place where to plan the next move and that could take several days itself, based on the security of each section. Probably the desert was a checkerboard of trodden sand trails. Where water sprouted an oasis would be made, and prosperity would come with traders, pilgrims, small soldiers garrison but as fast on the capricious water and weather, the well could dry up at anytime and the town around would have to pack an leave. So if one imagines to be on that camel rolling across the desert, uncertain if the road is the right one, uncertain if water is going to last on until the next stop, that Buddha face that emerged from Mogao rock wall, must have meant much more than a benevolent god, it meant the relief of life and water there, pilgrim monks and food. That also shows why these caves were always located next to a river, often the river has cut down some rock walls where the caves can be dug out. Above all, the caves had water and a sheltered environment for the monks to live. After the art and beauty came. In Mogao, this is less evident to grasp these because of all the building and shops and poplars, but it is fairly apparent to notice that when one imagines the place booth free. On the other hand , the choosing of location comes very evident when visiting the Western Xia ones or the Yulin caves a bit further ahead. The same pattern of sheltered rock walls and river nearby is repeated in a number of desert caves, like Kizil in Xinjiang.
The practice for Buddhist to build caves for meditation, congregations , worship, praying and living had been initiated in India with the stunning Ajanta caves (and also Karli, Ellora). In the early caves, the very same space organisation of some of the indian buddhist caves can be seen. Yet, whereas Ajanta had a solid rock that allowed full columns and statues to be carved out, in Mogao as well as in the rest of central Asia, the mountain sides were too friable to be carved in details. The statues, as in Maji Shan, were done with a core of wood and layers of clay. Where the local patrons via their artists could see all their desire of glory and merit fulfilled were the murals And murals are magnificent indeed, in Mogao but also in Yulin, where they are of later date but somehow better conservation.
I find quite ironic Dunhuang position through history, no Constantinople nor Rome, a small town in the desert, yet in its own it has been trodden upon by many, switching hands from flickering chinese empires to tibetans and then chinese again and then uighurs, it has always attracted curiosity of many . And then again when it was half buried in the sand, it worked its charms to bring all those ‘foreign devils’ that would have undug it open and with it the string of treasures along the old silk road. Once upon a long time uighur , khotan princesses, chinese patrons competed to have the best cave to achieve merit, different researchers are in a sort competing to maintain and conserve the site.
So now, when you enter the caves, blues and red riot and danse , the spread of Buddhism brought them there from India and Central Asia through the hands of artisans moving along the merchants or displaced by a war or a famine. Along its way the Buddhism settled in the Mahayana and Buddha and his Boddhisattvas acquired the forms of victorious princes, paradise came to be described in the caves as palaces with dancing figures and babies. The opulent and delicate fabrics dressing and elaborate hairdressing became decorations and lively swirls inside the painting itself. It is as if colors, movement, lightness all created together a garden inside those caves where breeze passed, flower erupted and water trickled where outside dry sand and few poplars ruled undisturbed under the sun and snow in a stark and minimalist elegance. I suggest to have a tour at the Dunhuang Research Academy, http://en.dha.ac.cn, to have a look at the art, beautiful and refreshing. After so many studies and researchers, I cannot add much more, but I would just like to mention the apsaras, those celestial beings that float and fly and dart around the boddhisattvas. The apsaras were imported from India with their first waves of Buddhisms. They evolved through times and changed attire and figure. Interestingly, the Dunhuang Research Academy, it is highlighted that the apsaras were initially half-naked as in their Indian originals, however with time assuming more Chinese and Central Asian appearance they became dressed in various styles (Tang, Yuan , Uighur, etcetc) and the same site points out that it is due to the different sensitivity about nakedness of Indian and Chinese culture. This is a funny consideration when one considers that Indian culture is as conservative. Nevertheless indian temples or buddhist stupas remain are studded with these beautiful and harmonious, very succintly dressed, carved figures. These women were meant to bring in prosperity, or fertility and abundance, a concept easily fo figure out from the early Indian agricultural societies. Some art historians explain the presence of these sensuous figures (mainly sculptures) on sacred monuments with the fact that in Indian cultural history (or better in the Hindu cultural history) the approach to fulfill one’s life goals has consistently been so to say holistic. One of the goal was indeed Kama, love and it encompassed both familial and sexual love and of course the same concept and representation was transposed to divine or sacred love. Of course in Central Asia and Western China, this must have lost its meaning and apsara became fast dressed in the styles of the time. It is really interesting to observe how also the apsaras figures evolve with the populations occupying Dunhuang. I find particulary charming the uighur apsara with her plump body, but my favorites are those early apsaras that float in a lapislazuli blue. Yet never I would have thought that i would have found there another sparklind dense blue I would have brought with me everafter.