Illustrations to the Sutra of the Ten Kings, a painting on paper roll

From Cave 17, Mogao, near Dunhuang, Gansu province, China
Five Dynasties, late 9th-early 10th century AD

The 'Ten Kings of Hell' come from an apocryphal sutra dated AD 903. They preside over the successive spheres through which a soul must pass on its way to rebirth. After death, the soul comes before the first seven kings at seven-day intervals, before the eighth king on the hundredth day, the ninth on the first anniversary of death, and finally, the tenth on the third anniversary. The Kings illustrate the Buddhist concept of judgement after death in its most fully developed form.

This incomplete roll shows five of the Ten Kings, each sitting before a draped table attended by the Good and Bad Boys (recorders of a person's good and evil deeds during life). A virtuous couple, carrying sutra rolls and an image of the Buddha, contrasts with sinners in chains and cangues being driven past by their bull-headed jailers. The breaks in the scroll are before and after this next scene. A last King is shown with the six Gati ('Ways of Rebirth'), each represented by trailing clouds. Depicted in descending order, these are the Ways of divine beings, titanic demons, men, animals, hungry ghosts, and hell. The final dramatic scene shows figures running from a flaming city of hell towards the bodhisattva Kshitigarbha, who has the power to save souls from the evil forms of rebirth.

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More information


M. Aurel Stein, Serindia: detailed report of e, 5 vols. (Oxford, 1921)

A. Waley, A catalogue of paintings recov (London, 1931)

R. Whitfield, Art of Central Asia: The Ste-1, vol. 2 (Tokyo, Kodansha International Ltd., 1982-85)

W. Zwalf (ed.), Buddhism: art and faith (London, The British Museum Press, 1985)

R. Whitfield and A. Farrer, Caves of the thousand Buddhas: (London, The British Museum Press, 1990)


Height: 278.000 mm
Length: 2399.000 mm

Museum number

Asia OA 1919.1-1.080


Collected by Sir Marc Aurel Stein


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