Scenes from the Life of the Buddha, ink and colours on silk

From Cave 17, Mogao, near Dunhuang, Gansu province, China
Tang dynasty, 9th century AD

Symbols and stories from a Buddhist context

At the time of the birth of the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni, it was foretold that he would either become a chakravartin (Universal Emperor) or a Buddha. In Buddhist art Shakyamuni is often shown with the symbols of the chakravartin to indicate that he defeated the World of Suffering. Here they have been combined with scenes from Shakyamuni's life. On top a Chinese officer represents the skilled general; a fashionably clad Chinese lady represents the royal consort; his treasure chest; the Wheel of the Law, and below a Chinese official representing the faithful minister, followed by the royal elephant and horse.

The lower section shows two miracles that accompanied Shakyamuni's birth. Immediately following his birth, cold and warm water appeared to wash him. In Indian art this is shown being assisted by naga (snakes), but here Chinese dragons appear in the clouds. The last scene shows Shakyamuni taking his first footsteps, in each of which a lotus flower blossomed. The attendants are plump and look remarkably similar to representations of women from the Imperial court from the same period. This indicates the close links of this outpost on the Silk Road with central China.

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More information


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

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


Height: 65.500 cm
Width: 19.000 cm

Museum number

Asia OA 1919,1-1,0.99


Gift of Sir Marc Aurel Stein


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