Sketches for illustrations to the Vimalakirtinirdesha Sutra, ink and colours on paper

From Cave 17, Mogao, near Dunhuang, Gansu province, China
Tang Dynasty, early 10th century AD

Practice sketches for wall paintings

This long strip comprises three sheets of paper pasted together. Two of these were originally blank on both sides while the central piece bears a draft of a dated letter on one side, which according to the latest research is most likely to correspond to AD 914. A sketch has been made on one of the blank sides for an illustration of the Vimalakirtinirdesha Sutra.

Though written in India, this sutra became especially popular in China. The hero, a sage called Vimalakirti, has a house and family, but still manages to defeat all bodhisattvas in a debate about non-duality. In China filial piety - whereby sons would continue the family line and worship the ancestors - was very important, and thus the requirement of Buddhist monastic life to abandon one's family and ancestors and not produce heirs was seen as particularly difficult. Vimalakirti was an attractive figure, because though a bodhisattva, he continued to live among his family and ordinary people.

Vimalakirti is commonly shown with a fan in his hand that he moves rhythmically to emphasise the main points of his argument. He is here shown in his sick-bed, where he was visited by many people and supernatural beings, most importantly, Manjushri, the bodhisattva of wisdom, who is shown on the back of the sketch. In front of Vimalakirti's bed is the bodhisattva who brings fragrant rice that pours out of a bowl miraculously without ceasing.

The motifs and compositions of this simple sketch can be directly compared to murals in the Mogao caves from the same period, where the story of Vimalakirti remained popular throughout the tenth century, and was often shown on the two sides of a cave entrance. This may explain why the composition here is shown in two independent sections.

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Sketches for illustrations to the Vimalakirtinirdesha Sutra, ink and colours on paper

  • Recto (left)

    Recto (left)

  • Recto (right)

    Recto (right)

  • Verso (left)

    Verso (left)


More information


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

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


Height: 31.000 cm
Length: 127.000 cm

Museum number

Asia OA 1919,1-1,0.76


Gift of Sir Marc Aurel Stein


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