Talisman of the Pole Star, ink and colours on paper

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

A magic talisman for good luck

The lower section of this painting is occupied by Chinese writing and Daoist magic script, written in red for good luck. The two painted figures, identified as the Pole Star and Jidu, or Ketu, show the close links between popular Daoist and Buddhist iconography at Dunhuang at this time. Various Daist rituals are centered around the Pole Star, which was also important in Buddhist ritual and astrological writing. As in the West, astrology was practised in China and special sutras were written with the intention of exerting favourable influence on the stars.

The Pole Star is shown in an almost identical way to the traditional Western representation of Mercury in human form. As with Mercury, the Pole Star is connected with information: depicted as a female scribe holding a paper and a brush.

Ketu is a figure from Indian astrology who, together with Rahu, became popular as symbols of different phases of the moon.

The inscription on the painting translates: 'Whoever wears in his girdle this talisman, which is a dharani [magic chant] talisman, will obtain magic power and will have his sins remitted during a thousand kalpas [eras]. And of the Ten Quarters all the Buddhas shall appear before his eyes. Abroad in the world he shall everywhere encounter good fortune and profit. Throughout his whole life he shall enjoy other men's respect and esteem. His religious merit shall be unparalleled, and this protection and purification shall come to him as swiftly as Lü Ling [a Daoist sage] rides.'

Talismans were very important for Buddhists and Daoists alike, and their use was encouraged by the monks.

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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: 42.700 cm
Width: 30.000 cm

Museum number

Asia OA 1919,1-1,0.170


Gift of Sir Marc Aurel Stein


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