Thousand-armed, Thousand-eyed Avalokiteshvara, ink and colours on silk

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

The bodhisattva of compassion, Avalokiteshvara, sits upon a lotus throne. He had eleven heads and a complex web of forty forearms and hands emanating from his body, each holding an attribute or displaying a mudra (gesture). This builds up to a crowning apex with a pair of hands in anjali-mudra (a gesture of reverence). The surrounding halo of hands, each bearing a single eye, symbolizes Avalokiteshvara's ability to instantly perceive and aid all who call upon him. He is surrounded by beings related to his cult, each identified by a cartouche. These include the human representations of Moonlight and Sunlight, the transcendant Buddhas of Ten Directions (top row) and the Four Guardian Kings (bottom row).

This painting is considered a masterpiece of the Esoteric school. Vajrayana or Esoteric Buddhism became popular during the period of Tibetan domination at Dunhuang (AD 781-847). For such a painting to produce the desired effect, it had to be executed precisely in accordance with descriptions in the relevant sutra. Unlike many of the large paintings found at the Mogao caves, there are no donors depicted here. This was probably because ordinary believers were excluded from the rituals, and Esoteric doctrine was transmitted directly from master to initiate.

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More information


A. Farrer, The brush dances and the ink s (Hayward Gallery, London, 1990)

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: 222.500 cm
Width: 167.000 cm

Museum number

Asia OA 1919.1-1.035


Gift of Sir Marc Aurel Stein


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