Vaishravana with attendants, a woodblock print on paper

From Cave 17, Mogao, near Dunhuang, Gansu province, China
Five Dynasties, dated AD 947

One of the earliest dated examples of printing

This is one of the earliest dated examples of printing. The print was found together with the world's earliest dated printed book, The Diamond Sutra dated AD 868 (now in the British Library, London) and several thousand examples of Buddhist ephemera in the sealed library chamber of Cave 17.

Vaishravana, Guardian King of the North, stands beneath a canopy and on the hands of the earth goddess. The stupa balanced on his left palm is a symbol of his role as one of the four guardians of the Buddhist universe. A halberd is held on the other hand. Shri Devi, Vaishravana's sister, stands on the left. The mongoose held by the gandharva (celestial musician) on the extreme right is a reference to Vaishravana's original identity as Kuvera, the Indian god of wealth. A yaksa holding a naked child stands between them. The child is said to represent one granted by the deity to a childless king of Khotan.

The text which accompanies this illustration is an incantation in which Vaishravana's name is invoked for beneficial purposes. It names Cao Yuanzhong, the Imperial Governor at Dunhuang, as the patron who commissioned this print.

The woodcut was printed from a single block. The format, with the illustration above and the text below, is known as shangtu xiawen. It is common in votive woodcuts. The paper loops at the top of the print were for suspension.

Find in the collection online

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)

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


Height: 40.000 cm (printed area)
Width: 26.500 cm (printed area)
Height: 40.000 cm (printed area)
Width: 26.500 cm (printed area)

Museum number

Asia OA 1919.1-1.0245


Gift of Sir Marc Aurel Stein


Find in the collection online

Search highlights

There are over 4,000 highlight objects to explore