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From Cave 17, Mogao, near Dunhuang, Gansu province, China
Five Dynasties or Northern Song Dynasty, 10th century AD
This painting shows a travelling monk, wearing a hat, holding a fan and accompanied by a tiger. He has a heavy load of sutras on his back. Various objects are hanging from his long staff. Two highly finished paintings in the Musée Guimet, Paris, show the same iconography and several more have also survived on paper in a similar sketchy style to this example. It seems that reliquaries may have been hung from the monk's staff. The little Buddha supported by a cloud may be there to protect him, and has been identified as Prabhutaratna (a Buddha of the past).
These paintings have created much interest not least because of the many monks who travelled on the Silk Road on their way to India or to other holy centres. The most famous Chinese monk, Xuanzang, came back with many sutras from India in the seventh century, which he then translated in the Chinese capital Chang'an. Another explanation for the sutras on the monk's back has been that the scrolls contained text and pictures for teaching. Itinerant monks would travel from one town to the next and expound sutras to those who gathered around them, often illustrating their narrative with pictures.
V. Mair, 'The origins of an iconographical form of the pilgrim Hsuan-tsang', Tang Studies, 4 (1986), pp. 29-41
R. Whitfield, Art of Central Asia: The Ste-1, vol. 2 (Tokyo, Kodansha International Ltd., 1982-85)
M. Soymiè, Images de Dunhuang: dessins et (Paris, Ecole française d'Extrême-Orient, 1999), pp. 48-49