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From Cave 17, Mogao, near Dunhuang, Gansu province, China
Tang Dynasty, 9th century AD
Sutras and rituals connected to Bhaishajyaguru, the Buddha of Healing, were among the most popular in Dunhuang. His Pure Land or Paradise was often depicted on walls of the caves built during the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907), similar in style to the central part of this painting.
The figures are arranged on terraces above water, and a Chinese palace setting is indicated by the courtyard shown from above. Bhaishajyaguru himself is seated in the centre of the composition under a large canopy. Directly in front of him are bodhisattvas playing music and dancing, indicating the pleasures of Paradise, where according to the sutras the most beautiful sounds can be heard and exquisite fragrances can be smelt. The accompanying figures are other bodhisattvas and guardians, as well as subsidiary Buddha groups.
In the top of the lowest register of the painting are multi-armed esoteric deities such as Manjushri with the Thousand Bowls on the top right. The scenes on the sides are divided by lines, as in a modern-day cartoon, with cartouches containing quotes from the sutra. On the right are scenes of the 'six forms of violent death', for example a hungry soul dragging somebody away as a punishment for hunting. On the left are the twelve vows of Bhaishajyaguru.
R. Whitfield, Art of Central Asia: The Ste-2, vol. 1 (Tokyo, Kodansha International Ltd., 1982-85)