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From Cave 17, Mogao, near Dunhuang, Gansu province, China
Tang dynasty, 9th century AD
This painting was executed in a more sketchy style than others of a similar subject from the Mogao caves. The highly finished paintings, where expensive colours and even gold were used, were reserved for the privileged donors who paid the most. Those in a simpler style where fewer colours were used, were probably cheaper and therefore more readily available to less wealthy donors.
It is likely that this and other banners showing scenes from the life of the Buddha were part of a series. At the top of this banner, the Five Companions of Shakyamuni, the historical Buddha, are shown. They were five ascetics who were impressed by his fasting and joined him, but left as soon as he took food. They protect their heads from the bad weather with their sleeves, while the god of thunder plays his drums in a cloud above them. In the scene below Shakyamuni meditates in a rocky cave. His emaciated body bears witness to the fasting that he has undertaken. Two stags are lying outside his cave.
The lowest scene represents the time when Shakyamuni realized that fasting and following a life of extremities would not lead him to Enlightenment. To the shock of his followers he went to take a bath in the Nairanjana River. A spirit supported on a cloud came to his help.
R. Whitfield, Art of Central Asia: The Ste-2, vol. 1 (Tokyo, Kodansha International Ltd., 1982-85)