Sunday, April 26, 2009

More Foreign Devils at Mogao

Bill provides some well-needed distraction - An account of visit to Mogao Grottoes outside Dunhuang. TR's account here

Mogao, on the banks of a stream behind the sand dunes close to Dunhuang has a big set of caves with paintings and sculptures of the Buddhists. Built between the fourth and tenth centuries AD, there are almost 500 caves here (At least officially, as our guide later pointed out. Included in the count are tiny crevices you can barely stick your head in, but also huge caves that can comfortably fit about a hundred people). There is much to interest tourists, whether religious Buddhists, especially from Japan, or secular visitors who would like to admire paintings of the Buddhist symbols. These paintings, comparable to the ones in Ajanta, have the usual Buddhas and Boddhisatvas, and also heavenly guards, apsaras, princes, worshippers, musicians, and dancers. Some, especially the early ones, are obviously Indian in origin, with large faces and clothing similar to Gandharan art. Others are equally clearly Chinese, with motifs from the Tang dynasty, the high point of Chinese art from the seventh century. The additional claim to fame of the Mogao caves, and why it created such a huge interest in the early twentieth century, is the treasury of scrolls and manuscripts found hidden in one of the caves by one Abbot Wang, and subsequently carted off by Aurel Stein, Paul Pelliot, Albert von Coq, and others, in an incident which more than anything made the Chinese give them the title of Foreign Devils.

We reached there at about nine in the morning, when everything was just getting started. Our regular guide could not go inside with us. Mogao has its own set of specialist guides, who have to accompany you. In high season each of them may lead a group of twenty or more, but at this time we had one guide all to ourselves. This turned out to be someone quite formally dressed in a blazer, even in the heat, with a permanent smell of tobacco on him. Every time we got out of one of the caves and started walking to another, he would light up again. He also had a strange accent, somewhat British, and a very British sneer permanently on his lips. One of the first things he asked was "Are you religious?", and our "No, not really" got his sneer to relax a bit. Throughout the next two hours he would get ever more disdainful whenever he discussed religion. Reminded us of a very entertaining guide in Vatican seven years ago but that story, some other time.

We started off with a walk to one end of the almost mile-long set of caves. The front had been renovated and protected in the early 60's with a concrete front and steel doors on each cave, giving the place an aura of a prison or a old-school hotel, very different from what Stein and that gang would have seen. Beside us was the bed of the river that created and sustained this community, now dry because it had been diverted by irrigation works.

First stop was the cave with the largest of the Buddha statues, about 36 feet in height. Around its feet was a dark tunnel ("for going round clockwise, don't you have the same thing in India?"), and what looked like shallow steps. These turned out to be the floor from different centuries, excavated in layers. We now got interrogated about Indian religion, the differences between Hinduism Indian Buddhism, and the Chinese versions of Buddhism. We told him what little we knew, and he was very amused by Buddha being considered a reincarnation of Vishnu.

The next cave was of a large sleeping Buddha, (we told him about Ananta Shayanam Vishnu, which pleased him), surrounded by statues of worshippers from different lands (a multicultural assembly, with many skin colours, hairstyles and clothing styles represented). We were also introduced to the Buddhas other than Gautama Sakyamuni, in particular, Amitabha Buddha, guardian of Paradise (somewhere vaguely west of China). "Have you heard of Amitabha Mantra? For Chinese people it is very easy to get to Paradise, you just have to recite Amitabha, Amitabha, Amitabha... Perfect religion for lazy people!" This sounded good to us, but BM was already covering all bases by kneeling (this would be a recurring theme throughout our travels, she would be kneeling at anything remotely resembling a Buddha, and there were, oh, only about a thousand of these in the next week. This was her idea of a fitness program, we reckoned). This of course made our guide's lips curl up again.

A later cave had a large set of paintings depicting the life and times of the Buddha. "Here his mother dreams of a white elephant, and next day she gives birth from her armpit, ha ha ha!" "And then here he is meditating, and some, ah, ladies, are trying to distract him" (The, ah, ladies in question were the famed apsaras, we think). "They are drawn nude, very Indian influence, wouldn't you say?" (much head scratching followed). "And then he preaches to a big assembly of monks and tigers and lions, for a touch of realism, ha ha" "And later in life, when his mother is dying, he returns to fulfil his family responsibilities, very Chinese now, all family values". (So the primary difference between the two countries is that Indians are libertine nudists, and Chinese are family oriented people, go figure).

The next cave had a very feminine-looking Buddha. "This was built during the Tang dynasty, when the Empress was giving money, and many images were built to look like her". "Which Empress? Wu Zetian?" (Wu Zetian is famed as being the only woman who sat on the throne in the two thousand years of Chinese imperial history, as opposed to many others who preferred to be the power behind the throne while not formally taking the title). "Ah yes, you have heard of the empress Wu Zetian of course. She killed off all her family and opponents, the Bloody Empress as we call her". "And this is different how from the other emperors?" Needless to say, our man wasn't happy, but didn't say anything more. Girl power is not a big win, it seems.

Next we started on the controversial caves. First up was a smallish cave guarded by very Indian looking Dwarapalas. These Dwarapalas, threatening as they were with their swords and sticks, hadn't managed to stop one Harvard professor, the ill-famed Langdon Warner. (Before our guide could explain the Warner story to us, our Ms. Know-It-All blurted out the name and started telling us the story. This was strange as she knew very well that not only were we familiar with the story but we had just this morning re-read the TR-nama in preparation for Mogao. We both glared at her and she shut up. For a while.) By the time he turned up in the 1920's, the treasure trove of documents had disappeared to London, Delhi, Paris, Berlin, Moscow and Beijing. But he had a new plan, that of taking back the murals themselves. His secret, "modern" formula for removing the murals did far more harm than the centuries of wind and sand, destroying the adjacent paintings quite effectively. The mural actually removed is now in the Sackler wing in Cambridge, MA.

The next stop was a low-slung building, not a cave, which used to be the hapless Abbot Wang's residence, and is now a museum attempting to explain what happened. The good abbot had discovered a cave-in leading to a bunch of documents, and had started selling them by ones and twos to refill his rather empty coffers. Word got around, and the officials stopped him from selling, but not before the word had reached one Aurel Stein, explorer. Stein rushed to Mogao, and talked the abbot into letting him look at the documents, and for a small amount, remove what turned out to be a "few cartloads" of ancient manuscripts. Analysed later, this turned out to be a rich treasury in several old languages, and made Stein's name. A few years later, Paul Pelliot, a French explorer and expert in Chinese history, followed. Where Stein had picked documents essentially at random, Pelliot knew his ancient China and its languages, and managed to take away the most historically significant documents. Later pickings were by other "foreign devils" such as Albert von Le Coq, Count Otani, and others, followed much later by a deputation from the Beijing national museum who managed to find only the last remaining and comparatively insignificant documents. The story was told in Chinese and English, complete with photographs and reproductions. The English translation at least was very restrained, and almost polite to all the above, all except the American Langdon Warner, who "mercilessly destroyed and stole the murals". Either overt anti-Americanism, or the fact that he actually destroyed murals. Also in the museum was reproductions of some documents, where we could identify a few Pali and Sanskrit ones among the Tibetan, Persian and other languages.

Finally, we ended up in the "library cave" itself. Small little nook in the wall, with no trace left anymore of having preserved thousands and thousands of rolled-up manuscripts for ten centuries, or the explorers and archaelogists who scraped through them a hundred years back.

Done with the grottoes, we walked back slowly to the entrance. Our guide asked us what parts of China we had seen and where we were going next. In particular, what did we think of Beijing? We tried to be neutral, saying it was a big city like any other, very developed. This started off a mini-rant. "I think we are developing too fast, destroying all that we had before. Our system of government, you know. I am sure India is developing too, but you must be preserving the character of your cities". We told him our big cities do not give off any more vibes of being Indian than Beijing does of being Chinese, it's all a case of grass being greener.

Changing the subject completely, he started quizzing us about higher education. "There's a university which holds a national exam, isn't there? Very difficult to pass, I have heard?" I got passed the conversational baton immediately, and told him about the JEE. "Yes, yes, the IIT, don't all students go immediately to the US afterwards?" I hemmed and hawed, telling him, "No, nowadays many do stay back,.." when BM and Veena helpfully butted in with "he went to the US". "Yes, I have heard, when someone passes, their parents have a grand feast for the entire village". This left me speechless, deciding to ask my parents as soon as possible why I (and the whole of Bombay) got cheated out of a feast.

We ended off with a trip to a more modern exhibition hall outside the caves, built to approximate some of the caves that are closed off to the public. The building is very flat and blends in with the surroundings, almost like a Lloyd Wright creation transplanted to the other side of the globe, but the caves are not very impressive, being similar to the ones we had seen. The last look was of the thousand-handed Buddhist goddess ("we have female Buddhas too, in India Buddha is always male, right?") Guan-Yin Boddhisatva, Goddess of Mercy, originally the Indian or Tibetan (male) Avalokiteswara.


Space Bar said...

someone tell me the story of why bm (really) knelt so much.

oh, and the apsaras you sent me are trailing blue and red clothes all over the place.

Veena said...

SB: Ask BM.

Yeah, since you are all "family values" person we sent you fully clothed apsaras.