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Artistic treasures of Maiji Mountain caves
by Alok Shrotriya and Zhou Xue-ying

April 17, 2007

(click on the small image for full screen image with captions.)

Fig. 1
Maijishan, a Chinese word which literally means wheat stack mountain, is the name of a 142 meter high hill located in the Xiaolongshan forest 45 kilometers southeast to the Tianshui city of the Gansu Province in China. The mountain got its name because it looks like a huge pile of wheat straw on the northern side of the Qinling Mountain Range (fig.1, left). It is surrounded by luxuriant vegetation, splendid landscape and picturesque scenery and enjoyed the reputation of being the  most beautiful place in the Qin [1] territory. [2] (fig.2, below).  Its location is also significant since it lies just a few miles south of the Silk Road. Its topography and location  attracted Buddhist monks, artisans and artists who dug out the caves, meditated, sculpted and painted over a period of many centuries. Consequently it was gouged with grottoes and adorned with sculptures and murals in different historical periods.

Buddhist rock-cut cave art originated in India and spread into China through Central Asia along the Silk Road, and numerous rock-cut caves were excavated by Buddhist artisans in China for prayer and residential purposes. [3] Among them the Mogao caves (Dunhuang ,Gansu Province), Yungang caves (Datong, Shanxi province),  Longmen caves (Luoyang, Henan Province) and present subject, the Maijishan (Maiji Mountain) caves (Tianshui, Gansu Province) are regarded as the four major Buddhist cave temple complexes in China. [4]


Fig. 2
The history of the Maijishan Buddhist grottoes can be traced back 1600 years. According to the historical records the establishment initially sprouted during the rule of Later Qin (384-417 A.D.) one of the sixteen states of the five barbarian peoples. The Biographies of Eminent Monks of the Liang Dynasty (Liang Gao Seng Zhuan) reported that two eminent monks, Tanhong and Xuangao, used this place to meditate with more than three hundred disciples in 402 A.D. It seems that the construction of the caves must have been started before this date. [5] The most vigorous and prolific period of architectural and artistic activity coincided with the reign of Northern Wei (385-534 A.D.), Western Wei (535-556 A.D.) and Northern Zhou (557-581 A.D ) dynasties. The complex continued under the rule of succeeding dynasties right up to the Qing (1644-1911 A.D.) [6] when not only some of earlier caves were altered, reconditioned and embellished with figures and murals, but also new ones were added. [7]

The middle area of the hill was destroyed in a violent earthquake in 734 A.D. [8] and the grotto group was divided into two parts, the east and the west. Now there are 54 caves in the east part and 140 caves in the west. In these 194 grottoes, 7200 sculptures and over1000 square meters of mural paintings are preserved. [9]

Fig. 3
The sculptures and murals housed in the Maijishan caves are significant for the knowledge of the development of Chinese sculpture, painting, and architecture and help trace the development of Buddhism as well. The earlier examples reflect syncretised forms of Indian, Central Asian and Chinese styles. Gradually, the form evolved to reflect a more native Chinese style as the artists of Maijishan integrated their creativity and imagination with exotic art styles and produced sculptures and murals with a more indigenous flavor. So a transitional phase of Chinese Buddhist art can be seen here.

The sculptures of the Maijishan caves are all Buddhist, and various sculptural formats an techniques can be seen in the complex: shallow and deep relief, in the round sculpture in various media, including stone, stucco and clay. The supreme importance of this grotto complex lies in its clay and stucco sculptures. Since the local rock is too soft for carving artists turned their skill to clay and stucco clay modeling. Some figures are solid with a thick layer of clay whereas some are hollow and formed over a rough wooden skeleton [10] (fig.3, above) that was covered in wheat husks, hemp, reeds and mud before being smeared with the final layer of sculpted clay. After carving, statues were painted with lively colours. The abundant use of clay sculpture places this site in a distinctive position among rock- cut cave sanctuaries of China. [11] Stone sculptures are also found here but in less number and not made with local rock. It seems that they may have brought from somewhere else.

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The mingling of different dynasties is vividly reflected in the sculpture embellishment of Maijishan. Very few examples have survived to give us an inking of the earliest styles. Cave 74, 78 and 57 are said to date from the original Later Qin period of the sixteen states. [12] On the basis of evidence in the lower level of early big niches of Maijishan, Xia Lanyun claims that the construction of cave 78, 90, 74, 165, 51 and 57 had been started during the Later Qin period. [13] Cave 78 contains a remarkable giant size image of Buddha in vajra-paryankasana posture with raised right hand in abhaya mudra (hand pose which grants fearlessness) (fig.4, above). Traces of earlier construction and influence of Indian and Central Asian styles can be easily discerned in this cave.

A fusion of Indian, Central Asian and Chinese styles is found in the caves of Northern Wei period. These statues are slim and ethereal figures with benevolent expression  exemplified in numerous caves. [14]  The simple and solemn figure of a seated Buddha in  cave 148 (fig.5, above) manifests an earlier phase of the Northern Wei style. [15] The dominating great standing Buddha and his attending bodhisattva on the western cliff in niche 98 also belong to the Northern Wei period (fig.6, above). [16] Western Wei statues continued the Northern Wei fashion with their stylistically similar clothing patterns and slender bodies. Representative examples of this style can be seen in numerous caves such as 60 (fig.7, above) and 147 (fig.8, below) as well as many others. [17] Among the most notable is cave no.44 which depicts an exquisite image of Buddha with a lofty bun of curly hair, high nose, pralambakarna (long ears) and a gracious smiling face which looks calm and indifferent to the outside world. His arched eyebrows and half-closed downward looking eyes create an expression of calm serenity. This sculpture represents the Western Wei style in its elegant posture and dignified appearance. Its refined design and mild and suave touches recall the aesthetic sense of Gupta plastic art (fig.9, below). [18]

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The new style germinated during Northern Zhou period and sculptures took a form that was plump and round. [19] Niche 54 illustrates a drift in style from Western Wei to Northern Zhou. The melding of these two styles is apparent in the depiction of seated Buddha (fig.10, above) and attending Bodhisattvas in this niche (fig 11-12, above). Cave no.62 is a clear example of Northern Zhou style with the plump image of a seated Buddha with pleasant smile and intimate gesture. Curves in Buddha’s Kashaya and ornamentation in Bodhisattvas’ images are also noteworthy. Myriad Buddhas corridor on the cliff 3, Cave 4, niche 18, cave 22, cave 26, cave 27, cave 28, cave 30, niche 31, cave 32, cave 35, cave 36, cave 45 cave 48, niche 55, cave 94, cave 113, niche 125, cave 136, cave 141, niche157 and cave 168 represent Northern Zhou style. [20] Legions of tiny base-relief Buddhas in an open area on cliff 3 are also carved during the Northern Zhou period. These neatly arranged 6 rows contain altogether 297 stone-core clay sculptures of Buddha and cover a 37 meter-wide area on the cliff (fig.13, below). [21]


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The Sui and Tang periods witnessed an exalted height in the sculptural activity. Substantial remains of these periods have survived in cave 5 (fig.14, 15,16, above), niche 8, niche 13, niche 37 and niche 82. [22] Images of the Buddha in cave 5 reflect dignity and spiritual luminosity (fig.17, below). The impressive figures of a 16 meters tall seated Buddha and 13 meters tall attending Bodhisattvas in niche 13 on eastern cliff were also initially created during Sui dynasty (fig.18, below). [23] This Grand Buddha image depicted in pralamb-padasana (chaired posture) and flanked by Bodhisattvas present an impression of profound glory (Fig.19, below). An in-the-round stucco image of God Shiva (Maheshwara) (fig.20, below) standing on a bull (Nandi) (fig.21, below) on the left side of the central niche of cave 5 and figure of Garuda (fig.22, below) in human form in cave 191 reveals an interesting assimilation of Hindu imagery in Chinese Buddhist art. These forms are associated with Shaivism and Vaishnavism respectively in Hindu mythology.

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“Seven Buddha Pavilion” (cave 9) in the eastern part of Maijishan cliff demonstrate the successful mixing of different artistic traditions and the eclectic influence of several eras. Most of the sculptures stylistically represent the Northern Zhou period, but traces of Song, Ming and Qing period are also present. [24] This pavilion houses Buddha images with a round forehead and high nose ridge seated with the legs fully crossed  (padmasana) on a lotus seat flanked by two disciples (Kashyapa and Ananda) (fig. 24, below) or two Bodhisattvas (fig.23, below). The depiction of Kashyapa and Ananda in these caves are noteworthy. The artisans emphasized that Kashyapa and Ananda were not Chinese. They are depicted as Indian with deep-set eyes and a prominent arched nose. In standing position, they appear to listen to the  Buddha’s preaching piously, respectfully and submissively with clasped hands (fig.24, below). The pavilion also contains sculptures of warrior attendants with their fierce and commanding outlook at both ends (fig.25, below). They reflect the style of the Song dynasty (fig.26, below). Cave 2, 48, 25 and 51 represents sculptural style of later dynasties i.e. Yuan, Ming and Qing. Cave 25 contains 3.1 meters high figure of Mitreya (future Buddha) with profuse ornaments. [25]

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Although most of the murals of Maijishan grottoes have been lost, those that remain are a priceless resource documenting the changes in life style, religion and culture over a thousand year period. Since the murals of sixteen states, Later Qin and Western Qin are covered with the murals and repairs of later dynasties, it is hard to see the earliest style of wall paintings. Cave no.127 presents a plethora of Western Wei murals. These murals are simple and fluid with curving lines. [26]

Cave 4 is an example of melding of Northern Zhou & Song styles depicting the Vimalkirti-nirdesha-sutra on the upper left and right wall of front corridor. [27] A depiction of flying gandharvas (divine musicians) presents a joyful and harmonies scene in this cave (fig.27, below). Tang murals on the area above, right niche of cave 5 illustrate scenes of the Western Paradise and worshippers.[28] The majority of the extant murals belong to the Ming dynasty and present simpler drawing techniques and flatter figures, often in gray colour. With their rich content and colors, they have become an indispensable part of the grottoes (fig.28, below). The subject-matter of these paintings includes portraits of Buddha; Bodhisattvas and disciples, Buddhist legends, religious stories, and vignettes of the life of contemporary society, and in them can be seen contemporary clothing and architectural styles.

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The sculpture and murals of the caves of Maijishan and the depiction of the world imagined therein present a comprehensive and stirring view of Chinese Buddhism as it was in different historical periods. This grotto group serves not only as a religious complex but also one of the finest examples of narrative painting and plastic art of ancient China. It offers an instructive field for the study of the development of rock-cut architecture, sculpture and mural painting. The most remarkable art specimens are its fine, beautiful and graceful clay sculptures, which testify to  the great skill of ancient craftsmen. The peaceful environment, beautiful surroundings combined with the honey-combed Buddhist chambers, breath-taking sculptures, exquisite murals and above all the superb clay work with indigenous flavor make this grotto group distinctive among the Buddhist cave temples of China.

all text & images © Alok Shrotriya and Zhou Xue-ying

Acknowledgement: The study was carried out while Dr. Shrotriya is in receipt of a Chinese Government Scholarship. He acknowledges the financial support of the China Scholarship Council and the Ministry of Human Resource Development, Department of Secondary and Higher Education, Government of India. He is also grateful for the support of Dr. Harisingh Gour University, Sagar (M.P., India) and Nanjing University, Nanjing (Jiangsu, China).

Notes and References:

1. Qin dynasty ruled in China between 221-207 B.C.

2. Fu Xiaofan and Du Mingfu, Dongfang Weixiao (Oriental Smile), Dunhuang Art and Culture Publishing house, Lanzhou, 2003, p.32.

3. Takayasu Higuchi and Gina Barnes, “Bamiyan: Buddhist Cave Temples in Afganistan”, World Archaeology, Vol.27, No.2, Buddhist Archaeology, Oct.1995, p.283.

4. Dou Hongtao, “Zhongguo Si Da Shiku”(The Four Big Rock-cut Caves of China), Sheke Zongheng Wenshi Yanjiu (Zongheng Society Culture and History research), Vol.5, 2001, p.43.

5. Radha Banerjee, “Indian Inputs to Chinese Art”, Dialouge(A quarterly Journal of Asha Bharati), Vol. 5, January-March 2004 (

6. Including  Sui (581—618 A.D.), Tang (618-907 A.D.), Five dynasties (907—960 A.D.), Song (960—1279 A.D.), Yuan (1271—1368 A.D.), Ming (1368—1644 A.D.) and Qing (1644—1911 A.D.)

7. Wei Wenbin, “Maijishan Shi Ku Jige Wenti de Sikao he Renshi (Several considerations on the study of Maiji Mountain Grottoes)”, Dunhuang studies, 2003, No. 6, pp.15-22.

8. Tang Chung, ed. and trans., Dunhuang Art through the Eyes of Duan Wenjie, Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, New Delhi, India, 1994, p.22

9. Cai Min, Fojiao Shiku Kaogu Gaiyao (An outline of Buddhist Rock-cut Archaeology), Cultural Relics Publishing House, Beijing, 1993, p.79.

10. Mitch Mudra, “Diminutive Mountain with a Gargantuan Impact”, (

11. Fu Xiaofan, “Duju Tese De Maijishan Shiku” (The Unique Maiji Mount Grottoes), Journal of Tianshui Normal University, Tianshui, China, Vol.24, No.4, 2004, p.72.

12. Dong Anqiang, Juebi Shang De Foguo (Rock-cut Buddhist area), Maijishan Shiku Yishu Daolan (Guide book of Maijishan grotto art), n.p., n.d., p.32.

13. Xia Lanyun, “Maijishan Zaoqi Da Kan Xiaceng Fenshao Henji De Kaocha- Maijishan Hou Qin Kai Ku Xin Zheng (An Investigation of the burning traces in the lower level of early big niches of Maijishan- new evidence regarding Later Qin construction at Maijishan)”, Dunhuang Research, No. 6, 2004, p.33.

14. see the cave nos. 16, 23, 69, 70, 71, 75, 76, 80, 83, 85, 87, 90, 93, 100, 101, 112, 114, 115, 120, 121, 122, 128, 133, 138, 139, 140, 142, 143, 144, 148, 154, 155, 156, 159, 163 and 169. Tianshui Maijishan, (The Maijishan Grottoes at Tianshui), Zhongguo Shiku(The Grotto Art of China), Compiled and edited by Art research Institute of the Tianshui Maijishan, Cultural Relics Publishing House, Beijing, 1998, pp. 275-292.

15. Sun Jiyuan, “Maijishan Diaosu Yishu De Chengjiu (The fruit of Maijishan stucco and sculpture works)” in Tianshui Maijishan, (The Maijishan Grottoes at Tianshui), Zhongguo Shiku(The Grotto Art of China), op. cit., p.182.

16. ibid, p. 283.

17. see also the caves 20, 43, 44, 88, 92, 102,105, 110, 120, 123, 127, 135, 146, , 161, 162 and 172. ibid, p. 277-291.

18. Radha Banerjee, op. cit.

19. Chen Yuexin, “ Xi Wei Bei Zhou Shiqi De Maijishan Siku (Maijishan Caves of Western Wei and Northern Zhou period)”, Central Plain Cultural Relics No.4, 2006, p.61

20. Tianshui Maijishan, (The Maijishan Grottoes at Tianshui), Zhongguo Shiku(The Grotto Art of China), op. cit. , pp.274-291.

21. ibid, p.243.

22. ibid, pp.275-76; 278; 281.

23. ibid, p.276.

24. Fu Xiaofan and Du Mingfu, op.cit., p.170.

25. Dong Anqiang, op.cit., pp.128-129.

26. Zhang Baoxi, “Maijishan Shiku Bihua Xuyao (A consice introduction of the Maijishan murals)”, in Tianshui Maijishan, (The Maijishan Grottoes at Tianshui), Zhongguo Shiku(The Grotto Art of China), op.cit. , pp.190-192.

27. ibid, p.198.

28. ibid. | articles