Stein Loan Collection. On loan from the Government of India and the Archaeological Survey of India. Copyright: Government of India
Wooden halo fragment, China.
Length: 24.13 cm
Dunhuang is at the eastern end of the southern Silk Road, in present-day Gansu Province. It lies between the western reaches of China and the Tarim Basin. When China began to expand into Central Asia during the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD), Dunhuang served as a base for military operations and trade. In the succeeding centuries, Buddhist shrines were established southeast of Dunhuang in a series of man-made caves called Qianfodong, "Caves of the Thousand Buddhas" (today also known as the Mogao Grottoes). Here spectacular cave temples were cut out of the cliffs, beginning in the fourth century AD. Over a period of several centuries, communities of Buddhist monks filled the caves with splendid sculpture and wall paintings. These included colossal Buddha statues, painted clay sculptures of deities, elaborate murals of Buddhist legends, and thousands of tiny painted Buddha images; all of which gave the site its name, Qianfodong. Buddhist cave temples had first been established in at Bamiyan (Afghanistan) and Gandhara (formerly in India, now Pakistan). At Qianfodong, Stein found paintings of graceful figures in the Gandharan style among landscapes and buildings that were distinctly Chinese; a fusion of Indian and Chinese art, which he had noted elsewhere along the Silk Road.
In 1900, a Daoist monk named Wang Yuanlu discovered a secret cave at Qianfodung, which contained thousands of documents and paintings. Stein purchased a significant amount of this material from Wang during his visit to the Dunhuang in 1907. Among the many religious works were Buddhist, Jewish, Nestorian, Daoist and Confucian texts; all of which dated from approximately 400 to 1000 A.D. Numerous languages were represented as well, including Chinese, Sanskrit, Tibetan and Hebrew. Stein also acquired many textile pieces. Most of these were silk, for Dunhuang lay on the main trade route between silk-growing regions of China and Central Asia. Elaborate embroideries depicted Buddhist legends and processions of donors. Patterned silks included Chinese and Sassanian (Persian) designs. From China came floral and geometric patterns, combined with figures of animals and birds. Sassanian motifs included pairs of confronted ducks, lions, and other beasts, combined with medallions and quatrefoils. Stein also found undecorated silks used as processional banners and valances for decorating bases of statues. The cave was sealed soon after 1000 A.D., apparently to protect the contents from invading armies. The V&A holds, on loan, a large number of textiles from Dunhuang, including plain and pattern woven silks in many colours, painted Buddhist banners and canopies, and wrappers for Buddhist texts.
From the Caves of the Thousands Buddhas (Qianfodong / Ch'ien-fo-tung) at Dunhuang. Was incorrectly labeled "Ch.0021" in the loan agreement between the V&A and the Goverment of India (numerical file).
Fragment of a painted wooden vesica and halo, cut in one piece. Field of both green outlined with bands of pink and white. The outer border consists of creeping flames or clouds, successively of shaded pink, green, orange and blue.
Found at the Mogao Grottoes (Caves of the Thousand Buddhas).
This fragment of a painted wooden vesica and halo has been cut in one piece. The field of both are green and outlined with bands of pink and white. The outer border consists of creeping flames or clouds, successively of shaded pink, green, orange and blue. It probably belonged to a depiction of the Buddha. It is not clear if it was found inside a cave temple or next to one at the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas in Dunhuang. By the early fifth century, the first cave temples were excavated, painted Buddhist statues placed inside and their walls and ceilings painted with thousands of Buddha images which gave this cave temple site its name. Dunhuang became one of the major towns as it lay on the junction where the northern and southern branches of the Silk Roads around the Tarim Basin split.
The Victoria and Albert Museum has more than 70 ceramic fragments and fragments of Buddhist sculptures, as well as around 600 ancient and medieval textiles recovered by Sir Marc Aurel Stein (1862-1943) during his second expedition (1906-8) into Chinese Central Asia, where he once again visited and excavated sites on the southern Silk Road, before moving eastwards to Dunhuang. At Dunhuang, he studied and excavated the Han-dynasty watchtowers to the north of the town, as well as the Mogao cave temples to the southeast, where he acquired material from the Library Cave. From there he moved on to the northern Silk Road, stopping briefly at Turfan sites but not carrying out any excavations. He made a perilous north-south crossing of the Taklamakan desert in order to hasten to Khotan where he excavated more ancient sites, before finishing off his expedition with surveying in the Kunlun Mountains.