Naresh Shakya, PhD

Newar Art of Licchavī Dynasty in Chinese Cave Paintings of Dunhuang

Research Details

AuthorNaresh Shakya, PhD
Research TypePh.D Thesis
KeywordsCave Monastery, Mural Painting, Dunhuang Newar Arts


Dunhuang is located at the province of Gansu in Inner Mongolian region of China. It has one of the finest Buddhist cave monastic sites with magnificent mural paintings on their walls. The cave monasteries developed in this area were due to the richness of silk route and many travelers paid homage to these Buddhist cave monasteries on their trade missions. Newar artists contributed their artistic skills in these Buddhist caves, which mostly are determined with their styles and connection to Tibetan rulers. The influence of Newar artists feature in Dunhuang could be broadly categorized in two period of time – Middle Tang period when Tibetan occupation Dunhuang in 781-848 CE and at the time of Yuan dynasty Mongol in 1227-1368 CE. Tibetan briefly took over Dunhuang region at the time of Qing dynasty around 1516 as well. The occupation by Qing dynasty was very brief but the art exchange between the Tibetan plateau and china was immense at that time. This article tries to focus on the earlier part of the influence in Dunhuang during the rule of Licchavī dynasty in Nepal.


Dunhuang is located at the westernmost end of the Gansu Province in China. It is in a valley flanked by two mountain ranges of Qilian and Beishan, with confluence of two rivers Sule and Dangle that formed a series of lakes[1]. Dunhuang is a little oasis in the vast Gobi desert, which was traveled by foreign traders and pilgrims for centuries. As the silk route flourished on this route so were the arts of Dunhuang. Mogao and Yulin grottoes in Dunhuang region are one of the finest treasures of China as well as a rare heritage of entire mankind. The art works of Dunhuang group of grottoes are an exquisite example of Buddhist art. It is the blend of unique Chinese culture, which incorporates Buddhism, Tao and Confucian traditions. Most importantly it combines the art techniques from various neighboring countries likes of India, Persia, Afghanistan and Nepal. These grottoes are a fine example of various art works in different categories Murals, stucco sculptures, Buddhist manuscripts, music, dance forms and unique architecture. These arts of Dunhuang were made possible by a combination of pious devotion, generosity on the part of Dunhuang elite in donations, self denying sacrifice and immense toil and suffering on the part of the laborers. The contributions and expressions of artists in demure aesthetic conspicuous Buddhist art works in these caves are one of the finest examples of different art styles in the silk route. The mural paintings of Mogao grottoes are known in Europe as the “Museum in the desert” and “Library on the walls”[2].

Buddhism entered China at the time of Han dynasty. Zhang Qian was said to be the first Chinese on record to have heard about the existence of India while he was in a state called “Daxia” (Bacteria). He reported this to Emperor Wu about his discovery of India. In one of the murals in the grottoes the event of the advent of Buddhism in China was shown as the consequence of two historical events of Buddha statue and Zhang Qian mission. The mural painting reflecting Zhang Qian mission shows as the gateway of ancient China with the outside world. There are multiple views on the start of Dunhuang grottoes but the scholars are of the view that the grottoes origin date around fourth century. Li Junxiu’s book entitled “An Account of Buddhist Shrines” (Fokan ji) written during the reign of Tan Emperor Wu (684-701 CE) states the date of the origin of Dunhuang as 366 CE. An inscription on the northern wall of Cave 300 of Zhang Daqian’s index corroborates this dating. In both accounts, monk by the name Yuezun states he had a vision of many Buddha images at the site of the present Mogao grottoes[3].

Dunhuang incorporates a breath-taking impressive group of 492 grottoes covering 45,000 square meters of mural paintings, some 2415 stucco images of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas[4]. The mural in comparison to Ajanta is more than hundred times bigger and if the mural is arranged on 3 feet of a row, it could run hundreds of miles. To find the Newar influence or any particular influence in this vast sea of mural art is a daunting task. Finding Newar influence or Newar art in this vast sea of Buddhist art is like finding a needle in the haystack. To find Newar influence or Newar artists’ works in Dunhuang is to dig into the history of the region. Newar artisans were in great demand since a long time in Tibet and they have contributed a lot in the neighboring region. The Tibetans had been involved in a great annexing mission of several of its neighboring states since a long time and Tibetans had taken over Dunhuang in several times of its history. When the Tibetans took over Dunhuang they tried to spread their way of following Buddhism that resulted in making numbers of the grottoes that employed Newar artists as well. When Mongol dynasty controlled China from 1227 to 1368 CE, they made many caves during their reign. At the time of Kublai Khan, when Arniko/Anige was chief of artists, there were many caves made under him, which have distinct Newar art influences there in the caves. The works of Newar artists feature in Dunhuang could be broadly categorized in two periods of time – Middle Tang period when Tibetan occupation Dunhuang in 781-848 CE[5] and at the time of Yuan dynasty Mongol in 1227-1368 CE.

Newar artists of Kathmandu valley

The Licchavī dynasty was the first civilized kingdom that created many exquisite artworks in Kathmandu valley. The discovery of magnificent life size sculpture of King Jaya Varma (185 CE) shows the presence of skilled artists in the pre-Licchavī period. Later during the Licchavī (400-880 CE), Newar craftsmen had developed distinctive stylistic and aesthetic conventions in metal and stone sculptures; in par with their Indian counterparts of the Gupta period[6]. In Kautilya’s Arthasastra, the author talked about a woolen Nepali blanket to have been selling in Pataliputra[7]. This shows the dweller of Kathmandu valley’s connectivity to different places in ancient India. The artists and traders journey to and fro in India gave Newar artists a thorough knowledge of art, which they transport to other Himalayan regions with their own improvisation and additions. A single workshop would be responsible for both Buddhist and Hindu commissions for images, resulting in there being almost no stylistic difference between them. The valley’s small size favored the development of art styles employed by a number of local workshops, each of which might develop some small variation of a given style. The importance of Nepal as a vital centre of Buddhist studies increased in many different spheres with the gradual decline and eventually the extermination of Buddhism in North Eastern India at the end of the Twelfth Century[8].

The mural painting is another form of art that Newar artists were renowned for. Early scroll paintings and murals from the Licchavī period have not survived, but an inscription in Chabahil mentions a Stupa decorated with Kinnarī Jātaka painting speaks of this artistic tradition. The inscription of fifth century informs of the Kinnarī Jātaka painted on a Stupa, which was patronized by a lady is the evidence of the mural painting in Kathmandu Valley[9]. Art historian P. Pal believes that the thematic style and color prisms were similar to the paintings in Ajanta wall painting in India as it is believed the artwork was influenced from the early Indian style[10].

Accounts of Wang Xuance and Xuanzang

Kathmandu valley was denominated as Nepal in ancient and medieval periods. In most of the documents that were written about Kathmandu valley as Nepal found in China that were written by various Chinese travelers and scholars. Wang Xuance and Xuanzang (Huein Tsang) wrote about the valley in their travel documents. Wang Xuance’s report was the first documented Chinese visit to the valley. He was first posted to India together with the official envoy Li Yibiao in the third month of the year 643 CE and passed through Nepal in 645 CE, probably on his way back to China. In the year 646 CE, he headed another mission to India, on the way he heard about the usurpation of the throne of the deceased Indian ruler Harsa Siladitya and subsequently undertook his famous campaign against the usurper with the help of Nepalese and Tibetan troops. In 645 CE, he again was back in Nepal on a mission to India to bring the Buddhist monk Xuanzhao back to China[11]. This shows Nepal to be important centre for transit between China and India. We have a clear history of traders of India and Nepal visiting various places of India and Kathmandu valley. Mulasarvastinvada-vinaya, Carmanvastu, Sanskrit correspondent portion into Chinese equivalent Genben-shou-yiqueyou-bu-pinaye pige-shi in Chinese sources tells about the monks plan to go the kingdom of Nepal. It also explains about the Virudhaka atrocity towards Shakyas and how they fled to the west and some to Nepal. When Ananda visited Nepal he had frostbite and vinaya was improvised as “At a place which is cold and where there is snow one should wear fuluo (straw shoes).”[12] This clearly shows how merchants and monks travelled back and forth to India from Nepal even at the time of Buddha. Wang Xuance’s account speaks highly of the art and architectural features of Kathmandu Valley. It describes how the houses had carved images and painted figures. His sources tell us of Chinese Tang dynasty’s connection to Kathmandu Valley and also his accounts of the artistic tradition help us assume Newar contribution in Chinese caves of Dunhuang.


Licchavī inscription in Mati cave temple in Dunhuang

In the article published in the Journal of Dunhuang Studies, “The study on the inscription of Licchavi at the cave 1 of thousand Buddha caves in Mati Temple Grottoes”[13], Zhan Sanqing  gives the view that the patrons from the Licchavī dynasty must have commissioned these mural paintings in this cave. There are eight caves in qianfo cave groups in Zhangye Temple in Gansu Province. The southern most of the 1000 Buddha cliff is located at the southern most part. Cave 1 belongs to the centre tower of column of grottoes. Most parts of these cave murals are destroyed because of internal humidity, only the bottom of south to north part remained. On the remaining mural painting, there are two columns of characters and total of four bodies can be identified. These inscriptions are on the either side of these four individuals. Of these inscriptions only words like ‘men and women’ and ‘Licchavī’ can be read. The individual on the top is assumed as the Bodhisattva and three other lower sides its disciples/companion. They are painted on three quarter profile[14]. These mural paintings were done around the time of Northern Wei dynasty and in India, this is period of Gupta dynasty. So, this could be of the Licchavī dynasty of Kathmandu valley. As this is the time when Licchavī dynasty was ruling the Kathmandu Valley/Nepal and we have ample evidences of Chinese travel documents that speak of Nepal, this inscription could have been written for patronizing the mural paintings by Licchavī Newars of Kathmandu valley. The travel documents of Wang Xuance and this inscription in Mati temple in Dunhuang could be an evidence of Newar influence at the time of Licchavī dynasty in Dunhuang, China.

Newar artists in Mogao and Yulin Grottoes of Dunhuang at the time of Tibetan occupation 781-848 CE

The influence of Newar artists could be found in Dunhuang mostly around Middle Tang period when Tibetan occupation Dunhuang in 781-848 CE. and at the time of Yuan dynasty Mongol in 1227-1368 CE. Newar spread their art works in neighboring countries since long time. Bhṛkutī Devī was historical princess in the seventh century. This believed to have changed the course of Himalayan region by introducing Buddhism from Nepal to Tibet. The visit of Bhṛkutī Devī not only took Buddhism but also its rich art, culture and architecture. She took Jina Akshobhya Buddha statue, Sandal wood figure of Tara and Saharsabhuja Avalokitsvara statue and many other Buddhist image to Tibet[15]. The marriage between Srong btsan Gompo and Nepalese princess Bhṛkutī Devī developed a special bond between the two countries. There are numerous monasteries and different Buddhist art works done by Newars in Tibet. Newars visiting Tibet spread to various neighboring areas like Ladakh in western India and surrounding areas of Tibetan Plateau. The Tibetan word which designates the Newar artists in Tibet was Bal-po and the expression which designates their technique was Bal po’I lugs.

During the reign of Ral pa can (815-836 CE), Buddhist from China and Tibet sought mediation, to solve the dispute. Finally both the countries sent representatives to the border.  The text  of this treaty is inscribed on the pillar in front of the main gate of the Jokhang in Lhasa[16].In the event of occupancy of Dunhuang by Tibetan in Gansu province around 781-848 CE, there were many caves constructed by the rulers of Tibet. Some of the caves like Cave No. 112,154,158, 159 were constructed at the time when Tibetan took over Dunhuang. In Cave No. 112, there are murals of Vajracchedika and Amitayurdhyana-sutra on two large panels of the southern wall and the Bhaisajyaguru-sutra along with Pao-yen-ching which speaks of filial piety towards parents and loyalty to the emperor, like the Confucian ideals. It shows how Chinese concepts were used by the Tibetan state to earn loyalty of the Chinese inhabitants of Dunhuang[17].

The Cave No 158 is a huge cave which was built at the time of Tibetan occupation of Dunhuang. The reclining Nirvana Buddha which is of 16 meters is main attraction and there is portraiture of Srong btsan Gompo along with disciples, bodhisattvas, lay person and devas on the mural painting which justified that the cave was constructed at the time of Tibetan occupation. To further validate Tibetan invasion in this region, Cave No.156 show the mural painting of Lady Song, wife of the Dunhuang general Zhang Yichao in the ceremonial procession from a series of panoramic painting honoring her husband’s victory over the Tibetans in 848 CE[18]. In the Cave No. 237 there are murals of Srong btsan Gompo. There are murals which are painted accordance to the method of scroll paintings. They are similar to the ones which were introduced by Newar in Tibet. Decorative motifs in most of the Tibetan built caves have a great Newar art influences like the continuous floral designs, the paintings style of different symbols, the various positions of the deities. The patterns of painting of murals mostly resembles to Newar style. This makes us believe that Newars had opportunity to work there during Tibetans’ occupancy of Dunhuang.

The famous British explorer, Aurel Stein collected many manuscripts and paintings from Abbot Wang who took care of Dunhuang and these materials are preserved in many museums in India, France and England. This would indeed be Stein’s greatest coup, one the richest finds in the history of archaeology[19]. A ninth century scroll painting from this collection now kept at the British Museum reveals Tibeto-Nepalese art style. In this scroll painting (dated 836 CE) which is done on silk, we could draw close comparison of the two pair of bodhisattvas which reveals two separate styles. The painting on silk is the most important large painting of Maṇḍala of the thousand-armed Avalokīteśvara in the British Museum, Stein Collection No. 32. A close comparison of the two pair of Bodhisattvas in this painting reveals the two separate styles. On the either side of Bhaisajyaguru at the top is Tibetan- Nepalese pair of Bodhisattvas[20]. The murals and scroll paintings in Dunhuang definitely have some high influence of Newar art works. The later period of Yuan Dynasty was the time when Tibetan Buddhism and art flourished in Dunhuang. During the same dynasty, Newar artist Anige from Nepal was the person who introduced Newar art style in the Yuan court around thirteenth century.


Buddhist artwork of Dunhuang was done from 366 CE along the silk route contributed by different dynasties from inside China and outside of China. The inscription on the walls of Mati cave temple in Dunhuang gives us some evidence of Licchavī dynasty’s contribution to the Dunhuang group of grottos. The inscription mentioned in the cave coincides with the period of Licchavī dynasty of Kathmandu Valley. Wang Xuance’s three visits to Kathmandu valley under Tang dynasty and his account of Nepal also shows the connection between the Tang dynasty and Licchavī relation around that period. The sequence of later development in Dunhuang under the occupation of Tibetan dynasty also shows of the Newar artists in this area. In many caves sites of Mogao and Yulin, the artistic style of Newar influence could be clearly evident. The silk painting of Stein collection No. 32 which is dated 836 CE further validates the existence of Newar artists of Licchavī dynasty in Dunhuang.

Works Cited

Published Books

Bajracharya, Dhana Bajra. Licchavīkālako Abhilekh. Kritipur: Nepal Ra Asiyali Anusandhan Kedra, 2053 BS

Bangdel, Dina. “Newar Art of the Kathmandu Valley: Style and Aesthetics”, Dina Bangdel (ed.), Jewels of Newar Art. Kathmandu: Bodhisattva Gallery, 2011

Deeg, Max. Miscellanae Nepalicae: Early Chinese Reports on Nepal The foundation Legend of Nepal in its Trans-Himalayan Context. Nepal: Lumbini International Research Institute, 2016

Hopkirk, Peter. Foreign Devils in the Silk Road.  Great Britain: John Murray, 1980

Lokesh, Chandra and Nirmala Sharma. Buddhist Paintings of Tun-huang In The National Museum New Delhi. New Delhi: Niyogi Books, 2012

Pal, Pratapaditya. The Arts of Nepal Part II Painting. Leiden/Koln: E.J. Brill, 1978

Regmi, D R. Ancient Nepal. New Delhi: Rupa, 2007

Schroeder, Ulrich Von. Buddhist Sculptures in Tibet: Volume One India and Nepal. Hong Kong: Visual Dharma Publications, 2001

Shakya, Min Bahadur. Princess Bhrikuti Devi. Delhi: Book Faith India, 1997

Stoddard, Heather. Early Sino-Tibetan Art. Bangkok: Orchid Press, 2008

Tan, Chung (Ed.). Dunhuang art Through The Eyes of Duan Wenjie. India: Indira Gandhi National Center for Art, 1994

Whitfield, Roderick et al. Caves Temples of Mogao- Art and History of the Silk Road. Los Angeles: The Getty Conservation Institute and the J. Paul Museum, 2000


Shanqing, Zhang. “The study on the inscription of Licchavi at the cave 1 of thousand Buddha caves in Mati Temple Grottoes”, Journal of Dunhuang Studies, Lanzhou, 2012.



[1]  Chung Tan (Ed.). Dunhuang art Through The Eyes of  Duan Wenjie. India: Indira Gandhi National Center for Art, 1994, p 21

[2]  Ibid. p 27

[3]  Ibid. p 29

[4] Ibid, p 10

[5] Roderick Whitfield et al. Caves Temples of Mogao- Art and History of the Silk Road. Los Angeles: The Getty Conservation Institute and the J. Paul Museum, 2000, pp 25-26

[6] Dina Bangdel. Newar Art of the Kathmandu Valley: Style and Aesthetics, Dina Bangdel (ed.), Jewels of Newar Art. Kathmandu: Bodhisattva Gallery, 2011, p 18

[7] D R Regmi. Ancient Nepal. New Delhi : Rupa, 2007, pp 41-4

[8]  Ulrich Von Schroeder. Buddhist Sculptures in Tibet: Volume One India and Nepal. Hong Kong: Visual Dharma Publications, 2001, p 437

[9]  Dhana Bajra Bajracharya. Licchavīkālako Abhilekh. Kritipur: Nepal Ra Asiyali Anusandhan Kedra, 2053 BS, p 3

[10]  Pratapaditya Pal. The Arts of Nepal Part II Painting. Leiden/Koln: E.J. Brill, 1978, pp 1-2

[11] Max Deeg. Miscellanae Nepalicae: Early Chinese Reports on Nepal The foundation Legend of Nepal in its Trans-Himalayan Context. Nepal: Lumbini International Research Institute, 2016, pp 12-13

[12] Ibid, pp 230-231

[13] Zhang Shanqing. “The study on the inscription of Licchavi at the cave 1 of thousand Buddha caves in Mati Temple Grottoes”, Journal of Dunhuang Studies, Volume 2, Lanzhou, 2012, pp 109-115

[14] Ibid, pp 110-111

[15] Shakya Min Bahadur. Princess Brikuti devi. India: Book Faith India,1997, p  45

[16] Chandra Lokesh and Nirmala Sharma. Buddhist Paintings of Tun-huang In The National Museum New Delhi. New Delhi: Niyogi Books, 2012  p 36

[17] Ibid  pp 36 and 37

[18] Op cit f. n. 5, Whitfield,  p 84

[19] Peter Hopkirk. Foreign Devils in the Silk Road.  Great Britain: John Murray, 1980, p 41

[20] Heather Stoddard. Early Sino-Tibetan Art. Bangkok: Orchid Press, 2008, pp. 10-11.

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