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Mural Paintings in Wa-chen Cave inRtswa-mda’, Mnga’-ris, Western Tibet

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Mural Paintings in Wa-chen Cave in
Rtswa-mda’, Mnga’-ris, Western Tibet

Tshe Ring Rgyal po

Table of Contents
1. Brief introduction to Rtswa-mda’ County
2. The location of Wa-chen cave
3. The structure of Wa-chen cave
4. Why the cave was built
5. The dating of the founding of Wa-chen cave
6. The sectarian and lineage affiliations of Wa-chen cave
7. The murals of Wa-chen cave
(a) The mural on the east wall
(b) The mural on the south wall
(c) The mural on the west wall
(d) The mural on the north wall
(e) The mural on the ceiling
8. Appendices
(1) Bibliography
(2) The deities’ names in Tibetan, Sanskrit and Chinese

1. Brief introduction to Rtswa-mda’ County
Rtswa-mda’ County is located southeast of Mnga’-ris, at a latitude of 30.5˚-32.4˚and a longitude of 78.5˚-79.8˚. Its area is 24,601.59 sq. km, the population is 6,500, the average elevation is around 4,000 meters, and it includes one township, five villages, and fifteen administration hamlets. The county received its name following the unification of two rdzong-s of the old local Sde-pa-gzhung government—Mda’-pa rdzong and Rtswa-rang rdzong. The local government office was established on November 16, 1956. During the 1960s, the county people’s government was established, the official government residence being set up at the site of Mtho-gling monastery. The government later changed to the county revolution committees. In 1981, the Rtswa-mda’ County people’s government was reestablished.

The county belongs to the southern Tibetan hill basin area. The southern and northern regions are at higher altitudes than the center of the county, so that it is shaped like a large basin. The highest mountain is I-phi-gangs-sman, with a top of 7,760 meters. The climate is that of a highland sub-frigid windy arid zone with some influence from the monsoon seasan of the Indian subcontinent. Annual daylight is about 3,130 hours, annual precipitation averages around 260 millimeters, and the average annual non-frost period is around 130 days. The weather is cold during the winter and hot in the summer, which is why the common people of Gu-ge have always lived in caves. Natural disasters include drought, hailstorms, frost, flooding, epidemics of rat-borne disease, locust outbreaks, etc.

Mineral resources include gold, silver, copper, iron, lead, amber, etc., and wild animals are plentiful: lynx, snow leopards, foxes, wolves, weasels, mountain sheep (argali), cliff sheep, red deer, wild yaks, wild asses, wild snow chickens, pheasants, eagles, hawks, vultures, snipes, cranes, crows, pigeons, etc. The plant life is also very rich: red willows, cypresses, pine trees, peach trees, apple trees, snow lotuses, angelica, and many other special and unique local plants.

In this county, priority is given mainly to animal-herding, as well as to a combination of agriculture and animal-herding—mainly the breeding of yaks, sheep, goats, cattle, horses, donkeys, etc.

The principal crops are Tibetan barley, wheat, buckwheat, legumes, mustard, radishes, potatoes, celery, cabbage, cucumber, etc. Because of long daylight hours and abundant sunny days, radishes and potatoes are larger than normal—at times, a single radish can weigh as much as 20 kilograms.

In Rtswa-mda’ County one finds the famous ruins of the Gu-ge Kingdom, which rank as some of the most important protected cultural relics in the whole country. The Sutlej is one of the four best-known rivers in Mnga’-ris, Western Tibet, where the illustrious and centuries-old civilization of the Gu-ge Kingdom came into being. The Gu-ge Dynasty endured here for around 700 years, during which time the people of Gu-ge created magnificent Tibetan Buddhist cultural works. The Buddhist cave mural art was especially unique and exceptional, and was spread all along both sides of the Sutlej River and its valley, viz, the upper southern Gu-ge (Mang-nang, Mda’-pa, Pang-khra, Ldong-po, and Khyung-lung), the lower southern Gu-ge (mKhar-rag, Ri-lte-sgang, Ri-pa, Chu-gser, Za-rang, Bye-dkar and Steng-’phags), the upper northern Gu-ge (Gram, Be-ldong-bo, Dung-dkar, Phyi-dbang), and the lower northern Gu-ge (Shang-rtse, Byang-tang, Ri-rtse-kyog, Lhag-pa, Zhwa-ye, Lugs-pa, Gti-g.yag, and Tsho-rub-gsum-dkyil). But there is also art in the form of temples, statues, sculpture, cast metal art, costume art, and architecture. There is also singing and dancing, special customs and folkways, and so forth. These are all part of the priceless treasure left for humankind by the people of Gu-ge.

In addition, the county of Rtswa-mda’ has very beautiful and unusual natural scenery: the whole Sutlej River valley is filled with hardened earthen hills and mountains, and these wander and zigzag endlessly—scenery of a sort that is otherwise hard to find in Tibet. This is only a rough sketch: there are all kinds of hills and mountains full of ruins, cave-dwellings, temples, cave art, rock drawings, etc., which make the civilization that has come into being in the Gu-ge area so exceptional.

2. The location of Wa-chen cave
Wa-chen cave is located in Mda’-pa Village in Mda’-pa Township, Rtswa-mda’ County, Mnga’-ris Prefecture, around 15 kilometers from the rural areas of Mda’-pa, at a latitude of 31.32˚ and a longitude of 80.02˚. The average elevation is around 4,230 meters. Between Wa-chen cave and the southern bank of the Sutlej River, there is a large gold mine called the “Gold Plain” (in Tibetan, gser thang), one of the largest gold mines from the Gu-ge Dynasty period. At that time, Wa-chen cave was a particularly holy place for the gold miners, who went there regularly to receive good fortune, to pray and to pay pilgrimage. Wa-chen cave held a very large influence on their lives and played an important role in their survival.

Inside Wa-chen cave, conditions are ideal for the preservation of the mural paintings, which are artistically of very high quality, painted by some of the best artists in the art culture of Western Tibet. Anyone who sees these murals will appreciate their overwhelming artistic qualities. The cave possesses great value for the study of the art, history and Buddhism of Mnga’-ris. All of the murals display an extraordinary general skill in painting as well as in the use of style, colors, and materials. Such paintings are rare not only in Mnga’-ris, but also in all of the Tibetan cultural area.

To the east, Wa-chen cave is faced by dirt mountains. To the northeast lies Gram Valley, enclosing the slowly flowing waters of the Gram River, limpid and crystal-clear. The riverbed slopes down, and on the river banks, bushes and deep vegetation cluster around abundant grasslands which are a fertile and lush pasture area. In the area surrounding Wa-chen cave are various types of larger and smaller caves used as dwellings and for storage. Thus, like the other caves along the banks of the Sutlej River, Wa-chen cave is ideally suited not only for nomads, prospectors, and pilgrims, but also as a place for the activities of great saints and yogins.

As with the other caves of the Mkhar-rtse area, for instance, those in the Sutlej River Valley, the Karnali River Valley and the Indus River Valley, the walls and ceiling of Wa-chen cave are covered with high quality mural art. Other caves with similar works include, in Rtswa-mda’ County, the three famous Dung-dkar-za-sgo caves and the Mda’-pa Zhal-dkar cave; in Ru-thog County, Dbod-byang, Jo-mo-lha-khang cave, and Ting-chung-lha-khang cave; in Spu-rang County, Dgung-phur cave, Za-lang cave, and so forth. All of these rich, colorful, and multifaceted caves contain mural paintings with unique characteristics that are extremely rare in Tibet and now are only extant in Mnga’-ris.

The setting of Wa-chen cave is very unusual. In this area there are many different kinds of caves: residential caves, quite darkened by soot; caves used as storehouses, recently dug out and still immaculate as though new; and caves used for Buddhist ceremonies. All of these caves are situated on the west side of the valley, facing east. Today the caves are inhabited only in the wintertime, and at all other times nobody stays for any greater length of time here, so it is very quiet, making it an ideal site for meditation. In former times, the majority of the pilgrims were subjects of the Gu-ge Kingdom, including farmers, nomads, merchants and local prospectors, as well as people from Dbus-gtsang, La-dwags, and Zangs-dkar.

3. The structure of Wa-chen cave
Wa-chen cave is in the form of a rectangle, with a length of 4.16 meters running east-west, and a width of 3.75 meters running north-south. The highest point, measuring 3.28 meters, is at the center of the cave. The surrounding walls of the cave are lower than the center, measuring only 2.76 meters. The door is 1.63 meters high, the door wall is 0.95 meters thick, and above the door is a small window, through which rays of light pass into the room. The floor of the interior is covered with soft, pristine earth and nothing else.

In front of the centre of the main wall one finds the ruins of a throne upon which formerly sat a clay statue. The throne is decorated with colored drawings and is of a quite durable and tough material. On the throne there are many fragments of the statue and of a supporting wood structure. This being a cave for prayer and meditation, butter lamps were never lit inside, so there are no traces of smoke, and the mural paintings are therefore very well preserved—bright and lifelike, as though they were drawn only in the last few days.

Wa-chen cave lies in the west and faces east. On the eastern wall on either side of the door are paintings of about twenty protector deities and above the door, eight Offering Goddesses.

At the base of the southern wall is found the Buddha’s life story and in the middle of this wall are four mandalas. Above these mandalas are found the Eight Medicine Buddhas and an image of Prajñāpāramitā (Yum-chen-mo). Above these are the twenty-six lineage masters, above them a beautiful sham bu curtain, and at the top, many life-like white geese, etc.

The images of the northern wall are parallel to those of the southern wall, including scenes from the Buddha’s life story, mandalas and lineage masters. On this wall one can see the eight great lineage masters, wearing the red and yellow robes and the caps of a paṇḍita (the special title given to one who has become versed in all five sciences).

At the center of the western wall is a portrayal of the Buddha Śākyamuni, to his left, the eleven-faced Avalokiteśvara, and to the right, Maitreya. On the western wall are also found the Eighteen Arhats and the Five Buddha Families (rgyal ba rigs lnga).

4. Why the cave was built
In the classical history books, this kind of cave is called a prayer cave or meditation cave. Wa-chen cave, being used for both of these purposes, is thus considered to belong to this class of holy cave. On all auspicious and holy days, the local farmers and nomads as well as the numerous gold prospectors came here one after another to recite prayers for good weather for the crops, to avert disaster, to express good wishes, and to determine auspicious dates. In addition, pilgrims from other areas also came here to worship the Buddhas, the Bodhisattvas, the lineage masters, and the various protector deities, and to pray for overall good fortune throughout the year. In addition, famous lamas—great holy persons—came here to meditate, striving for higher knowledge. For this reason the local people kept the cave very well maintained, always preserving these aspects of holiness, sanctity, and honor, and never allowing any defilement to occur.

Wa-chen cave unites, in spirit, these farmers, nomads, gold prospectors and merchants and traders in salt and grain. All of these people gather here on special days without discord and pursue only goodness, friendliness, kindness and tolerance, coexisting peacefully. At these times, the cave plays a very important stabilizing social role, fulfilling everyone’s religious aspirations and purposes. In addition, this type of cave fully represents the importance attached by all of the kings of the Gu-ge Kingdom to the consummate genius of the mural painters, whose magnificent art still belongs to these later generations of the people of Gu-ge.

All of the Gu-ge kings of the past not only turned their minds heavenward towards Buddhism, but also paid great attention to the prosperity and development of the artistic culture of mural-painting. The common people of the Gu-ge Kingdom were wholly absorbed in spiritual life, not desiring luxury, not squandering or doing things out of greed, and without the bad habits that would cause them to throw away their lives on low pursuits such as drinking and gaming. They devoted their lives and energy and used their financial resources to create a high-level civilization and a unique artistic culture. This means that they always used a great part of their resources for the support of artistic endeavors. This is one reason they left such a brilliant culture of art to posterity, and produced so many individuals with skills in the arts. In those early periods, artists were respected both by the royal household and ordinary people, and were accorded high social status. According to certain history books, artists were given the first choice of the best grasslands, etc. This of course depended upon society as a whole attaching importance to both the artistic and spiritual culture. This is the main reason that such a great cave-painting civilization developed in this area, a civilization that advanced and passed on the art culture that appeared here and that created some of the most wondrous and mighty works of art in the history of human civilization.(editor:Pe ma)