Chapter 9 Birds of a Feather: Mahāmāyūrī between Khotan and Dunhuang

In: Beyond the Silk and Book Roads
Michelle C. Wang
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Mahāmayūrī, the Great Wisdom Peacock King, is typically depicted in East Asian art with multiple arms and seated atop a peacock mount. Mahāmayūrī mural paintings suddenly appear in eight of the Mogao and Yulin caves during the tenth century. Taking into account that the earliest translations of the Mahāmayūrī dhāraṇī sūtra were executed between the fourth and eighth centuries and that textual accounts record Mahāmayūrī imagery in Chinese art as early as the seventh and eighth centuries, the late appearance of the motif at Dunhuang invites further examination. This paper argues that the Mahāmayūrī image cult not only was transmitted to Dunhuang from Khotan, but also that it appeared primarily in cave shrines that were associated with the Cao clan, who were the local rulers of Dunhuang. During the tenth century, the Cao clan engaged in marriage alliances with the ruling clan of Khotan. The patronage by the Cao clan of a motif associated with the Khotanese would have demonstrated the alliance between the two clans in the face of increasing instability in Central Asia: dual threats from the Karakhanids to the west and the Uyghurs to the east. In this manner, my paper demonstrates that the impact of war and political instability on Silk Road imagery was as profound as that of the trade and the tribute system.

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Beyond the Silk and Book Roads

Rethinking Networks of Exchange and Material Culture

Series:  Studies on East Asian Religions, Volume: 11