Flying Asparas, the symbol of Dunhuang art, are scattered in all the 500 grottoes of Dunhuang area. They are an embodiment of Gandharva, the God in charge of holy songs and dances, and Kimnara, the God in charge of entertainment.
They, husband and wife, were originally God of entertainment and God of songs and dances in Indian mythology and were later converted to the Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils by Buddha. Resting in flower pedals and flying in the heavenly paradise, Gandharva was responsible to spread scent in the Buddhist world, present flowers to Buddhas, and offer treasure; while Kimnara was responsible for music and dance in the Buddhist world. He was not permitted to fly in the heaven. Later on Gandharva and Kimnara were mixed together, without distinguishable gender and duty. They became one integral part as Flying Asparas. At present, the one playing music in early stage is called Paradise Musician; the other one playing music instrument singing and dancing is called Flying Asparas Musician.
The characteristic of Dunhuang Flying Asparas is that it, without wings or feather, flies in the sky with the support of floating cloth and color ribbons instead of cloud and wings. Flying Asparas have thousands of forms and postures which change from time to time. Dunhuang Flying Asparas are developed based on the Chinese tradition, combining the characteristics of foreign and domestic Flying Asparas. Flying Asparas have different characteristics at different stages because they only play the role of decoration.
Dunhuang Fly Asparas of the early stage were printed on the top of the grottoes. For example, there are several Flying Asparas in No. 275 and No.272 Grottoes feature glory on head, oval face, short body with upper part naked, big scarf covering one shoulder, long skirt, white powder on nose and eyes. They are very similar to the Flying Asparas of Guizi grottoes in western China's Xinjiang Autonomous Region in terms of facial expression, flying posture, color and line, etc.
In the Tang Dynasty (618-907), Flying Asparas formed their own unique style and reached the zenith of artistic development after completing the process of introducing, absorbing and combining foreign arts.
Double Flying Asparas
There are bigJingbian
(explaining sutra to make it easy to be understood) murals on the four walls in the grottoes of the Tang Dynasty (618-907). Flying Asparas appeared not only in sunken panels, Buddhist niches, and four mantles, but also mostly onJingbian
paintings. When Buddhas are teaching doctrine in the centre of the Pure Land, Flying Asparas fly in the sky attractively in a nimble and delicate, free way, clothes swinging in wind, and color ribbons floating in air.
In the Tang Dynasty, there emerged many double Flying Asparas, such as dual-body Double Flying Asparas flying elegantly on the southern side of the upper part of Buddhist niches on western wall of No. 321 Grottoes. Despite their dark complexion, the outline and postures of the Flying Asparas can be seen clearly. They, tall and slim, with head up and straight body, are spreading flowers in the sky. There are also naked Flying Asparas, Virgin Flying Asparas in the murals.
Flying Asparas, after the Five Dynasties Period (907-960) and the Song Dynasty (960-1279), did not have novel postures but all in conventional patterns. Although Flying Asparas have different characteristics in different periods, they have gradually lost the original art life.
Dunhuan grottoes, keeping numerous Flying Asparas from the 4thto 14thcentury, are valuable treasures of national art, and a bright pearl in Buddhist art.