The Maijishan Grottoes are a series of 194 caves cut in the side of the hill of Majishan in Tianshui, Gansu Province, northwest China. This example of rock cut architecture contains over 7,200 Buddhist sculptures and over 1,000 square meters of murals. Construction began in the Later Qin era (384-417 CE).
They were first properly explored in 1952-53 by a team of Chinese archeologists from Beijing, who devised the numbering system still in use today. Caves #1-50 are on the western cliff face; caves #51-191 on the eastern cliff face. They were later photographed by Michael Sullivan and Dominique Darbois, who subsequently published the primary English-language work on the caves noted in the footnotes below.
These Wei caves are fairly simple and most follow the pattern of a seated Buddha flanked by bodhisattvas and other attendants, sometimes by monks or lay worshippers. The most common Buddha is Amitābha, the principal Buddha of the Pure Land sect. Amitābha enables all who call upon him to be reborn into his heaven, the "Pure Land". There they undergo instruction by him ultimately to become bodhisattvas and buddhas in their own right. This was a very popular school of Mahayana Buddhism during this period.
The bodhisattvas who accompany him are usually Avalokitesvara on the Buddha's right, and Mahasthamaprapta on his left. Avalokitesvara can be identified by his headdress which holds a small image of the Buddha Amitābha, and the fact that he often carries a small water flask. Sometimes he holds a heart-shaped, or pippala-leaf shaped object (which art historians still can't positively identify). Mahasthamaprapta is slightly more difficult to identify, but this is the usual pairing with Avalokitesvara (who will, in a few hundred more years, change gender and morph into the Goddess or Bodhisattva of Mercy, Guanyin).
The monks are usually the two most famous associated with the historical Buddha: the younger Ananda, and the older Kasyapa, although sometimes the monks are simply generic monks. We also find statuary of nuns and lay worshippers and donors.
Standing near the doorways guarding the Buddha and his entourage are often pairs of dvarapala or the four Heavenly Kings (lokapala).
There are also statues of the historical Buddha, Sakyamuni, and the Buddha of the Future, Maitreya, recognizable by his seated position, legs crossed at the ankle. Some of the statues of the historical Buddha show Gandharan influences from Central Asia. The clue is in the volume and drapery of the robes as well as the shape and proportions of the statue's body and head.
Nearly all of the statuary at Maijishan is made of clay with the addition of some sort of binding agent to help preserve the sculpture. When stone sculptures appear (for example, in caves 117, 127, 133 and 135), they are generally made of sandstone, and many are exquisite. The sandstone is reported not to be indigenous but instead of unknown origin. It is also unknown where the statues were made, or how they were hauled up into the caves. Of special note is Cave 133 with 23 stone stele.