Little Paper Offerings
By LIZ HAGER
Collaged Flowers, Tang Dynasty (9th-10th c. AD),
“retrieved” from Cave 17, Mogao, near Dunhuang, Gansu province, China, by Sir Aurel Stein
(photo ©The British Museum)
The paper flowers above, found in the Mogao caves by Aurel Stein, are probably the earliest surviving examples of Buddhist votive flowers. Stein must have been electrified when he discovered these prosaic gems among the sacred art. It’s nothing less than a miracle that they even survived, having been in the caves for perhaps as long as 1500 years.
Glue found on the backs of the flowers suggests that they were offerings pasted by devotees onto the walls of the shrines or perhaps on to the Buddha statues themselves. Flowers, the lotus in particular, are a central motif in Buddhist iconography, so it is not surprising that the Dunhuang grottos would be full of floral rosettes; stylized flowers have been painted on ceilings, woven or embroidered in textiles, added to borders and patterns. In the harsh desert climate of the Takla Makan, it would make sense that delicately cut and painted paper would stand in ceremoniously for natural flowers.
As Susan Whitfield observes in the Dunhuang chapter of The Silk Road, her catalog of the 2004 British Library exhibit:
Despite the wall to ceiling painting, the Mogao caves as they appear today are denuded of much of the decoration which would have once adorned the walls and the Buddha statues. . . It is difficult to image now but the caves full of offerings, colorful hangings, and other decorations, with the sound of prayers being recited and the smell of the hemp oil from the flickering lamps mingling with the incense offered to Buddha, must have had a very different atmosphere from today.
Susan Whitfield—The Silk Road: Trade, Travel, War And Faith