The Mogao Caves or Mogao Grottoes, also known as the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas, form a system of 492 temples 25 km (16 mi) southeast of the center of Dunhuang, an oasis strategically located at a religious and cultural crossroads on the Silk Road, in Gansu province, China. The caves may also be known as the Dunhuang Caves, however, this term is also used to include other Buddhist cave sites in the Dunhuang area, such as the Western Thousand Buddha Caves, and the Yulin Caves farther away. The caves contain some of the finest examples of Buddhist art spanning a period of 1,000 years. The first caves were dug out 366 CE as places of Buddhist meditation and worship. The Mogao Caves are the best known of the Chinese Buddhist grottoes and, along with Longmen Grottoes and Yungang Grottoes, are one of the three famous ancient Buddhist sculptural sites of China.
An important cache of documents was discovered in 1900 in the so-called "Library Cave", which had been walled-up in the 11th century. The content of the library was dispersed around the world, and largest collections are now found in Beijing, London, Paris and Berlin, and the International Dunhuang Project exists to coordinate and collect scholarly work on the Dunhuang manuscripts and other material. The caves themselves are now a popular tourist destination, with a number open for visiting.
Architecture of Mogao Caves
The caves are examples of rock-cut architecture, but unlike Longmen Grottoes and Yungang Grottoes, the local rock is a rather soft gravel conglomerate that is not suitable for either sculpture or elaborate architectural details. Many of the early caves developed earlier Buddhist rock-cut chaitya styles seen in places such as the Ajanta Caves in India, with a square-sectioned central column, with sculpture in niches, representing the stupa round which worshippers may circumambulate (parikrama) and gain blessings. Others are hall caves influenced by traditional Chinese and Buddhist temple architecture. These caves may have a truncated pyramidal ceiling sometimes painted to resemble a tent, or they may have a flat or gabled ceiling that imitates traditional buildings. Some of the caves used for meditation are adaptations of the Indian vihara (monastery) cave plan and contain side-chambers just large enough for one person to sit in.
Many of the caves originally had wooden porches or fore-temples built out from the cliff, but most of these have decayed or been lost in other ways, with only five remaining, the two earliest of which are rare surviving examples of Song dynasty wooden architecture.
Murals in Mogao Caves
The most fully painted caves have painting all over the walls and ceilings, with geometrical or plant decoration filling the spaces not taken by figurative images, which are above all of the Buddha. Sculpture is also brightly painted. The murals on the caves date from a period of over a thousand years, from the 5th to the 14th century; many were repainted at later points within the period. The murals are extensive, covering an area of 490,000 square feet (45,000 m2). They are valued for the scale and richness of content as well as their artistry. Buddhist subjects are most common, however some have traditional mythical subjects and portraits of patrons. These murals document the changing styles of Buddhist art in China for nearly a thousand years. The artistry of the murals reached its apogee during the Tang period, and the quality of the work dropped after the tenth century.
Early murals showed a strong Indian and Central Asian influence in the painting techniques used, the composition and style of the paintings as well as costumes worn by the figures, but a distinct Dunhuang style began to emerge during Northern Wei Dynasty. Motifs of Chinese, Central Asian and Indian origin may be found in a single cave, and Chinese elements increased during the Western Wei period.
A common motif in many caves is the areas entirely covered by rows of small seated Buddha figures, after which this and other "Thousand Buddhas Caves" are named. These small Buddhas were drawn using stencils so that identical figures may be replicated. Flying apsaras, or celestial beings may be depicted in the ceiling or above the Buddhas, and figures of donors may be shown along the bottom of the walls. The paintings often depict jataka tales which are stories of the life of Buddha, or avadana which are parables of the doctrine of karma.
Sculptures in Mogao Caves
There are around 2,400 surviving clay sculptures at Mogao. These were first constructed on a wooden frame, padded with reed, then modelled in clay stucco, and finished with paint. The giant statues however have a stone core. The Buddha is generally shown as the central statue, often attended by boddhisattvas, heavenly kings, devas, apsaras, along with yaksas and other mythical creatures. Figures from the Sui and Tang periods may be present as larger groups of seven or nine, and some showed large-scale parinirvana scene with groups of mourners. The early sculptures were based on Indian and Central Asian prototypes, with some in Greco-Indian style of Gandhara. Over time the sculptures showed more Chinese elements and became gradually sinicized.
The original function of the "Library Cave" was as a shrine commemorating Hong Bian, a 9th century abbot (not at Dunhuang). His portrait statue, unusual here and among all surviving works in China, was removed to another spot when the cave was sealed up in the 11th century, but has been returned now the library has been removed. There is also a stone stele describing his life, and the wall behind the statue is painted with attendant figure; such blending of painted sculpture and wall paintings into a single composition is very common at the site.
Description of UNESCO
The group of caves at Mogao represents a unique artistic achievement as much by the organization of space into cells and temples built on five levels as by the production of more than 2000 sculptures carved out of the rock walls, then covered with clay and painted, and the approximately 45,000 m2 of murals, among which are many masterpieces of Chinese art.
In the desert landscape of the extreme north-west of Gansu Province are the cliffs of Mogao, which form the eastern edge of Mount Mingsha. The cliffs rise above the Dachuan River, which is 25 km south-east of the Dunhuang oasis. Within the cliffs are the 492 natural cells and rock sanctuaries extending over 1,600 m that make up the famous Caves of a Thousand Buddhas (Qianfodong). The history of these caves is inseparably linked with that of the first Chinese expeditions against the nomads of the Mongolian steppes and Central Asia.
After the almost complete failure of the expedition of Zhang Qian in the ancient country of Bactria in 139-126 BC, a long section of great walls was built to protect the northern frontier. In 117 BC, military posts, like that of Dunhuang, were established. Two years later, the number of these command posts was doubled. Control of the Hexi pass and the oases route, which was the central segment of the Silk Route that connected China with the Mediterranean world, was the motivating factor in the incessant conflicts between the Chinese sovereigns and the nomads.
Dunhuang would remain cut off from the Middle Empire for long periods at a time, and so constituted a cosmopolitan enclave where all the peoples of Asia mingled together. Many foreign religions were represented, and devotees of Buddhism, Nestorianism and Islam could be found in this caravan oasis. According to an inscription, Buddhist monks first began work on the caves of Mogao in AD 366, whereas the state officially recognized Buddhism as a religion only in 444.
The majority of the cells and temples were constructed, however, from the 5th century up through the 14th century, when the region began to decline. Several great moments of the history of Central Asia are illustrated in the caves and frescos that illustrate doctrinal themes, reflecting transcendental teaching, correspond to the period in the 7th century when the Tang dynasty tightened its control of the Silk Route.
The first Tantric themes appear at the time of the occupation of Dunhuang by the Tibetans, from 790 to 851. Following the conquest of Gansu by the Tanguts, these themes multiplied, encouraged by the proliferation of lama sects under the Western Xia (1036-1227). With this same invasion in 1036 correspond the 45,000 manuscripts discovered in 1900 by the Taoist monk Wang Yuan-lu (Wang Guolu) in a cave where they had been hidden at the approach of the Tanguts. Although dispersed, this fabulous collection is one of the essential sources of Asian history.
The Mogao caves are closely associated with the history of transcontinental relations and that of the propagation of Buddhism in Asia. Being so strongly linked with the history of China, they constitute an anthology of Buddhist art with paintings and sculptures spanning a period of a thousand years. Moreover, since they were still occupied by Buddhist monks from the end of the 19th century until 1930, the rock-art ensemble at Mogao, administered by the Dunhuang Cultural Relics Research Institute, preserves the example of a traditional monastic settlement.