Published On: Wed, Nov 27th, 2019

Travel to the Mogao Caves in Dunhuang

The Mogao Caves in Dunhuang are home to precious and ancient Buddhist cave art. Re-discovered by the Taoist Wang Yuanlu in the early 20th century, the Caves of a Thousand Buddhas is one of the most precious cultural sites in China.

Construction of the Mogao Caves

The original construction of the Mogao Caves in Dunhuang is shrouded in legend. According to myth, a Buddhist monk named Le Zun had a vision in 366 AD in which he saw one thousand Buddhas. He began the original construction of the caves and for the next thousand years, Buddhists flocked to the Mogao Caves and Dunhuang to a life of austerity and meditation.

Starting in the 11th century AD, many of the caves were walled off. The Mogao Caves in Dunhuang (also known as the Caves of a Thousand Buddhas) served as a repository of relics and religious scriptures until their rediscovery in the early 20th century.

Discovery of the Mogao Caves

The caves were not actively used for many centuries. In the early 20th century, a Taoist named Wang Yuanlu discovered a sealed wall in one of the caves. Behind it were a huge variety of artifacts and treasures Wang Yuanlu proclaimed himself protector of these priceless objects.

This discovery attracted foreigners to the caves. British and Indian, French, Japanese and Russians all came to Dunhuang to see the Mogao caves, the Buddhist cave art and precious relics that were hidden within. Many of the most valuable items were sold by Wang Yuanlu to foreigners. A huge number of artifacts were sold to the British explorer Aurel Stein for a mere 220 pounds.

What is in the Mogao Caves?

First and foremost, the Mogao Caves near Dunhuang are home to beautiful Buddhist cave art. This includes statues, murals, reliefs and pained walls. Most noticeable are the numerous stucco Buddha statues that populate the grottoes. Most of these statues have been shielded from the light for hundreds of years, so visitors must use flashlights to view them in otherwise pitch-black caves to avoid damaging the artwork.

Travel to the Mogao Caves in Dunhuang

The caves are also known as the Caves of a Thousand Buddhas because of the numerous Buddhist paintings that line the walls. Paintings of Buddhas in groups of four or five are repeated as patterns across the walls and in murals. The repetition emphasizes the religious mysticism of intended by Buddhist cave art painters.

The Mogao Caves are famous for several massive Buddha statures. The Sleeping Buddha is perhaps the most well-known of these. The Sleeping Buddha is a 50 foot long horizontal Buddha statue, eyes closed as in sound asleep. Behind the Sleeping Buddha are dozens of life-sized statues, each with a unique expression and pose. Some of the statues are shocked, others happy and many are confused. This scene represents the reactions of disciples to the Buddha’s enlightenment. The Sleeping Buddha emphasizes that human beings react in different ways to the fact of enlightenment, from joy to terror to confusion and heartbreak.

The Mogao Caves are the prime tourist attraction in Gansu Province. Buddhist cave art has been dormant in the caves for hundreds of years. The Caves of the a Thousand Buddhas emphasize the religious importance of the Silk Road in general and Dunhuang in particular in pre-Islamic western China.

About the Author

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