The Mogao Caves, or Mogao Grottoes (also known alternately as the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas and the Dunhuang Caves - not to forget the characteristically understated Chinese epithet: "a glittering pearl that adorns the Silk Road" :)), is a series of grottoes situated about 25 kilometers southeast of the city of Dunhuang in present-day Gansu Province. Mogao Grottoes, inarguably the greatest treasure-trove of Buddhist art found in a single locality anywhere in the world, comprises numerous temples and shrines containing countless sculptures, murals and manuscripts. Dunhuang, initially only a stopover point - albeit, an important one - on the Silk Road, quickly became a Buddhist learning center, where Buddhist sutras and other Buddhist texts were translated into Mandarin, to be spread from there to other cities throughout China.*
The grottoes are carved out of the sandstone cliffs of Mingsha Mountain, and extend some 1600 meters from north to south. These grottoes were constructed over a period of a thousand years, from the 4th to the 14th century CE.** The remaining Mogao Grottoes (only a little more than half of them are still intact) contain some 45,000 square meters of mural paintings, and more than 2000 painted sculptures.
The first grotto at Mogao was chiseled in CE 366 during the Eastern Jin (CE 317-420) Dynasty. According to legend, the area that comprises the Mogao Grottoes was marshland at the time, and a monk by the name of Yue Zun, traveling home across the region, had a vision-like dream in which a thousand golden Buddhas figured, therefore the monk decided to turn his dream into a reality, and the work on the grottoes then commenced.
Over the next thousand years, which saw the rise and fall of not less than sixteen Imperial dynasties, the work of chiseling out the grottoes and of adorning them continued. The construction of the last grotto was completed during the Yuan (CE 1279-1368) Dynasty. As with the Western Thousand Buddhas Caves on the north bank of the nearby Dang River (only 9 of whose original 22 caves are in a state suitable for public viewing), a large percentage of the original Mogao Grottoes were badly damaged; of the 735 original grottoes at Magao, only 492 of them have "survived".
The Mogao Grottoes, in addition to its treasure trove of graphic (murals) and sculptural artwork, also comprises a repository of Buddhist scriptures, the so-called Scripture Cave that was hidden behind a wall until early in the 20th century when a self-appointed caretaker of a number of the grottoes, a certain Taoist abbot by the name of Wang Yuanlu, discovered the hidden cave behind a wall. Alas, Abbot Wang would sell much of the collection of manuscripts, known as the Dunhuang Manuscripts - in an act that bears comparison to the "selling" of Manhattan Island to the freshly arrived British colonists by a local Native American (Indian) chieftain in exchange for a string of colored, glass beads (the paltry sum that Wang received was said to be £220) - to Sir Marc Aurel Stein, with other eager "treasure hunters" following after, carting off the manuscripts, a part of China's national heritage, to museums in their respective countries. The oldest of these manuscripts date from CE 406, while the newest date from CE 1002.
Among the Dunhuang Manuscripts, some are in non-Han Chinese characters. Of the Han Chinese texts, roughly 10 % are secular in nature, distributed between private documents and official records. Collectively, they offer invaluable insights into ancient Chinese and Central Asian history, geography, politics, religion, literature, art, science and technology. There are also embroidered images and silk prints among the 40,000 documents that make up this amazing library.
The aridity of the cave in which they were concealed thankfully preserved the Dunhuang Manuscripts of the Scripture Cave from mildew and rot, and though Abbot Wang sold them to foreigners presumably in ignorance of their true cultural-historical value, it must also be said that the period was a troubled one in Chinese history, marking the last gasps of the last Imperial dynasty, the Qing (CE 1644-1911) Dynasty, as the Chinese people struggled to free themselves of an antiquated, feudal past, so the Dunhuang Manuscripts, had they all remained on Chinese soil, may in fact have met a worse fate. Still, they were surely not removed from China out of such lofty considerations, so their disappearance is still perceived by the Chinese people as an act of theft against China's cultural heritage.
More than anything else - including the glory of Buddhism - the religious-cultural riches of Dunhuang are a testimony to the great wealth that was generated by the Silk Road trade. But of course, the religious-cultural riches of Dunhuang are also a testimony to religion, primarily to Buddhism, though works belonging to Taoism, Confucianism and Nestorian Christianity, as well as to Zoroastrianism, can be found among the religious art works in and around the city of Dunhuang. Or perhaps one should rather say that the religious-cultural riches of Dunhuang are a testimony to the lively "trade" in ideas that was also trafficked along the Silk Road - and in both directions, one might add, since many Chinese inventions, from gunpowder to paper (and paper money) to the compass, travelled westward along the Silk Road.
The Mogao Grottoes is considered as the preeminent Buddhist grotto site in China, surpassing both the Yungang Grottoes site and the Longmen Grottoes site in cultural-historical significance. Indeed, the fact that the UNESCO World Heritage Committee listed the Mogao site as early as 1987, while the Longmen and the Yungang sites were first listed in 2000 and 2001, respectively, reflects the cultural-historical significance, to all of mankind, of the Mogao Grottoes.
* To gain a better insight into the role of Dunhuang for the spread of Buddhism in this part of China, one should also read the article that describes another of Dunhuang's famous grottoes, the Western Thousand Buddhas Caves, and to appreciate the unique Tangut Empire (think: Western Xia (CE 1038-1227) Dynasty) contribution to Chinese Buddhism, one should also read the article on yet another of Dunhuang's famous grottoes, the Yulin Grottoes.
** Though Buddhism made its official debut in China in CE 67, it spread slowly initially, only gaining speed after the collapse of the Han (BCE 206 - CE 220) Dynasty and the beginning of the Three Kingdoms (CE 220-280) period of small-state rivalry. Whereas Taoism had been associated with at least one instance of insurrection against the emperor (the so-called Yellow Turban, or Yellow Scarves, Rebellion of CE 184, a widespread peasant rebellion provoked by harsh taxation combined with governmental corruption), Buddhism was considered to be accommodating not only towards other religions, but also towards existing social structures, including the Chinese Imperial Dynasty system. With the acceleration in Silk Road trade in goods, especially westward, beginning in the 4th century CE, the spread of Buddhism eastward along the Silk Road, and then throughout the rest of China - which can be seen as Silk Road "trade" in ideas - also accelerated.
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