The Western Thousand Buddhas Caves are located in the city of Dunhuang, in present-day Gansu Province. Dunhuang itself is an old city, and was an important stopover point on the Silk Road. Indeed, it was as such that the city came to be host to such a large number of artistic and religious influences such as those represented by the Mogao Grottoes and the Western Thousand Buddhas Caves. As the world's masses are now becoming increasingly aware (scholars have always known it), the Silk Road represented more than just an exchange of commodities from East to West and vice-versa, it was also a route that fostered a great deal of traffic in ideas, especially religious thought that travelled from West to East.
Though Islam would eventually find its way eastward along the Silk Road, the first religion to traverse the Silk Road eastwards was Buddhism. It became standard procedure from the late 4th century onwards for Buddhist monks from India to install themselves in important cities along the Silk Road, and there teach their Chinese disciples. The city of Dunhuang became such 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. Zhu Fahu, a Chinese disciple of one such Indian Buddhist monk – whose Sinicized name was Zhu Gaozuo – organized a team of translators in Dunhuang who translated Buddhist texts to Mandarin Chinese. Zhu Fahu eventually came to be known as "the Bodhisattva of Dunhuang."
Soon temples began to appear, and with temples came not only religious texts, but also religious art. In the mountainous area around Dunhuang, cave temples, or grottoes, became the norm, and thus developed the grotto art that came to define the city of Dunhuang. The many grottoes in the Dunhuang area were built – and/or added to – over a long period, beginning in the late 4th century and ending a thousand years later, in the 14th century (to put it in Imperial Chinese dynastic terms, these grottoes were built during a period stretching from the Eastern Jin (CE 317-420) Dynasty to the Yuan (CE 1279-1368) Dynasty).
The grottoes of Western Thousand Buddhas Caves are carved into a bluff on the north bank of the Dang River, some 30 kilometers southwest of the city of Dunhuang. The "Western" part of the name is owing to the fact that this set of Buddhist grottoes is located west of the more famous grottoes of the village of Mogao on Mingsha Sand Dune, while the "Thousand Buddhas Caves" part of the name is something of a generic term throughout China, if not throughout the Buddhist world.
In all, 22 grottoes were built on this site (most of these particular grottoes were built during the Northern Wei (CE 386-533) Dynasty), though only 16 of them have "survived" (the ravages of nature, including floods, have taken their toll, with parts of some grottoes being completely washed out, and others with the front half – the part facing the river – washed away). At present, only 9 of the grottoes are suitable for viewing by tourists – the other 7 grottoes can be viewed from the outside, but cannot be entered.
The overall plan of each grotto as well as its painted sculptures, murals and other artistic ornamentation, are all similar. However, Grotto No. 5 is especially significant among the Western Thousand Buddhas Caves because it contains an original hand-written text by the famous Buddhist disciple, Xuanzang*, in honor of his parents and his deceased grandparents. This authentic hand-writing belongs to the Northern Wei Dynasty period (more than 70 Chinese characters of the text can be identified as belonging to that period), and is therefore of great historical value.
The Western Thousand Buddhas Caves are considered by experts of Buddhist art as an integral part of the Buddhist grotto art of Dunhuang. Indeed, some archeological experts believe that the Western Thousand Buddhas Caves may have been built prior to the more famous Mogao Grottoes, which are located in the same geographical area, since the experience gained in creating this first set of grottoes directly contributed to the superior beauty of the grottoes of Magao. The Western Thousand Buddhas Caves were granted official protection by the Chinese Government in 1961 and placed under the auspices of Dunhuang Cultural Relic Research Institute.
* The Chinese Buddhist monk, Xuanzang, was the main source of inspiration for the Hungarian-born archeological explorer and Silk Road expert, Sir Marc Aurel Stein. Xuanzang set out for India from his home in China in order to learn first-hand about the teachings of Buddhism, so that he could bring back to the people of China a better understanding of this important new (to China at the time) religion. Xuanzang's "travel annals" gave a fairly good description of the cities along the southern route of the Silk Road, which descriptions helped Sir Marc Aurel Stein, centuries later, to determine that the ancient Silk Road city of Khotan must necessarily lie beneath the present-day city of Yotkan, in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. To learn more about this fascinating discovery, click here.