Mogao Grottoes Records Ancient China

25 kilometers southeast of Dunhuang are the Mogao Grottoes. It is a 5-layer grotto complex carved out of sheer precipices at the eastern foot of the Mingsha Shan (Echo Sand Mountain), extending about 1,600 meters from south to north.

According to Tang Dynasty records, a monk had witnessed onsite a vision of thousand Buddhas under showers of golden rays. Thus inspired, he started the caves construction work that spanned ten dynasties. This is also why Mogao Grottoes are commonly known as the Thousand Buddha Caves.

The earliest carving began in 366; then a large grotto complex was gradually created between the Sixteen Kingdoms Period (304-439) and the Yuan Dynasty (1206-1368). Being a gigantic, elegant palace of art, the whole grotto complex is the world’s largest, best-preserved treasure-house of Buddhist scriptures, sculptures, murals, and architectural designs.

Mogao Grottoes are cavern constructions containing color statues and frescos. Over 1000 caves were cut, of which 492 remain today. Each cave and each mural has its own story. The frescoes evolve one story after another, telling of the strife between the good and the evil and the extreme happy life in the paradise.

The traveler will note traces of Indian Buddhist art in the earlier works. More recent works depict all walks of life and activities in a local setting. You will relive the daily routines and special events as captured by the artists while you are exploring the 750 caves. There are also ups and downs in the artistic quality over the centuries, depending on the fortunes of Buddhism with available art patronage. Artists in each dynasty painted with their distinctive palette. The visitor can tell the works in the Tang Dynasty from those in the Song Dynasty.

The construction way of the grotto is artistic itself. Mogao sculptors improvised where the rock surface did not work well under their chisels. They placed clay statues in front of the cave walls, carved relief murals as backdrops, and painted the sidewalls and ceilings with art decors.

Mogao Grottoes

Left: “Bodhisattva”-- Statue in Cave 159, Tang Dynasty (618-907).

Right:“Heavenly King”-- Statue in Cave 45, Tang Dynasty (618-907).