A thousand Buddhas, a thousand years of history

Magnificent desert grottoes unlock secrets of an old Silk Road crossroads of trade, culture, art and religion.
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The Mogao grottoes, known as Caves of the Thousand Buddhas, were listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987.

As the world’s largest treasury of Buddhist art, the Mogao Caves in northwestern China are a living record of the historic Silk Road.

Located in Dunhuang, Gansu Province, the caves contain frescos, paintings, sculptures and other relics of pre-11th century eras.

In 1987, the grottoes, also known as Caves of the Thousand Buddhas, were listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Research on them has never stopped.

It is believed that construction of the Mogao Caves began in AD 336, when a Buddhist master named Le Zun arrived in the area and witnessed auspicious visions — rays of golden lights shining on the Echo Sand Mountain, or Mingsha Mountain, as if 1,000 Buddhas were giving their blessing. The master immediately decided to dig a cave to worship the Buddha.

His modest tribute expanded in the ensuing millennia, covering seven dynasties of ancient China. The expansion basically stopped after the Yuan Dynasty (1276-1368).

Dunhuang is a testament to the prosperity of the old Silk Road. The location of the city on the ancient trade route turned it into a cultural hub between the East and the West.

Built in a vast oasis of the Taklimakan Desert, Dunhuang was one of the first Chinese cities Western traders entered on the Silk Road. It was also a holy destination that attracted Buddhist pilgrims. Monks and other believers left behind many items of daily life that contributed to knowledge of that historic period.

Indeed, the Mogao Caves are not only about Buddhism but also about the social mores and even science of ancient China.

That is important because the history of this segment of the Silk Road was never recorded in detail in ancient Chinese texts. Scrolls found in the caves filled in the blanks.

The Library Cave has collected more than 40,000 relics, including scriptures, scrolls and silk paintings, that describe how trade was transacted along the Silk Road between AD 405 and 1002. Many of the scrolls were written in Sogdian and Uygur languages, which means some of them were written by foreign traders living in Dunhuang at the time.

The scrolls tell us that goods came from as far away as the Scandinavian countries, including metal products, perfume, celestite, amber and coral. The markets in Dunhuang were overflowing with merchandise that included wool, cotton products, silk, tea, pottery, herbal medicines, dried fruits and spices.

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In Cave 158, a large reclining Buddha covers the entire length of the hall.

Frescos in the caves also depict the sports of ancient Chinese. Cave 61, for example, has a fresco showing a sword dance, while a fresco in Cave 290 is about a wrestling match.

On the east cliff of Echo Sand Mountain, a nine-story pagoda marks the entrance to the caves. Rebuilt in the early 20th century, the pagoda covers 735 caves deep inside the mountain.

The caves are divided into two parts. The southern part served as religious venues for Buddhist worship and ceremonies; the northern one contained living quarters and the graveyard of monks.

The frescos and painted statues are mostly found in the southern part. Artworks dating before the 6th century mainly center on the life of the Buddha, while those after that date focus more on myths in Buddhism scriptures.

It’s a pity that visitors get only a tiny peep into the caves. Public viewing is carefully contained to protect the relics. No one is allowed to wander around the caves. Only guided tours are available. Taking photos inside the caves is also banned. During busy seasons, visitors can tour six to eight caves, rising to 10 during the off season.

Several of the caves shouldn’t be missed.

Cave 96, dug in the 7th century, contains a Maitreya Buddha statue that is the largest sculpture of the entire cave network. The 35.5-meter-high statue is typical of the style of the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907), with its round face, full lips, slender eyes and plump body. The Buddha’s expression is tranquil.

Records show the statue was sculpted by a monk and a lay Buddhist. It’s not clear whether later restoration retained the original look of the statue.

Liu Qi / SHINE

Cave 275 features an impressive sculpture of Maitreya, the Buddha of the future, flanked by two lions.

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In Cave 112, the fresco “Flying Gandharva with Pipa” is an icon of the entire Dunhuang art collection.

Liu Qi / SHINE

Cave 320 exemplifies the artistic brilliance of the prime time of the Tang Dynasty.

Liu Qi / SHINE
Liu Qi / SHINE
Liu Qi / SHINE

In Cave 112, the fresco “Flying Gandharva with Pipa” is an icon of the entire Dunhuang art collection. The pipa is a stringed musical instrument that appears more than 600 times in the cave frescos, but this one is the most eye-catching. It portraits the Gandharva, or flying Apsaras, playing the Chinese lute.

The painting, created in the Tang Dynasty, shows the influence of ancient regions to the west, including China’s Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, Central Asia and the Middle East. The fresco is a result of cultural exchanges between China and regions to the west during the Tang era.

Another popular site is the Library Cave gallery. In the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), when foreign explorers discovered Dunhuang, they ransacked the Library Cave and transported many of the relics overseas. The library today contains replicas of the relics and the history of looting by European archeologists.

It is impossible for visitors to see all the caves, which perhaps explains why Dunhuang exhibitions held from time to time all over China and the world are so popular.

The next exhibition in Shanghai will be held at the Shanghai Tower, beginning on April 28 and lasting a year.

It will showcase 117 relics from Mogao Caves and other historical sites in western China. Three caves, representing three distinct styles of different eras, will be replicated in digital format.

Architect and artist Mi Qiu, planner of the exhibition, spent the last three years in Dunhuang, helping build a digital database of the Mogao Caves. He says he has developed a strong personal connection with the site.

Ti Gong

Brick mural “Postman,” excavated from the Grave 5 of the Weijin Tombs at Jiayu Pass, will be exhibited in Shanghai in April.

A thangka featuring Milarepa, one of Tibet’s most famous yogis and poets, will be shown in Shanghai.

Ti Gong

A bronze cooking vessel

“When you are binge studying the documents and artworks, you keep thinking over and over, ‘What made people back then create such magnificent pieces’,” says Mi. “You can feel that the artists, mostly monks, were in a state of pure bliss, and that gave me new insights into Buddhism and the concept of happiness.”

New technologies will be employed in the exhibition to enable visitors to view immovable sculptures from different perspectives. Three-dimensional holographic images of Buddha’s Nirvana and Thousand-hand Kwan-yin will be the highlight.

During the exhibition, more than 50 events related to Dunhuang culture will be held for those who want to immerse themselves in a truly unique experience.

“The exhibition seeks to link the past with the future,” says Mi. “The value and inspiration of the Mogao Caves as well as the Silk Road will never fade with time.”

How to get there:

There’s no direct flight from Shanghai to Dunhuang. A stopover has to be made in Xi’an, Xining or Lanzhou.

Visitors need to make appointment on the website (www.mgk.org.cn) at least one month ahead of arrival because the caves admit only 6,000 visitors a day.

Tours start at the Mogao Caves Visitor Center, where visitors can watch a digital version of seven caves. The center is near the Dunhuang Railway Station.

The admission fee is 100 yuan during the off season between November 1 and April 30, and 200 yuan for the peak season between May 1 and October 31. The admission includes the digital cave display, cave and gallery visitation and shuttle buses to the site.

There are special caves open during the off season. Visitors can call 4008-333-715 for more information. The special cave visit costs another 150-200 yuan.

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Maijishan, or Mountain of Haystack, is known for Buddhist sculptures.

Another Silk Road site of ancient sculpture

Near the city of Tianshui in Gansu Province, the Maijishan Grottoes offer some Buddhist art as gorgeous as that of Mogao Caves.

While the Mogao Caves are mostly known for their frescos, the grottoes of Maijishan are known for their sculptures.

Maijishan, or Mountain of Haystack, is a lone peak in the Xiaolong Mountains range. The name is taken from its shape, which looks just like a haystack rising from the rocks.

In 2014, the grottoes were listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

First dug in AD 384-417, the complex has 221 caves with more than 10,000 sculptures and vast areas of frescos. Its art creation continued for more than 1,600 years.

It is recorded that around AD 734, a massive earthquake divided the peak into two, demolishing the middle section. Both parts remaining have their highlights.

In the east part, the Nirvana Grotto is supported by four short stone pillars. On the top of the pillars, the traditional brackets are replaced by reliefs of the Buddhist artifact “flame orbs,” which is unique in cave temple construction.

Stone Buddha statues are found mostly in the western part. The statues show the worldly side of the Buddhas — all of them looking down with kind expressions.

Judging from the posture and clothing of the statues, most of them are typical ethnic Han style.

How to get there: Fly from Shanghai to Xi’an and then transfer to Tianshui. Buses No. 5 and 34 from downtown Tianshui will drop you at the parking lot of the grotto complex. The admission fee is 90 yuan.

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