The Mogao Caves or Mogao Grottoes, also known as the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas, form a system of 492 temples 25 km (16 mi) southeast of the center of Dunhuang
, an oasis strategically located at a religious and cultural crossroads on the Silk Road, in Gansu province, China
The caves may also be known as the Dunhuang Caves, however, this term also include other Buddhist cave sites in the Dunhuang area, such as the Western Thousand Buddha Caves, and the Yulin Caves farther away. The caves contain some of the finest examples of Buddhist art spanning a period of 1,000 years.
The first caves were dug out 366 AD as places of Buddhist meditation and worship. The Mogao Caves are the best known of the Chinese Buddhist grottoes and, along with Longmen Grottoes and Yungang Grottoes, are one of the three famous ancient Buddhist sculptural sites of China.
Dunhuang was established as a frontier garrison outpost by the Han Dynasty Emperor Wudi to protect against the Xiongnu in 111 BC. It also became an important gateway to the West, a centre of commerce along the Silk Road, as well as a meeting place of various people and religions such as Buddhism.
The construction of the Mogao Caves near Dunhuang is generally taken to have begun sometime in the fourth century AD. According to a book written during the reign of Tang Empress Wu, Fokan Ji by Li Junxiu, a Buddhist monk named Lè Zūn had a vision of a thousand Buddhas bathed in golden light at the site in 366 AD, inspiring him to build a cave here.
The Library Cave:
The cave no. 17 discovered by Wang Yuanlu came to be known as the Library Cave. It is sited off the entrance leading to cave no.16, and was originally used as a memorial cave for a local monk Hongbian on his death in 862 AD. Hongbian, from a wealthy Wu family, was responsible for the construction of cave 16, and the Library Cave may have been used as his retreat in his lifetime.
The manuscripts from the Library Cave date from fifth century until early eleventh century when it was sealed. Up to 50,000 manuscripts may have been kept there, one of the greatest treasure trove of ancient documents found. While most of them are in Chinese, large number of documents are in various other languages such as Tibetan, Uigur, Sanskrit, and Sogdian, including the then little known Khotanese. They may be old hemp paper scrolls in Chinese and many other languages, Tibetan pothis, and paintings on hemp, silk or paper.
The art of Dunhuang covers more than ten major genres, such as architecture, stucco sculpture, wall paintings, silk paintings, calligraphy, woodblock printing, embroidery, literature, music and dance, and popular entertainment.
Many of the early caves followed the central column style of cave construction seen in places such as Ajanta Caves in India
. The central column represent the stupa round which worshippers may circumambulate and gain blessings. Others are hall caves influenced by traditional Chinese and Buddhist temple architecture. These caves may have a truncated pyramidal ceiling sometimes painted to resemble a tent, or they may have a flat or gabled ceiling that imitates traditional buildings.
The murals on the caves spanned a long period of history, from the 5th to the 14th century. The murals are extensive, covering an area of 490,000 square feet (45,000 m²). They are valued for the scale and richness of content as well as their artistry.
The murals are largely of Buddhist theme, some however are of traditional mythical themes and portraits of patrons. These murals document the changing styles of Buddhist art in China for nearly a thousand years. The artistry of the murals reached its apogee during the Tang period, and the quality of the art work dropped after the tenth century.
There are around 2,400 surviving clay sculptures at Mogao. These were first constructed on a wooden frame, padded with reed, then modelled in clay stucco, and finished with paint. The giant statues however have a stone core. The Buddha is generally shown as the central statue, often attended by boddhisattvas, heavenly kings, devas, apsaras, along with yaksas and other mythical creatures.
The textiles found in the Library Cave include silk banners, altar hangings, and monks' apparel. The monks normally used fabrics consisting of patchwork of different pieces of cloth, these therefore provide valuable insight into the various type of silk cloth and embroidery available at the time. Silk banners were used to adorn the cliff-face at the caves during festivals, and these are painted and may be embroidered.
The caves were cut into the side of a cliff which is close to two kilometers long. At its height during the Tang Dynasty, there were more than a thousands caves, but over time, many of the caves were lost, including the earliest caves. 735 caves currently exist in Mogao, the best-known ones are the 487 caves located in the southern section of the cliff which are places of pilgrimage and worship.