Caves of the Thousand Buddhas: The Mogao Caves
The Mogao Caves of Dunhuang, China has been a treasure house of art, spanning over 1,000 years. In each and every one of its 492 Buddhist cave chapels, you will find floor-to-ceiling paintings and clay sculptures as it was previously used for devotions and meditation. The art inside here 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. But all these only existed because of one man’s vision.
The legend is that in 366 AD, a monk named Le Zun looked across the river at dawn and saw a thousand Buddhas appear on the golden cliff face of Mingsha mountain along the old Silk Road. The caves were then built by monks and mostly sponsored by patrons such as wealthy merchants, foreign dignitaries, as well as Chinese emperors.
But when trade in the Silk Road stopped, Dunhuang was soon forgotten and eventually, the Mogao caves were abandoned. The site however was still a place of pilgrimage and was used as a place of worship by the local people of the 20th century when there was renewed awareness in its presence once more.
Below are some featured carvings and statues in Mogao Caves:
#1 Stupa of Wang Yuanlu
Most of the discoveries came from a Chinese Taoist monk named Wang Yuanlu who appointed himself as the guardian. The caves at that time were badly neglected, but Monk Wang recognized their value and instituted a program of refurbishment, funded by whatever donations he could gather.
He then made one of the great discoveries in Chinese archaeology: an amazing cache, of over 50,000 documents and paintings, that had been hidden in Mogao Cave #17. Much of this treasure would be removed, in the following decades, by European archaeologists such as Aurel Stein who befriended the naive monk. They convinced him to sell many of the manuscripts for very small sums of money, which he then used to finance his misguided restorations.
Wang Yuanlu’s remains are interred in this stupa.
#2 Library Cave
The Cave #17 discovered by Wang Yuanlu came to be known as the Library Cave, it was walled off sometime early in the 11th century. A number of theories have been proposed as the reason for sealing the caves. Stein first proposed that the cave had become a waste repository for venerable, damaged and used manuscripts and hallowed paraphernalia and then sealed perhaps when the place came under threat. Another suggestion is that the cave was simply used as a book storehouse for documents which accumulated over a century and a half, then sealed up when it became full.
Others, such as Pelliot, suggested that the monks hurriedly hid the documents in advance of an attack by invaders.
#3 Bodhisattva and Ananda with Lokapala Statues
In Cave #45, this group of statues is part of nine original figures (seven now remain) on the West Wall of the cave. All three are listening to the Buddha, while expressing their individual natures and roles: Kasyapa gives a blessing, the graceful Bodhisattva stands in attendance, and the Lokapala guards the sacred space.
#4 Dancer Holding A Pipa Behind Her Back
One of the 450,000 square feet of murals of Mogao Caves can be found in Cave #112. The first rock-and-roller to play an electric guitar behind his back might well have congratulated himself on the innovation, except for this pictorial evidence from 1200 years earlier. The entertainer is dancing, surrounded by an orchestra, barefoot upon a carpet, while holding a pipa (lute) behind her back. This has always been interpreted as playing the pipa behind her back, although that is not quite what the picture indicates (the angle of its neck shows that the front of the instrument is facing the viewer, while her right hand is supporting its back).
Since the image is part of a Pure Land (Amida’s Western Paradise) scene in the cave, it must depict a celestial dancer, as her costume also indicates; however, it is easy to imagine similar entertainments being enacted in reality for the enjoyment of travelers along the Silk Road.
#5 The Maitreya
In Cave #275, the colossal (10ft high) Buddha Of The Future sits in typical cross-legged posture. His left hand is in varada (giving) mudra; his now-missing right hand presumably displayed fear-not. He is shown, wearing the crown and jewels of a Bodhisattva, as he waits in Tushita heaven to be incarnated as the Buddha of the next age.
According to Robert L. Thorp (Chinese Art & Culture, p.162), “Much of its surface is covered with later repainting, but the robe covering both shoulders, the ridges on the skirt, and the flattened sashes on the base are likely to be original.”
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