The Mogao Grottoes in China, the Legendary Home to a Thousand Buddhas and a Hidden Library
The Mogao Grottoes, known also as the Mogao Caves, the Dunhuang Caves, or the Thousand Buddha Caves, are a network of Buddhist cave temples in China. This site is located near the city of Dunhuang in the northwestern Chinese province of Gansu. This ancient city was once located in an oasis on a strategic point of the ancient Silk Road. Thus, Dunhuang was a center where not only trade, but also cultural, religious, and intellectual exchanges took place. The Mogao Grottoes serve as a testimony to the high level of sophistication that was achieved by Dunhuang during its heyday.
The Legend of Le Zun’s Thousand Buddhas
The Mogao Grottoes are famed for their statues and wall paintings, and it is best known for its showcase of a thousand years of Buddhist art. According to one source, the Mogao Grottoes have been described as “the largest, most richly endowed, and longest used treasure house of Buddhist art in the world”. The Mogao Grottoes span a distance of 1.6 km (0.99 miles) from north to south, and contain as many as 492 known cells and cave sanctuaries. Within these, more than 2000 painted sculptures and about 45,000 square meters (484375.97 sq. ft.) of murals can be found.
Dunhuang Mogao Grottoes. ( Public Domain )
According to tradition, the first temple in the Mogao Grottoes was made in 366 AD. A legend, said to have originated during the Tang Dynasty, credits a Buddhist monk by the name of Le Zun / Yue Zun as the founder of this temple complex. In this legend, the monk had a vision of a thousand Buddhas.
Inspired by what he saw, the monk decided to build a temple, and is said to have succeeded in convincing a wealthy Silk Road merchant to fund his project. Soon, others followed Le Zun’s examples, and carved their own temples into the sandstone cliffs.
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The following centuries saw the rise and fall of numerous dynasties in China. Nevertheless, each new dynasty added to the artwork of the Mogao Grottoes. Activity in the Mogao Grottoes reached its peak during the Tang Dynasty, as it was during this time that Buddhism was established all over China.
Additionally, the rulers of the Tang Dynasty were great patrons of the Buddhist faith, and the number of cave temples in operation during this period of time exceeded 1000. As new trade routes became utilized more often in the following centuries, the importance of Dunhuang also declined. Sometime during the 14th century AD, after the fall of the Yuan Dynasty, the Mogao Grottoes were sealed off, abandoned, and largely forgotten by the rest of the world.
Reclining Buddha in cave 148, second largest reclining figure in Mogao. High Tang period (CC BY-SA 4.0 )
Library Cave Discovery
Whilst the Mogao Grottoes are said to have been visited by pilgrims even after its abandonment, it gained international interest in 1900. It was during this year that a Taoist priest by the name of Wang Yuanlu made an amazing discovery by accident. Wang is said to have been the self-appointed guardian of some of the site’s cave temples, and was responsible for conserving the site. In 1900, a hidden door was stumbled upon whilst sand from Cave 16 was being cleared away.
Abbot Wang Yuanlu, discoverer of the hidden Library Cave. ( Public Domain )
Behind this secret door was a small cave filled with ancient manuscripts, sutras as well as paintings on silk and paper, dating from the 4th to the 11th centuries AD. This chamber was originally constructed as a memorial cave for a local monk on his death in the 9th century AD. Due to the discovery of the cache of documents within it, however, it is known today as the ‘Library Cave’. This hidden chamber, which has also been designated ‘Cave 17’, is believed to have been sealed up during the 11th century AD.
At that time, the significance of this discovery was not realized in China. Following his find, Wang went to the county town to report what he happened upon to the local authorities, who were not interested in it at all. Over the next few years, Wang is reported to have attempted to convince several government officials of the value of his discovery, in the hopes that more preservation work might be done, but to no avail. The lack of interest shown by the Chinese officials eventually led to the fall of these priceless documents into the hands of Western scholars.
Picture of Cave 16, by Aurel Stein in 1907, with manuscripts piled up beside the entrance to Cave 17, the Library Cave. ( Public Domain )
In 1907, Aurel Stein, a Hungarian working for the British, visited the grottoes, and succeeded in persuading Wang to sell a large number of manuscripts and paintings from the ‘Library Cave’. In the following year, a Frenchman by the name of Paul Pelliot managed to negotiate a similar deal with Wang.
It was only in 1961 that the importance of the Mogao Grottoes was finally recognized by the Chinese authorities, and was declared as a national monument. In 1987, the Mogao Grottoes were inscribed as a World Heritage site. Over the years, this site has become a tourist attraction, and archaeological as well as conservation work are being carried out there.
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Paul Pelliot examining manuscripts in the Library Cave, 1908. ( Public Domain )
Featured image: A Buddha inside a Mogao Cave. Photo source: ( CC BY-NC 3.0 )
By Wu Mingren
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