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Mogao Grottoes (Mogao Shiku)

Located on the eastern slope of Rattling Sand Mountain (Mingshashan) southeast of Dunhuang County in Gansu Province. the Mogao Grottoes (also known as Thousand Buddha Cave) is one of four noted grottoes in China and also the largest, best preserved and richest treasure house of Buddhist art in the world.
In AD 366, during the Eastern Jin Dynasty, a monk named Yue Seng chiseled the first cave here. The endeavor continued through later dynasties, including the Northern Wei (386-534), Western Wei (535-556), Northern Zhou (557-581), Sui (581-618), Tang (618-907), Five Dynasties (907-960), Song (960-1279), Western Xia (1038-1227) and Yuan (1279-1368), resulting in the fantastic group of caves that can been seen today.
Today, 492 caves still stand, containing some 2,100 colored statues and 45,000 square meters of murals. These murals, if joined together, would cover a length of 30 kilometers. The caves vary in size. The smallest one just allows a head's
space, while the largest one stretches from the foot to the top of the mountain, having a height of over 40 meters. The colored statues also differ in size, ranging from a few centimeters to 33 meters high, embodying the remarkable imagination of their makers.
Despite years of erosion, the murals are still brightly colored, with clear lines. Through pictures of different styles and schools drawn in different historical periods, they tell Buddhist stories and ways as well as life in the secular world. All these, plus a largest quantity of Buddhist sutras and relics kept in the caves have provided valuable material for a study of ancient China's politics, economy, and culture and arts, as well as its science and technology, military affairs, and religion, documenting national history as well as cultural exchanges between China and the world.
In 1987, UNESCO placed the Mogao Grottoes under the protection of the world cultural heritage list.
Mogao Grottoes In Dunhuang About 25 km. southeast away from the downtown of Dunhuang city, Mogao Grottoes had been carved on the cliff at the eastern foot of MingshaSand dunes since 366.  This Cave Complex has 491 grottoes well remained with over 2400 Buddhist statues and 45000-sq.m of murals. Known as The Art Treasure House in the World,It was listed as the World Cultural Heritage by UNESCO in December 1987.
The art features of Mogao Grottoes, as an organic integration of architecture, sculpture and murals, systematically recorded a variety of aspects of cultural exchanges between China and the West during more than ten dynasties lasting for 1000 years from the Sixteen Kingdoms to Yuan Dynasty, which has become the rare cultural treasures and wealth of the human beings.Now the "Dunhuangology" has been studyied comparatively worldwide.With the contribution from Japan, the Dunhuang Art Exhibition Center which imitated some of the essential original caves has been built up by Dunhuang Research Institute at the foot of Sanwei Mountain that oppositing to Mogao Grottoes, which made the visiting more colourful


Dunhuang Caves In China


Dunhuang has 492 caves, with 45,000 square meters of frescos, 2, 415 painted statues and five wooden-structured caves.

The Mogao Grottoes contain priceless paintings, sculptures, some 50,000 Buddhist scriptures, historical documents, textiles, and other relics that first stunned the world in the early 1900s.

Dunhuang is an oasis town in Chinese Central Asia west of Xian, a former capital of China.

To the west of Dunhuang lies the Taklamakan Desert. The silk road coming from the west split to follow the northern and southern borders of the desert where there were many small oases.

Dunhuang was the town where the two branches of the silk road rejoined for the final leg into China's capital.

The cave-temples near the town of Dunhuang form what is arguably the world's most extraordinary gallery of Buddhist art: a gallery whose magnificent mural paintings and stucco sculptures were not collected from distant sources but were created in situ over a period of nearly a thousand years. Moreover, one particular cave contained a sealed library whose contents, consisting of written documents, silk paintings and woodblock prints, reflect contacts with every major Buddhist centre of both Central Asia and the Chinese empire.

The town was founded by Emperor Wudi of the Han dynasty in 111 BC as one of the four garrison commanderies which assured Chinese control over the trade routes to the western regions. For several hundred years after the collapse of the Han empire (206 BC-220 AD), the area was subjected to successive waves of invasions, which often caused great upheaval. For example, in 439, conquest of the area by the Northern Wei (386-535) led to a relocation of thirty thousand of its inhabitants to the dynastic capital in Shanxi province.

In 781, during the Tang dynasty (618-906), Dunhuang surrendered to the Tibetans after ten years' resistance. When Chinese rule was restored in 848, one local family assumed power, to be followed in the tenth century by other powerful clans. Dunhuang was last considered a place of importance when it was under the control of the Western Xia kingdom (990-1227) and the Mongol Yuan dynasty (1271-1368).

From the time of the Han to the end of the Yuan, a most important trade route developed from China to the West, which later became known by the marvelously evocative name, The Silk Road. The ancient traveler leaving China along this road would pass through Dunhuang before braving the many hazards of the journey westwards through East Turkestan (present-day Xinjiang). Dunhuang has a special place in history because of its location close to the parting of the northern and southern routes that skirted the impassable Taklamakan desert.

Silk was traded along this seven thousand kilometre braid of caravan trails from China right across Asia to the eastern Roman empire on the shores of the Mediterranean, and also to south Asia. Persian and Sogdian merchants travelled the whole length, and were such familiar sights in the Chinese capitals Chang'an (present-day Xi'an) and Luoyang that they can frequently be found, for example, portrayed on Tang dynasty figurines.

This route was also used by Buddhist monks from China and Korea traveling west in search of images and scriptures, and by ambassadors and princes from the west making the long journey to China. It was by means of the Silk Road that all manner of exotic imports reached China, as diplomatic gifts or through trade, and mainly in exchange for silks: vessels made of gold and silver and the techniques for working these metals; fine glass; fragrances and spices; exotic animals such as lions and ostriches; new fruits such as grapes; dancers, musicians and their instruments.

After the splendours of the Tang dynasty, however, trade along the Silk Road was severely curtailed, and Dunhuang was left in isolation. Later trade between China and Europe was entirely by sea. By the late nineteenth century, with the decline of Chinese imperial power, the whole of Central Asia, including Dunhuang, was a political void which invited foreign interest from many sides, including Britain, France, Germany, Russia and Japan. This provided the opportunity for the "rediscovery" of ancient cultures and treasures along the trade routes.

It was not just merchandise, technology and culture that passed along the Silk Road. From the early centuries AD, learned monks from the monastic centres of Central Asia imparted their knowledge and interpretations of the scriptures to their Chinese counterparts by way of these trade routes.

Representatives of Zoroastrianism, the ancient Persian dualist religion, and of Nestorianism, an Eastern Christian sect, also reached China and established themselves there.

Founded in the sixth century BC, Buddhism soon began expanding northwards from the foothills of the Himalayas. In the third century BC, under its most influential convert, the Indian emperor Asoka, it was dispersed by missionaries across Central Asia, where it remained dominant for about a thousand years, until invaders in the seventh century AD brought in Islam.

In China itself, Buddhism was introduced probably as early as the first century BC, with communities of Buddhist monks in existence by the first century AD. Learned Buddhist monks became valued as palace advisors, and it was through imperial and aristocratic patronage that Buddhism made its first substantial progress in the empire. Because of its vitally important position on the Silk Road, virtually every stage of this progress is chronicled in the caves at Dunhuang.

Mogao Grottoes

Northern end of the Mogao cliff face, pitted with caves for shelter

The Mogao Grottoes of Dunhuang, popularly known as the Thousand Buddha Caves, were carved out of the rocks stretching for about 1,600 meters along the eastern side of the Mingsha Hill, 25 km southeast of Dunhuang.

A Tang Dynasty inscription records that the first cave in the Mogao Grottoes was made in 366 A.D. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) listed the Mogao Grottoes on the World Heritage List in 1987.

Despite erosion and man-made destruction, the 492 caves are well preserved, with frescoes covering an area of 45,000 square metres, more than 2,000 colored sculptured figures and five wooden eaves overhanging the caves.

Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara

According to archaeologists, it is the greatest and most consummate repository of Buddhist art in the world.

Heavenly Being

Many pavilions, towers, temples, pagodas, palaces, courtyards, towns and bridges in the murals provide valuable materials for the study of Chinese architecture. Other paintings depict Chinese and foreign musical performances, dancing and acrobatics.

The 'Cave for Preserving Scriptures', was discovered by a Taoist monk Wang Yuanlu in 1900. The cave contains more than 50,000 sutras, documents and paintings covering a period from the 4th to the 11th centuries. It was one of China's most significant archaeological finds. These precious relics are of great historical and scientific value.

Detail from the Procession of Zhang Yichao

In 1961 the Grottoes were listed by the State Council as one of China's key historical and cultural sites. Repairs were carried out from 1963 to 1965.

Between 1906 and 1919 the Dunhuang grottoes was looted. Much of the Hand-copied ancient books, manuscripts, literary works, Buddhist and secular decorative art works, and ancient manuscripts were removed by Aurel Stein, Paul Pelliot, Sergei Feodorovich Oldenburg and other archaeologists.

Chinese scholars such as Luo Zhenyu and Wang Guowei cultivated the study of Dunhuang culture by publishing a number of books in 1910. The Dunhuang Art Academy was established by Chang Shuhong later.

The site lay empty and ignored until a secret sealed-up cave was discovered at the end of the 19th century. It was crammed with ancient manuscripts and printed documents. Its discovery coincided with a period of great international archaeological research in the area and Sir Aurel Stein was the first to gain access in 1907. Thereafter archaeologists from France, Russia and China were drawn to Dunhuang and the great majority of manuscripts and documents from this one cave are now in Beijing, Paris, London and St. Petersburg. Documents and paintings from other Silk Road towns are to be found more widely in museums and libraries throughout Europe and Asia.

Apart from 14,000 paper scrolls and fragments from this cave at Dunhuang, the British Library Stein collection includes several thousand woodslips and woodslip fragments with Chinese writing, thousands of Tibetan and Tangut manuscripts, Prakrit wooden tablets in Brahmi and Kharosthi scripts, along with documents in Khotanese, Uighur, Sogdian and Eastern Turkic. All this material is included in The International Dunhuang Project and will be entered onto the Project database.

More Brief:

Here is the biggest, best-preserved, and most significant site of Buddhist statuary and frescoes in all of China -- and the best-curated site, too. A guide is compulsory, as is leaving your bag and camera (no charge) at the gate. Generally the guides, who all have bachelor's degrees, are excellent, sometimes going well beyond the script. Tours, which depart every few minutes and are limited to about 20 people, usually take 2 hours and cover half of the caves that are open to the public. It is worth spending the entire day at Mogao Shiku, even though this means that you have to pay for admission twice. Tours in the afternoon are less crowded, and you may get a guide to yourself. Or come right as the caves open in the morning, before the tour groups arrive. You might be able to successfully lobby for your own private tour guide by telling them it's unfair that they charge foreigners ¥20 ($2.50) more than Chinese tourists (which they might counter by saying that English-speaking guides demand more money).

To the left of the ticket office is the Dunhuang Research Institute, which includes a copy of the one of the earliest grottoes, Cave 275, dating from the short-lived 5th-century Northern Liang dynasty, and including a Jataka (moral story) from one of the historical Buddha's previous lives. He is depicted as a Kushan king, allowing an attendant to cut the flesh from his leg as ransom for a dove that sits in his palm. Jataka were popular in the early caves, gradually being displaced by stories from the Mahayanist sutras in later caves as the influence of the "Pure Land Sect" of Chinese Buddhism grew. The subject matter of these Jataka was frequently gory. Cave 285, for example, tells the tale of 500 rebels who fought against the corrupt King Prasenajit and had their eyes gouged out and were banished to the wilderness before the gods took pity on them and allowed them to be tonsured as monks, their sight restored by the Buddha. Upstairs is a somewhat out-of-place exhibition of Tibetan bronze statues, both complete and beheaded, that were rescued from Red Guards by the canny curator.

All together, there are 492 caves, of which you will see less than a dozen on the 2-hour tour. Your first stop on the tour will be Cave 17 (the Library Cave). The cave was sealed off sometime after 998 (the year of the last dated manuscript), perhaps out of fear of the spread of Islam -- the Buddhist kingdom of Khotan was captured and sacked in 1006. In 1900, the cave was rediscovered by Wang Daoshi (Abbot Wang), the self-appointed guardian of the caves. First among the villains was archaeologist Aurel Stein, a Hungarian who obtained British citizenship (and later a knighthood), who arrived during the winter of 1907. The Chinese commentary is only slightly more damning than the English translation, accusing Stein of "purchasing by deceit" over 7,000 complete manuscripts and silk paintings from the "ignorant" Abbott Wang for a paltry £130. Next came young French Sinologist Paul Pelliot, whose mastery of Chinese gave him a selectivity his predecessor lacked -- Stein returned to London with over 1,000 copies of the Lotus Sutra. Pelliot obtained thousands of documents for even less -- only £90! The Chinese save their greatest condemnation for Langdon Warner, who removed 12 murals (Cave 323) and a statue (Cave 328). Warner justified his theft as a way of avoiding the "renovations" funded by Abbot Wang. A map illustrates how the contents are spread around the world.

Curators, fearing that increased tourist activity is damaging the coloration of the frescoes, are closing some caves to the public. The caves depicting acts of love-making, much touted in other guidebooks, are generally off-limits. Remarkable early caves (usually open) include Cave 257, commissioned during the Northern Wei (A.D. 386-535), which contains a Jataka of the deer king; and Cave 428, where an early incarnation of the historical Buddha sacrifices himself to feed a tigress and her cubs. Later caves, such as Cave 96, which houses a 33m (100-ft.) Buddha, and Cave 148, which contains a serene 17m (56-ft.) Sleeping Buddha, indicate that artisans from the Tang court found their way to Mogao. Some lower caves were affected by floodwaters from the Daquan River, and sunlight has caused lead-based pigments to turn black, but the overall state of preservation is incredible. Caves are grouped roughly by period, and it is intriguing to view the steady transformation of facial features from Greco-Indian to plumper, more feminine Chinese features.

People believe it possible to fill 25 kilometers (15.5miles) of gallery space with the works of art from Mogao. There are 50,000 manuscripts written in many languages apart from artifacts. The Mogao Caves are a depository of historical and cultural exchanges over more than a thousand years between China and other nations.

Tourists can take the middle sized buses downtown to get there, however, we suggest taking a taxi for its convenience and negotiable fare, generally RMB 35 for a minibus and slightly more for a car. Time permitting; one can take a taxi from the airport directly to the Mogao Caves. The cost of hiring a taxi from the airport is much higher, but if you carry your luggage to the road outside of the airport, the cost is less because the distance is shorter than from downtown to the Mogao Caves.

The following are tips on visiting the Mogao Caves:
Presently, there are about ten caves and two exhibition centers open to the public, occasionally more during public holidays. To allow for the preservation of the murals, no photographic equipment is permitted. Furthermore, since there is no light in the caves, tourists are allowed to carry flashlights or rent them from an area outside of the caves. It is best to visit in the morning for the sunshine fills the caves with radiance at that time and there aren't as many tourists. It is also recommended that tourists read some introductory materials before visiting the caves otherwise it may be difficult to fully understand the profound and wonderful meanings of the murals.


Admission Fee: CNY 160 (May 1 to Oct. 31)
CNY 80 (Nov.1 to Apr. 30)
Opening Hours: 08:10 to 18:00
Recommended Time for a Visit: Half a day