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Mogao Cave Descriptions

Details of the Buddhist art from some of the caves at Dunhuang Mogao Grottoes

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Introduction

On my visit to the Mogao Caves, our entry allowed us a visit to ten caves including the famous "library cave" where thousands of ancient manuscripts were hidden and then discovered and then plundered (see bottom of this article). If you have gone through all ten and still really want to see more, you can buy an extra ticket to get into one more of six open caves. So technically, you could see the ten, plus six more.

At any given time, only some of the caves are open to the public and which caves are open changes periodically so that inadvertent damage from tourist traffic can be minimized. Rumor has it that the administrators of the caves will take the allowed-visit number down to eight soon.

There's also a rumor found in multiple guidebooks and websites stating that for a bribe, your Mogao guide (obligatory) will open up off-limits caves for you. That may have been the case at some point in time, but now the grottoes are strictly (and properly, it seems) managed so wayward guides can not open up random caves to begging tourists. (We tried everything from groveling to money and our guide just kept laughing at us.) Read more about this topic on my blog post: Debunking a Mogao Myth.

I took some detailed notes about the caves we visited and thought I'd share them here. It would be wonderful to show photos of the caves along with these descriptions but photography is strictly prohibited inside the caves (cameras have to be checked at the door). Luckily, there is a fabulous visitors' center across the way from the grottoes which has six caves in complete reproduction where photography is allowed.

Cave 96 – Main Temple with Large Buddha – dates from the 7th century

Inside the multi-tiered pagoda-like structure behind the main entrance to the grottoes is a large Buddha that was constructed in the 7th century. The inside was carved out of sandstone and then layers of straw and plaster were molded over the inner structure to create finer details (like folds in the Buddha's robes). (This technique was used in almost all the statuary inside the Mogao Caves although sometimes the base inside structure was made of wood.)

The nine-story pagoda was restored in the 1930s and a roof was placed over the Buddha's head. Previously it had been exposed. The Buddha's right hand shows the posture of allaying fear; the left hand shows giving.

Visiting this cave you can see the original flooring and walls (now protected). It is crowded, the walls are built very close around the giant figure. Groups enter the doors with their guides and gather close while guides give an introduction to the Mogao Caves and the Buddha. Usually this is the first stop on the tour. Fortunately, guides and tourists use a microphone/earphone system so you can concentrate just on what your guide is saying.

Cave 130 – dates from the 8th century

This cave is a larger one, housing a figure of the Buddha with a purposely enlarged head. A window (now closed) used to shine light down on the figure making it easily seen by worshippers.

There are several niches in the walls where statues dating from the 8th century are placed. The floor tiles date from the 10th century.

The cave paintings inside, including common themes of Apsaras and Boddhisatvas, date from the 11th century. It was common practice to paint over existing scenes at the request of new patrons or donors. The latest donors' portraits can be seen on the walls at the entrance to the cave. The cave is guarded by four warriors standing on demons. Construction of the cave took 29 years.

Cave 148 – Reclining Buddha from the 8th century

This cave is special for its reclining Buddha and incredible wall paintings, the colors of which have survived for over 1,200 years. The Buddha is over 15 meters long, was made in the 8th century but was repainted in the Qing Dynasty. The walls are decorated with beautiful paintings telling the story of the Buddha's life. The painting style is Chinese.

Cave 94 – Statuary – from the 9th century

This cave is characterized by a large Daoist statue as well as statues of Buddha and his disciples in the front. The walls, beautifully painted with the 1,000 Buddha motif (repeating a seated Buddha figure with halo over and over) in brilliant green, blue and gold. The cave has two layers of plaster on the walls dating from the 9th and 11th centuries.

Cave 231 – Tibetan-style niche – from the 9th century

This cave is characterized by the pyramidical Tibetan style of the niche where the Buddhist statuary is displayed. From 748 to 848 (late Tang Dynasty), the area including Dunhuang was under Tibetan rule so some of their influence is seen in the art of that era.

Cave 237 – Rabbit Ceiling – from 9th century

Cave 237 is also from the Tibetan period. It has a small entry with a large inner room with the same niche structure as cave 231. There is a large painting of Guanyin, Buddhist Goddess of Mercy but the most famous part of the cave is the ceiling motif of three rabbits.

The ceiling motif creates a stir because of the unknown symbolism. While some believe that the hares represent the three periods of Buddhism, a "three-hare" motif can be found in a number of religious sites from China through the Middle East to Europe in Buddhist, Islamic, Jewish and Christian forms.

Cave 249 – Mixed religions – from 6th century

This cave was one of the oldest we saw dating from the Western Wei Dynasty and is characterized by the multiple religious symbols in the statuary and paintings. The niche holds a large Buddha statue (whose body is original but the head is restored) wearing the Chinese style robe. The Buddhas in the paintings show a more Indian style. In the wall paintings are Asura, a Hindu god, surrounded by four gods of Chinese mythology: rain, wind, thunder and lightening gods. Also depicted are the Daoist immortals and hunting scenes.

Cave 246 – from 4th-6th centuries

This cave is also one of the oldest and depicts the Gandharan artistic style. While some of the paintings are from the Northern Wei period, there are later paintings dating from the 11th century.

Cave 428 – from Northern Zhou 557-581

This cave had central square pillars sculpted in relief. Also in relief were the wall motifs of 1,000 Buddhas. Paintings were done in the Indian style (showing draped robes or the upper halves of bodies bare). 1,200 donors banded together to patronize the cave. Murals on the walls are from the Jataka Stories of Buddha's past lives.

Cave 427 – dates from the Sui Dynasty

This cave is characterized by its front entry. Originally many of the grottoes had front halls but over the years, the front of the cliff where the grottoes were carved fell away, taking with it the front entries of many of the caves. The cave has three sets of Buddha statues representing the three periods of Buddhism: past, present and future. The painted patterns on the clothing are notable because the designs indicate that there was Persian influence during the Sui period thus illustrating the importance of trade along the Silk Road.

Caves 16-17, the "Library Cave"

Cave 16 is a large grotto with the small, once hidden Cave 17 off to the side. Cave 16 is interesting because of the beautiful gilded phoenix and dragon motifs on the ceiling. The cave has a central pillar and a large Buddha statue.

Cave 17 was walled up for hundreds of years. No one knows why, but this small decorated grotto was the hiding place for thousands of ancient manuscripts. Some think that when Islam came to China from the west, monks hid the documents but the true reason is unknown.

In the late 19th century, the Dunhuang grottoes were under disrepair and a self-appointed monk, Abbot Wang, began some renovations by himself. He discovered the Library Cave, as Cave 17 is known, and guarded the documents, some over 1,000 years old, until British explorer Sir Aurel Stein persuaded him to part with some for a small donation in 1906. One of the most famous treasures taken back to the UK with Sir Aurel Stein is the Diamond Sutra. It is the earliest known printed material with an actual date-of-print: 868. The British Library now holds Stein's manuscript treasures. After Stein's visit, many other archeologists came and persuaded Wang to sell documents. The manuscripts are dispersed throughout Europe, America and Japan. Some China still has but this episode represents one of China's most despised, feeling they were robbed of their national treasure.

(An excellent book to read on this subject is Peter Hopkirk's Foreign Devils on the Silk Road).

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