Caves of Faith: The Mogao Caves, China

I recently returned to the dessert. After last year’s brush with the Taklamakan, this time it was the Gobi dessert that straddles China and Mongolia, merging with the Taklamakan as it heads west. The Gobi is a rainbow desert and the location of important cities of the ancient Silk Road such as Dunhuang. Dunhuang was the main reason I went to the Gobi.

For a thousand years, this stunning oasis city was a strategically important crossroad not only for commerce but also religious and cultural exchanges between China and the Western world. The Han dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD) established Dunhuang as an official outpost at the western most point of China, almost a thousand miles from the Han capital of Xi’an. All merchants, pilgrims, and foreign emissaries traveling Silk Road had to pass through Dunhuang before entering or leaving China. I wanted to see what remained of the Han legacy and the Buddhist pilgrimage art carved into the famed Mogao caves near Dunhuang.

A Chinese official penned characters reading “Dunhuang” on this bamboo strip some 2,000 years ago, as the Han dynasty was asserting control over much of what is now China. Bamboo strips were tied together as scrolls and used for record keeping before the invention of paper. Credits: National Geographic.

Today, visitors to Dunhuang can still see the remains of ancient Han fortresses, including the earliest parts of the Great Wall built 2,000 years ago, much earlier than most parts of the Great Wall which were constructed during the Ming period in the 14th century.

Visitors to Dunhuang can still see the remains of ancient Han fortresses, including the earliest parts of the Great Wall. Pictured here is the Yumen Gate (or ‘Jade Gate’) built by the Han emperor Wudi soon after 121 BC. Together with the Yang Guan Pass further east, these were the westernmost fortresses on the ancient Silk Road. Once you pass these two gates, you are deemed to have entered the Western regions of Central Asia.

The Great Han Wall was the longest version of the Great Wall of China. It stretched from today’s North Korea in the east and extends to Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region in the west, with a total length of over 10,000 kilometers.


THE MOGAO CAVES

One does not expect to find art in the dessert, much less a profusion of religious art in vivid colors. But this is what you find in Dunhuang. Just 25 km southeast of the city center lies the Mogao Caves, the site of a long cliff into which some 492 caves containing Buddhist painted murals and sculptures have been cut. The earliest caves date to AD 366 and the latest, in the 1300s during the Ming dynasty. This is one of those places where you will never forget.

The Mogao cave site, located 25 km from Dunhuang city centre. “Mogao” means “high up in the desert” or metaphorically speaking, “peerless”.

Mogao cliff face

As a crossroad city of the Silk Road, Dunhuang was a site of religious pilgrimage. From the 4th century AD through the golden age of the Tang dynasty (618 -907), wealthy Buddhist devotees would commission monks to construct dedicated shrines by carving out the friable clay cliff face. Other monks were commissioned to decorate the cave walls and ceilings with Buddhist murals in vivid colors that complement sculptures representing the Buddha, a couple of which are of monumental proportions.

Inside the caves, you are truly the presence of one of the world’s great cultural treasures.

Cave 85. Details of a group of musicians. Late Tang dynasty (848 – 907)

Cave 85. Details of a wall painting.

The mural Ruru Jataka in cave 256 dates back to the Northern Wei dynasty (386 – 534 AD), a relatively early date for Dunhuang. The human and animal forms in the mural are not yet heavily stylized as the stylistic influence of India was still prevalent in early Chinese Buddhist art. Ruru Jataka is a painting about the experiences of the Buddha in his former life as a nine-colored deer.

At 116 feet, the tallest Buddha in the caves peers out of a nine-story pagoda, the facade of Cave 96 built into the string of grottoes.

Unfortunately, there are more treasures that are no longer in the caves today. Prior to the early 1900s, the caves were filled with rolled-up documents, manuscripts in diverse languages (including Hebrew!) and paintings. At the turn of the century, these objects were sold, mainly to western explorers in order to fund the upkeep of the caves. They are now scattered in museum collections outside China. Pictured below is a Mogao painting, now in the British Museum. That it is a work of the highest order is beyond doubt.

This painting was found in Cave 17 and measures 168 cm by 122 cm. Sakyamuni, the historical Buddha, is depicted here sitting between two enlightened beings in a Chinese architectural setting, probably a palace. Performing on a stage in front of him is a dancer, accompanied by musicians and attendants. The landscape scenes up the sides of the painting, showing the history of the Buddha’s life, and the details such as the ladder leaning against the red palace wall are remarkable. In the foreground is Cosmological Buddha, Vairocana, accompanied by a monk and bodhisattva. His robe is decorated with cosmic symbols, including the sun and moon. At the bottom of the painting are the male and female donors grouped separately.

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