Dunhuang, a small city in
Gansu Province, is located near the
crossroads of the ancient Silk Road. It is made famous largely by
the Buddhist Grottoes, known as the Mogao Grottoes, which are one of
the World’s most important sites of ancient Buddhist culture.
grottoes, also known as Caves of the Thousand Buddhas, preserve
nearly a thousand years of Buddhist cave-temple architecture, clay
sculpture, mural paintings, and manuscripts, dating from the 5th to
the 14th centuries.
The rediscovery of the caves and their treasures in 1900 opened a
new field of study that uses the monuments and documents found at
Dunhuang to illuminate the complex cultural interactions of ancient
Central Asia. The Dunhuang finds reflect periods of Chinese,
Tibetan, and Uygur control, and the images and texts reveal the
impact of many other Asian regional styles and languages.
intermixture of Indian, West Asian, Central Asian, and Chinese
elements reveal a dynamic, eclectic, and thoroughly multicultural
context that had a profound impact on the later development of
narrative literary forms as well as on Buddhist image-making. This
early internationalism has an echo in the contemporary distribution
of Dunhuang material and Dunhuang studies around the world. The
discovery of a sealed-up library of manuscripts and painted scrolls
at the Mogao Grottoes led to the acquisition of significant
collections of such portable items by museums and libraries in
London, Paris, St. Petersburg (Leningrad), and New Delhi.
1,000-year old mural in Mogao Grottos of Dunhuang
The Mogao Grottoes are carved into desert cliffs overlooking a river
valley about 25 km southwest of Dunhuang. The caves vary enormously
in size, from tiny single-room cells that served as living quarters
for individual monks to huge, cavernous worship halls housing
monumental sculptures and mural cycles.
The caves honeycomb a
1,600-meter-long cliff face running north and south, and contain
some 2,000 clay sculptures and more than 45,000 square meters
(484,000 sq. ft) of mural paintings. The soft stone in the region is
unsuitably brittle for carving, so the sculptures are primarily made
of clay, coated with a kind of plaster surface that allowed
finishing details to be painted on or engraved.
Of the 1,000 or so caves cut between the foundation of the site in
366 AD and the last efforts in the 14th century Yuan period, 492 are
still more or less well preserved. All have been subjected to some
degree of various kinds of damage or indignities, from the long term
erosion of wind and water, to the smoke from fires built by
bivouacked troops. The damages have also stemmed from the modern
perils of mass tourism, where the moisture from the breath of crowds
of visitors can damage delicate murals that have survived for
centuries in the dry desert climate.
Ongoing restoration efforts are
underway to preserve the caves and their contents. The Dunhuang
Research and Exhibition Center, as part of that effort, has
constructed replicas of some of the most important and
representative of the Mogao Caves. Visitors can study full-scale
replicas of the caves and their sculptural and painted contents
close-up and under excellent lighting conditions, without danger of
adding to the deterioration of the originals.