Mogao Grottoes - a Buddhist Art Museum on Wall

Mogao Grottoes, located near Dunhuang, Gansu Province, northwestern China, has been a World Heritage Site since 1987 and is an important site along the ancient silk road. Known to be the ‘Museum on wall’, the site contains 492 decorated Buddhist cave temples excavated into a cliff face of 1.6 km, dating from 4th to 14th century (C.E.). The earliest cave can be dated to 366 C.E., and the last was made in the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368 C.E.).The site encompasses 4500 sq. meters of mural paintings and more than 2,000 sculptures, that is why it became the largest single body of Buddhist art in China. For a thousand years, Mogao Grottoes thrived and survived as a hub of cultural exchange between the East and the West. The paintings and sculptures of Mogao, including the historical documents found from the Library Cave, provide transcendent records for scholars to study history, arts, music, science, architecture, technology, politics, law, economic and military conditions in China in ancient times. Most importantly, the grottoes visualized the evolution and development of Buddhism and Buddhist art in China for a thousand years! 

Replica of Cave 45, displayed by Dunhuang Academy
PHOTOGRAPH BY Agnes Sung
View from top level caves
PHOTOGRAPH BY Agnes Sung

The thorough topic of Mogao Grottoes is too broad to cover in one short article, therefore I choose to deliberately introduce one of my favourite caves.

I travelled to the Mogao in June 2018 as a tourist and worked there as a guide for a short while during June to July, 2019. My personal pick would always be Cave 61, commonly named Manjusri hall (enshrine Manjusri Bodhisattva, representation of wisdom). There are several points that attract my interest, first being, why is it named Manjusri hall?

One intriguing piece of mural inside the cave is the huge map of Mount Wutai (W: 13m long; H: 3.6m) on the west wall. It is the largest surviving example of ancient topographic map in China, containing architecture designs (especially temples), social scenarios, and travelling routes of the late Tang and Five Dynasties periods.

The cave was built in the late Tang dynasty (947-951), by a military governor, Cao Yuanzong. The Cao’s family had a high political position and power during the Tang dynasty, they contributed a lot to the bonding between China and other ethnic minorities in central Asia.

Also, there is a very unique mural with the Tejaprobaha Buddha and Eleven Star Gods depicted on the south wall of the corridor. You would also be able to see images of the zodiac, and alms-begging monks and nuns with inscriptions in both Tangut and Chinese. It is very surprising when I see zodiac signs in a Buddhist cave for the first time. Such mural shows that the concepts of zodiac was transported from Central Asia to Dunhuang through the Silk Road, and incorporated with local religion, long before the 10th century.

Mogao Cave 61 corridor south wall
PHOTOGRAPH BY https://www.e-dunhuang.com/

Thirdly, inside the main chamber, there is a truncated pyramidal ceiling, with the center featuring a large parasol motif with five lotuses, entwining a dragon and parrots. Thousand Buddha motifs were drawn on all four slopes. There is a central altar in the center of the hall, some remains of a lion’s foreleg and tail can still be seen although the whole set of statues are missing. On the north, east, south walls are 11 sutra illustration murals, containing scenes from sutras such as Lankavatara sutra, Maitreya sutra, Amitabha sutra, and Panikarasuttau sutra. These paintings served for preaching purpose at the beginning, as not every layman understood literature. Later on, it became part of the organized and structured cave design.

In Mogao Grottoes, the donors who sponsored the construction of the caves were often depicted in the murals as well. In Cave 61, the donors were drawn on the east wall next to the entrance, showing the important Cao family members. This piece contains valuable information about the relationship between Dunhuang and the surrounding ethnic minorities since several donor images are in Uighur and Khotan costumes. It reflects the Cao family strengthened their control through political marriage with other kingdoms. I can stand there hours just appreciating the delicacy of their dress, accessories and even make up style!

Mogao Cave 61 main chamber east wall
PHOTOGRAPH BY https://www.e-dunhuang.com/

If you are interested in exploring Mogao Grottoes, you can find many digitized caves and detailed descriptions on the Digital Dunhuang website (https://www.e-dunhuang.com/), which is an ongoing project by the Dunhuang Academy.

Note:

There is a souvenir and book shop right outside the cave sites, worth visiting.

Guide for Mogao Caves Tickets: When and How to Buy, Price and Tips: https://www.chinadiscovery.com/gansu/dunhuang/mogao-caves/tickets.html

Photos are not allowed inside the caves, so all pictures in this article showing the cave interiors were from Digital Dunhuang ( https://www.e-dunhuang.com/ )

*    *    *

Agnes Sung

Agnes is currently a Master’s student at the University of Hong Kong, her research is related to Buddhist Art, ancient Silk Road, and Archaeology. She can usually be found at libraries or museums in Hong Kong, or on Twitter: https://twitter.com/AgnesSung_