Dunhuang Mogao Caves


“The Grand Art Gallery in the Desert”

Dunhuang Mogao Caves is in China’s north-western Gansu Province, on the edge of the Gobi Desert. While many would wonder what one could possibly find in a desert, the Dunhuang caves boasts one of the world’s largest collection of Buddhist art, dating back to the 4th century of the Former Qin period.

Located along the Silk Road, the Mogao Caves lies at the cultural crossroads between China and the Europe. Amongst its 735 extant caves that were built over a thousand years, 492 are decorated with Buddhist artifacts, housing approximately 2,400 statues.

The door to the Treasure House opens by chance
A Daoist monk, Wang Yuanlu made an accidental but epoch-making discovery in 1900 when he noticed a fissure in the wall along the corridor of Mogao Cave 16. He slowly tore down the wall to discover a small cave of about 13 square meters, in which numerous scriptures and old documents were piled up to the ceiling. This cave was later named the Library Cave, or Cave 17 containing a compilation of over 50,000 sutras and ancient documents.




Art dating from the Former Qin period (351-394)
The hundreds of caves found in Dunhuang today date back to 4th century, almost 1,700 years ago. The founding of the caves is revealed in a stone inscription “Monument to the Restoration of the Buddhist Niches at the Mogao Caves”, which indicate that the first caves were constructed by a Buddhist Monk named Lezun. Travelling through the wilderness, Lezun saw the peak of the Three Daughters [Sanwei] mountain bathed in the evening sun, appearing like the Thousand Buddhas soaring in the sky, and hence designated the spot for the construction of the first caves.




Depiction of the Ceremony of the Air in Chapter 11 of the Lotus Sutra

Mogao Caves and the Lotus Sutra
The Mogao Caves was said to be the gateway for Buddhism in China. Among the multitudinous scripts in Chinese, most are found to be Lotus Sutra texts. The Lotus Sutra was widely and deeply respected in Dunhuang, and donors of these caves came from various ethnicities – such as Hun, Xianbei, Gokturk, Tibetan, Tangut and Mongolian. This deep faith in Buddhism contributed to the continued expansion of the Mogao Caves for the next 1,000 years.