Mogao Caves

The Mogao Caves, or Mogao Grottoes form a system of 492 temples near Dunhuang, in Gansu province, China. They are also known as the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas, Qianfodong, or the Dunhuang Caves. These rock caves are not natural, but instead are exquisite expressions of of rock-cut architecture.

Local legend says that in 366 CE the Buddhist monk Lezun had a dream of a thousand Buddhas and managed to get a wealthy Silk Road pilgrim to fund the first of the temples. The temples eventually grew to number more than a thousand.

From the 4th until the 14th century, Buddhist monks at Dunhuang collected scriptures from the west, and many pilgrims passed through the area, painting murals inside the caves.

The murals cover 450,000 square feet (42,000 m²). The caves were walled off sometime around the 11th century, after they had become a dumping ground for old, damaged or used manuscripts; the documents were still sacred, and it has been suggested that:

“The most probable reason for such a huge accumulation of waste is that, when the printing of books became widespread in the tenth century, the handwritten manuscripts of the Tripitaka at the monastic libraries must have been replaced by books of a new type — the printed Tripitaka. Consequently, the discarded manuscripts found their way to the sacred waste-pile, where torn scrolls from old times as well as a bulk of manuscripts in Tibetan had been stored. All we can say for certain is that he came from the Wu family, because the compound of the three-storied cave temples, Nos. 16-18 and 365-6, is known to have been built and kept by the Wu family, of which the mid-ninth century Bishop of Tun-Huan, Hung-pien, was a member. " - Fujieda Akira, "The Tun-Huan Manuscripts"

The Mogao Caves are the best known of the Chinese Buddhist grottoes, and along with Longmen and Yungang are one of the three famous ancient sculptural sites of China.

The paintings served as aids to meditation, as visual representations of their quest for enlightenment, and as tools to inform illiterate Chinese about Buddhist beliefs and stories. As Buddhist monks valued austerity in life, they hoped that remote caves would aid their quest for enlightenment.

A complete view of the painting

Around 1900, a Chinese Taoist named Wang Yuan-lu appointed himself guardian of some of these temples. Wang discovered walled up behind one side of a corridor leading to a main cave a small cave which was stuffed with an enormous hoard of manuscripts (all dating from between 406 and 1002 CE: old Chinese hemp paper scrolls, old Tibetan scrolls, paintings on hemp or silk or paper, many damaged figurines of Buddhas, and other Buddhist paraphernalia.

The subject matter is diverse: the expected Buddhist canonical works are joined by original commentaries, apocryphal works, workbooks, books of prayers, Confucian works, Taoist works, works from the Chinese government, administrative documents, anthologies, glossaries, dictionaries, calligraphic exercises etc.

Rumors of this discovery brought several European expeditions by 1910: a joint British/Indian group led by Aurel Stein (who took hundreds of copies of the Diamond Sutra because he was unable to read Chinese); a French expedition under Paul Pelliot; a Japanese expedition under Otani Kozui which arrived after the Chinese government's forces; and a Russian expedition under Sergei F. Oldenburg which garnered the least of all.

Pelloit was interested in the more unusual and exotic of Wang's manuscripts, such as documents dealing with the administration and financing of the monastery and associated lay men's groups which survived only because they formed a sort of palimpsest in which Buddhist texts (which were why they were preserved) were written on the other side of the paper. The remaining Chinese manuscripts were sent to Peking (Beijing) at the order of the Chinese government (the mass of Tibetan manuscripts remained).

Wang embarked on an ambitious refurbishment of the temples, funded in part by soliciting donations from neighboring towns, and in part by donations from Stein and Pelliot.

Today, the site is an important tourist attraction and the subject of an ongoing archaeological project.

The Mogao Caves became one of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1987.

By Plane
Dunhuang Airport (IATA: DNH) is 13 km east of town center. Flights are available to Beijing via Lanzhou, Urumqi, and Xian.

By Train
Dunhuang Huoche Zhan is actually located 130 km north of Dunhuang in the town of Liuyuan. Train schedules sometimes say Dunhuang instead of Liuyuan.

  • * Beijing - takes about 38 hours
  • * Lanzhou - takes about 13-18 hours
  • * Turpan - takes about 11 hours
  • * Urumqi - takes about 13 hours
  • * Xian - takes about 30-38 hours

By Bus
Dunhuang has 2 bus stations diagonally across from each other. Most frequent buses leave from the main bus station and not the long distance bus station.
  • * Golmud - takes about 15 hours
  • * Hami (3 weekly) - takes about 8 hours
  • * Jiayuguan - takes about 4-8 hours
  • * Lanzhou - takes about 17-24 hours
  • * Liuyuan - takes about 3 hours
  • * Xining
  • * Zhangye - takes about 13 hours

* Feitian Hotel Dunhuang, 22 Mingshan Rd., Dunhuang.
Tel: (0937)8822726 | Fax: (0937)8822311)

* Grand Sun Hotel Dunhuang, 5 North Shazhou Rd., Dunhuang.
Tel: (0937)8829998 | Fax: (0937)8822121)

* Dunhuang Hotel, 14 Yangguan Easr Rd., Dunhuang.
Tel: (0937)8822538 | Fax: (0937)8822195)

* Silk Road Dunhuang Hotel, Mingshashan.
Tel: (0937)8882088