The Mogao Caves: Grotto of Thousand Buddhas

Temples of Asia | | October 19, 2010 at 1:20 am


Nestled on the Silk Route’s crossroads at a distance of 25 km from the Dunhuang town of China, the Mogao Caves is purely artistic, sculptural, and spiritual. This is where you will come across a complex where there 1000 original cave shrines reflecting one of the finest Buddhist art making them a part of the World Heritage Site. Unfortunately today, only 600 shrines are visible of which only 30 are for the visiting purpose as the rest are in their restoration phase.

Mogao Caves in Dunhuang

There is a famous legend behind the carving of these caves, which is very difficult to believe, but is true. The story goes like this – A Buddhist monk called Le Zun in the 4th century had a dream of thousand Buddhas who were lit under golden lights in a grotto. Because of this dream he was inspired and started excavating the terrain after which he successfully found some 1000 temples. Unbelievable! Then, as the time passed, the caves became the abode of many Buddhist monks who used to meditate here for enlightenment. And yes, even the pilgrims who used to worship these caves created murals on the inner walls.

The oldest sculptures are seen in the middle of the cliff. Each of the caves is labeled with a number over the door. Kindly note that there is no light in the caves so as to protect the murals. Therefore, it becomes mandatory to bring flashlights to see these still visible murals as your guide takes you on its tour after paying an entrance fee of ¥80. And yes, if you want to explore all 30 caves, plan to stay at least for two-three days.

Northern Wei Caves (386-581)

These are small and boast a big column in the center, which used to facilitate walking meditations for the monks. Here, what I admired was the Buddha statue that was flanked by a myriad of minute Buddha statues in white, black, red, green, and blue. And yes, do check out the murals within, which reflect the great influence of the foreign design (those curly hair and long noses).

Buddha seems to be like Jesus in the cave 101, while the lord is shown in a robe representing a Roman toga in the cave 257 where the murals reveal one more birth of Buddha as the Deer King. The caves such as 259 as well as 428 exhibit their influence of the Indian and Chinese styles evident due to the flower-like angels. In cave 254, Buddha is shown to defeat Maya who is the Illusion.

For adoring murals, go to cave 135 where a Jataka story can be read from right to left wherein Buddha in his previous life gave away his life to become the food for a hungry tigress’ cubs.

Northern Wei Caves

Western Wei Caves (535-56)

This group is also the home of the stunning original murals. The centre of attraction is the cave 249 housing a Maitreya Buddha. You will also come across the paintings in which the landscapes tend to meet the heavenly figures.

Western Wei Caves

Tang Caves (618-906)

These caves are known for the Buddha statues appearing in stunning dimensions. With a square floor and conical roof, cave 96 is where the lord of 34m high is shown in a sitting pose and is adorned with the dragon robe. Then, in cave 148, a giant Buddha is shown reclining on the bed of death where he is flanked by his disciples.

The murals here were once very spectacular, which boasted big paintings of the portrayals as well as sutras. What makes them set apart is the fact that they are in single piece, not a narrative band. For the finest murals as landscapes, cave 323 is worth a look.

Cave 1 is the home of a popular Tang subject of the Bodhisattva Manjusri and Vimalakirt. To the left of the latter is a sick king who is flanked by several heavenly creatures who are eager to hear to his discourse. For somewhat similar reflection, walk inside the cave 51E wherein the murals are adorned with the detailed shading.

Cave 70 holds a remarkable mural of a fluid landscape, while in cave 139A, you will admire the Western Paradise of the Amitabha Buddha in which the reborn souls are shown coming out from the lotus and the Buddha is seen above along with the blissful depictions.

Well, this is only a gist of some notable works here. There is much more to explore here, but with lack of time, I could not. Before I forget, outside the cave complex, there is an astonishing Research and Exhibition Center where you can take lunch after 12 as the caves are closed until 2:30 pm.

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  1. Norah Jefferson says:

    Thanks for so much information in detail about the Mogoa caves and the surrounding facilities available..My family is planning a trip to China and this place, we’ll definitely make it a point to visit!
    Thanks again :-)

  2. Kevin Johnson says:

    We will be planning a visit to Dunhuang soon. I’m glad to know that there is a beautiful place where you can breathe in the culture preserved in the form of art and sculpture from the period of 4th century to 14th century! What could be more marvelous than that?
    I’m really excited for my trip..More so to visit the 70 caves with so much Buddhist spiritual art!
    Thanks for the post! :-)

  3. Wallace Louis says:

    Kevin wish you Bon Voyage!

    The Mogao caves are fantastic, I’ve visited them..They are indeed really extraordinary.
    The grottoes are well-kept near the city of Dunhuang and lie at convergence of the old Silk route and the Western world. Also if you are here for five days, you must visit the Yulin grottoes which aer at two hours’ drive from the Mogao caves.

  4. Lewis Meltzer says:

    That is a really interesting story of the origin ofht e 1000 buddhas caves on a very strategic and historic route connecting the Silk route to the western world.
    I’d like to say that there were about 700 caves originally at the Mogao site. There uses were as a place for meditation, places to rest, and even some were used to bury the deceased Buddhist monks.
    Around 400 of the Mogao caves had elaborate sculptures and wallpaintings which were engravings of the Buddhist era.

  5. Elbert Kiellor says:

    I visited the Mogao grottoes a few years back. Relatively unknown then, the chinese government has plans to make this a world-famous site alongwith the great wall of China and the Xian heritage site!
    When we visited here, we were given six language options for a guide alongwith Chinese. Our English guide was really fluent and well-versed with the place.
    This place isn’t a very famous tourist destination as it hasn’t been publicized much, but it is on par with the most treasured and OUTSTANDING heritage sites of the world!

  6. Tahila Thomas says:

    The Mogao caves lie on the less travelled road for a contemporary tyraveler.Not allowed to capture the lovely grottoes on camera, even viewing the site only is worth the entry ticket. The 70 caves have the most AMAZING sculptures I’ve ever seen in my life!
    A ONCE IN A LIFETIME experience..You’ll really remember this one.

  7. Percy Koontz says:

    The Mogao caves are indeed ONE-OF-A-KIND. We saw 15 caves and then joined another group to see other caves!In all it took us two and a half days to see all caves. Different tour guides take different routes to avoid crowding..There are apparently 12 routes to reach different set of caves. The caves are clubbed into groups. If in any cave the amount of carbon dioxide reaches the highpoint level, then that cave is shut for the pilgrims and tourists as they could damage the murals. Cameras aren’t allowed, but the sight of the Buddhist era wall paintings and murals are enough to capture your heart and seal their place in your mind’s eye :-)

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