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Bagh Caves, India
Mogao Caves, Dunhuang, China - Cave Paintings
574    Dibyendu Banerjee    18/09/2023

Carved into the cliffs above the Dachuan River, the Mogao Caves, also known as the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas, located around 25 km southeast of the centre of the Dunhuang oasis on the western edge of the Gobi Desert, comprise the largest, most richly endowed and longest used treasure house of Buddhist art in the world. The first caves dug out in AD 366 as places of Buddhist meditation and worship, represent the great achievement of Buddhist art from the 4th to the 14th century and the gradual metamorphosis of Buddhist art in northwest China.

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The works of the caves, many of which are masterpieces and are the creations of an unparalleled aesthetic talent with unmatched historical value, depict various aspects of medieval politics, culture, arts, religion, ethnic relations and even daily dresses that prevailed in western China. The 492 caves that are presently preserved, housing about 45,000 square metres of murals and more than 2,000 painted sculptures, exhibit the amalgamation of Han Chinese artistic tradition and styles assimilated from ancient Indian and Gandhara customs, along with an integration of the arts and styles of the Turkish, ancient Tibetans and other Chinese ethnic minorities.

mogao caves dunhuang china

Established as a frontier garrison outpost by the Han Dynasty for protection against the Xiongnu in 111 BC, Dunhuang also became an important gateway to the West, a centre of trade and commerce along the famous Silk Road, linking China and the West, as well as a meeting place of traders, pilgrims and various other people belonging to different religions, including Buddhism. The narrow passage of Hexi Corridor in northwest China, bordered by vast deserts to the south, mountains to the east and west and the vast plateaus to the north, leads to the oasis city of Dunhuang, a blessed stop for the traders and travellers, along the historic Silk Road and the Mogao Caves, housing one of the most breathtaking collections of Buddhist paintings and statues in the world, are located only fifteen miles away from the bustling trade centre of Dunhuang.

mogao caves dunhuang china
Cave 96

According to a book written by Li Junxiu during the reign of Tang Empress Wu Zetian, a Buddhist monk, called Lè Zūn, initiated to carve a cave in the area, inspired by a vision of a thousand Buddhas bathed in golden light at the site in 366 AD, who was later joined by a second monk, Faliang. According to the available records, 366 monks carved the first caves into the cliff, stretching about one mile along the Daquan River.

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Gradually, the site became the shelter of a small community of monks and the caves that initially served as a place of meditation for hermit monks, developed to serve the monasteries that sprang up nearby.

mogao caves dunhuang china
Cave 45

The Mogao Caves are closely connected to the history of transcontinental relations and the spread of Buddhism throughout Asia, as for centuries the Dunhuang oasis served as the meeting place of traders and travellers. However, during the thousand years of artistic activity, carved into the caves along the Daquan River at Dunhuang, the style of the wall paintings and sculptures changed visibly. While the early caves exhibit greater Indian and Western influence, the influence of the Chinese painting styles of the imperial court is evident during the Tang dynasty, between 618 and 906 AD. But during the tenth century, when Dunhuang became more isolated, the local painting academy led to the mass production of paintings with a unique style of their own.

mogao caves dunhuang china
mogao caves dunhuang china

In the early1900, Wang Yuanlu, a Taoist monk who had appointed himself abbot and guardian of the cave temples, discovered Cave 17, which later came to be known as the Library Cave. Located off the entrance leading to cave 16, which was originally used as a memorial cave for a local monk Hongbian on his death in 862, cave 17 was walled off sometime early in the 11th century. In the cave, Wang Yuanlu found bundles of scrolls heaped up in closely packed layers, in addition to a large number of documents dating from 406 to 1002 and more than 15,000 paper books and shorter texts, including a Hebrew penitential prayer, together with textiles and other artefacts. Marc Aurel Stein, a Hungaria born British archaeologist and explorer, somehow learned of the importance of the newly discovered caves and reached Dunhuang in 1907. He purchased from the monk seven thousand complete manuscripts and six thousand fragments, as well as several cases loaded with paintings, embroideries and other artefacts. Although his acquisition includes many duplicate copies, it was split between Britain and India, because his expedition was funded by both countries. Within a few days, French explorer Paul Pelliot followed Stein, but unlike Stein, Pelliot was trained in Chinese studies. He examined thousands of manuscripts, before taking almost 10,000 documents, which was a better selection of documents than that of Stein. After that, a Japanese expedition under Otani Kozui visited the caves in 1911, followed by a Russian expedition under Sergai Fyodorovich Oldenburg in 1914. Eventually, the contents of the library were dispersed around the world, while the bulk of the material can now be found in Beijing, London, Delhi, Paris, Berlin and Saint Petersburg.

mogao caves dunhuang china

Since 1989, the Dunhuang Research Academy, a state-run institution, has been working with China’s State Administration of Cultural Heritage and the Getty Conservation Institute on structural reinforcement, careful restoration and preservation of the murals and finally, digitalised documentation of the Mogao Caves. Designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987, the site is also protected by the Regulations for the Conservation of the Mogao Caves in Dunhuang.

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Author Details
Dibyendu Banerjee
Ex student of Scottish Church College. Served a Nationalised Bank for nearly 35 years. Authored novels in Bengali. Translated into Bengali novels/short stories of Leo Tolstoy, Eric Maria Remarque, D.H.Lawrence, Harold Robbins, Guy de Maupassant, Somerset Maugham and others. Also compiled collections of short stories from Africa and Third World. Interested in literature, history, music, sports and international films.
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