Behold the Cave of the Thousand Buddhas

Magao Caves — the Cave of the Thousand Buddhas

Magao Caves — the Cave of the Thousand Buddhas

If I were fortunate enough to be able to travel to China, I would make the Mogao Caves near the city of Dunhuang a primary stop as the artifacts housed within these sandstone cliffs rival that of the Great Wall, the Forbidden City or the famous Terracotta Warriors.

Impressive yet understated on the outside, these caverns carved within the cliffs near the edge of the Gobi Desert hide an unrivaled collection of Buddhist art, including over 2,400 sculptures and miles of murals spanning a period of 1,000 years, from the North Wei to the Yuan Dynasty. Once inside these modest-looking caves, you’ll discover a temple-like architecture filled with amazing statuary and wall murals that make this more than a cave with prehistoric wall paintings.

Murals located on the walls inside the Mogao Caves.

Murals located on the walls inside the Mogao Caves.

According to legend, these caves were created in 366 C.E, when a traveling monk named Lè Zūn was inspired to build the first cave after experiencing a vision of a thousand Buddhas bathed in golden light. Later, he was joined by another monk, and the cave numbers grew. The caves were first used as a place for meditation, to serve the monasteries in the area. Since Dunhuang was a major trade route that linked China to the Mediterranean, travelers often came through the area, commissioning caves (all created by the monks) as offerings for safety and prosperity. The caves then lay dormant for nearly 600 years, when the Mongols invaded the area making travel to the area unsafe. Much later in 1900, interest was revived when Wang Yuanlu, a Taoist priest and self-appointed guardian of the caves, decided to do some restoration and discovered thousands of Buddhist scrolls in one of the caves. Discovery of these manuscripts brought much attention from Europe and archeological world.

If the statuary and murals contained in these caves (and of course the scrolls) aren’t enough to lure you to visit this site, there are over 1,000 silk paintings, embroidery works and banners. The Library Cave (where the scrolls were found) also holds many ancient texts, including the famous Diamond Sutra, one of the earliest printed books in existence.

Statuary inside the Mogao Caves

Statuary inside the Mogao Caves

In May of this year, the Cave of the Thousand Buddhas (Mogao Caves) is opening a state-of-the-art visitor’s center that plans to be more capable of handling the thousands of tourists that visit each year. There are also plans to begin a massive conservation project to help preserve this valuable collection; a difficult task that requires a balance of keeping the artwork viewable, yet preventing the deterioration that happens when exposed to the multitude of people visiting the site.

Of course if you’re not able to travel to the Gobi Desert to see this collection of art in person, you can see an exhibit featuring a bit of what is there at New York’s China Institute, but for me, I’d rather see it as it is, in all its grotto-like glory. This is yet another incredible place that I need to add to my bucket list to see.