Mogao Caves (Thousand-Buddha Caves) Mogao Caves (Thousand-Buddha Caves)

The Mogao Caves, also named Thousand-Buddha Caves, are praised as "a glittering pearl that adorns the Silk Road", and they are the most famous caves in China. Located 25km southeast of Dunhuang County, these caves are carved out of the sandstone cliffs of Mingsha Mountain, extending some 1600m from south to north. Constructed in 10 dynasties from the 4th to the 14th century, its 45000 square meters of mural paintings and more than 2000 color statues are regarded as the greatest treasure-house of Buddhist art existing in the world.


Most of Dunhuang's art dates from the Northern and Western Wei, Northern Zhou, Sui and Tang dynasties, although examples from the Five Dynasties, Northern Song, Western Xia and Yuan can also be found. The Northern Wei, Western Wei, Northern Zhou and Tang caves are in the best state of preservation.The caves are generally rectangular or square with recessed, decorated ceilings. The focal point of each is a group of brightly painted statues representing Buddha and the Bodhisattvas.

The smaller statues are composed of terracotta coated with a kind of plaster surface so that intricate details could be etched into the surface.The walls and ceilings were plastered with layers of cement and clay and then painted with watercolour. Large sections of the murals are made up of decorative patterns using motifs from nature, architecture or textiles.Many of the caves have been touched up at one time or another.


Northern Wei, Western Wei& Northern Zhou Caves
The Turkic-speaking Tuobas, who invaded and conquered the country in the 4th century, inhabited the region north of China and founded the Northern Wei dynasty around AD 386.

Friction between groups who wanted to maintain the traditional Tuoba lifestyle and those who wanted to assimilate with the Chinese eventually split the Tuoba empire in the middle of the 6th century.

The eastern part adopted the Chinese way of life and the rulers took the dynasty name of Northern Qi. The western part took the dynasty name of Northern Zhou and tried in vain to revert to Tuoba customs. By AD 567, however, they had managed to defeat the Qi to take control of all of northern China.

The fall of the Han dynasty in AD 220 sent Confucianism into decline. This, plus the turmoil of the Tuoba invasions, made Buddhism's teachings of nirvana and personal salvation highly appealing to many people. The religion spread rapidly and made a new and decisive impact on Chinese art, which can be seen in the Buddhist statues at Mogao.

The art of this period is characterised by its attempt to depict the spirituality of those who had achieved enlightenment and transcended the material world through their asceticism. The Wei statues are slim, ethereal figures with fine chiselled features and comparatively large heads, and clearly show the influence of Indian Buddhist art and teachings.

Sui Caves
The Sui dynasty began when a general of Chinese or mixed Chinese-Tuoba origin usurped the throne of the Northern Zhou dynasty. Prudently putting to death all the sons of the former emperor, he embarked on a series of wars which by AD 589 had reunited northern and southern China for the first time in 360 years.

The Tuobas simply disappeared from history, either mixing with other Turkic tribes from central Asia or assimilating with the Chinese.

The Sui dynasty was short-lived, and very much a transition between the Wei and Tang periods. This can be seen in the Sui caves: the graceful Indian curves in the Buddha and Bodhisattvas figures start to give way to the more rigid style of Chinese sculpture.


Tang Caves
During the Tang dynasty (AD618-907), China pushed its borders forcefully westward as far as Lake Balkhash in today's Kazakhstan. Trade expanded and foreign merchants and people of diverse religions streamed into the Tang capital of Chang'an.

Buddhism became prominent and Buddhist art reached its peak; the proud bearing of the Buddhist figures in Mogao Caves reflects the feelings of the times, the prevailing image of the brave Tang warrior, and the strength and the steadfastness of the empire.

This was also the high point of the cave art at Mogao. Some 230 caves were carved, indluding two impressive grottoes containing enormous, seated Buddha figures. The statue residing in cave 96 is a towering 34.5m tall-a slightly shorter(26m) counterpart in cave 130 is no less impressive.

The portraits of Tang nobles are considerably larger than those of the Wei and Sui dynasties, and the figures tend to occupy important positions within the murals. In some cases the patrons are portrayed in the same scene as the Buddha.

Post-Tang Caves
The Tang dynasty marked the ultimate development of the cave paintings. During later dynasties, the economy around Dunhuang went into decline and the luxury and vigour typical of Tang painting began to be replaced by simpler drawing techniques and flatter figures. However there were some masterpieces in the post-tang era, notably the 16m-long reclining Buddha (cave 158), attended by rows of disciples, all bearing different expressions that show you how close they are to achieving the state of nirvana.


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