What are the Mogao Caves?

Brendan McGuigan

The Mogao Caves are a collection of various cave temples in China. They are a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and have been since 1987. The Mogao Caves range over a period of more than 1,000 years, and contain literally thousands of examples of Buddhist religious art.

A map of China, where the Mogao Caves are.
A map of China, where the Mogao Caves are.

In the 4th century, a Buddhist monk supposedly had a vision of a thousand different Buddhas. This inspired him to begin excavation on an immense cave complex, meant to house a thousand different temples. Buddhist hermits would settle in the Mogao Caves, carving out their own temple, collecting religious documents, and living a life of quiet meditation. Pilgrims on their way through the area would often stop at the Mogao Caves and would sometimes leave behind art objects or paintings on the cave walls.

Buddhist monks were said to meditate daily in the Mogao Caves.
Buddhist monks were said to meditate daily in the Mogao Caves.

The various paintings and murals within the Mogao Caves served a number of different purposes. Some were intended to help create a calming environment, conducive to the meditation that was the daily work of the monks who lived there. Others were intended to act as teaching devices, telling historical tales or relating various aspects of Buddhist doctrine. All told, the murals in the Mogao Caves cover nearly 500,000 square feet (46,000 sq. meters).

For centuries the caves also acted as repositories of hand-written Buddhist manuscripts. The monks would collect these manuscripts from pilgrims, and create their own, and kept them safe. When a new technology of printing became available in the 10th century, these manuscripts were no longer nearly as important. Enormous amounts of manuscripts were essentially thrown into the backs of caves in junk heaps, and the caves were eventually sealed off.

In the early-20th century these sealed-off caves were discovered, and the amazing treasures that had been kept safe there led to a great deal of interest in the Mogao Caves. The Chinese, Indians, and Europeans all sent expeditions to sort through the manuscripts found in the Mogao Caves, and a large number were taken out of China at this time. In the intervening decades research continued, and it continues today, with steady research underway.

Visiting the Mogao Caves requires a ticket, and tours are included. It is important to ask for English-speaking tours if you don’t speak Chinese, as otherwise you will be placed with a Chinese tour group and get much less out of the experience. Photography is not allowed, unfortunately, and red tape prevents visitors from experiencing a great deal of the Mogao Caves. Of the nearly 500 temples in the Mogao Caves, the tours rarely visit more than a handful, and exploring on one’s own is not allowed.

The lack of openness at the Mogao Caves is commonly cited as a serious problem for visitors. While the government is trying to protect the treasures still remaining the caves, and to allow the Mogao Caves to be accessible to researchers, sometimes the limitations they place on tourists border on the draconian. Many people prefer either the Yungang Grottoes in Shanxi or the Dazu Rock Carvings near Chongqing, as both offer examples of early Chinese Buddhist art and carvings, with a great deal more openness for visitors.

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