If you’re planning a trip to China, the Mogao Caves are one attraction that should definitely be high on your list of must-sees. Today, we’ll be telling you all about what they are, as well as what makes them such an unmissable site.
And for those of you hoping to get a little further in terms of the practical side of your holiday planning, such as booking yourself on to a tour or organising accommodation, then it’s well worth visiting the TransIndus website for some specialist advice and tips.
What are the caves?
The Mogao Caves are, as their name suggests, caves – but they’re so much more than that. You’re probably expecting them to be a natural wonder, when in actual fact they are remarkable for the hermits’ cells and monasteries that were carved out of them. They’re famous not only for the fact that there are so many spaces hidden within the rock, but also because they’re home to some amazing examples of art, not to mention being where lots of important historical documents have been found.
Where are they?
Also known as the Cave of a Thousand Buddhas, the Mogao Caves can be found in the desert above the Dachuan River in the Gansu Province.
The location is important in historical terms, which we’ll talk more about in a moment, because it was here that Chinese sovereigns stationed themselves to defend the central segment of the Silk Route (the trade route that connected China to the Mediterranean). It was because of the proximity to this trade route that the caves became so cosmopolitan.
What can you expect to see?
There’s so much to see when visiting the Mogao Caves. What’s particularly interesting to note is that the organisation of the space is in itself impressive – the temples and cells span five levels, and there are more than 2,000 sculptures carved from the walls. These sculptures were then covered with clay and painted to create amazing murals, which are the highlight of any visit here.
Another is the Library Cave, which was discovered by local priest Wang Yanlu. This was essentially a big storehouse, where a host of treasures were found – including the oldest printed book in the world, the Diamond Sutras, which dates back to 868 AD. There were also written histories and political records, as well as religious texts, among the findings.
The caves are absolutely fascinating in historical terms, especially when you consider how their position (as I mentioned briefly above) is linked to relations between different countries and continents. Plus, they also help tell the story of how Buddhism arrived and expanded in Asia.
It’s believed that Buddhist monks began carving out the caves in 366 AD – though the bulk of the cells and temples were created between the 5th and 14th centuries. Dunhuang, which is close to the site, was established as a military post to protect the northern frontier from the nomads all the way back in 117 BC. Because the conflicts continued for such a long time, Dunhuang was often isolated, and the area of the caves became a place where people from across Asia would come together.
As such, this period also ushered in other religions, though Buddhism wasn’t officially recognised in China until 444 AD.
The caves were populated by Buddhist monks up until the 1930s, which means the site is an incredible representation of the history of the religion, as well as local history and culture.