The Mogao Grottos or Mogao Caves (aka the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas and Dunhuang Caves; some also call Magao Grottos/Caves) are the highlight of Dunhuang and one of the famous highlights of north-west China. The story goes that the construction of these Buddhist grotto temples began in the middle of the 4th century AD by a monk Yue Zun wq ho was traveling through the area and saw a vision of a thousand golden Buddhas. Over the next thousand years, hundreds of caves were carved into the sandstone cliffs and Dunhuang became a flourishing center of Buddhist culture on the Silk Road.
After the 14th century the grottoes were abandoned and eventually forgotten. In 1900 they were accidentally discovered by a Taoist monk, Wang Yuan, who stumbled upon what appeared to the former monastery library with its collection of scrolls, documents, embroideries and paintings that had been left behind by the Buddhist monks. Bricked up to prevent the contents falling into the hands of invaders, the dry desert air had preserved the paper and artworks.
Passing through the area in 1907, the British explorer Sir Aurel Stein heard a rumor of the hoard, tracked down the monk and was allowed to inspect the contents of the cave. It was an archaeological goldmine mainly of Buddhist texts in Chinese, Tibetan and many other Central Asian languages, some known and some long forgotten. There were paintings on silk and linen and what may be the oldest printed book in existence dating to 868 AD.
The discovery of the hidden 'sutra cave' was a tremendous and startling event for both Chinese and foreign scholars around the world. It attracted extreme attention and as a result was quickly plundered by the rapacious scholars from England, France, America, Russia, and Japan.
The sacking of the Dunhuang grottos began in earnest. Stein convinced Wang to part with a large section of the library in return for a donation towards the restoration of some of the grottoes. Stein carted away 24 packing cases of manuscripts and five cases of paintings, embroideries and art relics, all of which were deposited in the British Museum. The following year a French explorer, Pelliot, passed through Dunhuang and bought more of the manuscripts from the monk. He was followed by others from the United States, Japan and Russia who all carted off their booty. News of the find filtered through to Beijing and the imperial court ordered the remainder of the collection to be transported to the capital. Many were pilfered whilst they sat in the Dunhuang government offices, and Stein reported in 1914 when he returned to the area that find Buddhist manuscripts were brought to him for sale. He also said that Wang had regretted not taking up his original offer of parting with the collection en bloc. For the Chinese it's another example of the plundering of the country by foreigners in the 19th and the early 20th centuries!
The Grotto 16 at Dunhuang is the one that attracted global attention and brought treasure seekers from the West. Two Song-dynasty paintings on its walls show Bodhisattvas on a journey. This is the latest evidence of use of the cave and from this it can be surmised that around the beginning of the eleventh century, when the Western Xia people invaded this area and conquered Dunhuang, monks at the Mogao Grottoes prepared to flee. They sealed the cave and never returned. For nine hundred years, the room was silently shut off from the world. In the year 1900, when the passageway was being cleaned of debris, this stone archive full of sutras, books, embroideries and sculpture was suddenly discovered. It had some 50,000 items in it and these were later found to include not only a large number of Buddhist sutras, but also Daoist works and works of the Confucian canon, in addition to historical records, poetry, literature, information on geography, population, business accounts, calendars and so on. It was discovered to be a full library containing material that documented some ten dynasties, from the Jin in the 4th century to the Song dynasty.
The Mogao Grottos form a system of 492 temples 25 km southeast of Dunhuang in a river valley between the Sanwei and Mingsha Mountains, an oasis strategically located at a religious and cultural crossroads on the Silk Road, in Gansu Province. The desert cliffs are completely exposed to the elements and the interiors of the grottos have been severely damaged by wind and water erosion and many have collapsed. Grotto 94 for example, is totally decimated. Today, 492 grottoes are still standing. The grottoes honeycomb a 1600 meters long cliff face which sits on a north-south axis. Altogether they contain over 2000 statues and over 45,000 separate murals. Cave 17 is where Wang discovered the hoard of manuscripts and artworks.
In 1961 the Dang River was diverted north of the grottoes to prevent further damage through flooding. Two years later the Tang and Song pavilions at the grottos were rebuilt and the exterior walls of the caves were reinforced with concrete colonnades and blocks. Windows, walls, and doors were constructed to prevent further erosion from wind and drifting sand, and foundations were laid under many of the statues. Walkways were erected on the cliff face to allow access to all the caves.
Most of the Dunhuang art dates from the Northern and Western Wei, the Northern Zhou, the Sui and the Tang Dynasties, though examples from the Five Dynasties, Northern Song, Western Xia and the Yuan can also be found. The Northern Wei, the Western Wei and Northern Zhou, and the Tang grottos are in the best state of preservation.
Many of the grottos are rectangular or square-shaped with recessed, decorated ceiling. The focal point of each is the group of brightly-painted statues representing Buddha and the bodhisattvas or Buddha's disciples. Because the sandstone here was too soft for fine carving the smaller statues are made of terracotta, coated with a sort of plaster surface and painted with mineral pigments. As with the grottos constructed later at Datong and Luoyang, religious stories and tales from Chinese mythology, and the walls of the caves are painted in intricate detail.
The Mogao Grottos are considered an inestimable artistic trove on the Silk Road. They are the best known of the Chinese Buddhist grottos and, along with Longmen Grottoes in Luoyang, and Yungang Grottoes in Datong, are one of the three illustrious ancient sculptural sites of China. It was listed on the roll of the World Cultural Heritage Sites in 1987.