The Mogao Grottoes(莫高窟), also known as the Thousand-Buddha Caves, about 25 km southeast of Dunhuang City, are one of the largest and best-preserved sites of Buddhist art in the world.
The rows of caves on Mingsha Hill spread across 1,600 m and divide into the south and north areas. Distributed across the cliff face like a honeycomb, the caves are 15 to 30 m above the ground. The caves in the south area are the more significant, as they contain a large amount of statues and frescos from several dynasties. The caves in the north area were predominantly places for meditation and living quarters for the monks.
The Earliest Caves
Among the extant caves in Mogao, Caves 268, 272 and 275, located at the second level of the central section, are the oldest caves discovered to date. Although fairly small, they occupy the best positions on the cliff face. The artistic style of the murals in the three earliest caves is rough and bold with vigorous lines. The colors used are mainly vermilion, copper blue and copper green. The striking contrast between the warm and cold colors helps dramatize the tragic images. The painting technique is basically flat brushwork with high colors. Fusing technique was adopted for the outlines of human figures to produce a three-dimensional effect, an influence from the Indian convex-concave drawing technique of the time.
Cave 275 is the largest of the three Northern Liang grottoes. The front section of the cave is in a gable form with statue niches carved into its left and right slopes. The Maitreya Bodhisattva on the front-facing wall has a squarish face, thin eyebrows and big eyes and a high, straight nose. With thin lips, small mouth and long earlobes hanging to the shoulders, the statue wears a three-ring crown on a high hair topknot, has a thick neck and broad shoulders. His upper body is bare apart from necklaces, tassels and arm rings. His long skirt looks like light silk with flowing and detailed drapery folds. The Bodhisattva sits with crossed feet, his hands in a preaching gesture. With a solemn and transcendent bearing, the statue's cross-legged pose and attire bear clear Western Regions' influence.
Northern Wei Grottoes
In 442, the Northern Wei dynasty unified the vast area along the Yellow River. In 516, the Northern Wei governor of Dunhuang went to Mogao with his colleagues to supervise the creation of grottoes and statues, taking along with them new model samples of Buddhist statuary. This event helped drive the process of sinicization, and the Mogao murals and statues started to take on the characteristics of traditional Chinese culture. The grottoes built in the Northern Wei Period as represented by Caves 254, 257, 259, 248, 251 and 435.
Western Wei Grottoes
Cave 285, the largest, best preserved and the most splendid cave from the Western Wei Period, is located on the second level of the central section in the south area. In the Buddha niche on the main wall, row after row of flames are painted onto the background as symbols of Buddha's transcendence and nobility. Flying Apsaras dance on both sides of Buddha's aureole to cheer him. Below, statues of patrons are sincerely worshipping the Buddha. The entire mural is a vivid combination of painting and sculpture. On the niche lintel children of lotus incarnations play musical instruments to accompany the Buddha's teaching. The upper portions each side of the niche are painted with the gods of sun, moon and a multitude of deities in different forms and poses. The west slope is crowded with images of deities, flying Apsaras and demigods, as well as such traditional Chinese mythic figures as Fuxi, Nüwa, and feathered men. Flying freely among the colorful clouds and flower petals, these celestial figures form a vivid, flowing scene that takes up the entire wall space.
Northern Zhou Grottoes
In 557, the Western Wei was defeated by the Northern Zhou, ushering in a tide of change in Mogao's grotto construction and development. The remaining Northern Zhou caves are Caves 290, 428, 438, 299 and 296.
Cave 428 is at the third level of the central section in the south area. The cave is square, with a square central pillar. The front part of its ceiling is gabled and the rear part flat. In the middle part of the cave are paintings of Buddha preaching the law and tales of the Buddha. The most eye-catching is "Prince Sudana's Practice of Almsgiving" which tells the story of Prince Sudana from the kingdom of Yebo in ancient India. The picture story varies its scenes and background in accordance with the plot. Characters, scenery, buildings and interiors alternate continuously in a most natural and harmonious way. The picture story seems much more accomplished than earlier portrayals of Jakata tales. A total of 1,198 images of the cave's patrons, male and female, are painted along the bottom of the four walls. Cave 428 has the highest number of donors of all the Mogao grottoes
Cave 290 is on the second level of the central section in the south area. A pictorial narrative of tales of the Buddha is painted across the east and west slopes of the gabled ceiling for a length of over eight meters. Over 80 episodes of Sakyamuni's life are arranged in an S-shaped sequence, making it the most coherent and comprehensive narrative of its kind in Mogao.
Cave 296 is in the central part of the top southern caves. It is a square-shaped cave with a vaulted ceiling like an inverted hopper. The "Fields of Merits" at the northern side of the east ceiling slope portrays several scenes of acquiring merit such as "Building Pagodas," "Constructing Temples," "Raising Bridges and Cultivating Fields," "Drilling Wells for Livestock drinking" and "Treating Illness and Saving the Sick." The chart is like unfurling a scroll of contemporary social life. The scene of merchants journeying reflects the harsh conditions of caravans traveling the ancient Silk Road.
In 581, Yang Jian, Emperor Wen, unified China under the Sui Dynasty. During this time, between 60 and 70 caves of various sizes were opened at Mogao, a feat of construction unprecedented in Mogao history. The architectural form of the Sui grottoes basically followed that of the Wei caves, but the Sui Dynasty statuary modeling diverged from the lean and bony form of the Northern Wei, pursuing a solid and opulent style, and creating images with notably Chinese features.
Cave 420 is a square cave with a hopper-shaped vaulted ceiling. The south, west and north walls of the cave all have a niche. The square niche on the west wall has two levels, a new form introduced during the Sui Dynasty. On the niche wall behind the Buddha are painted colored images of seated Buddha and flame pattern. The niche pillars are engraved with entangled lotus stems patterns and the lintel is painted with a linked pearl motif. The clothes of the Buddha and bodhisattva statues are decorated with ancient Persian floral designs, pig head, linked-pearls and hunting motifs, testifying to the economic and cultural links between China, Persia and lands of the Western Regions at that time. The colored design of three hares and lotus flower on the caisson ceiling is one of the most outstanding ceiling patterns in the Mogao complex. At the center is a lotus flower pattern comprising two rings of eight petals, and in the center of the flower are three vigorous hares chasing each other in a circle. Ingeniously, the artist has each of the three hares share an ear with the next, drawing three rather than six so that the hares are interlocked and seem to chase another in an endless circle. The lotus design is set against a blue background that symbolizes the vast clear sky. Surrounding the lotus and hares pattern are eight flying Apsaras hovering freely in graceful poses. The caisson edges are decorated with brightly colored lotus flowers. A decorative border of inverted-triangles, as often seen on woven brocade from Sui and Tang times, runs around the four sides, looking very neat and bright.
The makers of the statues in Cave 276 broke the conventions of statuary form by focusing on large individual images set against natural landscapes rather than a multiplicity of figures and architectural structures. They concentrated on the depiction of images and expressions of individual characters. For example, Weimojie on the north side of the wall has a long beard reaching his chest and holds a feather fan, looking like an erudite elderly scholar. Opposite him is the bodhisattva Manjushri (Wenshu) standing under a tree. With elegant figure and graceful and wise bearing, she raises her hands as if in debate with Weimojie. The picture on the south wall of a bodhisattva and disciple is also a masterpiece of Sui-Dynasty painting. The slender and beautiful bodhisattva holds a vase in her left hand and a willow twig in her right. She looks down as if pondering Buddhist doctrines. The disciple stands under a tree with an alms bowl in one hand and a lotus flower in the other. His slightly opened mouth seems as if he wants to say something but is not sure whether he should. The characters in the chart are balanced in their proportions, the composition is precise, the brushwork strong and subtle, the colors zingy and full of zest. The drapery folds are appropriately arranged between density and space. The painting technique skill is what art historians call "sparse sketching style." It was also a Sui-Dynasty innovation in painting practice.
With the Zhenguan reign of the Tang Emperor Taizong in the first half of the seventh century, Tang society reached a peak in overall national power—in economic, cultural and military spheres—a level never before experienced in Chinese feudal society. Commercial and cultural contact between China and the West reached an all time high. All this made possible a massive expansion of construction at Mogao, one that moved the grotto complex into its most glorious golden age. The 270 extant Tang caves represent nearly half of all the caves in the Mogao complex.
Most of the Tang grottoes are square, but they no longer have central pillars. The statue niches are larger and deeper, and they generally have square vaulted ceiling with a square caisson at the center. The Tang murals are predominantly large format jingbian—scriptures in pictures. They are rich in content and wide in scope; all the most popular Buddhist classics circulating at the time are reflected in the cave murals.
The statues and murals of the early Tang are famous for their striking beauty. The statue of Goddess of Mercy (also known as Guanyin, or Avalokiteshvara) in Cave 57 is agreed to be the most pretty and charming bodhisattva in Mogao. She wears a coronet, necklaces, arm and wrist bracelets and pearl tassels on her bare upper body; all the ornaments are golden, producing a spectacularly regal aura. Her downcast eyes, slightly inclined posture and graceful hand gesture fully display the modest and gentle beauty of Oriental women. As regards artistic methods, the sculptor used traditional Chinese painting technique, applying a very light touch of red to the Goddess of Mercy's cheeks and eyelids to create a sense of spirituality and fullness.
Cave 220 is another famous cave from the early Tang. In 1943, a Song Dynasty surface fresco of a thousand miniature Buddhas was peeled away to revel a completely intact mural painted in the early Tang. On the east and north walls, inscriptions dating from 642 were also discovered. The large jingbian scripture illustration murals on the east, south and north walls are all early Tang masterpieces. One such, the “Amida Buddha” painted on the south wall is a grand, magnificent piece. At the center of the picture, the Amida Buddha sits on a lotus throne, which itself sits in a pool of crystal-clear, breeze-rippled water. Lotus flowers in full bloom crowd the pool and behind a mass of bodhisattva figures can be seen stately palaces and towering pagodas. Flying Apsaras soar freely across the ethereal sky amid colorful clouds and raining flowers. Buddhas of ten domains are descending on clouds. Musicians play cheerfully from a stage set up over the lotus pool and dancers whirl blissfully to the music. This happy scene of paradise reflects people’s idea of heaven, their yearning for a perfect life. The mural depicts over 150 characters including Buddhas, Goddess of Mercy, deities and demigods in all kinds of poses; it is a true classic of jingbian scripture painting in Mogao’s early Tang period.
Cave 328 is located on the first layer of the central section in the south area. It contains the Mogao Grottoes’ finest group of Tang-Dynasty statues. The Buddha statue has a spiral topknot and a plump face, wears a shawl-collar garment underneath a draped kasaya robe with a round neckline. Sitting cross-legged on a gourd-shaped podium, his left hand holds his waist and his right hand is held in front of his chest in a preaching gesture. The podium curtains fall like real drapery and the garment folds flow smoothly over each change of level in the statue's pose. The Buddha's serene and loving expression shows dignity and transcendence. The two bodhisattvas that flank the Buddha statue sit comfortably, each on a semi-circular podium with one foot stepping on a lotus throne. They have plump faces and the hair is worn high; they wear necklaces and bracelets around arms and hands. With thin silk thrown over the shoulder, they look slender and elegant. Their smooth and elastic skin seems to have blood flowing through it. Their robes give the impression of real silk clinging to the body and the pleats of their skirts look like rippling water. All this helps express the noble qualities of the two bodhisattvas.
Cave 130 (also called the Great Statue South Cave) is a famous large cave from the High Tang period. The huge seated Buddha statue (sculpted clay on stone core) is 27 m tall. The cave was probably built around 721 and according to the signatures left by the patrons on the south wall of the entrance, it took over 30 years to complete the project. To highlight the grand and solemn bearing of the huge Buddha, the craftsmen intentionally made the head disproportionately large, but when looked up at from below the proportions are totally right.
Cave 45 is one of the Tang caves with the most exquisite statuary in the Mogao complex. It is located on the lower level of the central section in south area. Masterpieces such as the "Goddess of Mercy Manifesting in Multiple Forms,” "Viewing the Unlimited Eternity" and "Resentment of the Unborn and Sixteen Sights" all achieve great heights in their composition, depiction of character, rendition of landscape and many other aspects.
The Mogao Grottoes' mid- and late-Tang periods are represented by caves 112, 158, 17, 156, and 196. A notable example is the music and dance scene depicted in the “View of the Unlimited Eternity” on the south wall of Cave 112. It is one of the liveliest music and dance paintings of all the Tang jingbian. Musicians sit in a circle on a stage by a lotus pool, holding various instruments and playing melodious music with great concentration. A dancer in the middle holds a pipa lute behind her head and leans her body. She raises one leg while dancing to the joyous music. Both in the flowing strokes and in the grasp of the moment when the dancer plays the pipa behind her back, the artist displays superb workmanship, accuracy and rhythm.
Cave 156 on the second level of the central section in the south area contains some 14 kinds of jingbian scripture paintings on its cave walls, vaulted ceiling slopes and the front ceiling caisson. On its north wall is a Tang inked inscription “Records of Mogao Cave,” dating from 865. This shows that it was built as a merit grotto by the family of Zhang Yichao, the military commissioner of the Hexi Corridor at the time. The murals showing the processions of Zhang Yichao and his wife on the lower portions of the south, north and east cave walls, are over eight meters long and depict 114 figures in total. Zhang Yichao’s procession is led by mounted troops, followed by dancing and cheering crowds. Next comes Zhang Yichao escorted by his generals and soldiers. Zhang wears a garment with a scoop neck, long sleeves and a soft scarf-hat. On his horse he stands on a bridge, looking extremely imposing. The mural continues onto the east wall, where scenes of hunting, transport and other activities are depicted. On the opposite north wall is Madame Zhang’s procession, led by performers of various entertainments, followed by a musical band and dancers. Next come carriages, horses and messengers. Behind the carriages follows Madame Zhang riding a horse. The last part is on the north side of the east wall, showing scenes of packhorses, hunting scenes and others. This enormous and stately procession, reflecting the grand scene of Dunhuang highest ruler leaving his residence, is a very rare subject in Mogao murals of whatever dynasty.
Five Dynasties and Song Grottoes
From the Five Dynasties until the Yuan, merit donations went primarily to the renovation of existing caves or the rebuilding of larger caves on earlier sites. The cave structure during these periods essentially followed the existing style. As regards statuary and murals, craftsmen basically continued along traditional Tang lines.
Cave 61 was probably built after the 10th century. The huge “Mount Wutai ” painting on its west wall is a rare masterpiece. Mount Wutai painted on the west wall of Cave 61 maps the hills and rivers, temples and historical sites as well as some trade activities between Mount Wutai in Shanxi and Zhengding in Hebei. It is 13.45 m long and 3.4 m high, portraying the rise and fall of mountain ranges and winding rivers with Buddhist activities, trading caravans and other scenes mixed in. This excellent “landscape scroll” of landscapes and human figures also provide a valuable account of society at this time, a precious historical record for understanding contemporary religious and social life.
During the 10th century, the ethnic minorities living in areas around Dunhuang became stronger and more active. They too created a number of caves in Dunhuang and described their cultures and customs with murals and statues. For example, among the 49 statues of female donors on the south and north sides of the east wall in Cave 61, a few wear Huihu people’s noble costume.
Cave 76, on the first level of the central section in the south area, consists of a front and a rear room. Initially opened in the Tang Dynasty, it was rebuilt and repainted during the Song. Its south and north walls are crowded with jingbian among which the “Eleven-faced Goddess of Mercy” is particularly significant. The Eleven-faced Goddess of Mercy is one of the six versions of the Goddess. The image of the goddess in the mural has eleven faces and eight arms, with an eye in the palm of each hand, each holding an item such as the sun, moon, magic wane, pestle and lotus flower or in a preaching gesture. Around the Goddess of Mercy are painted various scenes of lay Buddhists chanting mantra given to them by the Goddess to avoid the 15 sorts of wicked deaths, by this, they praise the merits and power of the Eleven-faced Goddess. This mural is the most prominent painting among the Mogao murals from the Song Dynasty.
Western Xia Grottoes
Originally built in the Sui Dynasty, Cave 409 was rebuilt in the Western Xia period. The cave ceiling is crowded with the round floral garlands fashionable at the time, looking simultaneously harmonious and fervent, the dominant colors being copper blue, copper green and crimson. A thousand miniature Buddha images are painted on the south, north and west cave walls. Painted figures of the cave’s patrons, the Western Xia king and queen, flank the inside of the east entrance, indicating that the highest ruler of the Western Xia Kingdom visited the grotto to pay tribute to Buddha. In the picture on the south side of the east wall, he wears a tall crown and a robe with a scoop neckline and broad sleeves embroidered with coiled dragons. A short sword, an embroidered purse and other ornaments are hung from his belt, and he wears white felt boots on his feet. Accompanied by a child in front and several attendants behind, the king holds a long-handled incense burner as he prays piously to Buddha. Of the followers behind him, one holds a canopy, others bows and arrows, and swords; the picture portrays how the Western Xia nobility worshipped Buddha. The picture of the Western Xia Queen is on the north side of the cave entrance. She wears a peach-shaped phoenix coronet on her hair bun and her face is flanked by long hair and she wears huge dangling earrings. Her long gown has large lapels and broad sleeves. She holds a bouquet as she prays Buddha. The fact that the Western Xia Queen wears a costume typically worn by Huihu noblewomen to a degree reflects the closeness and harmonious relations between different peoples at the time.
Mogao's Yuan-Dynasty caves are generally renovations of the old ones. The few new caves opened up during this period are concentrated in the southern end of the north area, and are best represented by Cave 465 and Cave 3. Cave 3 is small and square with a vaulted ceiling like an inverted hopper. On its south and north walls are portraits of the Thousand-armed Goddess of Mercy. The thousand-armed and thousand-eyed Goddess of Mercy portrait on the north wall is painted in the center of a large ring. Standing on a lotus platform, the Goddess of Mercy wears 11 crowns on high topknots. A thousand more arms are added onto forty inner arms. Each hand has an eye in the palm to show the omniscient gaze and care of the infinitely merciful Goddess of Mercy. The Goddess of Mercy enjoyed wide popularity among Buddhists in ancient China. It was long known that “every family invoked the Amida Buddha and every household worshipped the Goddess of Mercy.” After the Esoteric Sect was introduced into China, the image of Goddess of Mercy became more miraculous, seemingly able to satisfy everything people prayed for in their daily lives. The artist’s strong and smooth strokes of dry ink give the portraits a most fluid effect. Its drawing technique combines the “hard-line,” “orchid-leaf” and “broken reed” lines of Chinese painting. The colors applied to the portraits are light and graceful, beautiful and elegant, exemplifying the high level achieved by Yuan-Dynasty art.
Cave 465, the most notable of the Yuan caves, consists of two rooms, the front room containing wall paintings of bodhisattvas and pagodas. The rear room has a circular altar built in it and its four walls are painted with 11 mandalas. In the central caisson of the ceiling is the Big Sun Tathagata Buddha. Around the caisson, on the east slope is the Aksobhya Buddha, on the south slope is the Ratnasambhva Buddha, on the west the Amitaya Buddha of Boundless Life and on the north the Amoghasiddhi Buddha. The positions of the four Buddhas match their natural directions. The four worlds they inhabit and the host of bodhisattvas around them create a rich and colorful mandala world. The cave walls have paintings of the Joyous Vajra (Hevajra), attendant bodhisattvas and other figures. The only cave in Mogao containing Tibetan Esoteric designs, it displays rich content, mature painting technique and a diversity of themes, and its bizarre imagery enhances the mystic atmosphere of Mogao Grottoes. A prominent feature of Yuan murals is the fresco style, whereby watercolors are painted onto wet plaster.
In 1961 the Dunhuang Mogao Grottoes was designated as a “Key National Cultural Protection Unit,” one of the first batch of sites awarded this status. In 1987, it was included in the UNESCO World Heritage List.