UNESCO Spotlight: China’s Hidden Art – Mogao Buddhist Caves

UNESCO Spotlight: China’s Hidden Art – Mogao Buddhist Caves

One wonders if the Mogao Buddhist Caves on China’s Silk Road might have received its UNESCO World Heritage Site listing on numbers alone. Indeed, these caves contain the largest number of Buddhist art pieces in China.

Ancient TreasuresBut beyond the numbers, these “Caves of the Thousand Buddhas” near Dunhuang in Western China’s desert are ancient Buddhist wonders: nearly 500 “cave temples” are filled with miles of frescoes, statues and paintings.

Buddhist monks originally meditated and worshiped in  China's Mogao Caves, near Dunhuang <br>Photo credit: Martin Klimenta

Buddhist monks lived and meditated in China’s Mogao Caves, near Dunhuang
Photo credit: Martin Klimenta

A Lasting VisionDunhuang was a major stop on the Silk Road, the town where two important routes divided, or came together. Many Buddhist monks traveled along this road, and so Dunhuang became a center for Buddhist art, teaching, and scholarly study.

It’s believed one monk had a vision of a thousand Buddhas, and began carving this vision into his hermit’s cave near Dunhuang. As more monks arrived, they dug out countless more caves along the ridge of sandstone in the Mingsha Mountains, leaving their own carvings, frescoes, and painted statues. Over the course of 1,000 years, the caves have reflected a variety of Buddhist art styles.

Viewing Tips for Mogao Caves
  • Entrance to the Mogao Caves stands five stories tall.
  • Cave sizes are as small as one foot to 131 feet tall and 98 feet wide.
  • General public can’t take photos or videos inside the caves, helping preserve the frescoes’ colors. Exterior shots are OK. 
  • Best times to visit are morning to early afternoon when outdoor light is best for photos.
UNESCO's 1987 designation helps ensure the Mogao Caves' preservation for future generations Photo credit: Martin Klimenta

UNESCO’s 1987 designation helps ensure the Mogao Caves’ preservation for future generations
Photo credit: Martin Klimenta

Travel to China with MIRYou can learn more about the caves on some of MIR’s scheduled tours to China, including China’s Silk Road & Tibet: Route of Monks & Merchants. You can also book a custom private journey.

(Top photo credit: Martin Klimenta – Can’t-miss entrance to Mogao Buddhist Caves; it’s five stories tall.)

PUBLISHED: December 1, 2014

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