The Mogao Caves, or Mogao Grottoes (Chinese: 莫高窟; pinyin: Mògāo kū) (also known as the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas and Dunhuang Caves) form a system of 492 temples 25 km (15.5 miles) southeast of the center of Dunhuang, an oasis strategically located at a religious and cultural crossroads on the Silk Road, in Gansu province, China. The caves contain some of the finest examples of Buddhist art spanning a period of 1,000 years. The first caves were dug out 366 AD as places of Buddhist meditation and worship. The Mogao Caves are the best known of the Chinese Buddhist grottoes and, along with Longmen Grottoes and Yungang Grottoes, are one of the three famous ancient Buddhist sculptural sites of China.
According to local legend, in AD 366 a Buddhist monk, Lè Zūn (樂尊), had a vision of a thousand Buddhas and inspired the excavation of the caves he envisioned. The number of temples eventually grew to more than a thousand. As Buddhist monks valued austerity, they sought retreat in remote caves to further their quest for enlightenment. From the 4th until the 14th century, Buddhist monks at Dunhuang collected scriptures from the west while many pilgrims passing through the area painted murals inside the caves. The cave paintings and architecture served as aids to meditation, as visual representations of the quest for enlightenment, as mnemonic devices, and as teaching tools to inform illiterate Chinese about Buddhist beliefs and stories.
The murals cover 450,000 square feet (42,000 m²). The caves were walled off sometime after the 11th century after they had become a repository for venerable, damaged and used manuscripts and hallowed paraphernalia. The following has been suggested:
“ The most probable reason for such a huge accumulation of waste is that, when the printing of books became widespread in the tenth century, the handwritten manuscripts of the Tripitaka at the monastic libraries must have been replaced by books of a new type — the printed Tripitaka. Consequently, the discarded manuscripts found their way to the sacred waste-pile, where torn scrolls from old times as well as the bulk of manuscripts in Tibetan had been stored. All we can say for certain is that he came from the Wu family, because the compound of the three-storied cave temples, Nos. 16-18 and 365-6, is known to have been built and kept by the Wu family, of which the mid-ninth century Bishop of Tun-Huan, Hung-pien, was a member. ”
- Fujieda Akira, "The Tun-Huan Manuscripts"
In the early 1900s, a Chinese Taoist named Wang Yuanlu appointed himself guardian of some of these temples. Wang discovered a walled up area behind one side of a corridor leading to a main cave. Behind the wall was a small cave stuffed with an enormous hoard of manuscripts dating from 406 to 1002 AD. These included old hemp paper scrolls in Chinese and many other languages, paintings on hemp, silk or paper, numerous damaged figurines of Buddhas, and other Buddhist paraphernalia. The subject matter in the scrolls covers diverse material. Along with the expected Buddhist canonical works are original commentaries, apocryphal works, workbooks, books of prayers, Confucian works, Taoist works, Nestorian Christian works, works from the Chinese government, administrative documents, anthologies, glossaries, dictionaries, and calligraphic exercises. Wang sold the majority of them to Aurel Stein in 1907 for 220 pounds.
Rumors of this discovery brought several European expeditions to the area by 1910. These included a joint British/Indian group led by Aurel Stein (who took hundreds of copies of the Diamond Sutra because he was unable to read Chinese), a French expedition under Paul Pelliot, a Japanese expedition under Otani Kozui which arrived after the Chinese government's forces and a Russian expedition under Sergei F. Oldenburg which found the least. Pelloit was interested in the more unusual and exotic of Wang's manuscripts such as those dealing with the administration and financing of the monastery and associated lay men's groups. These manuscripts survived only because they formed a type of palimpsest in which the Buddhist texts (the target of the preservation effort) were written on the opposite side of the paper. The remaining Chinese manuscripts were sent to Peking (Beijing) at the order of the Chinese government. Wang embarked on an ambitious refurbishment of the temples, funded in part by solicited donations from neighboring towns and in part by donations from Stein and Pelliot. The image of the Chinese astronomy Dunhuang map is one of the many important artifacts found on the scrolls.
Today, the site is the subject of an ongoing archaeological project. The Mogao Caves became one of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1987. From 1988 to 1995 a further 248 caves were discovered to the North of the 487 caves known since the early 1900s.
Besides damage done by previous European explorers, White Russian Bandits escaping from the Russian Civil War were responsible for vandalizing much the Buddhist art at the Mogao Grottoes. They had caused trouble in Xinjiang, but were defeated when they tried to attack Qitai. The Governor of Xinjiang, Yang Zengxin, arranged for them to be transported to Dunhuang at the Mogao Grottoes, after talks with Governor Lu Hongtao of Gansu. The White Russian bandits wrote profanities onto Buddhist statues, destroying and ravaging paintings, gouging eyes off and amputating the limbs of the statues, in addition to committing arson. At present, the damage remains.