The Hexi Corridor in Northwest China is bordered by deserts to the south, vast plateaus to the north, and mountains to the east and west. In this narrow passage, we find the oasis city of Dunhuang — a blessed stop on the Silk Road, and home to a famous Chinese landmark.
For centuries, Dunhuang has been a special place for the weary traveler, and not only because of its trade center. Fifteen miles away from its bustling markets lie the Mogao Caves, home to one of the most breathtaking collections of Buddhist paintings and statues in the world. The caves were made a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1987.
The Mogao Grottoes, created in A.D. 366, also known as the “Thousand Buddha Caves,” have an enchanting story. As legend has it, a Buddhist monk named Le Zun was making the long journey to the Western Paradise.
Crossing the Gobi Desert, he stopped by Sanwei Mountain, near Dunhuang. There he found a special spring, and having quenched his thirst with its sweet waters, sat down to rest.
It was dusk, and he was admiring the sunset when suddenly, the mountains began to glow. Raising his head, he saw an image of a glorious golden Maitreya Buddha floating in the sky. A thousand beaming Buddhas emerged, surrounded by flying fairies playing heavenly music.
Deeply moved by the radiant scene, Le Zun immediately decided to stay and celebrate it. Le Zun had learned painting and sculpture, and so he put those skills to use to re-create his vision. Years later, another Buddhist monk named Fa Liang arrived at the same place, and had an identical vision. Fa Liang then filled a second cave with paintings and statues of the divine scene.
Mogao quickly became a pilgrimage site for Buddhists, artists, officials, and many others. More than 500 caves were dug into Sanwei Mountain, many of them during the Tang Dynasty. Today, they are known as the Dunhuang or Mogao Caves, and hold some of the finest Tang Dynasty works.
One of Mogao’s most famous statues is the clay figure of Maitreya Buddha. Over 100 feet tall, it is one of the largest in the world. Subsequent centuries filled the caves with religious scriptures, as well as countless Buddha murals.
For ancient Chinese people who believed that Heaven protects the pious, the caves’ imagery was particularly striking. Some depicted the grand solemnity of Buddha, while others the terrors of Hell for the wicked. It was a common belief that deities appeared to the faithful in visions, and the scenes were thus taken as accurate depictions and an earthly glimpse into otherworldly realms.
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