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Dunhuang–The Caves of A Thousand Buddhas

Two weeks ago I visited the incomparable Mogao Caves at Dunhuang, a UNESCO World Heritage site, located in Gansu province, northwestern China, at the edge of the Gobi and Taklamakan deserts, directly north of Tibet.  These caves remain one of the most well-preserved, splendid sanctuaries of sacred art in the world.

Mogao Caves

From the 3rd century BCE through the 12th century AD, Dunhuang was a prosperous oasis situated at the entrance to the Silk Road, where ancient caravans of Bactrian camels, donkeys, and horses carried cargo for more than 7,000 kilometers from China and Tibet through the Middle East to the Mediterranean.  These merchants became purveyors not only of merchandise but also of ideas – religious, cultural and artistic. By the 4th century AD, the Silk Road had brought Dunhuang both commercial prosperity and a growing Buddhist community of monk-scholars and pilgrims.       

Silk Road watchtower


The artifacts (totaling over 45,000 items) include murals, paintings, sculpture and manuscripts, in more than fifteen different scripts and languages.  The history of interreligious relations in Dunhuang is a history of peaceful exchange involving Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Taoism, Manichaeism, Nestorianism, and folk religions.  The early communication was followed, in some cases, by conversion but the region remained one of peaceful co-existence until the nomadic invasion of Islam in the 12th century.

Dunes of Dunhuang

Aurel Stein (1862–1943), a Hungarian-British civil servant working in India, made four perilous expeditions to Central Asia, beginning in 1901, removing thousands of   manuscripts from the ‘Library Cave’ (Cave 17). French, German, Russian, Japanese, and Chinese treasure hunters and explorers also took their toll on the collection.

In graduate school I had translated a third century Buddhist sutra, The Srimaladevi Sutra, a sermon by Sakyamuni about a woman who becomes a Buddha without waiting for rebirth as a man.  I have seen the original Dunhuang manuscript of the Srimaladevi at the British Museum, where many of the manuscripts are now stored.  Seeing the cave where the manuscript was transported by Stein to London was a dream come true!

Buddhist Pilgrim

Accompanied by a specialist from the Dunhuang Research Institute, we were able to see the celebrated “Library Cave” (Cave 17) where the oldest dated printed book was discovered–The Diamond Sutra–about the Buddha’s sermon at Jetavana grove. The Diamond Sutra is now housed at the British Museum. Virtually every cave has at least one image of the Buddha, various dancers, musicians, and Bodhisattvas in heavenly realms embodying a fusion of Chinese, Persian, Tibetan, Indian, and other regional art styles.  The magnificence and grace of the Mogao Caves left me breathless.

The removal by Stein of so much cultural and archaeological material from China has caused anger in China, and there have been calls for the texts and artifacts collected by Stein from Dunhuang that are now in the British Museum and British Library to be repatriated to China. Although the Chinese government has not formally requested their return, in 2003 an official at the Chinese Embassy in London stated that all artifacts should be returned to the ancient grottoes of their origin. Currently, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is funding a visitor center and digital library of art to be completed in 2015, with the intention of preserving the fragile Mogao Caves. The Dunhuang art has been considered China’s Elgin Marbles.

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