Mogao Caves – Treasure of the Silk Road

  • imperial I
  • December 3, 2010


Image of Mogao Caves in China

These facts presume ten centuries of consecutive public works programs of astonishing financial proportions and startling logistical complications. They anticipate unparalleled craftsmanship especially during the Tang (608-907) and Yuan (1227-1368) dynasties when China was a global superpower.


Buddhist cave art originated in the second century B.C.E. in Maharashtra, India – an area of commercial importance for trade flows between north and south India. Between the inception at the older site at Ajanta and the completion of further ones at a nearby site at Ellora in the eighth century, some 63 caves were excavated and painted.

The Mogao Caves, begun six centuries later in the fourth century, were positioned on the more prosperous international trading network, known as the Silk Road. With 492 painted grottoes, the Mogao Caves have more than eight times as many grottoes as those at India's primary two sites. That said, the Mogao Caves should not be understood as an isolated endeavor within China. They are merely the best example of an astonishingly widespread Buddhist cave movement in this nation. Apart from the UNESCO-registered grottoes at Dazu, Longmen & Yungang, prominent Buddhist grottoes on the Silk Road are the Kizil Caves near Kuqa, on which much of the content if not style of the earliest Mogao Caves are based, and the Bezeklik Caves near Turpan in China's western Xinjiang province. Within their home province of Gansu, the Mogao Caves are but one of several painted cave complexes with nearby grottoes at Yulin, the Western Thousand Buddha Caves and Eastern Thousand Buddha Caves, as well as further afield, notably at Maijishan, Binglingsi and Laoshansi.

Indian in origin, Buddhist cave art was soon wholeheartedly promoted in many cultural centers throughout China both on the Silk Road network and off.


Buddhist cave art, like Buddhism, was an Indian export to China. Over time, its original ideological function was embellished with features required by Buddhism's synthesis into China's political and religious life.

Image of Mogao Caves in China - 2(i) Original Religious Functions

The Indian tradition of sannyasa refers to the concept of renouncing attachments to the material world in order to devote oneself entirely to spiritual matters. This concept developed in two ways: The first, outlined in the "Bhagavad Gita", is the principle of internalizing this concept so that it inspires one's daily life. The second is the physical execution of this ideal by formally renouncing the various comforts of society for the austerity of a remote location where the spiritual aspirant devotes him/herself to the search for enlightenment. A remote cave offers peace and shelter as well as an environment suited to spiritual endeavor. Neither light nor dark, high nor low, enclosed nor exposed, a cave is a metaphor for a dimension that exists beyond the worlds of reality and unreality.

The cave thereby became a place for spiritual search. It was but a small elaboration to painting the caves' walls with emblems to facilitate meditation or with visualizations derived from the search for enlightenment.

Sannyasa originally relates to an individual's search for enlightenment. However, even before the institution of the Mahayana school of Buddhism, there was evidence of devotees' zeal to enlighten their contemporaries. Caves also became loci of pedagogy and the tools of proselytizers. Cave paintings came to have the function of publicizing Buddhist stories and concepts to an illiterate audience. The images became attractive and accessible libraries of Buddhist sutras (teachings) and jataka (moral tales of previous incarnations of the Buddha).

(ii) Subsequent Political Functions

Assuring Imperial Legitimacy

To understand the political value of Buddhism to China's rulers, it is useful firstly to introduce an axiom of Mahayana Buddhism, which was the strain of Buddhism that became popular in China. Mahayana Buddhism innovated the concept of the bodhisattva (enlightenment being). This is an individual who has attained supreme enlightenment but delays his or her entry into nirvana (the state of enlightenment ) in order to make possible the salvation of fellow sentient beings. The bodhisattva is a figure of immense authority, which represents and acts out of enlightenment, compassion and self-sacrifice on behalf of all other beings. As such, it is a potent potential political metaphor for a ruler.

The heyday for Buddhism, as well as for murals at the Mogao Caves, was during the first half of the Tang dynasty (618-781). This period featured three highly successful Emperors: Emperor Taizong (626-649), Emperor Wu (684-704 – China's only female Emperor) and Emperor Xuanzong I (712-755). Apart from the successes of their reigns, these Emperors shared only one other common experience – that of ascending to the throne in violation of the sacrosanct conventions of succession. Their accessions to the throne were tainted with illegalities. Their subsequent patronage of Buddhism bore the political goal of using for themselves the bodhisattva image to wipe clean the disrepute of their usurpation.

The clearest challenge to the existing order came from Emperor Wu (a woman). Hence, the 100 foot White Buddha in cave 96 was sculpted in her lifetime and was modeled on her physiognomy. Similarly, the 75 foot Black Buddha of nearby cave 130 was constructed during the reign of Emperor Xuanzong I.

The legitimacy of the Imperial regime through association with a populist Buddhist order was maintained explicitly and implicitly. Firstly, the Emperors sponsored Buddhist public works programs. Secondly, as stated above, the likeness of Emperors and of other members of the ruling elite were incorporated within the Buddhist cosmogony. Thirdly, the appearances of popular Buddhist scenes were adapted to resonate to the culture of the Imperial Palace. For example, the architecture of Amitabha's Western Palace closely resembled that of the Emperor's Imperial one. Otherwise, in the traditional figures of the flying apsara (Hindu mythological nymphs), musicians, Buddhas and Bodhisattvas could be seen references to the maids, singers, dancers and musicians of the Imperial palace.

Although a foreign import, Buddhism suffered no discrimination in China. It was integrated within a holistic, world religious view. Instead of interpreting it as a threat to the status quo, Buddhism was at first co-opted by the ruling Imperial elite to garner popular support.

Fostering Cohesion In A Multi-ethnic Nation

The Tang dynasty was a time of increasing affluence and surging military expansion. Commerce fostered upward mobility wImage of Mogao Caves in China - 3hile military conquests continually broadened the cultural base of the empire. Buddhism, a universal philosophy transcending class and ethnic barriers, was used as a trans-national ideology to bind the disparate ethnic and social groups of the Empire. As a result, the paintings at the Mogao Caves became an establishmentarian vision of the heavenly paradise awaiting obedient and dutiful citizens of all classes and territories.

The Mogao Caves are notable for their holistic integration of the disparate groups and individuals displayed on their walls. Deities, Imperial likenesses and wealthy donors are provided pride of place but commoners and ethnic minorities are also included within a mosaic of socially and culturally harmonious bliss.

The culturally syncretizing and socially unifying function of the paintings appears even to transgress the boundaries of the caves' original inspiration, Buddhism. Part of the uniqueness of these grottoes is in their holistic integration of indigenous Chinese philosophies, such as Daoism and Confucianism. This is historically accurate in that Confucianist and Daoist concepts did encourage the evolution of Mahayana Buddhism into Chan (or Zen) Buddhism in China in the fifth century. However, dressing an imported ideology in the garb of traditional Chinese philosophies and heroic tales is also politically expedient both for the ruling elite and to further engender the propagation of Buddhism in China.


As the fame of Mogao Caves became widespread, cave dedications were used to cement political relationships. The collapse of the Tang dynasty created a power vacuum filled by contending regimes. By 907 it was the Cao family who controlled the Dunhuang region. In order to guarantee the integrity of their kingdom vis-a-vis the powerful Khitan and Nurchen kingdoms to the east, they forged alliances with powerful western kingdoms. As part of an alliance with the King of Khotan, the ruler Cao Yijin dedicated murals in this king's honor.

(iii) Social Function

Social Prestige

Daoism and Confucianism induced two important mutations to Buddhism as it developed in China. Confucianism emphasizing the inherent goodness of humans taught that "everyone can become a sage." Daoism meanwhile underlined that the process of enlightenment was not gradual over many lifetimes but sudden and hence achievable within one lifetime. These innovations of the predominant Chinese or Chan (Zen in Japan) sect of Buddhism brought the promise of paradise closer to adherents and, as a result, accelerated the propagation of the Chan Buddhist sect.

It became possible for a wealthy individual to allude to his or her own duanwu (sudden enlightenment) by sponsoring the excavation and decoration of a cave. A large contribution to the Buddhist cosmogony at the Mogao Caves by association guaranteed the prominence of the donor's social standing. Although some commentaries claim that often it was wealthy traders who financed the caves as a form of heavenly guarantee to ward off the risks of their perilous Silk Road journey, there is little evidence to support this. In fact, as attested by dedications painted on the cave murals, most of the Mogao Caves' donors were members of the local political elite.

Clan Hall

As donors featured themselves more prominently amongst the murals, the cave shrines took on an additional role, that of clan hall. Cave 220, for example, popularly known as the "Zhai Family Cave", features ten generations of the prominent, local Zhai family. As such, this cave is a metaphor for the process of cultural synthesis by which the originally Buddhist role of the caves was integrated into the pre-existing, indigenous values, customs and beliefs of China.

The Founding

According to "An Account Of Buddhist Shrines" written by Li Junxiu during the reign of Tang Empress Wu (684-704), a monk named Lezun (also known as Yuezun) founded the Mogao Caves in 366. It is said this monk's favorite disciple, Zhiqin, had a holy vision here. As the last rays of the sun struck the peak of Sanwei Mountain, the disciple Zhiqin looked up to see the Maitreya Buddha (Buddha of the future) sitting in a golden light, surrounded by a host of celestial maidens playing musical instruments and dancing for his entertainment. So awe-struck was the disciple that he immediately took up hammer and chisel, hollowed out the first of the grottoes and painted his vision there.

Scientists refer to large mica deposits in Sanwei Mountain as a possible explanation for the intense golden light related within Zhiqin's vision. Also several accounts refer to the great thirst and fatigue of the monk prior to his vision and thereby seem to imply the potential for a hallucination.

The Development Of The Caves

The complexities of excavating a cave, of importing high quality materials for its facing and decoration, as well as of fostering local artistic talents and Buddhist learning demanded not only heavy financing, but also a high degree of coordination.

At this well-guarded outpost of the Hexi corridor, it is unsurprising that the Art Academies and management mechanisms created for the caves' development were incorporated within the already existent military structure. Among the inscriptions for the donors in both the Mogao and Yulin grottoes are: "Painted by the artisans of the first department of the Military Command"; "Painters under the Military Command"; "Calligraphers of First and Second departments of the Military Command"; "Officer in-charge of engraving" and "Officer in charge of cave-cutting".

Whilst such formalities suggest a disciplined & stark working environment, provision vouchers for wines and viands from the records of the Cao family, which sponsored 11 caves during the tenth century, indicate a jollier atmosphere. The wine bills reveal the hierarchy of workers at the caves. Whilst painters and masons were supplied with "fine" quality, other workers were issued with "inferior" supplies.

The relationship between resident artists and donors can be seen from one of the Dunhuang Manuscripts, which gives an account of master artist Colonel Dong Baode. He "had noble aspirations and a gentle temperament, an example of an honest gentleman of compassion and proper conduct. Objects came to life in his sketches, and his paintings of Buddha surpassed his predecessors'. Conversant with Buddhist scriptures and accomplished in Confucian norms and propriety, he was recommended to the King of the Cao family… Dong Baode served the noble cause while being generously rewarded. His family became affluent with provisions to spare. He consulted his colleagues (seniors and juniors) about repaying his indebtedness to the royal family while redeeming his devotion to the Enlightened One. They all agreed to dedicate themselves to the construction of the holy shrines."

There are many variations in the architecture, statuary and murals of the 492 caves built over a thousand-year period. Here will be offered an introduction to the basic themes present in a majority of caves.

Basic Design

The most basic cave design is that of a rectangular room. Meditation caves, called chanku, have two small meditation rooms either side of a main hall. A later development was the incorporation of a four-sided column in the center of the main hall, whose purpose was to create a circumambulatory path for worshippers around the cave. Overhead, until midway through the sixth century, the cave roof's cross-sectional shape was usually that of the top of an inverted U, also known as an "inverted dipper" ceiling. Later, a tiered canopy structure, modeled on an Imperial umbrella, was developed.

While the most basic cave has one altar in its western wall, one with a central column might have one to four altars installed in the wide faces of this central column. Inside the altars, and also in wall niches, are placed painted stucco statues. Colorful murals cover every inch of the surrounding cave walls, the notion of plenitude being fundamental to many of the various painted themes. The floors are often covered with kiln-fired, lotus-patterned tiles. The ceiling usually bears a chessboard or caisson pattern (See "Decorative Designs" in a later section).

Of the four walls, the most important is the western wall, opposite the easterly entrance for prominent viewing. The cave's main theme is painted in its center. Common arrangements for this central image include single-theme paintings, group paintings, a comic-strip sequence of small tableau, gigantic sutra illustrations and screen paintings (where the wall is divided into usually six painted parts in the style of a screen.) Depending on decorative fashions and on whether the image's purpose was to portray an individual, landscape, deity or story, various formats could be chosen for allocating wall space around the main image.


Murals form the main component of Dunhuang's art. This is a suitable juncture to introduce the common layout and subjects of the painted stucco statues.

The first caves featured the Buddha (enlightened one), either as Maitreya (Buddha of the future) or as Sakyamuni (the historical Buddha, Prince Siddartha Gautama) with attendant Bodhisattvas either side. More often than not the Buddha is shown in a meditative posture – a reference to the original purpose of cave shrines. In the Northern Wei dynasty (439-534), two disciples were added to this arrangement: Ananda (Sakyamuni's youthful cousin, known for his intelligence) and Kasyapa (a stern disciple famous for his strict devotion). This enlarged the group to five.

From the Tang dynasty (618-907), seven to ten statues were customarily grouped around the Buddha in hierarchical order. Outside the disciples and Bodhisattvas would appear Lokapalas (guardian warriors), Vajra warriors (protectors of the Buddhist law) and kneeling attendants. These would be reinforced by paintings on the back wall behind the statues. For example, behind statues of the two disciples Ananda and Kasyapa might be painted eight eminent monks bringing the total number to the ten chief disciples of Buddha.

The three most famous stucco statues at the Mogao Caves are the early Tang dynasty (618-781) Northern and Southern Buddhas, 33 meters (approx. 100 feet) and 26 meters (approx. 80 feet) tall, and the massive 16 meter wide (50 foot) Sleeping Buddha. Since the Northern Buddha has been the subject of many renovations, the first dating to the tenth century, the Southern Buddha is usually accorded greater attention.

Mural Motifs

Image of Mogao Caves in China - 4Apsara

Derived from Hindu mythology, an apsara is a celestial courtesan. In India, they were originally portrayed as nude, haloed female musicians, riding in clouds and showering flower petals. When this mythological character traveled from India to the more conservative cultural climate of Confucianist China, its bold presentation was toned down. The apsara of the Mogao caves do not travel on clouds, nor are they painted with a halo. Similarly, the potent sexuality of the Indian figure has been muted; only the upper torso of the Dunhuang apsara is naked, and this is partly obscured by the innovation of a long Persian scarf that floats around the flying angel.

Often these mythological beings are used to decorate wide borders along the upper parts of walls, commonly at divisions between the top of the wall and the ceiling or within the ceiling design itself. For the pictoral development of apsara, please consult the Apsara Photogallery.


Image of Mogao Caves in China - 5There are three different types of music portrayed at the Mogao Caves, that of the Chinese heartland, that of the western regions (the present day western provinces of Gansu, Ningxia and Xinjiang) and lastly "celestial music", originally taken from the land of the Buddha, used for liturgical and meditative purposes. The pre-Tang dynasty caves stress the importance of liturgical music by often featuring its musicians in the upper parts of the walls, a positioning akin to the apsara.

Thousand Buddhas

One of the alternative names for the Mogao Caves is the "Thousand Buddha Caves". This number should not be taken literally. Firstly, it refers to the density of the caves' innumerable Buddha images and statues. Secondly, thousand buddhas or qianfo is also used to refer to the miniature Buddha figures painted in a pattern on many walls. A stereotype is grouped with four or five differently colored copies and this grouping is repeated across the wall to create a myriad concentration of Buddha images. The intensity of this repetition is designed to fuel the religious mysticism surrounding the "realm of the Buddha".

Vajra Warriors

These are the ferocious-looking guardians of dharma (Buddhist law) that customarily appear on the lower parts of many cave walls. They are powerfully built, often painted with upraised arms or performing martial exercises. During the Tang dynasty in particular their physique and musculature were exaggerated for aesthetic effect.


Donors are customarily identified with text labels by their images. Indian cave shrines do not contain pictures of donors. In the earliest Chinese caves of the fourth century, donors are featured. They are presented as a class of individual rather than as individuals themselves. There is minimal characterization distinguishing between hundreds of named portraits featured as addendum on the lower parts of the walls. Donors were proud merely to be included in the murals as venerators of Buddhism.

By the Tang dynasty (618-907), the portrayal of donors had changed significantly. They are shown in larger than life portraits on either side of the corridor leading to the cave, as well as on the eastern wall directly opposite the main western one, even pictured greeting the Buddhist deities facing them. Indeed, cave 98 has 169 portraits of the distinguished, local Cao family and cave 220, known as the "Zhai Family Cave", has ten generations of the Zhai family. What had begun as the extension of a pre-established Confucianist ethic of ancestor worship had evolved to fulfill the role of clan hall. The Mogao Caves prime role as Buddhist shrine had been supplemented with a secondary one as a clan hall.

It was not just in size and number that the presentation of donors differed. Whereas the depiction of the deities was bound by age-old conventions, the painting of laity evolved according to the dictates of fashion. For example, the dress of the deities remains invariably Indian throughout the caves whereas that of the donors varies. Similarly, the Tang dynasty penchant for expansive waistlines is reflected in the well-nourished triple chins of the donors of this period. The inviolability of convention in painting deities carries through to coloring techniques. The original Indian-inspired three-dimensional perspective technique is employed throughout the centuries for the depiction of deities whereas new coloring refinements are constantly introduced for images of the laity (See Painting Technique).

Decorative Designs

Towards the early Tang period (618-781), an important innovation in cave design occurred; this was the shift in ceiling design from that of the top of an inverted U (also known as an "inverted dipper") towards a canopy design, modeled on the Emperor's umbrella. This innovation in its wake resulted in further evolutions in cave design. The first was the introduction of the caisson into the square of the canopy ceiling. The caisson is a painted square, customarily decorated with a circular design featuring a lotus. It can be further enhanced with an interlinked rabbit ear decoration as well as traditional Chinese ceiling emblems.

The second evolution of this period was a shift in decorative focus away from the apsara (celestial courtesans) and deities (thousand Buddhas) towards greater accentuation of geometric and floral shapes. This is not to suggest that apsara and thousand Buddhas were no longer included in the decorative design, but to indicate merely that they became the most important of many new patterns. The rich multiplicity of new patterns resulted in a wide range of design from floral patterns (lotuses, pomegranates and curry leaves amongst many others), to geometric patterns (inspired by interlocked branches and dancing dragons, amongst others) to textile patterns.

A further area of decorative evolution is in the costumes. Archeological evidence from Tang dynasty burial sites, particularly at nearby Turpan, have uncovered examples of the beautifully woven, complicated brocade designs that are featured in the murals and stucco statues of the Mogao Caves. This evolution of costume can be clearly seen in the painted dress of donors.

Auspicious Symbols

The aim for this section is not to familiarize readers with the meanings and history of auspicious symbols, but rather to touch upon a fascinating phenomenon, which helps explain part of the enormous significance of the Mogao Caves to Central Asian art history.

Starting in the latter half of the Tang dynasty (781-907), following the enormous boom in traffic along the Silk Road, auspicious symbols from Central Asia and Northern India were replicated on the walls of the Mogao Caves. As a result of war and destruction in their homeland, in some cases, the Mogao Cave image is the only surviving extant example of the imported auspicious symbol.