Mogao Grottoes (Thousand Buddha Caves) sits at the cliffs of the Soughing Sand Hill, 25 km Southeast of Dunhuang, is an important transfer stop for the Silk Road and a place where East greets west and different cultures clash before blend together. It was first dug in year 366 AD and keeps evolving during the past millennium, by now, its 735 carves house 45000 Square meters’ wall paintings (murals) and 2415 colorful clay statues.
Featuring sculptures and murals relating to Buddhism, it is renowned as the largest holly place for Buddhism worldwide and the largest “World Treasure-house of Art”. Due to its significance, it was listed as theWorld Cultural Heritage Sites by the UNESCO in 1987 and a new branch of international subject is devoted to study it.
The artistic feature of the Mogao Grottoes is expressed in its lively combination of the architecture, murals and sculptures which reflect the various aspects of cultural exchanges between the East and the West. They span over ten dynasties since the Sixteen States, Northern Wei, Western Wei, Northern Zhou, Sui, Tang, Five Dynasties and all the way down to Song and Western Xia and the Yuan Dynasties, thus becoming the rare cultural piece and wealth treasured by mankind worldwide. With profound artistic value, stunning aesthetic beauty and genius imagination, every beholder of Mogao Grottoes is set tongue-tied.
Being the largest, the most well-known grottoes of Buddhism art in China, they are carved out on the third and fourth floors, extending a length of 1.6 kilometers along the cliff. The caves give shelter to the sculptures, big or small, grand or exquisite.
The design of caves consists of many a pattern, such as meditation cave, worshipping cave, pagoda-temple cave and screened cave and divided into north section which is occupied by the monks and south section which is the main section.
The frescos’ content are quite rich with most of them in connection with the Buddhism, for instance, the life story of Sakyamuni and his good deeds to others by sacrificing what was of his own. In addition, there are still a great number of Buddha-figures, Bodhisattvas, heavenly devas, tutelary deities, flying Apsaras and flowers and birds as well as other animals.
Murals fall into seven categories
Buddhism buddha mural which is the dominant part, Jing bian mural (to express the profound Buddhism doctrine by painting is called “Jing bian mural”), decorative mural, donor mural, story mural and landscape mural. Complemented by architecture, flower, bird and animal themed murals, it boasts rich content and extremely high artistic value.
The layout and structure, shape of figures, lines and curves, coloring techniques illustrated by murals mirror various dynasties’ prevailing art style and the evolvement process systematically, and restore the historical scene of the cultural exchange and blending of east and west culture. Thus, it is of significant history value.
Among the seven kinds of murals mentioned above, those murals with story scene (especially Jingbian murals and story mural) serve to represent the social life at a specific time in history. Such as the governors’ feast, trial, hunting, Buddha worship scene; the working people’s cultivation, hunting, fishing, pottery making, animal slaughtering, cooking scene, and the social actives such as marriage ceremony, martial arts, trade, ethnic group, foreign envoys in China. Thus, Mogao Grottoes is not just a masterpiece of art, but also a living history.
The style of Dun Huang Murals varies with different periods.
Murals of Sixteen State (304-439) and Northern Wei Dynasty (386-557)
The murals of this period (Such as in Carve 275, 254, 257) are characterized by exaggerated and dynamic figures with vivid facial expressions. The figures are outlined by strong and thin lines, colored with blurring effect, and adopt red background, typical of the Xinjiang painting style. Guizi painting, inspired by India and Afghanistan painting which has absorbed the western painting techniques, exerts great influence on Dun Huang Mogao Grottoes’ murals. Thus, the figures depicted in Dun Huang Mogao Grottoes murals in this era, especially the Buddhism Buddha, are of appropriate proportion and elegant gestures, highlighting the beauty of body rather than just emphasizing on their facial expressions and hide their body among gowns.
Grotto 285, the Buddha Murals of Northern Wei Dynasty
Murals in caves such as 249 and 285 belong to West Wei period. Based on the traditional forms, they take in the secular scenes and images and integrate them into the Buddhism Buddha murals. It was a popular practice to adopt white background, strong and fluent lines as well as bright color at that time. In a word, the traditional mural’s techniques advanced further in this period.
Grotto 249, Hunting Scene of Western Wei Dynasty
Murals in caves such as 290、296、428、299 belong to this period, which are usually themed with Buddhism sequence story, and they are depicted on white wall and outlined with fluent lines. The figures are simple but expressive, with light color. Though the figures’ skin are handled with three-dimensional blurring effect, with a touch of western China’s painting style, but in a whole, the murals are Han traditional painting considering the figures’ image to artistic style.
the Story of Nine Color Deer
Grotto 296, Cultivating the Land
Grotto 296, Jingbian Mural, Hunting and Fishing Scene
Murals of Tang Dynasty Period (618-907)
Murals in this period flourish, enriched with contents such as Jingbian murals, Buddhism Buddha murals, donor murals. The perspective effect of the buildings is adopted to bring the in-depth three-dimensional effect of space, and this tactic is regarded as a big breakthrough in ancient painting history, which is adorned and imitated by followers. The Buddhism Buddha is depicted with more gestures like sit, stand, walking and flying and more vivid facial expression, combining the imagination and reality perfectly, thus become a model. Donor murals focus on the donors’ everyday life of top society. One mural in Cave 130 depicts LEE Tinggui and his wife is the masterpiece of this category.
Grotto 320, Flying Apsaras
Buddhism Buddha Mural
Murals of Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms (883-978) and Northern Song Period (960-1127)
Due to mixed reasons, the Dunhuang mural art declines. But some of the painting techniques are inherited till now. Carves of Northen Song dynasty are often rebuilt from former dynasties, murals of this period often based on the former dynasties’ murals also. Cave 61’s Wutai Mountain mural is the biggest and most magnificent one of Mogao grottoes, depicting the scenes like mountains, pavilions; it is five meters in height and 13.5 in length, representing the peak of achievement of this period.
Wutaishan Mountain Mural: the biggest mural of Mogao Grottoes
Though they’ve been exposed to weather winds and sandstorms for over thousand years, the colors of the murals are still bright with clear curve lines, that cannot help but set people acclaim for the accomplishments and the creative spirits of the artists in China’s ancient times.
The sculptures comprise of regular sculpture, relief sculpture, sculptured walls and sculptures of meritorious deeds. Murals include Buddha images, episodes, Buddhism stories, historical traces and sites of Buddhism, buildings, landscape paintings, donors, supporters , animals and decorations as well.
Best Season to Visit: May to October
How to get there:
Take a bus from Dun Huang to Mogao Grottoes (bus runs from 8:30am to 8pm, take off each half a hour)
Entry Ticket Fee:
High season (April 1st to October 31th): 180RMB per Person (including guider’s explanation)
Low season (November 1th to March 31th): 80 to 120 RMB per person.
Author: Sophia Posted in 2012
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