The Caves of the Thousand Buddhas

On the fringe of the huge Gobi Desert, 29 hours by prepare from the closest metropolis throughout a barren wilderness of sand and shale often called the “Land of the Wind,” lies an astounding non secular shrine: the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas.

Situated at Dunhuang, a distant oasis on the previous Silk Highway in northwest China, the caves are China’s oldest and richest repository of Buddhist artwork, and one of many least-known wonders of the world.

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The Caves of the Thousand Buddhas, or the Mogao Grottoes, are a labyrinth of almost 500 caves carved out of a sandstone cliff face greater than half a mile lengthy and 10 tales excessive. Every cave is a treasure trove of Buddhist artwork, containing life-sized painted clay sculptures of the Buddha and different figures and elaborate wall and ceiling work. Some caves are huge, carved out of virtually your complete peak of the cliff. One homes a colossal Buddha that, at 08 ft, is 1 1/2 instances the dimensions of the Sphinx. One other homes an 85-foot Buddha, and nonetheless one other – a big horizontal cave – a colossal, gilded reclining Buddha.

Why would the Buddhists construct such a major shrine in such a distant location? As a result of the place of Dunhuang is considered one of supreme significance in Buddhism, positioned on the juncture of two caravan routes by way of which Buddhism progressively penetrated China at in regards to the time of Christ.

The caves include 2,000 painted clay sculptures and 1000’s of ft of tempera murals, offering a chronicle of Buddhist artwork types over the course of 1,000 years and eight Chinese language dynasties, beginning in 366 A.D. Many extra artworks, carted away (the Chinese language would say looted) by Western Sinologists in the course of the early a part of this century, now reside in museums such because the Louvre in Paris, the British Museum in London and the Fogg Artwork Museum in Cambridge, Mass.

Certainly, the tragedy of this non secular shrine is that lots of the works have been defaced by grasping artwork collectors who’ve minimize out sq. patches from the center of gorgeous murals and hacked off the heads and palms of the sculptures.

Few Westerners are aware of this advanced of caves, partly due to their distant location (even the intrepid traveler Marco Polo discovered them too far off the crushed path, though he handed close by) and partly as a result of the Communist authorities has solely not too long ago opened up the world to foreigners. Even now, the Japanese, who’ve a better curiosity within the historical past of the Silk Highway than Westerners, make up nearly all of guests.

In actual fact, our get together of 10 can be among the many first American teams to go to the shrine, in keeping with officers within the Peking workplace of the federal government vacationer company, the China Worldwide Journey Service (CITS). Our silk-route tour had been organized by a journey agent for a small group of her shut associates and acquaintances. My fellow vacationers have been all retirees, aside from the agent and her dentist husband, and among the group had been to China together with her on an earlier journey. We have been to spend virtually two days on this desolate space, exploring these spectacular caves – that are thought-about considered one of Buddhism’s best creative achievements.

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The Silk Highway was the key hyperlink between east and west for greater than 1,000 years; within the 2nd century B.C., the Chinese language Emperor Wu and the King of Parthia exchanged ambassadors and presents by way of this route. One department led west to Samarkand, and one other south from oasis to oasis throughout the desert and the excessive mountain passes of Afghanistan to India. Chinese language merchants carried silk, tea and porcelain westward, and returned with gold and silver from India and the Center East and with new faiths, together with Buddhism, Islam and Christianity.

Inscriptions within the caves reveal that carving was begun in 366 A.D. by a Buddhist monk named Yue Zen, who was touring by way of the world and noticed a imaginative and prescient of a thousand Buddhas. The shrine blossomed over the subsequent millennium as a middle of Buddhist artwork. Merchants commissioned Buddhist monks to brighten the caves as a dedication to the success of their expeditions.

In these caves merchants prayed for a secure journey on their departure, and provided thanksgiving upon their return. One cave inscription courting from 947 A.D. asks for the safety of the gods “in order that the district will prosper and the routes to the east and the west can be open and free, and that within the north the Tartars and within the south the Tibetans will stop their depredations and revolts.”

In all, 1,000 caves, linked collectively by underground corridors, ladders and picturesque wood balconies, have been carved out of the cliff face. Solely half survive, the remaining having collapsed or been crammed in by the desert sand.

After the 14th century, when caravan routes have been changed by sea visitors between east and west, the grottoes declined in significance and have been ultimately forgotten. They have been rediscovered in 1899 by a Taoist monk named Wang Yuan, who took refuge within the caves whereas fleeing the famine in a close-by province. The story goes that he was clearing out a cave when a part of a wall collapsed. Pondering the wall to be hole, he broke a part of the way in which by way of, the place he found a small door. The door opened right into a small secret chamber crammed filled with treasure that had been hidden by monks fleeing the persecutors of Buddhism in 1036 A.D. The chamber contained an estimated 50,000 priceless artifacts.

Wang Yuan reportedly tried to curiosity the federal government within the artifacts. When no curiosity was expressed, he merely offered them off to Western Sinologists, utilizing the cash to revive the caves. The chief beneficiaries have been Britain’s Sir Aurel Stein and France’s Paul Pelliot. The key cache is claimed to have included embroideries, work, ritual objects, gold and bronze statues of the Buddha, and sutras and different paperwork written in Chinese language, Tibetan, Sanskrit and different historic languages. The earliest dated from the fifth century and the most recent from the tenth century.

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Different artifacts have been stolen by native officers, Chinese language troopers and Western collectors. The plunder continued uninterrupted till 1949, when the Communist authorities got here to energy and closed the world to the West.

The Gobi is a normal time period utilized to the deserts of the huge interior Mongolian plateau that stretches throughout northern China. Right here, the Gobi merges with China’s different nice desert, the Taklimakan, a 900-mile-long sea of dunes. Within the folklore of the Uighur individuals, a minority nationality of Turkish origin who make this desolate waste their residence, Taklimakan means, “When you get in, you’ll be able to by no means get out.”

Till the early Nineteen Sixties, this space was virtually as distant because it was in the course of the days of the Silk Highway. Since then, nevertheless, the Xinjiang Railroad – which hyperlinks Uru mqi, the capital of the neighboring province of Xinjiang to the northwest, with Lanzhou, the capital of the province of Gansu, wherein Dunhuang is located – has helped the Chinese language authorities open up the mineral wealth of its huge northwest. The specific trains that ply the traditional caravan route by way of the desert have helped to show the cities of this space from distant backwaters into affluent industrial facilities for China’s iron, metal and petrochemical industries.

The caves, lots of which exhibit the damage and tear of the weather, are 15 miles southwest of Dunhuang. The interiors have been broken by the relentless desert wind and water erosion brought on by flooding within the river valley.

Lots of the work have been blackened by smoke from the cooking fires of White Russians who took refuge right here from the Bolsheviks. Nonetheless, the sensible colours of the work have been remarkably preserved at the hours of darkness, dry interiors of the caves, and efforts are underway to stop additional injury. Doorways and partitions have been constructed to stop climate injury, foundations have been laid below lots of the statues and preservatives have been utilized to the murals.

The caves vary in peak from eight or 10 ft to virtually 10 tales. Every has an figuring out marker, giving its quantity, approximate date of the art work and the identify of the ruling dynasty. The ceilings are coffered, and most are painted with a sample of tiny Buddhas – the thousand Buddhas from which the caves take their identify. The partitions include niches the place the monks lived, a few of them so giant as to represent separate caves. Nearly each cave comprises a dais mounted with a statue of the Buddha and different figures. The partitions are fully lined with beautiful work, whose topics are the Jataka tales (episodes from the lifetime of the Buddha), non secular parables and Chinese language folktales.

The centerpiece of the sacred cliff face is the Temple of the Nice Buddha, a 10-story wood fac,ade painted in deep oranges and golds that shelters the enormous cave housing the Buddha colossus. The corners of the upswept eaves are hung with wind chimes, which sway within the breeze, their eerie jingle punctuating the desert stillness. The operate of the chimes is to drive away the evil spirits.

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Inside, the Buddha rises 108 ft from his crossed legs to his serene face, created from clay by historic sculptors. As a result of the gentle sandstone of the cave partitions just isn’t suited to carving, the method used for the colossi (together with the 85-foot and the reclining Buddhas) was to carve a tough determine of the strong rock of the cave’s inside, coat it with clay after which mildew the main points. A lot of the different sculptures within the caves are made solely of clay.

A lot of the caves are closed to the general public. Some are in poor situation, others are present process restoration, and nonetheless others are mentioned to include sexual artwork that’s thought-about decadent by the Communists. The caves which might be open, nevertheless, have to be unlocked by guides who aren’t at all times as conscientious as they is likely to be.

As soon as we bought throughout the message that we needed to see quite a lot of caves, our information was very accommodating, however this took some doing. In someday, we visited two dozen or extra caves representing eight dynastic durations: Northern and Western Wei, Sui, Tang, 5 Dynasties, Music, Western Xia and Yuan. Guests would do properly to take alongside a flashlight, because the caves are unlighted.

Aside from the caves, Dunhuang has few vacationer sights, and the city itself just isn’t very engaging.

We did take a late-afternoon camel trip by way of the desert to a small, spring-fed, clear blue, crescent-shaped lake surrounded by big sand dunes. Within the late afternoon gentle, the lengthy shadows of the sculptured dunes in opposition to the deep blue sky created an summary image of unbelievable magnificence. The native individuals have a saying, “The ability of artificial the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas, however the hand of God common the Lake of the Crescent Moon.” Close by, fields had been reclaimed from the desert by plantings of poplar bushes, which defend the land from the sand-bearing wind and the advancing dunes.

After a day and a half in Dunhuang, we boarded our bus earlier than daybreak for the trip again to the prepare station. The solar was rising as we drove by way of the Gobi, casting a veil of pink over the panorama. The freeway, which had been abandoned on the afternoon of our arrival, was alive with plodding camel caravans and donkey carts hauling cotton and different produce to market within the cool early-morning gentle. Herds of camels grazed placidly close to the yurts of their herdsmen.

In Liuyan, we boarded the prepare for the 29-hour trip southeastward to Lanzhou, the closest metropolis. On the way in which, we handed the westernmost tower of the legendary Nice Wall, on the sting of the good past. The exit of this fortress, often called the “Gate of the Bravest Folks within the World,” was – to the traditional Chinese language – the place the place the civilized world ended.

In complete, we had traveled 52 hours alongside the previous Silk Highway in our expedition to the west – rail-age pilgrims to an historic shrine.

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