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Mogao Grottoes as ‘a place of pilgrimage’

Author  :  ZHANG XIAOGANG     Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2023-09-12

The Persian silver coins unearthed at the northern section of the Mogao Grottoes Photo: Liang Xushu/DUNHUANG ACADEMY

The Mogao Grottoes are located on the cliffs at the eastern foot of Mingsha Mountain, 25 kilometers southeast of Dunhuang, Gansu Province. The caves of various sizes are densely arranged on the cliffs, spanning approximately 1.7 kilometers from north to south. The construction of the Mogao Grottoes began in the Former Qin period (351–394) and lasted until the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368). After centuries of construction, there are currently 735 numbered caves, forming a Buddhist cultural site with a combination of caves, painted sculptures, and murals. In 1900, a rich cache of Buddhist scriptures, paintings, and ancient documents was discovered in the Library Cave, leading to the birth of a world-renowned mainstream doctrine—the Dunhuang Studies.

The Mogao Grottoes are the world’s largest and most enduring treasure trove of Buddhist art and historical culture. Though being a large cultural site as well as a popular tourist destination today, these caves used to be an important place for Buddhist activities.

Construction of the Mogao Grottoes

In the past, it usually took about half a day to walk from Shazhou [Historically, Dunhuang and its surrounding region was known by the name Shazhou] to the Mogao Grottoes along the eastern foot of Mingsha Mountain, a distance of 25 li (approximately 12.5 kilometers). Such a distance meant that the Mogao caves could remain removed from the sophisticated world, yet accessible enough to allow Buddhist followers to make their pilgrimage and for the monks living there to receive supplies.

The Mogao Grottoes initially served as a place of meditation for Buddhist monks. According to the inscriptions on the “Shengli Tablet,” discovered in Cave 332 and dated to the year 698, a Buddhist monk named Lezun built the first cave as a shrine in 366. Subsequently, another monk named Faliang dug a shrine next to Lezun’s cave, marking the beginning of the site’s expansion. The contributions of Lezun and Faliang to the establishment of the Mogao caves were also recorded in a manuscript numbered P.3720, compiled in 865 and found in the Library Cave.

For centuries, the Mogao caves have undergone continuous reconstruction, with new caves regularly added. As a Buddhist architectural complex, the constructions of Mogao involved funds from donors, various craftsmen, and tools and materials for carving and painting. The donors were mostly local dignitaries, ordinary people, and a few foreign emissaries, perhaps even including passing merchants. There were monks and laypeople, men and women. The craftsmen were mainly locals, while some of the painters may have been from the Central Plain.

Pigments for the murals may have been either produced locally and in the surrounding areas or obtained through trade along the Silk Road. The nearby Daquan River also provided various construction materials. The fine clay used for the plastering of the murals and sculptures was possibly sourced from the Chengban clay [a special type of alluvial deposits] in the Daquan River. The reeds used to support murals and sculptures from inside were also likely obtained from the riverbanks.

Most of the caves were paved with decorative floor tiles, dating from the Sui (581–618) to the Yuan dynasties, featuring lotus patterns as the main motif. Producing these decorative tiles necessitated kilns, suggesting there may have been kiln sites near the Mogao Grottoes. These details require further archaeological investigations.

A site for Buddhist activities

The Mogao Grottoes can be divided into two main sections: the northern and southern sections. There are a total of 492 numbered caves with murals and sculptures, among which 487 caves are in the southern section, with only 5 in the northern section. More than 200 caves in the northern section are entirely devoid of murals and sculptures. Archaeological excavations reveal that the function of the northern caves differs from that of the south. The south serves as the sacred hall of Buddha, where monks and laypeople made pilgrimages and participated in Buddhist activities, while the northern section was more like a living area, a space for meditation, and a burial ground for monks and other Buddhist followers.

It is likely that resident monks were present at the grottoes, responsible for daily maintenance and security, receiving pilgrims and donors, as well as organizing craftsmen for constructing and painting. During important Buddhist festivals, the Dunhuang Monastery Association [a special organization composed of Buddhist monks and nuns, in charge of local religious affairs] often held ceremonies or activities in the Mogao caves. The Dunhuang manuscripts record a notice issued on the 7th day of the twelfth lunar month of the year 951, in which Daozhen, a senior monk, arranged for the activities for “people coming to light lanterns throughout the caves” on the following day, which was the eve of the Laba Festival [it is traditionally believed that the Laba Festival was the day when Sakyamuni, the founder of Buddhism, attained enlightenment and became a Buddha]. Apart from the organizers, it is reasonable to assume that a significant number of ordinary people participated in such events, which would require considerable venues. In 966, Cao Yuanzhong [a military commander of the Guiyi Circuit, which ruled Dunhuang from 848 to 1036] and his wife oversaw the restoration of the Cave 96. Each of the 12 Buddhist temples in Dunhuang sent 20 people to the construction, along with 56 carpenters and 10 plasters, for a total of 306 people. It took 12 days to complete the project. With so many monks and craftsmen involved, it was necessary to address their accommodations in the caves. In addition to temporary facilities, it is plausible that there were designated areas for long-term residence.

Under normal circumstances, deceased monks of the Mogao Grottoes would have been buried nearby. Over twenty earthen pagodas can be found on the cliffs and along the banks of the Daquan River. Among them, 16 ground-level pagodas in front of the caves are Tibetan Buddhist stupas dating from the Yuan Dynasty and later. On the eastern bank of the Daquan River, there are three pagodas that were used for worship from the Western Xia (1038–1227) and Yuan periods, with statues or murals inside. The majority of the pagodas on the cliff tops are from the Tang (618–907) and Song (960–1279) dynasties. Traces of several ancient pagoda foundations can also be observed in the Gobi desert on the eastern bank of the Daquan River. However, there should have been far more and older stupas housing the remains of senior monks considering the thousand-year history of the Mogao Grottoes. This raises doubts as to whether senior monks living in those caves prior to the Song era were actually buried there. Of course, some of the Buddhist pagodas on the platform in front of the caves may have been destroyed by floods over the centuries.

Surrounding sites

There are several sites surrounding the Mogao caves, including Heshang Gou, Caishi Chang, and Wuge Dun. Within the Sanwei Mountain, there are also sites such as the Palace of the Queen Mother and the Hall of Taishang Laojun [a Taoist god], all of which may have a connection to the Mogao Grottoes. The Heshang Gou site is believed to be the remains of a small temple dating back to the Tang and Song eras, and the materials for some tablets and pillar bases in the Mogao caves may have come from this site. The Cishi Pagoda [in the past people called the Buddha or bodhisattvas Cishi] from the Song era was moved from the Hall of Taishang Laojun to the ground in front of the Mogao caves. Also present are the remains of a few Tibetan Buddhist stupas scattered in the Sanwei Mountain, forming part of the cultural environment surrounding the Mogao Grottoes. To the north of Mogao, in the Gobi Desert, there are thousands of Jin (266–420) and Tang tombs. Currently, most of the excavated tombs in the Dunhuang area are from the Wei and Jin dynasties, and very few tombs from the period of the Guiyi Circuit (late Tang to early Northern Song) have been discovered. The villages near the Mogao Grottoes may have served as a suitable place for the burial of influential Dunhuang families.

In summary, by careful examination of the functional divisions within the Mogao Grottoes and the cultural context in which they existed, we can reevaluate the construction and purpose of the caves and their relationship with the surrounding areas, resulting in a more comprehensive and vivid understanding of the site.


Zhang Xiaogang is the vice president of the Dunhuang Academy, and the director, research librarian of the Archaeological Research Institute at the Dunhuang Academy.

Editor: Ren Guanhong

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