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Cave Temples

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The Caves of the Thousand Buddhas: The Dunhaung Cave Temples

The Silk Road may have been used to trade silk and other commodities, it is important to remember that culture, tradition, and religion were exchanged too. This idea is clearly demonstrated by the Cave temples of Dunhaung. These caves represent the religious belief of Buddhism exchanged from India into the East. These caves are full of various and beautiful art forms, mostly dealing with the religious practice of Buddhism. The cave temples are built into a cliff, where 492 of the sanctuaries are well preserved. The first cave temple is thought to have been created by a monk in the late fourth century (Whitfield, 2). Some temples were created as late as 1368 AD. There are approximately 45,000 square miles of murals in the caves, 2000 statues, and five timber structures (Shuhong, 2).

Inside a cave temple

The cave temples represent one giant time capsule of the medieval Chinese world (Susan, 6). Some of the treasures the cave holds include murals depicting the life story of Buddha, a library cave full of religious documents and administrative papers, another cave even holds the oldest dated printed book in the world, called the Diamond Sutra, and the walls and statues contain a background that displays the social life. For instance, there are pictures of the commoners farming, building, and hunting. The murals even have carts, carriages, moats, temples, and houses painted onto the wall. (Shuhong, 2). And "All these data provide valuable background to the study of political, economic, military, cultural, and religious activities in ancient China" (Shuhong, 2).

Besides historical significance, the caves of The Thousand Buddhas are an artist's and any Buddhist's dream. The beauty of the caves are phenomenal. The caves are lined with gold and are bright, vivid and full of contrasting primary colors. The caves were a place where the Buddhist religion could be practiced, secluded from the public. When one would travel from the dry and desolate desert to the cool, colorful caves, it would seem as if they had entered heaven. Buddhists, who were seeking religious refuge from a civil war that waged for many years, built the caves (Shuhong, 3). And the Dunhuang cave temples were a perfect place for sanctuary, because it was far from China's Central plains of harsh political life and Dunhaung had been a long-standing traditional town of Buddhism (Shuhong, 3). And every stage of the Buddhist religion progression is chronologically ordered in the caves (Dunhaung, 3).

Since the purpose of the caves was to be a sort of religious sanctuary, Buddhist artists created the temples to appear to be a replicated heaven. Not only were the caves beautiful and full of color and gold, the caves contained important religious figures and celestial beings all over the grottoes. These important figures included numerous Buddhas, bodhisattvas, monks, godly kings, and warriors (Susan, 21). These religious figures took on many forms, including wall paintings or statues. Some of the figures may have also included characteristics of not only the Chinese Dunhuang people, but comprised characteristics that were influenced by the Greek and Indian artistic architecture and form (Susan, 17). Yet the figures also could have been included, surrounded, or affiliated with the ten major genres of the cave, such as architecture, stucco sculptures, wall paintings, silk paintings, calligraphy, woodblock, printing, embroidery, literature, music and dance, and popular entertainments (Susan, 6). With all these material goods, art forms, and breath-taking splendor, the cave temples were a simulated paradise.

As we know, the Silk Road was used to not only transmit commodities but religion, culture, and beliefs. The cave temples, perfectly situated at the end of the Northern and Southern roads, exemplify this belief. The caves show how the Buddhist religion came from India into China. The temples show how the Greeks and Indian influences were filtrated into them too. The Silk Road was used to transfer goods and commodities, but with that came many other transmissions. The cave temples of Dunhuang are an important source of information showing art, religion, and history, but they also demonstrate that racial and ethnic barriers were broken to accomplish their truest beauty.

Dunhuang Caves in China. 4 Nov. 2001.

Dunhuang Mogao Caves. Dunhuang Antiquities Publishing House, 1981.

Shuhong, Chang. The Art Treasures of Dunhuang. New York: Lee Publishers, 1981.

Whitfield, Roderick. "Dunhuang." Caves of the Singing Sands: Buddhist Art from the Silk Road. 1996. 5 November 2001.

Whitfield, Roderick, Susan Whitfield, Neville Agnew. Cave Temples Mogao: Art and History on the Silk Road. Los Angeles: J Paul Getty Trust, 2000.