Mogao Caves or Mogao Grottoes, also known as the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas, form a system of 492 temples 25 km southeast of the center of Dunhuang, an oasis strategically located at a religious and cultural crossroads on the Silk Road, in Gansu province, China.
The caves contain some of the finest examples of Buddhist art spanning a period of 1,000 years.
The first caves were dug out in 366 CE as places of Buddhist meditation and worship.
The caves initially served only as a place of meditation for hermit monks, but developed to serve the monasteries that sprang up nearby in the early periods, and by the Sui and Tang dynasties, Mogao Caves had become a place of worship and pilgrimage for the public.
From the 14th century, caves were constructed by monks to serve as shrines with funds from donors.
These caves were elaborately painted, the cave paintings and architecture serving as aids to meditation, as visual representations of the quest for enlightenment, as mnemonic devices, and as teaching tools to inform those illiterate about Buddhist beliefs and stories.
The major caves were sponsored by patrons such as important clergy, local ruling elite, foreign dignitaries, as well as Chinese emperors.
Some of the caves had by then been blocked by sand, and Wang set about clearing away the sand and made an attempt at repairing the site.
In one such cave, on the 25th of June 1900, Wang discovered a walled up area behind one side of a corridor leading to a main cave.
Behind the wall was a small cave stuffed with an enormous hoard of manuscripts.
In the next few years, Wang took some manuscripts to show to various officials who expressed varying level of interest, but in 1904 Wang re-sealed the cave following an order by the governor of Gansu.
Mogao Caves encompass caves, wall paintings, painted sculptures, ancient architecture, movable cultural relics and their settings.
The property area and buffer zone contain all the attributes that demonstrating the values of the Mogao Caves and thus ensure the integrity of both the heritage site and its environment.
The location of the Mogao Caves and its settings are faithful to the authentic historical context in which they were created.
The design, materials, traditions, techniques, spirit, and impression of the caves, wall paintings, painted sculptures and movable cultural relics still exhibit the characteristics of the periods in which they were created.
The continued utilization of the Mogao Caves for tourism has indeed promoted its historic significance.
According to legend, the first cave was established in 366 AD by the Buddhist monk Lie Zun (or Lo-tsun), who had a vision of a thousand Buddhas.
He convinced a wealthy Silk Road pilgrim to fund the first temple, and many followed his example.
The murals were originally designed to assist devotional contemplation, but eventually acquired a narrative purpose as well.
Huge numbers of artists and craftsmen came to be employed at the caves, often lying on high scaffoldings and painting by the dim light of oil lamps.