The cave-temples at Dunhuang

The Dunhuang Caves are located in the north-western corner of Gansu province. They are also known as the Mogao Caves or Qianfodong ('caves of the thousand Buddhas'). Dunhuang became an important Buddhist centre because of its position near the junction of the northern and southern tracks of the Silk Route.

The Caves of the Thousand Buddhas gained their name from the legend of a monk who dreamt he saw a cloud with a thousand Buddhas floating over the valley. From the fourth century AD until the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368), this valley was a centre for Buddhist pilgrims, and many cave-shrines were carved from the gravel conglomerate of the escarpment. This material was not suitable for sculpture, as at other famous Buddhist cave temples at Yungang and Longmen. From the time of the Northern Liang in the early fifth century, the caves were decorated with wall paintings. By the Tang dynasty (618-906), more than a thousand caves had been completed.

Today, fewer than five hundred caves survive. One cave, no. 17, was walled up early in the eleventh century and only rediscovered in the twentieth century. Inside were thousands of silk paintings, manuscripts on paper, including Buddhist sutras, and legal documents. Some textiles, paintings and prints from this deposit are now in the Stein Collection of The British Museum. Sir Marc Aurel Stein (1862-1942), a British archaeologist born in Budapest, brought these and many other artefacts back from his three expeditions to Central Asia.

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