Situated at a strategic point along the Silk Route, at the crossroads of trade as well as religious, cultural and intellectual influences, the 492 cells and cave sanctuaries in Mogao are famous for their statues and wall paintings, spanning 1,000 years of Buddhist art.
Buddhist cave art originated in the second century B.C.E. in Maharashtra, India – an area of commercial importance for trade flows between north and south India. Between the inception at the older site at Ajanta and the completion of further ones at a nearby site at Ellora in the eighth century, some 63 caves were excavated and painted.
The Mogao Caves, begun six centuries later in the fourth century, were positioned on the more prosperous international trading network, known as the Silk Road. With 492 painted grottoes, the Mogao Caves have more than eight times as many grottoes as those at India’s primary two sites. That said, the Mogao Caves should not be understood as an isolated endeavor within China. They are merely the best example of an astonishingly widespread Buddhist cave movement in this nation. Apart from the UNESCO-registered grottoes at Dazu, Longmen & Yungang, prominent Buddhist grottoes on the Silk Road are the Kizil Caves near Kuqa, on which much of the content if not style of the earliest Mogao Caves are based, and the Bezeklik Caves near Turpan in China’s western Xinjiang province. Within their home province of Gansu, the Mogao Caves are but one of several painted cave complexes with nearby grottoes at Yulin, the Western Thousand Buddha Caves and Eastern Thousand Buddha Caves, as well as further afield, notably at Maijishan, Binglingsi and Laoshansi.
Indian in origin, Buddhist cave art was soon wholeheartedly promoted in many cultural centers throughout China both on the Silk Road network and off.