Sunday, 28 August 2011

Preview: The Thousand Buddha Caves

In 1900, an old worker took a break from his scripture-copying duties in a remote cave network in the Taklamakan desert in north-west China. He fancied a little smoke, so grabbing a bunch of long hay and setting fire to it, he lit his pipe and then extinguished the clump of burnt hay. Casually, he stuffed it into a gap in the wall behind him. To his surprise, all the hay swiftly disappeared into the gap. Curious, he tapped the wall with his pipe, and it sounded hollow. He reported this to the self-appointed guardian of the caves, a monk called Wang Yuanlu, who made a closer inspection and discovered a fake wall hiding a recess in the cave. In that recess, tens of thousands of ancient scrolls and manuscripts lay, hidden for a thousand years.

Although archaeologically untrained and uneducated, Wang immediately knew that this was quite an important find. With a little savvy, he realised that he could sell some of these to the government, who would be interested in such historical finds, and use the money to fund his ongoing project and passion to restore the Buddhist cave network he lived in. He contacted local officials - they weren't interested. Then came the controversy.

Word got out that Wang was sitting on an impressive hoard of manuscripts, and within a couple of years had made its way to various international teams that had recently taken an interest in exploring this remote region of Central Asia. The first to visit was a Hungarian-British explorer-archaeologist called Aurel Stein. He visited, expecting just another unfounded rumour but being astonished by the vast wealth of historical riches on display - religious and secular manuscripts in numerous languages in pristine condition and up to 1500 years old. Flattering Wang about his (crude) cave restorations, and gaining his confidence, Stein bought everything he could, several thousand manuscripts and a few hundred paintings for the princely sum of £130 (about £9000 today). He brought them back to Britain and the British Museum and they went down a storm, and further foreign archaeologists started visiting Wang and his manuscript cache, most notably a Frenchman called Paul Pelliot, who brought away a similar amount for £110. Other archaeologists cut down and removed wall frescoes. Only then did the Chinese authorities take a rather sharp interest and demand that Wang gave them everything remaining.

It's a debate for another day the justification of foreign acquisition of native treasures, with the British Museum being behind a number of these debates, most notably the Elgin Marbles taken from the Parthenon in Greece. The Chinese were outraged by the "theft" of their treasures and still want them back. Subsequent turmoil in China saw large amounts of damage done to the caves thus vindicating, in Western eyes, the earlier salvaging of the scrolls; conversely though, bombing to Berlin in World War 2 saw the destruction of huge amounts of priceless material kept in Berlin's Ethnological Museum.

Regardless of the rights and wrongs of these early 20th Century actions, it certainly kickstarted a new field of interest: Dunhuang Studies. Dunhuang is a desert city in China's Gansu province, in the far north-west of the country, and known from ancient times to be a seat of Buddhist learning. Remains of early walls - early versions of the Great Wall, if you like - can be found there dating from over 2000 years ago, and its importance arose due its strategic position on the Silk Road, a vastly important trade route between the East and West in antiquity. It was seen as the last bastion of civilisation before leaving China for the dark badlands of the barbarian foreigner. It is with this sentiment that 25 kilometres south east the caves that concealed the hidden manuscripts were built. In 366 AD, a monk called Lo-zun was meditating, when he had a vision of thousands of streams of light coming from a nearby mountain. These were, he decided, a thousand Buddhas, and he dug a small cave in a cliff to further meditate. He was soon joined by another monk, and another cave, and so this continued, and over the next few hundred of years became a centre of meditation - The Caves of a Thousand Buddhas.

Being the last post of civilisation, merchants hoping for protection donated money and possessions to the caves, hoping to attain merit and protections for their offerings. These offerings went on for about a thousand years until the 14th Century, peaking between the 6th and 10th Centuries when the caves got bigger and better, and with decoration getting more fabulous and elaborate. Massive wall paintings, fine tapestries, manuscripts, wooden temple architecture, large and varied Buddha statues, multiple storeys, rich colours and ornate designs, the Caves became a rich repository for Buddhist art, with the extremely arid desert climate ensuring their preservation. As the Silk Road flourished, so did the Caves, becoming a huge complex of shrines dug into the cliffside and becoming an important Buddhist pilgrimage site.

Over a thousand caves would once have existed; at present there are close to five hundred, most with murals or statues, and another few hundred caves are also nearby, although these are mostly empty. The caves range greatly, from small humble niches in the rock, to vast nine-storey rock-cut temples. The latter describes Cave 96, the focal point of the entire complex, which is about the size of the famous cliff-carved structures of Petra in Jordan. But inside Cave 96 is much more than the unimpressive dingy interiors of Petra, with a gigantic 35.5 metre statue of Maitreya, said to be the next incarnation of Buddha on earth. To get a sense of the scale of this thing, it is bigger than Rio de Janeiro's Christ the Redeemer statue, bigger than both the Statue of Zeus and the Colossus of Rhodes from the Seven Classical Wonders list, and was once the third biggest statue on the planet (after the now Taliban-destroyed Buddha statues of Bamiyan) - and it's inside a cave. It was built in 695AD at the command of China's only ever female emperor, Empress Wu Zetian, upon declaring herself a reincarnation of the future Buddha, Maitreya, and ordering nationwide construction of statues dedicated to this.

The Thousand Buddha Caves - also commonly called the Mogao ("high up in the desert") Caves - began a decline from the 11th Century, when it became a little more cut off from central China, and when the Ming Dynasty - the builders of the Forbidden City and the celebrated sections of the Great Wall - took power in 1368, they didn't bother wasting their energy extending their rule as far west as remote Dunhuang. Dunhuang declined, the Thousand Buddha Caves went into obscurity, and their cultural importance all but forgotten about. It took a worker on a smoke break to remind everyone what they were missing.

I'll be visiting the Thousand Buddha Caves in March and will give a more detailed account of it, plus my own impressions then. It is seriously remote, and March will be at the end of their bitterly cold winter, so this one might be a bit of a challenge.

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