National Geographic : 1951 Mar
The Caves of the Thousand Buddhas BY FRANC AND JEAN SHOR tWith Illustrations from Photographs by the Authors T WO THOUSAND years ago, when the center of the world's civilization still lay in the East, the Great Silk Road carried the treasures of China to India and Persia. Winding west from Siking (Sian or Changan), China's ancient capital, in Shensi Province, it emerged from the Great Wall of China at Yumen, the "Jade Gate" of the west. A little farther west, near the thick-walled city of Tunhwang,* the highway forked. One road ran northwest across the Gobi (i.e., "Desert") to Hami (Qomul) and Turfan, and thence to Persia (Iran). A southern fork dared the forbidding Lop Nor desert and the waterless march to Khotan, then scaled the mountain passes into India. So it was at Tunhwang that the great trade caravans paused for a last chance to refresh men and camels and lay in a last supply of food and water. The caravan roads were primarily avenues of trade, but wherever men traveled, they learned new things. Traders who made their way back along the grueling route brought news of other lands, other customs-and other religions. It was not strange, then, that new beliefs first found a foothold in the desert sands. Buddhism, Manichaeanism, and later Nestorian Christianity and Mohammedanism were to flow east along those same tracks that carried the produce of China to the outer world. 500 Sacred Shrines to Buddha Four hundred years after the birth of Christ, the young and vigorous religion of Buddhism had become the dominant faith among the merchants who passed through Tunhwang. It was natural, then, that these devout men should pause to worship. Ahead lay a danger ous journey. They might be waylaid by bandits, perish of thirst in the desert, or lose their lives climbing towering mountain passes. A dozen miles outside the city walls of Tunhwang, in a narrow gorge between the Mingsha and Sanchi mountains, Buddhist monks established a temple in a great cave, hollowed out of the rock cliff which walled the river. For more than a mile hundreds of similar caves honeycombed the cliff. The 200-foot wall was dotted with chambers of varying sizes, sometimes as many as four set one above the other. In the central cham ber the monks burned incense, beat their great brass gongs, and chanted ancient litanies. Here the merchants, travelers, and soldiers came to pray for safety and success and to make sacrifices and donations. In the middle of the fourth century an unknown merchant commissioned an artist to decorate one of the smaller caves as a chapel dedicated to his expedition and paid temple priests to worship in it. The idea caught on. For more than 1,000 years the practice continued. Gradually some 500 caves were filled with paintings, frescoes, and stucco images of Buddha and his dis ciples. Eight dynasties rose and fell while the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas were de veloped. As their fame spread across the desert sands, reverent Buddhists made annual pilgrimages to the remote temple. In a single month 50,000 trekked across the desert sands to worship there. The past 50 years have seen the caves stripped of manuscripts and hangings by West ern explorers, their statues and carvings plun dered by Chinese looters. They were used as dwelling places by White Russian refugees, who blackened the mud walls with their cook ing fires. Few foreigners have visited Tunhwang. Western traders who reached China in the 19th century came by sea. Tunhwang, with its extraordinary cache of priceless art, was 1,500 miles inland; it offered no attraction. Today the only highway in the area, that from Lanchow to Urumchi, runs 70 miles northeast of the sleepy little town. Only a narrow cart track links it with the outside world. Tunhwang lost its importance hun dreds of years ago. A scant 20,000 people remain, eking out a meager existence as farm ers and trading with nomadic Mongol and Kazak herdsmen who live in the surrounding desert. A Little-known Wonder of the World Yet, in the middle of this wasteland, stand the famous Caves of the Thousand Buddhas, many still intact. They represent a remark able repository of Oriental religious art, one of the little-known wonders of the world. * To locate important places mentioned in this ar ticle, see the National Geographic Society's New Map of Asia and Adjacent Areas, published as a supplement with this issue of the NATIONAL GEOGRAPIIIC MAGA ZINE.