The Mogao Grottoes, also known as "the Thousand Buddha Caves", are the most famous Buddhist grottoes in China. They are located at a religious and cultural crossroads on the old Silk Road, in the Gansu province, about 15km (10 mi) southeast of Dunhuang (25 km (16 mi) by road).
The caves contain some of the finest examples of Buddhist art spanning a period of 1,000 years. Construction of the Buddhist cave shrines began in 366 AD as places to store scriptures and art.
The caves were cut into the side of a cliff which is close to two kilometers long. At its height during the Tang Dynasty, there were more than a thousand caves, but over time, many of the caves were lost, including the earliest caves.
735 caves currently exist in Mogao, the best-known ones are the 487 caves located in the southern section of the cliff which are places of pilgrimage and worship. 248 caves have also been found to the north, which were living quarters, meditation and burial sites for the monks. The caves at the southern section are decorated, while those at the north section are mostly plain.
There are about 2,100 colored statues and 45,000 square meters of wall paintings in the 487 caves in the southern section. The caves vary in size, and the colored statues also differ in size, ranging from a few centimeters to 33 meters high, embodying the remarkable imagination of their makers. Today the wall paintings are still brightly colored, with clear lines after hundreds years of erosion. The pictures of different styles and schools from different historical periods tell Buddhist stories and life in the secular world.
About 30 caves are accessible to the public, but visitors cannot usually manage to visit more than 15 in a day. The rest of the caves are closed for preservation, because they are not of significant interest, or because they contain Tantric wall paintings considered too explicit for visitors.
Generally, the oldest caves are in the center of the cliff. Each cave is clearly labeled with a number above the doors. The caves are not lit inside in order to preserve the wall paintings, but guides carry flashlights and visitors should bring their own as well.