Cave of a Thousand Buddhas

The Cave of a Thousand Buddhas was the most important repository of ancient Buddhist and Chinese texts to survive.Just inside the Great Wall of China along the ancient Silk Road is one of the most remarkable Chinese sacred sites of antiquity. Located in the Gobi Desert town of Dunhuang, this site is a hive of more than 460 grottoes of varying sizes, carved directly into the soft sandstone cliffs. Devout Buddhist monks inhabited the caves a long time ago, starting in 366  CE  when a lone monk started carving the first of many caves. Other monks followed and they carved a honeycomb pattern of chambers, interconnected by ladders and walkways. The caves con-tain some of the finest Buddhist sculptures and wall paintings in all of China. Many of the caves carved from the cliff-face contain multiple levels connected by wooden balconies. The most notable cave is a mile-wide temple called the “Cave of a Thousand Buddhas.”

Dunhuang  flourished  as  a  center  of  Buddhist  culture  for  many  centuries. While other towns along the Silk Road were also graced with similar cave clusters, including massive temples and relief statues of the Buddha over 100 feet (30 m) tall, what made Dunhuang extra special was the legend of a lost library. The rumors of an ancient archive kept inside the Cave of a Thousand Buddhas had apparently been forgotten for almost 1,000 years. These ancient texts were supposedly  stored  in  a  sealed  room  guarded  by  a  lone,  self-appointed  monk. Rumors of this lost library became fact in the late winter of 1907 when Anglo-Hungarian explorer Marc Aurel Stein trekked 3,000 miles (4,830 km) along the Silk Road to Dunhuang. Stein convinced the lone monk to open the storeroom and what he discovered surely surpassed all expectations. A hoard of Buddhist manuscripts,  paintings,  books  and  other  writing  were  discovered  in  the  hidden  room. The  multi-lingual  manuscripts,  including  an  undecipherable  script, remained in excellent condition after 800 years, preserved in a pristine state by the dry desert air.

The most significant finds at the Cave of a Thousand Buddhas were ancient Chinese  governmental  records,  along  with  irreplaceable  translations  and  transcriptions of early Buddhist texts. Some of the earliest texts date from the fifth century  CE  and their origin can be traced all the way back to India. The most significant discovery was the world’s oldest known printed text, a copy of the Buddhist Diamond Sutra, a work dated 868  CE  — well over five centuries before Gutenberg printed his first Bible in Europe. The majority of books, many over a thousand years old, record the former days of greatness when China was among the  most  vital  empires  in  the  world.  Imperialist  Great  Britain  sent  Sir Aurel Stein to acquire the manuscripts. Stein and French scholar Paul Pelliot secured a majority of the texts for a pittance from Abbot Wang, a caretaker in dire need of funds to restore the caves. Most of these works today are part of the Stein Collection in London ’s British Museum.

Getting to the Cave of a Thousand Buddhas

The Cave of a Thousand Buddhas is located just outside the town of Dunhuang, also spelled “Tunhuang.” Early morning buses leave daily for the caves, which close  in  the  early  afternoon.  Regular  flights  to  Dunhuang  from  Lanzhou  via Jiuqian are available. The overland bus or train ride to this remote province is grueling travel, but rewarding in many ways. Besides being off the beaten track, the caves are dramatically situated in the Flaming Hills. Not too far from the caves is the Turfan Depression, an inhospitable basin that sinks 505 feet (200 m) below sea level. Most travelers opt to visit the caves on their way to the interesting desert town of Turpan, some 440 miles (720 km) away.