Holy oasis beats sand and 'devils' Caves: China's ancient Buddhist grottos contain more than 11 acres of murals and about 2,000 statues, despite relentless desert sands and Western plundering.

Sun Journal

October 06, 1997|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

DUNHUANG, China -- Twelve hundred miles west of Beijing lies a land of camels, oases, adobe villages, 500-foot sand dunes and ruins of the Great Wall. But of the exotic features along this stretch of the Silk Road, nothing quite matches the Mogao Grottos.

Carved into the face of sandstone cliffs on the edge of the Gobi Desert, the man-made caves house a millennium's worth of Buddhist art: about 2,000 sculptures and enough brightly colored murals to cover more than 11 acres of walls. A missionary called the fourth-century grottos "a great art gallery in the desert."

Pilgrims, merchants and other travelers built the caves as shrines to ensure safe passage west along the edge of the unforgiving Taklamakan Desert, whose name in Turki means: "Go in and you won't come out."

Ten centuries of work produced a cache of cultural treasure illuminating life along the Silk Road, the ancient trade route between East and West.

In the early 1900s, a string of foreign archaeologists and adventurers raced across this part of Central Asia and raided Buddhist sites, including Mogao.

By the time China shut its doors to them in the mid-1920s, they had made off with cartloads of frescoes, sculpture and manuscripts that now reside in museums from London to Tokyo.

With the era of desert raiders past, the Chinese are trying to protect the caves from other intruders: sand, moisture and tourism.

Heavy winds coat the statues and murals with sand; cleanings can wear down the blue, red and purple pigments that give the artwork a soothing beauty. Visitors, who number a half-million a year, bring in moisture, which helps microorganisms grow and stain the frescoes and sculpture.

"One has to remember, this site was not only unknown, but inaccessible for most of its history," says Neville Agnew, associate director of programs at the Getty Conservation Institute in Los Angeles. "Very few people visited until the last decade or so."

With the help of the Getty institute, the Chinese have constructed miles of knitted, polyethylene fences to reduce the flow of sand blowing over the cliff and into the caves.

The government has also placed sensors in some grottos to measure carbon dioxide, humidity, temperature and the number of visitors to determine how many can be handled.

Little known outside China, Mogao's 492 caves lie about 15 miles from the city of Dunhuang -- the nation's ancient gateway to the West since the Han Dynasty (202 B.C. to A.D. 220). Caravans loaded supplies in this oasis town before trekking along the edges of the Taklamakan, a desert too deadly to cross directly.

In 1907, many centuries later, a British archaeologist named Sir Aurel Stein came to Mogao and made an extraordinary find: thousands of manuscripts hidden in the walls of a cave. Written on fine silk and paper in languages such as Tibetan and Sanskrit, the documents covered several topics, including ancient customs, literature, art, economics and politics.

Abbot Wang, a Taoist priest and self-appointed guardian of the caves, had discovered the cache years earlier, but Stein was the first Westerner to see them and recognize their value.

Through trickery and donations for the caves' restoration, he obtained 24 cases of manuscripts and sent them to the British Museum.

Mogao's plundering at the hands of "foreign devils" continued for years and is still a bitter subject in China. During tours of the grottos, which opened to the public in 1980, guides take repeated whacks at Western archaeologists.

The caves, many of which are protected by padlocked doors to keep out sand and light, resemble chapels, their ceilings as high as 40 feet. Brightly colored murals depicting Buddhist stories blanket the plaster interiors like ancient, hand-painted wallpaper.

In one cave, a Tang Dynasty (618-907) Buddha sculpture sits on an altar with several matching acolytes on either side. An empty space at the edge of the altar is where a missing statue once sat.

American archaeologist Langdon Warner took the figure along with 26 sections of murals, which he removed using glue-soaked pieces of cloth. Where Warner peeled the frescoes from the walls, there are empty white rectangles. The statue now sits beneath Plexiglas on the fourth floor of Harvard's Arthur M. Sackler Museum.

"Officials in power didn't take this seriously," says cave guide Lucy Wang. How much did Warner pay for his cache? "Nothing! Nothing!"

Although the Chinese rightly blame foreigners for the loss of artifacts at Silk Road sites, the Chinese themselves were not always the best stewards. Warner came to the caves to gather pigment samples and see what remained after earlier archaeological raids. He claims that he took art to save it from neglect and vandalism.

Two years earlier, White Russian soldiers had fled across the border, and Chinese officials held them in the grottos. Soot from their cooking fires still blackens the walls of one cave.

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