“Dunhuang”: Ancient Buddhist cave temples recreated in Manhattan

A reproduction of a sixth-century pillar at the Mogao Caves, at the China Institute Gallery

“China Institute routinely packs a wealth of art and information way out of proportion to its two tiny galleries,” says the New York Times, “which at present hold a distillation of one of China’s greatest Buddhist art sites.”

One of the by-products of the “Great Game” of Britain’s late 19th/early 20th century struggle with Russia for influence in Central Asia was a rash of archaeological discoveries — and wholesale looting — of sites along the ancient Silk Road from India to China. The most renowned of these is the Dunhuang oasis, in China’s western desert, and the Mogao complex of hundreds of temple caves, which thrived there for centuries as a center of Buddhist art, scholarship, meditation, and pilgrimage. Sir Aurel Stein famously shipped roughly removed frescoes and crates of ancient manuscripts from Dunhuang in 1907 to the British Museum and Library, including the oldest known printed book — a copy of the Diamond Sutra dated to 868 CE — followed by many others, until China regained control of the site.

Now under the auspices of the Dunhuang Academy, what’s left of the actual caves is being conserved while tourists can enjoy an elaborate visitor’s center which recreates the experience of what the original Buddhist cave temples were like.

Introducing this experience in the West, Manhattan’s China Institute Gallery has mounted an exhibit called “Dunhuang: Buddhist Art at the Gateway of the Silk Road,” running now through October 6. Visitors can see some of the actual carved wall frescoes of Buddhas and bodhisattvas, as well as authentic manuscripts written as early as the 3rd century CE.

“The second gallery,” says the Times, “has been transformed into a cave, or a painted fiberglass model of one, filled with sculptured figures and painting. The sensation you get, of being a passenger on a crowded elevator up to the Pure Land, gives a sense of why a visit to Mogao is still so transporting.”

Read the whole Times piece here.

Photograph by Perry Hu, China Institute Gallery.