NYC exhibit depicts Buddhist caves

A woman views a full scale copy of a cave from the 8th century that contains the Bodhisattva of the Mogao Caves, in “Dunhuang: Buddhist Art at the Gateway of the Silk Road,” at the China Institute in New York. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

Richard Drew

The China Institute Gallery has been transformed into an ancient cave, taking visitors back more than a millennium to a dazzling world where Buddhist worshippers adorned the walls with colorful frescoes, silk prayer banners and lavishly painted clay sculptures.

“Dunhuang: Buddhist Art at the Gateway of the Silk Road” features a copy of an 8th-century cave carved into the limestone cliffs at the edge of the Gobi Desert southeast of the oasis town of Dunhuang from 366 to about 1300.

It is one of 735 Mogao Caves constructed during what is known as the high Tang period (705-781), designed for devout Buddhists to gather and worship. Nearly every inch is covered in art, with a canopy ceiling resplendent in floral and diamond shapes. One end is filled with life-sized sculptures of a Buddha flanked by two monk disciples in luxe-patterned robes, two bare-chested figures and two ferocious guardians in armor.

While there have been exhibitions with individual pieces from the Mogao Caves, this is the first exhibition in the U.S. to put all the elements of the cave shrines into context, said Annette Juliano, a Chinese art history professor at Rutgers.

It shows the “relationship between the architecture, the pictures, the subject matter and the (ritual) practices, ... the actual use of the cave, rather than just an abstraction,” added Juliano, who first visited the caves in 1980.

Many of the caves are exquisitely preserved but others are fragile due to neglect over the centuries and the conditions of the surrounding desert and sand dunes. So tourist access is limited to several dozen caves a day that are rotated.

The exhibition also features a 6th-century copy of an elaborate square altar called the Central Stupa Pillar that highlights the religious ritual of circumambulation, an act of veneration, in which the faithful walk clockwise around the altar that contains four niches, each holding a Buddha.

Exact, hand-painted reproductions of wall motifs and story scenes complete the exhibition space. Among the highlights is a Thousand Buddha pattern that covers an entire wall and is symbolic of the deity’s omnipresence.

The Mogao Cave shrines, declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987, were discovered in 1900. The exhibition runs through July 21. Visit