Cave Forms in the Mogao Grottoes 敦煌莫高窟洞窟形制

This article is a direct translation of the Chinese text from the Dunhuang Academy website with permission from the Dunhuang Academy. To read the article in Chinese, please click here. Images Courtesy of Digital Dunhuang of the Dunhuang Academy. 此文章为敦煌研究院授权其网站原文翻译。阅读原文中文版请点击这里。图像均由敦煌研究院授权发表。

There are currently 735 caves of 9 different architectural forms in the Mogao Grottoes. The names of the architectural forms were not historically recorded or told, except for a few large caves like the “Large Statue Cave”. Modern archaeologists categorized and named these caves based on their unique features. Based on the grouping, each Mogao cave could be categorized as one of these forms:

  1. Central Pillar Cave: named based on the square central pillar inside the cave. The anterior portion of the cave has a Chinese styled gabled ceiling and the posterior has a square pillar standing from the ground to ceiling. The square pillar has niches on its four sides, some have niches on only one side or three sides. This architectural style was influenced by the Indian Chaitya hall style combined with the Chinese architectural style. These types of caves also serve the functions for Buddhist meditation and circumambulation practices. Caves from the Northern Dynasties were mostly in this style, example caves are Cave 254, 248, and 428.
Cave 254 Central Pillar Cave. Courtesy the Dunhuang Academy.
  1. Truncated Pyramid Cave: named for the truncated pyramid shaped ceiling in the cave. The floorplan is of a square shape. This type of caves were influenced by Chinese Han tombs. There is usually a Buddhist niche on the west wall inside the cave, with a few having niches on all the south, west, and north walls, or no niches at all. Caves of this architectural style are most abundant in the Mogao Grottoes, and this style is a major cave form in Dunhuang throughout the dynasties, but especially common during the Sui and Tang dynasties. Typical truncated pyramid caves in Mogao are Cave 249, 296, 420, 220, 328, 45, 159, and 156.
Cave 285 Truncated Pyramid Cave. Courtesy the Dunhuang Academy.
  1. Hall Cave: similar to the truncated pyramid caves, with the difference of the hall cave having a platform and statue(s) in the center. The platform has stairs in the front, and a backdrop wall from ground up to the ceiling in the back. There are several caves with no backdrop walls. Believers of Buddhism circumambulate around the platform and statue counterclockwise. These types of caves are usually large in scale and were built in the late Tang and Five Dynasties period. Typical caves are Cave 85, 196, 98, 146, and 61.
Cave 61 Hall Cave. Courtesy the Dunhuang Academy.
  1. Monumental Statue Cave: has a monumental Buddha statue in the main chamber. Typical caves are Mogao 96 and 130. Cave 96 has an exterior building called The Nine Story Building, which is the signature facade of the Mogao Grottoes.
Cave 130 Large Statue Cave. Courtesy the Dunhuang Academy.
  1. Nirvana Cave: This type of caves are of an arched ceiling and a horizontal rectangular shape. The west wall has a Buddhist bed across the whole wall with a Buddha in nirvana laying on it. Typical caves are Cave 158 and 148. These types of caves should be called horizontal rectangular arched ceiling caves, but since they were called “nirvana caves” from the early days, the name was used till today.
Cave 158 Nirvana Cave. Courtesy the Dunhuang Academy.
  1. Meditation (Zen) Cave: small meditation niches opened next to the main chambers of large caves for meditation and worshipping. Examples are Cave 267-271 cave groups and cave 285.
Cave 268 Meditation Cave. Courtesy the Dunhuang Academy.
  1. Monk’s Cave: mainly for the daily living of monks with meditation functions. These types of caves have no set forms, no mural paintings or statues.
  1. Image Cave: built to commemorate high ranking monks, or was a meditation cave for a high ranking monk. The ceiling of this type of caves is of a truncated pyramid shape. Inside has the monk’s statue. Some have mural paintings of serving maids. Typical caves are 17, 139, and 137. Among them, Cave 17 is the image cave for Hong, with the statue of Hong inside and mural paintings of maids, nuns, Bodhi trees, and etc. It is also the famous “library cave”.
Cave 17 Image Cave. Courtesy the Dunhuang Academy.
  1. Burial Cave: used for burial purposes, has no set forms. These caves are mainly concentrated in the northern section of the Mogao Grottoes.

Over the thousands of years, different caves in the Mogao Grottoes were built based on the religious ceremonies, belief needs, ethnic aesthetics from different periods of time. Combined with local sandy rock geological characteristics, these caves developed gradually to form today’s cave groups, witness the historical, cultural, and artistic transition through the long history of Dunhuang.