- Shared boat trip along the Yi River to appreciate the grottos from a different view.
Overview – Longmen Grottoes
The Longmen Grottoes (lit.: ‘Dragon’s Gate Grottoes’) are some of the finest examples of Chinese Buddhist art. Housing tens of thousands of statues of Shakyamuni Buddha and his disciples, they are located 12 kilometres (7.5 mi) south of present-day Luoyang in Henan province, China.
The images, many once painted, were carved as outside rock reliefs and inside artificial caves excavated from the limestone cliffs of the Xiangshan and Longmenshan, running east and west. The Yi River flows northward between them and the area used to be called Yique (‘The Gate of the Yi River’). The alternative name of “Dragon’s Gate Grottoes” derives from the resemblance of the two hills that check the flow of the Yi River to the typical “Chinese gate towers” that once marked the entrance to Luoyang from the south.
There are as many as 100,000 statues within the 2,345 caves, ranging from 1 inch (25 mm) to 57 feet (17 m) in height in Longmen Grottoes. The area also contains nearly 2,500 stelae and inscriptions, hence the name “Forest of Ancient Stelae”, as well as over sixty Buddhist pagodas. Situated in a scenic natural environment, the caves of the Longmen Grottoes were dug from a 1 kilometer (0.62 mi) stretch of cliff running along both banks of the river. 30% date from the Northern Wei and 60% from the Tang dynasty, caves from other periods accounting for less than 10% of the total. Starting with the Northern Wei Dynasty in 493 AD, patrons and donors included emperors, Wu Zetian, members of the royal family, other rich families, generals, and religious groups.
In 2000, Longmen Grottoes was inscribed upon the UNESCO World Heritage List as “an outstanding manifestation of human artistic creativity,” for its perfection of an art form, and for its encapsulation of the cultural sophistication of Tang China.
The grottoes and niches of Longmen contain the largest and most impressive collection of Chinese art of the late Northern Wei and Tang Dynasties (316-907). These works, entirely devoted to the Buddhist religion, represent the high point of Chinese stone carving.UNESCO
There are several major grottoes with notable displays of Buddhist sculptures and calligraphic inscriptions in Longmen Grottoes. Some of the main caves and the year when work began within them include Guyang-dong (493), Binyang-dong (505), Lianhua-dong (520s), Weizi-dong (522), Yaofang-dong (570), Zhaifu-dong (ca. 636), Fahua-dong (650s), Fengxian-si (672), etc.
Guyangdong, or Guyang Cave, or Old Sun Cave, is recorded as the oldest one of Longmen Grottoes with carvings in the Northern Wei style. It is also the largest cave, located in the central part of the west hill. It was carved under the orders of Emperor Xiaowen. The earliest carving in this limestone cave has been now dated at 478 AD, during the period when Emperor Xiaowen is thought to have been moving his capital from Datong to Luoyang. The Buddhist statues in the niches of this cave are very well sculpted. Also found here are 600 inscriptions in fine calligraphy of writings in the Northern Wei style.
Many of the sculptures inside the cave were contributed by royalty; religious groups supported this activity. The cave has three very large images – the central image is of Sakyamuni Buddha with Bodhisattvas on either side. The features of the images are indicative of the Northern Wei style, typically of slim and emaciated figures. There are about 800 inscriptions on the walls and in the niches inside the cave, the most in any cave in China. There are two rows of niches on the northern and southern walls of the cave, which house a very large number of images; the artists have recorded their names, the dates, and the reasons for carving them.
South wall of Middle Binyang Cave
Binyangzhongdong or the Middle Binyang Cave is carved in the Datang style on the west hill of Longmen Grottoes, on the northern floor. It was built by Emperor Xuanwun to commemorate his father Xiaowen, and also his mother. It is said that 800,000 workers created it over the period from 500 to 523.
In the main wall of this cave, five very large Buddhist statues are carved all in Northern Wei style The central statue is of Sakyamuni Buddha with four images of Bodhisattvas flanking it. Two side walls also have Buddha images flanked by Bodhisattva. The Buddhas, arranged in three groups in the cave, are representative of Buddhas of the past, the present, and the future. The canopy in the roof is designed as a lotus flower. There were two large bas-reliefs of imperial processions, that included Emperor Xiaowen, Empress Dowager Wenzhao, and the emperor’s late parents in worship.
Binyangnandong, or the South Binyang Cave, has five very large images that were carved by Li Tai, the fourth son of Emperor Taizong of Tang, the first Tang Emperor. He made them in 641 AD in memory of his mother Empress Zhangsun. The central image in a serene appearance is that of Amitabha Buddha seated on a pedestal surrounded by Bodhisattvas, also serene-looking in a blend of the Northern Wei and the Tang Dynasty styles.
Fengxian, or Feng Xian Temple, or Li Zhi cave is the Ancestor Worshipping Cave, which is the largest of all caves carved on the west hill built between 672 and 676 for Empress Wu Zetian. The carvings are claimed to be the ultimate in architectural perfection of the Tang dynasty. The shrine inside the cave measures 39 m x35m. It has the largest Buddha statue at the Longmen Grottoes.
Of the nine huge carved statues, the highly impressive image of Vairocana Buddha is sculpted on the back wall of the Fengxian. The image is 17.14m high and has 2 m long ears. An inscription at the base of this figure gives 676 as the year of carving.
The Bodhisattva on the left of the main image of Buddha is decorated with a crown and pearls. Also shown is a divine person trampling an evil spirit. The main Vairocana image’s features are plumpish and of peaceful and natural expression. Each of the other large statues is carved with expressions matching their representative roles. These were carved at the orders of Empress Wu Zetian, and are considered uniquely representative of the Tang dynasty’s “vigorous, elegant and realistic style.” The huge Vairocana statue is considered as “the quintessence of Buddhist sculpture in China.”
The Vairocana statue also provides at its base the names of the artisans who worked here, the name of the Emperor Gaozong, who was the donor, and also honors Wu Zetian. It is said that Wu Zetian donated “twenty-thousand strings of her rouge and powder money” to complete this edifice. Hence, it is conjectured that the Vairocana Buddha was carved to resemble the Empress herself and termed a “Chinese Mona Lisa, Venus or as the Mother of China”.
All the images in Longmen Grottoes, which remain undamaged, project character and animation. Statues of Kasyapa and Ananda, the two principal disciples of Vairocana, and of two Bodhisattvas with crowns flank the main statue, in addition to numerous images of “lokapalas (guardians or heavenly kings), dvarapalas (temple guards), flying devas and numerous other figures.”