The Longmen Grottoes
Along the banks of the Yi River, about 15 kilometers south of the city Luoyang, China are the Longmen Grottoes, also known as the Dragon Gate Caves. Along with the Yungang Grotto carvings at Datong and the Dunhuang/Mogao Grotto in Gansu Province, they are the pinnacle of Chinese Buddhist cave sculpture, some of the finest examples of such art that still exists. The work at Longmen began before the year 500, during the Northern Wei Dynasty, as Buddhism was spreading east through China and the capital had been relocated nearby. Often commissioned by the imperial court, the creation of these stone sculptures continued for several hundred years, through the Song and Tang Dynasties. The earlier Wei carvings have benign and peaceful expressions, with more fanciful accompanying art, while the later Tang sculptures are more realistic. The muscular guardian figures with their fierce expressions, for example, are downright frightening. There are thousands of caves and niches, including more than 100,000 statues of the Buddha, Bodhisativas, and Arhats, and over 3,500 inscribed stone tablets. We weren’t sure how all these counts were made, but it’s true that everywhere you look there are Buddhas, of every size, from 56 feet tall down to less than an inch, so dense in some spots it’s mind-boggling. (Wanfo Cave has 15,000 small Buddhas on two walls alone.)
Our Favorite Caves!
Highlights included the Medical Prescription Cave, the entrance of which is inscribed with remedies for over a hundred different ailments, from the common cold to insanity! The ceiling of the Lotus Flower Cave, carved between 515 and 527, is adorned with a giant, detailed lotus surrounded by floating aspara nymphs above a large Buddha. The biggest area is set way back into the cliffside. The Buddha here was commissioned by Empress Wu Zetian, and features a 17 meter (56 feet) Vairocana Buddha seated on a lotus throne, surrounded by nine fearsome guardians and other figures. Many of the works were once painted, and traces of pigment, especially red, are still visible in places.
Decapitated and Disfigured
Sadly, many of the statues have been disfigured or decapitated, either by anti-Buddhist sentiment at different points in history (the Cultural Revolution being a notable example), or by collectors who out of greed, selfishness or a misguided attempt at preservation, hacked pieces of statues or tablets out for museums or private collections. Some pieces have been returned, but most have not. Of course, 1500 years of weather has taken its toll as well. Now a UNESCO site, steps have been taken toward protecting what remains, and restoring what can be restored.
The entry ticket included the kilometer of sculptures on either side of the river, connected by two bridges, making a big loop. It also covered entrance to Xiangshan Temple and the tomb of the Tang Dynasty poet Bai Juyi.
For photos, click HERE.