Longmen Grottoes

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Longmen Grottoes
Longmen Grottoes

The Longmen Grottoes or Longmen Caves are one of the finest examples of Chinese Buddhist art. Housing tens of thousands of statues of Buddha and his disciples, they are located 12 kilometres (7.5 mi) south of present day Luoyang in Henan province, Peoples Republic of China. The images, many once painted, were carved into caves excavated from the limestone cliffs of the Xiangshan and Longmenshan mountains, 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.

Longmen Grottoes
Longmen Grottoes

There are as many as 100,000 statues within the 1,400 caves, ranging from an 1 inch (25 mm) to 57 feet (17 m) in height. The area also contains nearly 2,500 stelae and inscriptions, whence the name "Forest of Ancient Stelae", as well as over sixty Buddhist pagodas. Situated in a scenic natural environment, the caves were dug from a 1 kilometre (0.62 mi) stretch of cliff running along both banks of the river. 30% date from the Northern Wei Dynasty and 60% from the Tang, 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 of the Second Zhou Dynasty, members of the royal family, other rich families, generals, and religious groups.

In 2000 the site 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.

Longmen Grottoes: Description by UNESCO

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.

The high cultural level and sophisticated society of Tang dynasty China is encapsulated in the exceptional stone carvings of the Longmen Grottoes, which illustrate the perfection of a long-established art form which was to play a highly significant role in the cultural evolution of this region of Asia.

Longmen Grottoes
Longmen Grottoes

Work began on the Longmen Grottoes in 493, when Emperor Xiaowen of the Northern Wei dynasty moved his capital to Luoyang. Over the next four centuries this work continued; it can be divided into four distinct phases. The period between 493 and 534 was the first phase of intensive cutting of grottoes: the first cave to be carved was Guyangdong (also known as the Shiku Temple). This phase of intense activity was followed by a period between 524 and 626 when very few caves, and those all relatively small, were cut. This is attributable principally to the civil strife between different regions of China that persisted throughout the Sui dynasty (581-618) and the early part of the Tang dynasty (618-907).

It was not until 626 that the third phase began, during the height of the Tang dynasty, when Chinese Buddhism had begun to flourish again. This was once again a period of intensive cutting of grottoes; it was the highpoint artistically of Longmen, especially during the reigns of Emperor Gaozang and Empress Wuzetian, who lived permanently at Luoyang. The group of giant statues in Fengxiansi Cave is most fully representative of this phase of Chinese art at Longmen; they are generally acknowledged to be artistic masterpieces of truly global significance.

The final phase, from 755 to 1127, during the later Tang through to the Northern Song dynasty, saw a steep decline in the carving of grottoes at Longmen. This began with the capture of Luoyang in the mid-8th century during a rebellion, an event from which the area never recovered. It was the outbreak of warfare during the Jin and Yuan dynasties that brought grotto carving to an end.

Longmen Grottoes
Longmen Grottoes

The Longmen Grottoes lie 12 km south of the historic Chinese city of Luoyang. Two hills flank the Yishui River at a place that combines considerable strategic importance and great natural beauty. The slopes of the West and East Hills become very steep and cliff-like as they approach the river valley, and it is here that the easily worked limestone was carved to produce the Longmen Caves. In total 2,345 niches or grottoes have been recorded on the two sides of the river. They house more than 100,000 Buddhist statues, about 2,500 stelae and inscriptions, and over 60 Buddhist pagodas. On the West Hill cliffs there are more than 50 large and medium-sized caves cut in the Northern, Sui and Tang dynasties (316-907); the caves on the East Hill cliffs are exclusively from the Tang dynasty (618-907).

The oldest and largest of the Longmen Caves is Guyangdong, in the middle of the southern floor of the West Hill. The work of Emperor Xiaowen, it attracted carvings sponsored by many of his nobles and officials and religious dignitaries, who approved of his reforming policies. On the main wall there are three over-life-sized statues erected by the emperor. In the centre is the Buddhist patriarch Sakyamuni, flanked by two bodhisattvas. Huangfugong (also known as Shikusi), one of the best preserved of the major caves at Longmen, is located to the south of the West Hill. An inscription shows it to have been completed in 527. In front of the cave a roof has been carved imitating wooden construction, with seven Buddhas inside the lintel. The main wall is decorated with seven larger than life-size statues.

Li Zhi of the Tang dynasty cut Fengxiansi Cave, on the southern floor of the West Hill. Completed in 675, it is the largest and most typical example of Tang stone sculpture at Longmen. There are nine colossal statues in the cave, dominated by that of Buddha Vairocana, with plump features and a compassionate expression. This form of naturalistic representation is shared by the other large statues, the expression of each being clearly differentiated according to the characteristics of the subjects.

How to get Longmen Grottoes

Take Bus No. 81 at Luoyang Train Station, or take a taxi to the Longmen Grottoes; you can also take Bus No. 53 and No. 60 from the downtown area.