As one of the Four Great Ancient Capitals of China, the city of Luoyang (洛阳) is definitely the least known to outside visitors. Luoyang served as an important city and stronghold to 13 dynasties for over 3 millenniums and was the birthplace of Buddhism in China.
Some 10 kilometers away from the Luoyang’s city center, carved into the valley of limestone cliffs formed by the Yi River (伊河) and the Xiang (香山) and Longmen (龙门山) Mountains, stand some of the finest examples of Chinese Buddhist art. Over 100,000 statues of the Buddha and his disciples are carved into approximately 2,500 manmade caves. Some carvings are merely 2 centimeters (2 inches) tall, while others stand 18 meters (60 feet) in height. This is the grand and fascinating site of the Longmen Grottoes (龙门石窟).
The name “Dragon’s Gate Grottoes” derives from the natural resemblance of the Xiang and Longmen Mountains on both sides of the Yi River to a typical Chinese Gate tower (牌坊). These hills served as the southern “gate” to the city of Luoyang, which, during its height, was the 2nd most populous city in the world.
Listed as an UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000 for “an outstanding manifestation of human artistic creativity,” the Longmen Grottoes illustrate the close relationship between imperial and religious elements of the Chinese community. The grottoes were carved from the 5th Century to the 12th century, although some items date as far back as the Qing Dynasty. The first carvings can be traced back to the reign of Emperor Xiaowen of the Northern Wei Period (北魏孝文帝) when he moved his capital from Datong to Luoyang. A third were carved during the Northern Wei Period, while over half came from the Tang Dynasty (唐代), and the rest are from other periods.
The grottoes were not only a gallery of Chinese art, but also provided a wealth of information on most areas of Chinese culture. The Yaofang Cave (药房洞) contains over 150 inscriptions of treatments for illnesses ranging from the common cold to insanity. Many of these treatments are used on a regular basis in both Chinese and western medicine practices. There are numerous depictions of the life of the Buddha, including his disciples, bodhisattvas, guardians, apsaras and other creatures that reflect the change and development of Buddhism in China over hundred of years and numerous dynasties. The Longmen Grottoes reflect the early Buddhist art styles of Indian and Yungang Grottoes (云冈石窟). However, these sculptures are clad in roomier Han-style gowns and reflect a dignified refinement and elegant grace that was to influence much of China's later Buddhist sculpture. The earlier Northern Wei Period statues are mostly of Shakyamuni and Maitreya Bodhisattva. Later statues from the Tang Dynasty are more attached to the Maitreya Buddha of the Future and the Amitabha and Guayin, the compassionate Bodhisattva who reflected concern for personal salvation.
Fengxian is the largest and the most representative statue of the Longmen Grottoes. Completed in 676 AD during the Tang Dynasty, the massive 18 meter (60 feet) tall statue of Vairocana Buddha dwarfs all of the other Longmen statues. It has 2 meter (6.5 feet) long ears, plump facial features, and a peaceful expression. This Temple was built for Empress Wu Zetian (武则天) and it is said that the face of the Vairocana Buddha is modeled after the Empress herself, which is why it is often heralded as a Chinese Mona Lisa, Venus or as the Mother of China. Each statue within this Shrine, although sustaining some damage, still retains wonderful detail, character, and animation. To the side of Vairocana Buddha are his two major disciples Kasyapa and Ananda, and two Bodhisattvas. Lokapalas (guardians or heavenly kings) and dvarapalas (temple guards) statues are shown on the side faces of the temple, guarding the site.
The Guyang Cave is one of the oldest caves at the Longmen Grottoes and perhaps the most important in demonstrating the skill of the Northern Wei style of carving. Dating back to the Northern Wei Period, the cave is filled with rich architectural design and a variety of fine calligraphy. Among the 600 inscriptions are some of the finest examples of Northern Wei style of writing. There are rows of perfectly carved niches with excellently-crafted Buddhist statues along the walls. It had been suggested that earliest carvings in this cave were made in 478 A.D., predating the movement of the capital by Emperor Xiaowen, thus suggesting the transfer of capitals was long in the planning.
Wanfo Cave (万佛洞) was formally dedicated in 680 AD and was created under the direction of the Palace Chapel nun Zhiyun (智运) and Yao Shenbiao (姚神表), a woman in the palace services. The literal translation of the name is “Ten Thousand Buddha Cave”, where actually over 15,000 Buddha statues, each 2 centimeters tall, are carved into the wall of the cave. Slightly larger carvings of Bodhisattvas on lotus flowers appear on the rear wall. The large interior of the cave was used for worshippers and ceremonies. Interestingly, the patrons of this cave were a mixture of the traditional elite and ordinary citizens with almost a quarter of these carvings coming from the direct patronage of nuns.
The various caves and rich carvings, religious and imperial motifs, and information about daily life make the Longmen Grottoes one of China's richest architectural treasures.
Ticket Price: ¥100 (ticket sales end an hour before closing time)
Opening Hours: 8:00am - 5:00pm