Travels In China – 9: The Yungang Grottoes


 

Buddhism reached China along the Silk Route during the Han Dynasty in the first century AD. The establishment of Buddhism in China is evident in the many scripture-filled caves and structures surviving from this period. The Mogao Caves near Dunhuang in Gansu province, the Longmen Grottoes near Luoyang in Henan and the Yungang Grottoes near Datong in Shanxi are the most renowned examples.

It is a 40 mts. ride from Datong to the Yungang Grottoes in the valley of the Shi Li river at the base of the Wuzhou Shan mountains. It contain over 51,000 intricate Buddhist statues in 53 major and 1100 minor caves, carved from 460 AD to 525 AD. The grottoes were excavated in the south face of the 2600 feet long and up to 60 feet high sandstone cliff. The statues in the caves vary from 2 cms. to 17 metres in height. It is the oldest collection of Buddhist carvings in China.

You enter the grottoes from the east. The eastern section contains Caves No.1 to No.4. Caves No.5 to No.20 are in the middle section and the rest in the west. The biggest and the most notable caves are  in the eastern and middle sections (Cave 1 to Cave 20); the western part contains mainly small caves and niches.

Cave No. 3 originally was the biggest  cave at Yungang containing a giant statue of the Buddha or Sakyamuni as the Chinese call him

Caves No.5 and No.6 are double caves. The sitting Buddha statue in the back cave of Cave No.5 is 17 meters high and it’s the largest statue of Yungang Grottoes. Cave No.6 is the most richly decorated.

Cave No. 5

Caves No.9 to No.13 are known as Five Resplendent Caves (Wuhua Caves: 五华洞). The only coloured statues in the Yungang Grottoes are in here.

Caves No.16 to No.20 are known as Tan Yao Caves. They are the earliest caves of Yungang Grottoes, built between 460 ~ 470 and are the representative works of Grottoes. Cave No.20 which is the highlight,  has a 13.7 meters high sitting Buddha statue.

Cave No. 20

Impressions

  • Yungang Grottoes are simply magnificent but the modern additions to the site at the entrance are not. A large entrance hall with Buddha statues leads to a small courtyard. The day I visited it was packed with pushing and shoving Chinese tourist trying to get through the security gates, Another large courtyard leads to yet another check point and a long path with pillars on either side. Golf carts pick you up and drive you to the entrance of the Grottoes
  • Get a guide and aim to spend a minimum two hours at the grottoes

 

The Yungang Grottoes, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2001

 

 

 

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