The world-famous Longmen Grottoes are located 12km south of Luoyang. Here two mountains, namely, East Hill (Mt. Xiangshan) and West Hill (Mt. Longmen), confront each other with the Yi River traversing northward between them, just like a pair of Chinese gate towers. So during the Zhou and Qin dynasties, it was called "Yi Que" (Gate of Yi River). Later, when the Sui established its capital city in Luoyang, the palace gate was just facing Yi Que, hence the name "Longmen" which means "Dragon Gate".
Spanning a length of over 1,000 meters on the hillsides along the Yi River, the Longmen Grottoes, together with the Mogao Caves in Dunhuang (Gansu Province) and the Yungang Grottoes (Shanxi Province), are reputed as the three greatest stone sculpture treasure houses in China. In the year 2000, Longmen Grottoes was listed by UNESCO as a World Cultural Heritage Site.
The Longmen Grottoes were first sculptured and chiseled around 493AD when the capital of the Northern Wei Dynasty (386-534) was moved from Datong to Luoyang. The entire construction of Longmen Grottoes lasted more than four hundred years through the Northern Dynasties, Sui Dynasty, Tang Dynasty and up to Song Dynasty. Today, there are still 2345 caves and niches, 100,000 Buddhist images ranging in size from 2 cm to 17.14 meters, more than 2800 inscribed tablets, and 43 Buddhist pagodas remaining in both East Hill and West Hill. Altogether 30 % date from Northern Wei Dynasty, 60 % from Tang Dynasty and the rest 10 % from other periods.
Masterpieces of Longmen Grottoes
- Fengxian Temple (Ancestor Worshipping Temple)
Stretching along the precipitous cliff of the southern side of West Hill, Fengxian Temple, also named Grand Vairocana Buddha Niche, is the largest cave in Longmen. Measuring 35 meters in width and 39 meters in length, this cave was carved over 1300 years ago (from 672 to 675 AD) during the Tang Dynasty. When it was first constructed, the entire grotto was covered with a roof and enclosed from the natural elements. Today the roof is missing and the sculptures stand out in the open air.
The most extraordinary statue in Fengxian Temple is the Grand Vairocana Buddha, which is 17.14 meters tall with his head 4 meters long and his ear 1.9 meters wide. Sitting in the middle of the niche, this colossal Buddha shows a perfect combination of moral integrity, delicate emotions, broad mind and elegant semblance. Her lips are slightly upturned and her head a little bit lowered, a slight smile makes her look like a sagacious and benign middle-aged woman whom you would respect but not fear.
It is said that the statue was modeled after the face of Empress Wu Zetian, so people also call it Empress Wu Zetian's Statue. Furthermore, due to the gentler facial expression, this statue is reputed as the "Eastern Mona Lisa", the "Eastern Venus", and the "Mother of China".
On each side, the Buddha is flanked by an Ananda, a Bodhisattva, a Heavenly King and a Vajra. Of the two disciples (Ananda), one looks prudent and experienced, and the other compliant and pious. Both Bodhisattvas are all dressed up with splendid attire and a dignified appearance. Beside them is the Heavenly King holding the Divine Pagoda and standing on a ghost while the Vajras look unruly and ferocious.
The assembly displayed in the Fengxian Temple was very common during the Tang Dynasty and is regarded as the masterpiece of the Buddhist carving of that period.
Guyang Cave, sculpted between 495 and 575 AD, is regarded as the earliest of the Longmen Grottoes. Based on a natural limestone cave, this cave is the most important cave in the series and represents the highest skill of carving, rock painting, and architecture of the Northern Wei.
Using the style which prevailed in Northern Wei, the chief Buddha is sitting in his meditation on an altar with two lions at his feet, and appears delicate and lifelike.
Of the "twenty calligraphies" at Long Men, 19 are found in this cave. The contents of the grotto are of great value in the study of sculpture, painting, and architecture of the Northern Wei period.
- Lianhua Cave (Lotus Cave)
This cave was so named because there is a large and beautiful lotus flower on its ceiling.
This cave was dug out about 527 AD in the late period of the Northern Wei Dynasty. A statue of Sakyamuni, as the chief Buddha, is enshrined in this cave. Adopting a standing position, this statue is 5.1 meters high and has the face and one forearm showing damage.
In this cave there are also numerous niches decorated with fine carvings of colorful strings, clouds, lotus flowers, geometrical patterns etc. Upon the cave ceiling there is a large lotus flower surrounded by figures of Apsaras in relief, which are slim, graceful and vivid. This cave is named in honor of this lovely flower.
Binyang Cave is another well-known cave. The construction of this cave spanned 24 years, and is believed to be the longest amongst all the caves.
This cave consists of three caves, namely middle, southern and northern Bingyang caves. It is the most splendid once of the grottoes from the Northern Wei Dynasty.
The middle Binyang cave is the most important one among all the three. It was built from 500 to 523 AD. With a vaulted roof, the middle cave is 12 meters in length, 10.9 meters in width and 9 meters in height. The main Buddha, Sakyamuni, is sitting in the middle with a disciple and a Bodhisattva on each side
There used to be two huge relief sculptures in the cave depicting the grand scenes of the worshipping ceremonies of Emperor Xiaowen and his wife. But, later, these were stolen and now are housed respectively by museums in Texas and New York.
- Wanfo Cave (Ten Thousand Buddha Cave)
Built in 690 AD during the Tang Dynasty, this cave aimed to show the benefaction of Emperor Gaozong and Empress Wu Zetian and their children. The cave took its name from the over 15,000 tiny statues of Buddha carved on its southern and northern walls.
Flanked by four guards and two Bodhisattvas on both sides, the main Buddhist statue is sitting on an octagonal lotus basis, and has a plump face, peaceful eyes and a fearless gesture.
On the back wall of this cave are 54 lotus flowers, each with a Bodhisattva of different countenances on it. In the southern niche outside the cave stands an 85-cm-tall statue of Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva. Holding a pure water bottle in her left hand and a horsetail whisk in the right hand, the Bodhisattva looks demure and reserved with a well-shaped figure.
Qianxi Temple, also called Zhaifutang Hall, is located in the northern end of the West Hill. Constructed during the reign of Emperor Gaozong of the Tang Dynasty, this cave measures about 9 meter in height, width and depth. The chief Buddha of this cave, Amitabha Buddha is sitting in the exact center with two disciples on either side.
Value of Longmen Grottoes
Exquisitely caved and beautifully shaped with a vivid and delicate appearance, the Longmen Grottoes are known as a bright pearl in the artistic treasure house of the sculptures of the world. Although often referred to as a perfect art representation of Buddhist culture, the Longmen Grottoes at the same time reflect political, economic, and cultural states in ancient China. It gives us historical data for the researching of ancient religion, arts, architecture, calligraphy, music, dress, and medicine. Therefore, it has been considered to be a large scale stone-carved art museum.
Protection and Conservation of Longmen Grottoes
Although much of the site has been well preserved, during its long history, some parts were damaged by erosion and vandalism. Numerous crevices in the rock bases cause some caves to become unstable or even to collapse, thus damaging the sculptures. Saline sediments resulting from acid rain, train and automobile vibrations and natural disasters have also affected the site. For the sake of protecting the valuable treasure house, the central and local governments are endeavoring to improve the environment of the the scenic area.
Steps to be taken are:
- Removal of the restaurants and shopping stalls from inside the scenic area.
- Resettlement of the nearby Longmen Village to make way for the Longmen Grottoes in order to return the ancient site its original surroundings.
- Rebuilding the road to reduce tremor and dirt caused by vehicles that affects the Grottoes.