Some Things You May Not Know about Binglingsi Grottoes
Binglingsi Grottoes is located about 40 kilometers southwest to Yongjing County of Linxia Hui Autonomous Prefecture in Gansu Province, on the west-side cliff of Dasigou Valley. The grottoes were first dug in the early years of the Western Jin Dynasty (around the third century A.D.) as Buddhism spread eastward across China. Over more than a thousand years of history, the grottoes gradually developed with unique local characteristics and also strong artistic appeal. The nearly 800 Buddha statues in the 183 caves make Binglingsi Grottoes one of the famous treasure houses of art in China.
Because Buddhism in the north focused on Zen during the period of Sixteen States, Binglingsi Grottoes used natural rock caves as the ideal place for meditation practice and built wooden and stone Buddha statues for the monks and believers to pay their respects to Buddha and pass on the Buddhist culture in the Western Qin period. As for the techniques, the Buddha statues of this period were mostly influenced by the Buddhist arts of Gandhara and Mathura.
In the Northern Wei Dynasty (founded by the Xianbei nationality, an ancient nomadic tribe), Emperor Xiaowen carried out the reform of fusion with the Han nationality and moved its capital to Luoyang in Henan Province, which greatly accelerated the localization of Buddhist art. During the reign of Emperor Xuanwu, there was a new climax of digging caves and the Nirvana of Sakyamuni Buddha became an important subject for the statues of Binglingsi Grottoes.
As the whole country was once again unified in the Sui Dynasty, the Buddhist arts in various regions saw further integration since the Northern and Southern Dynasties. During this period, all statues of Binglingsi Grottoes were carved in wood with low and flat buns, dressed in Han-style cassocks with the right shoulder exposed, and tended to be given tranquil expressions. You can see the folds of the clothes were done naturally, and the sculpturing techniques were more mature and concise. There is also a symbol of “卐” on the chest.
The Tang Dynasty is well known for being inclusive and open. During this time, economic and cultural exchanges on the Silk Road were more frequent, and the Tangbo Ancient Path was also opened and prospered. The increasingly localized Chinese Buddhism embraced the Indian Gupta art and Buddhist art of the Western Regions (the area west of Dunhuang, north and south of the Tianshan Mountains in Xinjiang, Central Asia, and Western Asia). A new style formed in Chang’an (former name of Xian) and quickly affected the grottoes throughout the nation.
Binglingsi Grottoes standing at the intersection of the Eastern and Western cultures created a large number of unique stone carving works from its own unique perspective while absorbing various art types spreading along the Silk Road. At this time, the common arrangement was Buddhas like Sakyamuni, Amitabha, Bhaisajyaguru and Maitreya as the main one in the middle with Bodhisattva, disciples and Heavenly Kings on two sides. The tallest Buddha statue is 27 meters high while the smallest being only several centimeters. They all have plump face with a polished high bun and three lines on neck, amiable and serene. Their clothes were exquisitely carved in relief.
There are not many Buddha statues left from the Five Dynasties and the Northern Song Dynasty. The clay sculptures of the Western Xia Dynasty feature long thin eyes and brows and slightly look downwards as though they are lost in thought. Their broad shoulders, slim waist and slender body make them totally different from the statues of the earlier periods.
Since the Yuan Dynasty, Tibetan Buddhism was very popular in Bingling Temple. The most representative ones are the wooden statue of Avalokitesvara with eight arms and eleven faces in Cave 70 and the stone statue of Milarepa, the founder of Kagyu school, in Cave 188.
Binglingsi Grottoes also boasts 900 square meters of murals, among which the ones from the Northern Wei Dynasty, Northern Zhou Dynasty, and Tang Dynasty were repainted during the Ming and Qing dynasties.
The murals of the Western Qin Dynasty are the most important materials for studying not only Binglingsi Grottoes but also Chinese Buddhist art. Most of them are housed in Cave 169, mainly showing Mahayana Buddhism, including Buddha paintings, sutra paintings, and portraits of donors.
The large and medium-sized murals of the Tang Dynasty were all repainted when Tibetan Buddhism thrived in the area. There are still many colorful paintings with gorgeous patterns in some small and exquisite niches from which you can have a glimpse of the glorious Tang Dynasty. The flying Apsaras dancing airily on the walls seem free and lively in stark contrast to the simple shapes of the Western Qin Dynasty.
If you are really interested in Binglingsi Grottoes and considering doing a Silk Road tour, please do not hesitate to contact us at any time. We are ready to help you!