Yungang Grottoes in Shanxi Province

With the spread of Buddhism in China in the second century grotto art moved in from India, developing rapidly in this country after the fourth century. Grottoes were carved in cliff faces in many places particularly in the north ne best known among them are the Dunhuang Grottoes in Gansu(Kansu) Province, the Yungang Grottoes in Shamxi(Shansi)Province and the Longmen Grottoes in (Honan) Province. These are three major treasure troves of art. The Yungang Grottoes are located 16 kilometers west of the city of Datong. Hewn out of cliffsides in a honeycomb pattern, they stretch for a whole kilometer from east to west. The Grottoes were built some 1500 years ago, in the Northern Wei dynasty. The Emperor Wen Cheng, an adherent of Buddhism, accepted the suggestion of the eminent Mosk TanYao and undertook the execution of the grottoes and Buddhist images. The project got underway around 460. Within four decades, a thousand grottoes and some one hundred thousand Buddhist statues were completed together with large numbers of niches and colorful decorations.

Today fifty-one thousand statues remain the largest 17 meters high and the smallest two centimeters. Whether massive or Tiny, all fare meticulously carved. In addition to the Buddhist statues there are multiple niches in the walls of the stone chambers and these are embellished with sculpture of flying fairies, Buddhist episodes, edifices. flowers and other designs. These are a great help in studying ancient Chinese architecture, sculpture, costumes and musical instruments.

Of the existing 53 grottoes, 2I are spacious and divided into three distinct groups: the eascern, middle and western. The eastern group(Grottoes 1 to 4)contains mainly pillars and Buddhist statues; the middle group(Grottoes 5 to 13)and the western group(Grottoes l4 to 21)are the most splendid.Visitors usually begin their tour with the middle group. On entering the first cave they are greeted by the l7-meter-tall Buddha carved out of solid rock. The figure is seated in a dignified posture, its facial expression often startling viewers when it coming into view finally from the fourth level of the cave walkway, for its head nearly touches the ceiling. The ear measures 3.1 meters, the foot 4.6 meters and the middle finger 2.3 meter. The walls and ceilings are filled with sculptured niches containing graceful small Buddha and flying fairy images. Grotto 6 is the most spectacular. Also known as the“Grotto of Sakyamuni”,it is dominated by a huge square pillar some 15 meters high. The walls of the grotto are covered with sculptures of Buddhisattvas, Buddhas, flying fairies and so on. Especially attractive are the zo-odd carvings in relief on the four sides of the pillar, depicting scenes from the life of Sakyamuni from birth until his attainment of nirvana. One impressive sculpture portrays Sakyamuni parting from his favorite horse when he left home. The atmosphere of Grotto I2 is made lively by sculptures of fairies dancing on the ceiling and walls. Of these, the most captivating perhaps is a group carved en the northern wall. Some play flutes, others beat drums. Then there are those playing the pipa, a four-stringed lute. The conductor of this orchestra is depicted on the opposite wall. Every figure appears alive and vigorous, all attention the music. These sculptures shed much light on ancient Chinese music instruments and their use.

The western group of caves consists of Grottoes 16 to 20. These are the earliest of Yungang’s remaining grottoes. They are oval in shape and each contains a statue of Buddha 13 to 16 meters high. The most spectacular of the five is Grotto 18. In its center is a tall image of the Buddha with a round pillar shaped body. The upper part is clothed in a stone robe on which the sculptor has caned a thousand small Buddha images. The varied postures and facial expressions of these small sculptures are exquisite to behold. Carved on the eastern wall of the grotto is a smiling goddess though about to leave the wall and fly down to share her bottle Over the centuries, nature and man caused much damage to the Yungang Grottoes. At least fourteen hundred Buddhist statues were stolen and shipped out of the country by plunderers. Not a few of those that remain arc missing heads and limbs. Since liberation, the People’s Government has done much to renovate and protect this precious are relic. Cracked caves and statues have been reinforced and chemical means are being tried out to deal with weathering. The Yungang Grottoes are now magnificent, a favorite sightseeing spot in Shanxi Province.