Yungang Grottoes

Location: 10 mi (16 km) West of Datong, Shanxi province   Map

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Description of Yungang Grottoes

Yungang Grottoes is a medieval Buddhist complex designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and situated 10 mi (16 km) West of Datong in Shanxi province in China. The work on the Yungang Grottoes religious complex started in the 5th century AD when Northern Wei dynasty took control of this region. China was fragmented at the time and nearby Datong (known at the time as Pingcheng) was the capital of the kingdom. Rulers of the country adopted Buddhism as the state religion and started a construction of a massive temple cut in the rock. The legend states that the first five caves were cut by a single monk Tan Yao. From 460 AD to 525 AD local peasant and monks alike cut over 252 caves with over 51,000 statues that adore them.



With the decline of the Jin dynasty, the Northern Wei dynasty was established in the northern part of China, which also includes the area around Datong. She made Datong, then known as Pingcheng, her capital. Although Buddhism was initially a foreign religion for the new dynasty, it promoted it considerably, especially since in the Buddhist school of the time a ruler well-disposed towards Buddhism was equated with the living Buddha. At the time construction began in 460, Buddhism was already largely established as the state religion in the area of the Wei Dynasty. The work on the Yungang Grottoes extended over a period of 65 years from 460-525 AD, although there were frequent interruptions. The construction can be divided into three phases (see also the description of the caves below). First, the early phase of 460-465, carried out under the monk Tan Yao and characterized by five monumental caves. Six years after the end of the early phase, the middle phase begins, spanning from 471-494. This phase is characterized by support from the ruling house and, with the numerous twin and triplet caves, represents the core area of the entire complex. The last main section is the late phase from 494-525, which was guaranteed by private patronage and therefore mainly produced small caves and niches. The transition from the second to the third phase of construction was triggered by the fact that the capital of the Wei Dynasty was moved to Luoyang in 494, and the interest of the ruling house in the progress of the work ended. After Datong was shaken by riots in 523, the city became temporarily depopulated, so that work finally came to a complete standstill in 525.

Since the work was completed, the caves and statues have been heavily exposed to weathering, as they are made of sandstone. Therefore, in the following centuries there were repeated efforts to preserve or restore the condition of the caves. As early as the Liao Dynasty, in the years 1049-1060, many statues that had already been damaged were restored and the so-called "10 Temples of Yungang" were built in front of the grottos, but they were destroyed again a little later, in 1122, by a fire . In 1621, during the Qing dynasty, the wooden protective buildings, which are still preserved today, were erected in front of two of the monumental caves to prevent further destruction of the caves by the weather. During the entire period that followed, restoration work was repeatedly carried out on statues and caves and some of the statues were repainted. Since the 1950s, efforts have been made by the Chinese government to preserve the condition of the grottoes and statues through security measures. Attempts were made both to limit the natural erosion caused by the ingress of water by grouting and sealing cracks that had formed and to limit the damage caused by sandstorms by planting trees. Attempts were also made to reduce the pollution of the grottos from the surrounding coal mines.

The caves have been included in the Shanxi Monuments List of the People's Republic of China since 1961 (1-34). Proposed for UNESCO World Heritage status in the late 1990s, they were included in 2001.


The Grottoes

The facility stretches for about a kilometer along a sandstone wall at the foot of Wuzhou Shan. The grottos follow the course of the river valley in an east-west direction. The complex consists of 42 grottoes and another 210 niches with a total of over 51,000 Buddha statues. Since the grottos were worked in the sandstone that is common there and they were constantly exposed to the weather, the outer areas in particular are heavily weathered.

The grottoes can be divided stylistically into three different construction phases. The early phase of 460-465, the middle of 471-494 and the late of 494-525 AD From the earliest construction phase date five huge U-shaped main caves (Nos. 16-20) at the west end of the central part the plant. They were dug under the direction of monk Tan Yao and house monumental statues measuring up to 15 m in height.

The five large statues show different representations of the Buddha; a seated Shakyamuni in No. 16, a seated Maitreya in No. 17, a standing Shakyamuni dressed in a robe decorated with many small Bodhisattva figures in No. 18, another seated Shakyamuni (at almost 17 m tall the second tallest in Yungang) , who is surrounded by meditating Bodhisattvas, in No. 19 and a 14 m high seated Buddha in Grotto No. 20, which probably collapsed in the 10th century. The statues are also representations of the reigning Wei Emperor Wen Cheng (No. 16), Prince Jing Mu (No. 17), Emperor Tai Wu (No. 18), Emperor Ming Yuan (No. 19) and Emperor Dao Wu (No. 20), which were seen as personifications of the Buddha. The figures are designed with elaborately folded robes and rich ornaments. Rectangular holes can be seen on some of the monumental statues, probably from a later period when the statues were covered with layers of clay and redesigned. After the clay was later removed, the holes in the beams used to support the clay layer remained. On the walls of the caves there are thousands of smaller statues, some of which represent the various mythical forms of Buddha as Buddha of the past, present and future, some show scenes from Siddharta's life, some depict images of their donors. The elaboration of the clothes and the jewelery of the figures shows that the style of the statues from the early phase is still strongly influenced by India. Cave No. 20 is no longer recognizable as such, as over the centuries the roof of the cave has collapsed and the statues contained in the cave are now in the open.

In the second phase, a series of twin grottos (nos. 1-2, 5-6, 7-8, 9-10) and a triple grotto (nos. 11-13) were created. The grottos from the middle phase represent the most important part of the entire complex, both in terms of their number and the richness of their furnishings. The grottos of the middle phase have a square floor plan and some have a stupa as a column in the middle of the room. The style of decoration and figures has now evolved into a typically Chinese style, showing kinship with the linear, geometric style of Han dynasty depictions.

The late phase caves (mainly nos. 21-45, 3, 4, 14 and 15, but also more than 200 other small caves and niches) are smaller and much more inconsistent than the early and middle phase caves. While Grotto No. 3 features a monumental ensemble of the three Buddhas of the past, present and future, Grotto No. 15 is known as the Thousand Buddha Cave (Chinese 千佛洞, pinyin qiān fó dòng), on whose wall more than a thousand small Buddha and Bodhisattva statuettes a few centimeters tall are gathered. As a rule, however, the ornamentation of the statues is less detailed in the late phase.

The Yungang Grottoes are the most important examples of Buddhist stone carving in China, along with the Mogao Grottoes near Dunhuang and the Longmen Grottoes near Luoyang.