Yungang Grottoes

The practice of carving rock temples dedicated to the Buddha originated in India. The practice came to China from the west, one of the earliest examples being at Dunhuang, Gansu Province, Mogao Grottoes. The caves stretch for almost 1 kilometer east to west and contain over 50,000 statues. 52 caves that still remain.

Most of the caves at Yungang were carved between 460 and 494 AD during the Northern Wei Dynasty under the supervision of a Buddhist monk named Tan Yao (T'an-yao). They appear to have been modeled after the caves at Dunhuang (Mogao Grottoes) started one hundred years earlier, the statues here are hewn from the solid rock and are some of the oldest in China.

Yungang Grottoes is located at the southern foot of Mt Wuzhou, about 16 kilometres west of Datong City, Shanxi Province. Built in compliance with the lie of the mountain, it is about one kilometre across from east to west. The Grottoes was built more than 1500 years ago during the Northern Wei Dynasty. With its 53 exisitng rock caves and over 51000 statues, Yungang Grottoes is a treasure - house of ancient Buddhist art, the largest of its kind in China. It is as famous as the Longmen Grottoes in Luoyang and Mogao Grottoes in Dunhuang, Gansu Province.

After the presecution of Buddhism by the Wei emperor, Daiwu (T’ai Wu Ti), beginning in 444 AD and lasting for five years, the next emperor was persuaded to build five collossal cave-shrines, each to contain rock-hewn images of the previous emperors. The next emperor, Wen-ch’eng-ti, continued the work, but by opening twin cave chapels, one for each parent, a trait that was continued in other capital sites, This was sometimes accompanied with a third chapel for the living ruler.

The first caves at Yungang had enormous Buddhas in the likenesses of five Northern Wei emperors. The first Northern Wei emperor Daiwu (T’ai Wu Ti), had been declared a ‘living buddha’, in 416 AD for his patronage of Buddhism. That did not prevent him from later persecuting the adherents to Buddhism (644).
When the Northern Wei moved their capital from Datong to Luoyang in 494 AD, work at the Yungang Grottoes fizzled out and appears to have been abandoned.

The numerous niches set in the northern cliff of Mt Wuzhou look like a honeycomb. The Grottoes, a world of Buddhist statues, is composed of the following three parts: the early rock caves (altogether five) in the west, mostly oval - shaped and planned on a large scale, the main statue reaching the height of 17 metres; the grottoes in the middle, oblong in shape and of two chambers, with the main statue in the centre and the walls, arches and roofs covered with Buddhist relief sculptures; the square grottoes, each with a pagoda - shaped central column, also excellently sculptured, attaining to the roof while the walls are carved with niches enshrining Buddhist statues.

The stone carving of the Grottoes, compactly structured, exhibits superb workmanship and a rich variety of themes. Yungang Grottoes as a treasure - house of rare and splendid Chinese sculptures enjoys worldwide fame.