World Heritage Site: Longmen Grottoes

The Longmen Grottoes (or Longmen Caves) stretch for 1km (about 1,094 yards) along the west bank of the Yi River near Luoyang City in Henan Province, China. Longmen Grottoes, Yungang Caves and Mogao Caves are regarded as the three most famous treasure houses of stone inscriptions in China. The Longmen Caves were designated a World Heritage Site in 2000 for their spectacular works of Chinese art, especially of the Tang Dynasty. The site includes some 1,350 caves and 40 pagodas, which are filled with thousands of Buddhist statues carved out of the hard limestone cliffs.


The grottoes were started around the year 493 when Emperor Xiaowen of the Northern Wei Dynasty (386-534) moved the capital to Luoyang and were continuously built during the 400 years until the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127). There are over 2,345 holes and niches, 3,600 inscribed stone tablets, 50 pagodas, over 1,300 caves and 97,000 statues. Most of them are the works of the Northern Wei Dynasty and the flourishing age of the Tang Dynasty (618-907). Lots of historical materials concerning art, music, religion, calligraphy, medicine, costume and architecture are kept here.

The grottoes are a gallery of Chinese art that provides significant information about most areas of Chinese culture including its political and economic structure, theology, medicine and clothing, as well as the fine arts, including architecture, painting, music, calligraphy and sculpture. There are, of course, numerous depictions of the life of the Buddha. In addition, the grotto carvings include disciples, bodhisattvas, guardians, apsaras and other creatures that reflect the changing elements of the Buddhist faith in China over hundreds of years and numerous dynasties. The Longmen sculptures reflect the styles of earlier Indian and Yungang grotto art, though the figures often are clad in roomier Han-style gowns and reflect a dignified refinement and elegant grace that was to influence much of Chinese later Buddhist sculpture. The earlier Northern Wei statues mostly are of Shakyamuni and Maitreya Bodhisattva; later statues are more attached to the Maitreya Buddha of the Future and the Amitabha and Guanyin, the compassionate Bodhisattva who reflected concern for personal salvation.


The caves have been beautifully renovated and have English labelling throughout. The following summary is given in this order and includes the largest and most important carvings.

The largest and most familiar element of the grotto complex is the central Fengxian (Ancestor-worshipping) Image Shrine completed during the Tang Dynasty. It belonged to the Fengxian Temple which was located just south of the western cliffs. The shrine area is approximately 127 feet x 115feet (39m x 35m), and its massive 57-foot (17.14-meter) Vairocana Buddha dwarfs all of the other Longmen statues. A small inscription at its base gives its date of construction as 676 AD. It also lists the names of the artisans and the name of the emperor donor, Gaozong (r. 649-683). It also honors the emperor’s wife, Wu Zetian, for her gifts in the form of twenty-thousand strings of her rouge and powder money that aided its completion. The face of the Vairocana Buddha is even reputed to be modeled after the Empress herself and sometimes has been regarded as a Chinese Mona Lisa, Venus or as the Mother of China. The beam holes at the rear of the shrine were cut into the cliff around the 11th century to hold a wooden roof, which was not part of the original construct; the wooden roof has long disappeared. The surrounding statues, as well as the Great Vairocana itself, though many are damaged, retain wonderful detail, character and animation. Flanking the great statue are two major disciples (Kasyapa and Ananda) and two Bodhisattvas with crowns. There are lokapalas (guardians or heavenly kings), dvarapalas (temple guards), flying divas as well as numerous other figures.

The three Bingyang caves are among the earliest, carved by the Northern Wei in the Datong style. The middle Bingyang cave was commissioned by Emperor Xuan Wu to honor his parents and is said to have taken 800,000 men working from 500 to 523 AD to complete. The 11 statues of the Buddha show northern characteristics (long features, thin faces, fishtail robes) and traces of Greek influence. The side caves, completed under the Tang, are more natural and voluptuous in style.

The Lianhua (Lotus Flower) Grotto, finished by 521, is another of the significant sites from the Northern Wei period. It is characterized by a large lotus flower carved in high relief on its ceiling and numerous small statues carved into the south wall. There are intrusive shrines on the north and south wall.

Feng Xian Si (Ancestor Worshipping Cave), carved between 672 and 675 for Empress Wu Zetian, is the largest and most splendid of all the caves and considered the culmination of Tang carving. The monumental shrine has a square plan measuring about 30m (100 feet) on each side. It centers on a majestic seated figure of Vairocana Buddha on the back wall, 17m (56ft) high with 2m-long ears. On his left, a Bodhisattva wears a crown and pearls and a divine general treads an evil spirit underfoot.

Inscriptions in the Medical Prescription Cave, dating from 575, detail hundreds of cures for everything from madness to the common cold. Some of the prescriptions are still used today.

Further on is Guyang Cave, the oldest cave at Longmen, begun in 495. It still has some traces of the paint that originally gave life to the carvings. There is a central Buddha and three tiers of niches on the northern and southern walls, which contain hundreds of statues. Most of the statues are engraved with the names of the artists, the dates and the reasons for carving them. There are also nineteen of the "Twenty Pieces," important examples of ancient calligraphy.

From the end of the west bank, a bridge leads to the east bank for a fine view of the caves. Up the hill is the Tomb of Bai Juyi, the famous Tang poet, who spent his last years in Luoyang as the Retired Scholar of the Fragrant Hill.

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