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Longmen Grottoes


Brief Introduction

Set on the banks of the Yi River, 12km south of the current Luoyang City, the Longmen Grottoes are ranked first of the Four Great Grottoes in China, together with Mogao Grottoes in Dunhuang, Yungang Grottoes in Datong and Mount Maiji Grottoes in Tianshui. They were also listed in the World Cultural Heritages and Relics by UNESCO in 2000 for their extensive collection and profound cultural influence on the world. Nestled between the Xiangshan Mountain and the Longmen Mountain, with the Yi River flowing below, the Longmen Grottoes are harmonious with mountains, forests and rivers displaying a serene and peaceful atmosphere.
The Longmen Grottoes were constructed under the order of Emperor Xiaowen of the Northern Wei Dynasty (368-534) for the worship of Buddha (Buddhism was especially popular at that time). Following over 400 years of expansion, there are altogether more than 100,000 Buddhist statues, 2,345 grottoes, 70 stupas and 2,680 stone tablets and inscriptions. The sculptures are  reflect mainly two styles, one is simple and compact from the Northern Wei and the other kind is more elaborate and elegant from the Tang Dynasty. Stretching in length for 1km from north to south, these grottoes differ in size from 2 centimeters to 17.14 meters high.
Wandering in the Longmen Grottoes, one is amazed by the delicate carving skills, deep Buddhist culture and great art achievements of the ancient Chinese people.

Origin of the Name “Longmen”

The Longmen Grottoes are carved into the steep limestone cliffs beside the Yi River with Mount Xiang and Mount Longmen standing on either side. Viewing it at a distance, it looks like a natural gate, which gave it the name “Yi Que (the gate of the Yi River)”. Once when Emperor Yang of the Sui Dynasty climbed on Mount Mang north of Luoyang, he posed the rhetorical question to his subordinates: ‘Isn’t it the gate for a true Emperor? Why didn’t our ancestors establish their capitals here?’ To please the Emperor, one minister replied that it was not that the ancient people didn’t find this place, they were just waiting for the Emperor himself to complete this grand work. The Emperor was very pleased and ordered the eastern capital to be built here with its palace gate opposite the Yique. Thus, it came to be named, Longmen Gate (Dragon Gate: the dragon served as an emblem of Imperial power).

When and how were the Longmen Grottoes built?

The Longmen Grottoes were carved around the time when Emperor Xiaowen relocated the capital city to Luoyang from the former capital Pingcheng (currently known as Datong city in Shanxi Province). The Emperor was deeply concerned about the fact that the capital city being set in Pingcheng made his rule weak in the middle of the country. Meanwhile, Luoyang possessed great advantages in location and resources. In 493, the capital relocating process commenced, so did the building of the Longmen Grottoes. This project continued intermittently for 400 years through the Eastern Wei, Western Wei, Northern Qi, Northern Zhou, Sui, Tang and Northern Song Dynasties. Of all the carvings, 30% were from the Northern Wei era, 60%  from the Tang period whilst only 10% were made in other times. According to available records, there are presently 2345 statues and niches in the east mountain and and 70 Buddha Pagodas in west one. The Grottoes also house about 2860 stele inscriptions, making it a treasure vault for ancient calligraphy study. In total, more than 100,000 Buddhist statues and niches were carved into the cliffs ranging from the largest one, the Vairocana Buddha with a height of 17.14 meters, to the smallest one of 2 centimeters.

Highlights of the Longmen Grottoes

The Longmen Grottoes offer a great insight for us to understand how rulers and royal families through the eras affirmed superiority and encouraged assimilation by sponsoring the building of effigies and niches. Due to the different aesthetic standards of the  North Wei Dynasty and Tang Dynasty, the carvings have two kinds of distinctive characteristics. The North Wei Dynasty admired slenderness, which can be seen from some works featuring long and thin faces, gaunt shoulders and flat chests. While the Tang Dynasty people preferred plumpness, which manifested in effigies with plump faces, broad shoulders and developed chests. It’s precisely such an integration and fusion that make the Longmen Grottoes a grand masterpiece representing the pinnacle of ancient Buddha Effigy art.
It is also a treasure house for calligraphy and art. The exquisite remaining stone statues inside the caves reveal motive and purpose, providing solid evidence in dating each cave. The Qing Dynasty scholar Kang Youwei advocated the idea that the whole society should use the Wei Dynasty style of calligraphy. He thought that this calligraphy style was very flexible, smooth, and natural. Even now, this style of calligraphy art is still commonly used in slogans and decorating words. Besides the significant influence of Buddhism, the Longmen Grottoes also offered a window for later generations to catch a glimpse of politics, the economy, society, culture and even fashion in the North Wei and Tang Dynasties. The authentic materials inside the caves also cover religion, art, architecture, calligraphy, music, clothing and medicine, making it a massive stone carving art museum.

Fengxian Temple

Fengxiansi Cave is the most imposing and magnificent of the Tang-era caves extending over 30 meters. According to the epigraph, this cave was chiselled during the joint rule of Emperor Gaozong and Wu Zetian, and completed in 675. The Buddha effigy inside the cave displays the distinctive features of Tang Dynasty Buddha art, with a plump face, drooping ears, and chubby body giving an air of peacefulness, compassion and attentiveness. The center Losana Buddha is the largest one in the whole site with a height of 17.14 meters, including 4-meter-high head and 1.9-meter-long ears. It’s allegedly based on its patron Empress Wu Zetian. From a distance, there is a certain resemblance between the Buddha and Empress, at least comparing pictures from the history books or paintings. According to Buddhist sutras, Losana means light shining over the whole world. This effigy looks like a nice, wise middle-aged woman, with her two Bodhisattva disciples, two masculine heavenly kings and two pious guardians standing beside.

Qianxisi Cave

Being the first large cave in western Longmen, Qianxisi Cave is about 9 meters in height and width, built in the early Tang Dynasty. A splendid bas-relief lotus is carved on the ceiling. The major Buddha Amitabha sits in the center, with a peaceful expression, and fairly-made body. Beside him stand his two disciples. Beside the disciples are Avalokiteshvara and Vajrapani, who with Amitabha are honored to be the three saints of the western happy land.

Three Binyang Grottoes

The Three Binyang Grottoes are the representative grottoes of the North Wei Dynasty. They were carved out under the order of Emperor Xuanwu to seek favour for his father. The carving lasted for 24 years and employed 802,366 workers. Unfortunately only the Binyang Middle Cave was complete due to reasons like administrative restructuring and the death of the lead manager Liu Teng. The Binyang South and North caves were finished in the early Tang Dynasty.
The main Buddha in the Binyang Middle Cave is Sakyamuni, the founder of Buddhism. He lived in the same era as Confucius and was just 12 years older. He was the son of Suddhodana in ancient India. When he was 29 years old, he decided to practice austerity. After 6 years, he succeeded and founded Buddhism. The Sayamuni Buddha is made to be thin in appearance with a slender neck and long body because that was the aesthetic standard back then.
In the Binyang South cave, you will see the Buddhas reflect more of a Tang Dynasty style. Built on the request of Li Tai - the fourth prince of Emperor Li Shimin to seek favour for his mother.
Nearby is the Moya Three Buddha Niche, containing three seated Buddhas and four standing Buddhas, which is a rare combination. The centrally-seated Buddha is Maitreya. It’s head is damaged, one can only see its outline. It’s said that Wu Zetian used to promote the Maitreyan belief and that is why this cave was built. However, with the collapse of her rule, the project was abandoned. But we can still see how a big Buddha is chiselled.

Ten Thousand Buddha Grotto

The Ten Thousand Buddha Grotto earned its name from a collection of 15000 tiny bas-relief Buddhas carved on the north and south sides of the cave. It’s the most complete cave that houses joint-Buddha effigies. Inside the cave, you will see the main Buddha Amitabha and many other figures, all displaying the Tang Dynasty aesthetics.

Lotus Cave

The Lotus Cave is named because of the high bas-relief Lotus on the ceiling. It was made during the  North Wei Dynasty. The Lotus is the symbol of Buddhism, representing the retaining of innocence even though emerging from mud. It’s quite common to see a lotus in Buddhist caves. The major Buddha is Sakyamuni, who appears to be teaching his disciples. The second disciple's head is missing and can be seen in the Guimet Museum in France. The smallest Buddha measuring only 2-centimeters high is located here on the south wall.

Guyang Cave

The Guyang Cave is located on the south ring of the Longmen mountain. Carving began in 493, which makes it the oldest cave and most abundant with rich calligraphy works. You will find three characters ”古阳洞” on the north wall. In the late Qing Dynasty, Taoist believers refurbished the Sakyamuni effigy into Lord Lao Zi of the Great Monad and spread the rumor that Lao Zi used to practice alchemy there. Therefore, it is also called Lao Zi Cave.
The Guyang Cave was the central place for Imperials of the North Wei Dynasty to donate and build statues. They poured a fortune  into the caves just to seek favour and protection from the Buddhas, leaving the most valued ‘Twenty Masterpieces of Longmen' These masterpieces refer to the twenty statue inscriptions that record the history of when and why the caves were made and who was involved. These masterpieces attract many visitors every year.

Yaofang Cave

This cave is famed for more than 150 various Tang Dynasty medical prescriptions carved inside ranging from internal medicine, surgery, paediatrics, ophthalmology and otorhinolaryngology, etc. The medicine and drugs mentioned in these prescriptions are herbs, animals and mineral drugs all available in daily life, making it convenient for common use. These medicines are not only for ordinary diseases, but also for some unusual illnesses like oesophagus cancer. A Japanese scholar included 95 kinds of prescriptions discovered here into his book in the 10th Century. These prescriptions offer a valuable source for us to study the ancient Chinese medicine.

Leigutai (Drum Beating) North Cave

Crossing the bridge, you will come to the eastern caves. It was a platform above the giant stone before the road to the eastern mountain was available. It’s said that Empress Wu Zetian personally attended the grand ceremony for the opening of the road. The majestic ancient musicians beat the drums on the platform, giving it the name ‘Platform for Drum Beating’. Adjacent to the platform are three caves, in including the Leigutai North Cave.
It’s the earliest carved and the largest Tantra statue cave in the Longmen Grottoes. Tantra is a branch of Buddhism which originated in India around the 7th century. The ceiling is decorated with lotus flowers and surrounded by four Apsaras, which are disappearing due to  weathering denudation.

Kanjing Temple

This temple was chiselled during Wu Zetian’s rule. Inside the temple, you will find the most delicate Luohan statue complex.

Xiangshan Temple

The Xiangshan Temple is located beside the eastern Longmen Grottoes. It was built in 516 (North Wei Dynasty). In 687 (Tang Dynasty), the great Indian Monk Divakara died and the temple was refurbished in order to bury him there. In 690, Wu Zetian ascended the throne and built the Wu Zhou Dynasty. Lord Liang Wu Sansi petitioned the name “Xiangshan Temple” from the Empress. The Empress herself visited the temple constantly. In 832, the great poet Bai Juyi generously donated to restore the temple and left us the masterpiece “Restoration of Xiangshan Temple”, gaining it a lot of fame. In 846, Bai Juyi passed away and was buried beside here. In later Dynasties, the temple was gradually abandoned until during the Qing Dynasty when Emperor Qinlong made visits here and left two poems inscribed on the stones. In modern times, the government paid very little attention to the temple until Chiang Kai Shek came to power. He built a villa southeast of the temple. The recent restoration took place between 2002 and 2003 when the municipal government invested a great deal in the whole temple and added a few more structures.

Visiting Route for the Longmen Grottoes:

General route: Western Caves -  Eastern Caves - Xiangshan Temple - Bai Yuan;
Western Caves: North Gate - Yuwang Pool - Qianxi Temple - Binyang Three Caves - Moya Three Buddha Niche - Wanfo Cave - Lotus Cave - Fengxian Cave - Guyang Cave - Yaofang Cave - South Gate
Eastern Caves: South Gate - Drum Beating Three Caves  - Antiques Gallery - Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva Niche with Thousand Hands and Thousand Eyes - Western Niche - Kanjing Temple - Lotus Cave - Four Swallows Cave - North Cave

Opening time:

Peak Seasons: Apr.1 - Oct. 7: 07:30 - 22:00;
Oct. 8 - Oct. 31: 07:30 - 18:00;
Low Seasons:
Feb. 1 - Mar.31: 08:00 - 18:00;
Nov.1 - Jan. 31: 08:00 - 17:30.



Entrance ticket

Price: 90 RMB pp;
Battery Car: 10 RMB/way.

Transportation:

From the Longmen Railway Station: By Bus 94 directly, takes about 50 min. By cab, takes about 10 min.
From Longmen Central Train Station: By Bus 81, takes about 75 min. By cab, takes about 29 min.






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