It’s difficult to appreciate the scale or intricacies of the Buddhist cave art at Yungang Grottoes from a photo. If the accompanying photos look at all interesting, multiply the cool factor by three or four to estimate the experience of them in person.
My husband and I took an overnight sleeper train from Beijing to Datong, the closest city to the grottoes. Though the city itself is largely an industrial hub, it’s a great staging place for a visit to the grottoes and the Hanging Monastery. There’s also a nice Buddhist temple inside the city. The easiest way to get to the grottoes from Datong is simply to hire a taxi. For a very reasonable price, you can get one to wait for you in the parking lot while you tour the caves, and then bring you back to the city.
The grottoes are all carved into a stone cliff, with the Buddhas in them varying in size from small – a couple inches high – to so large I had to crane my neck to glimpse the top. Caves and niches are in varying states of preservation and decay, but most are impressively well preserved. The statues with the most exposure to the elements naturally have, in particular, lost most of their paint.
But inside deep caves, the paint retains its vibrancy. The most unexpected feature to me was a deep cave with a square path carved into the mountainside, along which one walks a loop around a square centerpiece of stone. Every inch of the interior from floor to ceilng, several stories high, has been carved into some kind of Buddha or picture scene, or geometric or floral design. Inside the cave, truly a monumental work of art, the mumbled voices of visitors and the shouts of guides bounced off the hard walls, colliding and muddling together into a sort of murky cloud of noise. It was a relief to step back outside into the bright and quieter sunlight, where the voices dissipated into the wide open space. But the inside was so compelling, that I walked through it two more times.
It’s hard to believe 252 caves and 51,000 statues were completed – carved and painted –in only 60 years. The Yungang Grottoes were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001 for their representation of “the outstanding achievement of Buddhist cave art in China in the 5th and 6th centuries.” The statues were created in the years 460-525 CE.
By the time I arrived at the Yungang site, I’d seen a number of Buddhist temples in China, some of them quite spectacular. But I felt a profound difference between the experience of standing before a Buddha cast in metal or carved of wood and moved into a man-made building in a complex of constructed temples, and the experience of the Yungang Grottoes … standing inside the very earth from which the Buddhas I beheld were formed and to which they remained attached – an expression of spirituality within the belly of the mother we call Nature. I found a deeper connection with the cave art than with temple art. For me, it was a wonderful afternoon spent in a unique place.
This article was written by Shara Johnson of SKJtravel.net