The Yungang Grottoes, ancient Buddhist temples located near the city of Datong in the Shanxi province of China, are excellent examples of rock-cut architecture. They are also one of the three most famous cave clusters or ancient scriptural sites of China, the other two being Longmen and Mogao.
The grottoes lie in the valley of the Shi Li river at the base of the Wuzhou Shan mountains, and contain stone carvings from the 5th and 6th centuries. In all there are 252 grottoes and 53 caves lining a distance of one kilometer, which have more than 51,000 Buddha statues and statuettes.
The caves have been divided into three parts on the basis of their cultural and relic definitions. The eastern part of the caves are dominated by 'Pagodas' while the western caves are much smaller in size with score of niches. The caves that lie in the center of these two have front and back chambers separated by hundreds of Buddha statues. The walls of these caves have been embossed with ancient Chinese motifs.
The construction on the Yungang Grottoes was started in 450 AD and they are a relic of the Northern Wei Dynasty. Not only did the sculptures absorb the essence of Indian gandhara Buddhist art, it also drew inspiration from the social norms of the time and combined the two in perfect harmony.
It was during the rein of an emperor by the name of Xiao Wen that a monk named Tanyao took up the task of constructing the Yungang Grottoes. Cave number six is the largest one at the site with a height of 20 meters. It contains a 15 meter high column decorated with Buddha statues and carvings. Surrounding the pillar on all four sides are 33 panels depicting the life story of Sakyamuni.
Most of the caves in the grottoes have been numbered, making it easier to remember them than a lot of tedious names.
Caves that deserve a special mention in the Yungang Grottoes are the ones numbered 16, 17, 18, 19, and 20. This cluster of five caves is called the Tan Yao Caves. They are very similar to each other in style but are definitely not identical. They all contain statues of five emperors by the names of Taizu, Taizong, Shizu, Gaozong, and Gaozu, expressing the theme that Buddha was the sole emperor.
While the statue in cave 20 is martial and stately, the one in 19 is thought to be very handsome and elegant. The one in 18 is considered to be the most dignified and yet the most lifelike.
The underlying similarity in all the five figures start with the thick lips, go on to big noses and slanted eyes and end with broad shoulders. These depict the ethnic and religious perceptions of the time that the statues were constructed.
The Yungang Grottoes are famous for their ability to graphically tell stories of past glory and culture to the hundreds of tourists who throng here everyday.
The Yungang Grottoes were made a world heritage site by UNESCO in 2001.
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