Yungang Grottoes

Some 16 kilometers west of Datong, Yungang Grottoes are known as one of the three major Grottoes in China. Construction of the cave temples started between 460- 465AD. It was until 494, when the Northern Wei Dynasty moved its capital to Luoyang that the grottoes were formally completed. Absorbing Indian Gandhara Buddhist art, Yungang sculptures developed traditional Chinese art melded with social features of the time.

Yungang Grottoes Yungang Grottoes

During the reign of Emperor Xiao Wen(467-499), a monk named Tanyao took charge of the construction of Yungang Caves. The largest cave is No.6. In the 20-meter (65.6-foot)-high cave stands a 15-meter (49.2-foot)-high pagoda-like column decorated with Buddha statues and designs. On the four sides of the tower pillar, and on the east, south and west walls of the cave, 33 embossed panels depict the story of Saykamuni.

Caves worth special attention are No.16, 17, 18, 19, and 20. Upon Tan Yao's suggestion, five statues of Emperors Taizu, Taizong, Shizu, Gaozong, and Gaozu as Buddha express the religious theme that the Emperor is Buddha. Caves housing these statues are known as the Five Tan Yao Caves, similar in style but not identical. The statue in Cave 20 is martial and stately, No.19 handsome and elegant, while No.18 is dignified but lively. Their similarity lies in their thick lips, big noses, slanted eyes and broad shoulders depicting the ethnic culture of the time.

According to the historical records, over 10,000 master artisans and the stonemasons were pressed into service at the peak of the construction. Nowadays the Yungang Grottoes still boast over 1,100 shrines and niches of widely varying sizes and no less than 50,000 sculptures of Buddha and Bodhisattvas. The Grottoes are divided into three zones, east, west and central, and numbered from east to west. Grotto No. 3 is the biggest in the east zone. The sculptures inside were probably constructed during the Sui (581-618) or Tang (618-907) dynasties. The larger-sized caves, 53 in total, are scattered over the southern foot of Wuzhou Hill, sprawling for over a kilometer from east to west. The sculptural works at Yungang are noted for the vigorous features and rich variety. The art of the Yungang Grottos may be considered a manifestation of a process of blending of cultures and religions, a process of giving a Chinese touch to Buddhist art that, at that time, was essentially Indian.

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