A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Longmen Caves (龙门石窟, lóngmén shíkū) are a spectacular parade of Buddhist figurines and reliefs. The roadhead is a kilometre short of the caves, and if you don’t fancy a walk through the souvenir stalls, head down to the river and follow it to the entrance. The site is very busy in the summer, overrun with tourists posing in the empty niches for photos, and also very hot and exposed – try to visit early on.
The caves have been beautifully renovated and feature English labelling. Starting from the entrance at the northern end and moving south down the group, the following are the largest and most important carvings, which stand out due to their size. The three Bingyang caves are early; the central one, commissioned by Emperor Xuan Wu to honour his parents, supposedly took 800,000 men working from 500 to 523 AD to complete. The eleven statues of Buddha inside show northern characteristics – long features, thin faces, splayed fishtail robes – and traces of Greek influence. The side caves, completed under the Tang, are more natural and voluptuous, carved in high relief. Wanfo (Cave of Ten Thousand Buddhas), just south of here, was built in 680 by Gao Zong and his empress Wu Zetian, and has fifteen thousand Buddhas carved in tiny niches, each one different and the smallest just 2cm high. Lianhua (Lotus Flower Cave) is another early one, dating from 527, and named after the beautifully carved lotus in its roof; while at Moya Sanfo you can see an incomplete trinity, abandoned when the Tang dynasty began to wobble. But by far the most splendid is Fengxian (Ancestor Worshipping Cave), where an overwhelming seated figure of Vairocana Buddha, 17m high with 2m-long ears, sits placidly overlooking the river, guarded by four warrior attendants (though the westerly two are almost completely gone) who are grinding malevolent spirits underfoot. Medical Prescription Cave, built in 575, details several hundred cures for everything from madness to the common cold. Guyang is the earliest of all, begun in 495, where you can still see traces of the vivid paintwork that originally gave life to these carvings. There’s a central Buddha and nineteen of the “Twenty Pieces”, important examples of ancient calligraphy. From the end of the west bank you can cross the bridge to the east side, for a good view of the caves peppering the opposite bank like rabbit warrens.
Creating the caves
Creating the caves
Over the years, 1350 caves, 750 niches and 40 pagodas containing 110,000 statues were carved out of the limestone cliffs bordering the Yi River to create the Longmen Caves. Stretching more than one kilometre in length, the carvings were commissioned by emperors, the imperial family, other wealthy families wanting to buy good fortune, generals hoping for victory, and religious groups. The Toba Wei began the work in 492 AD, when they moved their capital to Luoyang from Datong, where they had carved the Yungang Caves. At Longmen, they adapted their art to the different requirements of a harder, limestone surface. Three sets of caves, Guyang, Bingyang and Lianhua, date from this early period. Work continued for five hundred years and reached a second peak under the Tang, particularly under Empress Wu Zetian, a devoted adherent of Buddhism.
There’s a clearly visible progression from the early style brought from Datong, of simple, rounded, formally modelled holy figures, to the complex and elaborate, but more linear, Tang carvings, which include women and court characters. In general, the Buddhas are simple, but the sculptors were able to show off with the attendant figures and the decorative flourishes around the edges of the caves.