As we are preparing our trip to Sri Lanka we read up on Buddhism and we also recall some of the impressive Buddhist sites in the world we have visited over the years. Particularly stuck in our mind are the Buddhist grotto complexes of China, which is why this post will be about our visit to the UNESCO-listed Buddhist Longmen grottoes near Luoyang in the Chinese province of Henan.
During the course of the Chinese history Luoyang has several times been the capital town of the whole realm. Notably, Luoyang was the place where the first Buddhist temple in China was built in the 1st century AD: The „White Horse Temple“ – a sightseeing spot in its own. But the main tourist draw of Luoyang is 13 km south of the town: the Buddhist Longmen Grottoes.
In 493 AD, the Northern Wei Dynasty, which had recently converted to Buddhism moved their capital from Datong to Luoyang (for political reasons) and started digging grottoes for Buddhist worship in the cliffs that lined the shores of the Luohe River. The first caves were financed by private donors, but soon the state started financing them as well. After the fall of the Northern Wei construction stopped and reached a new peak during the Tang Dynasty.
A female Chinese emperor
The Tang Dynasty capital was the powerful city of Xian further west, but Luoyang came briefly back into the limelight when Wu Zetian became empress in the late 7th century. She was the only female emperor in Chinese history and originally started out as a concubine to emperor Taizong.
After his death she continued her career marrying his son and successor, Emperor Gaozong, survived him, too, and finally, having pulled the political strings in the background for a long time, became Empress. To get away from the recrimination of the noblemen and the bureaucracy she shifted the focus of power back to Luoyang, and as a devout Buddhist sponsored the erection of many temples and statues there.
Altogether there are around 1400 caves and niches and 110 000 Buddha statues carved out of the rock at the Longmen Grottoes, the smallest ones not more than 2 cm and the biggest one 17 m in height. The earlier statues of the Northern Wei have slightly prolonged faces while the Tang statues have the typical round features of their time.
Around 60% of the grottoes date to the 7th to 9th century (Tang-Dynasty) and around 30% are from the 5th century (Northern Wei Dynasty).
Modern conservation work started in the 20th century and the site got UNESCO World Heritage status in 2000.
Are the Longmen Grottoes worth visiting?
If you are interested in Buddhism and especially in the development of Buddhist art, the Longmen Grottoes are a must. Not so many tourists visit, which makes the site quite charming.
How to get to the Longmen Grottoes
Buses go directly from the centre of Luoyang to the grottoes, which are located about 12 km out of town.
Would you like to visit the Longman grottoes, and which (other) Buddhist site did impress you most?