Grandiose caves filled with immense Buddhas decorated with intricate designs are a testament to the skill and wealth of the people who inhabited Luoyang and their devotion to Buddhism.
Originating from India, Buddhist cave carvings commemorate Sakyamuni, who used to teach his students in caves. Cave carvings became one of India's great artistic heritages and spread throughout Asia along with Buddhism, the Longmen Caves have been selected as an UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Sites.
The site boasts not only the caves, but also lush mountains and ridges with springs and waterfalls. Two mountains on the east and west side of the Yi River are covered with green pines and cypresses, towers and pavilions dot each mountain. A hot spring near the entrance of the west mountain caves is a constant 24Â°C.
The caves got the name Longmen ,which means "Dragon Gate," because the two mountains appear as a gate with the Yi River running through it, and when the Sui dynasty emperor built his palace in Luoyang, it faced the mountain "gates."
Many of the well-known caves are located on the western mountain. Work at the Longmen Caves started in AD 493 when the emperor of the Northern Wei dynasty moved his capital from Pingcheng (now Datong) to Luoyang. It continued up to the Qing dynasty with two thirds of the caves dating to the Song dynasty. According to the Longmen Caves Research Institute, there are 2,345 niches, over 2,840 inscribed tablets, more than 60 pagodas and some 100,000 stone statues.
Guyang Cave is one of the oldest caves in Longmen, built from AD 428 to 488; it has comprehensive images of the royal family and the nobles of the Northern Wei period. Three tiers of Buddha statues in different sizes are carved on the north and the south walls. The statues, in typical Wei fashion, feature elongated necks and boxlike heads with stylistically rich patterns.
The Three Binyang Caves were commissioned by Emperor Xuanwu of the Northern Wei to commemorate his parents, and later himself. The middle cave took 802,326 workers 24 years to complete. Curtains and flower strings are carved on the ceilings of the caves with lotus patterns dominating the floor area. Inside the entrance on the two walls, there are large embossed carvings called "Emperor as Donor with Attendants" and " Emperessr as Donor with Attendants ". The pictures vividly illustrate imperial Buddhist practices during the Northern Wei.
The Longmen Caves had two high periods of development. The devoutly Buddhist Northern Wei dynasty initiated the project as an expression of Buddhist devotion and built a large number of caves. But it was in the Tang dynasty when the real masterpieces were carved. The Tang carvings are lively and emotional; depict commoners, a oft-ignored subject matter. The statue of the Losana Buddha in Fengxian Temple was built in the Tang dynasty by Emperor Gaozong. The statue is over 17m tall with the head measuring 4mand the ears almost 2m long. Empress Wu Zetian, the first and only empress of China donated a large portion of her cosmetics budget towards the construction of this statue and considering she foot the bill for this statue, it's believed the face of the Buddha was built according her portrait. This statue, together with the six accompanying statues, is considered the highest development of Buddhist carving art in China. With their lively expressions, lithe bodies, and elegantly detailed clothing, they are a strong contrast to the heavy and motionless Northern Wei statues.
Ten Thousand Buddha Cave is another Tang masterpiece. It was built in AD 680 to honor the piety of Emperor Gaozong and Empress Wu. On the north and south walls of the cave, there are more than 15,000 carved small Buddha images. The central Buddha, with a plump serene face, sits on a lotus flower throne with his legs crossed, the vajras supporting the seat have a robust and forceful form Beyond the halo of the main Buddha are 54 lotus flower bronze offering bodhisattvas. The north and south sides are covered with 15,000 diminutive Buddha figures. Below these tiny Buddhas are twelve apsareses, either dancing gracefully or playing musical instruments. Because the cave is protected behind a metal fence, binoculars are recommended to get a clear view of the small Buddhas.
Royal sponsorship was the main driving force in constructing the Longmen Caves. Although historical records and stone inscriptions reveal the nobility, commoners and even foreign Buddhists all contributed towards the construction, only the emperor could summon the massive labor force and financial resources needed to fully realize such a massive project. The caves were built by the emperors as a tribute to their ancestors, but also out of vanity as the caves were a symbol of their own grandeur. In more practical terms, the emperors also saw themselves as living Buddhas and the caves were a tool to impress upon the masses their divinity and gained their obedience.
Because Buddhism and its associated images came to China from India, all the statues have strong Indian influences which, overtime, have became a fusion of native Chinese and Indian styles. Statues built in the Northern Wei dynasty usually wear spacious clothes and wide belts while the bodies are slim with mild expressions that convey a strong spirit, whereas Tang dynasty statues tend to be plump with slim waists forming visually abundant expressions.
Most of the caves have survived the ravages of time and weather and the limestone at Longmen has proven especially durable. Sadly human nature is far more destructive than Mother Nature and many statues have been damaged in the last two centuries. Though most statues are complete, a large number were badly damaged with their heads lopped off, destined for a museum or a private collection. Now the niches and statues are protected by metal fence so visitors can only appreciate them from a distance.
The Longmen Caves not only showcase the development of Chinese Buddhism during the 5th and the 10th centuries, they also boast a huge collection of over 2,840 elegantly carved tablets on a variety of subjects.
Standing on the east mountain and looking at the western mountain gives you a panorama of the caves and the meandering Yi River that flows between the mountains.