From thumb-sized figurines to a 17m colossus, the Buddhist carvings at Yungang are one of the most spectacular holy sites in China.
Clustered in groups, the Yungang Caves (or Yungang Grottoes) are meant to be viewed as a whole. This endeavor will take a few hours, but considering the carvings took almost half a century and 40,000 labourers to complete, the few hours spent exploring these majestic caves is time well-spent. Of the numerous artistic masterpieces that Buddhism has created in China in the past 2,000 years, the caves at Yungang are among the most profound.
The caves are located 16km west of Datong in northern Shanxi Province. A notch south of Inner Mongolia, this strategic location was once a cultural crossroad, with influences from India, Central Asia and Mongolia. In AD 368 a group called the Tangut made Datong the capital of their Northern Wei dynasty. The Tanguts were fervent Buddhists and began work on the caves in 453, ending in around 494 when the Northern Wei moved their capital to Luoyang and continued their devotional work at the Longmen Caves.
Over the centuries, the region's fortunes have wavered. Datong is now an industrial city and an important coal production centre. Situated on the Loess Plateau, the old capital is sometimes referred to as the "Sea of Coal". Convoys of coal-laden trucks and swarms of bicycles clog the flat road to the mountain.
Once out of the city the traffic begins to thin out and the Wuzhou Hills ripple into view. Stone watch towers that have guarded China's northern border for thousands of years are silhouetted against the horizon. Amid such sparse surroundings, caves full of Buddhas in fanciful poses come into view.
Though the caves are famous for their depictions of the Buddha, other celestial beings are also represented. There are minutely detailed bodhisattvas and apsaras. Some caves are guarded by stone soldiers and others are covered with exuberant designs painted onto walls and ceilings.
The caves extend 1km from east to west and are divided into three major clusters. The grouping of the caves is seemingly haphazard, but it's possible tofollow stylistic changes in the carvings as influences ebbed and flowed. Persian, Indian, even Greek and Byzantine influences can be seen in the rock carvings from the weapons, music instruments and clothing displays.
Tours normally begin at Caves 5 to 13. Located centrally, they were built from AD 462 to 495 and contain some of the best artistic works at Yungang. Meandering from one cave to the next, the high level of artistry within the caves is readily apparent. In Cave 5 is an awe-inspiring 17mhigh seated Buddha. This pudgy Buddha would be barely able to fit his thumbs into the cave entrance if he could stand and move around. Resembling a dimly lit cathedral, at either side of the cave is an arched door with fine relief sculptures of flying apsaras at the top. The walls of the cave are festooned with a tightly knit honeycomb of smaller Buddhist figures, some retaining their ancient colorings thanks to recent restoration efforts, while others remain stark and stunning in sandstone hues. Pale light filters down from what seems like an open window which was actually the original entrance for workmen to hollow out the massive chamber.
Large or small, most Yungang statues have a square faces, thick lips, high noses, wide shoulders and broad chests; stylistically representative of the Northern Wei, but traces of other cultural influences are also present. Cave 8 features multi-headed statues of Indian origins which demonstrate the successful mixing of differing artistic traditions and the eclectic influences of the era. There is a five-headed, six-armed statue of the Hindu God Shiva sitting on a giant bird. Beside Shiva is the three-headed Vishnu sitting on a bull.
For art students studying this era, caves 9 to 13 are an important resource. Caves 9 and 10 are of a square design consisting of an outer and inner room. The outer pillars of each cave are carved with intricate figures bearing musical instruments. The eastern and western walls of the outer rooms and the door lintels of the inner room are finely carved with plant designs.
Cave 12 is known as the musical cave. Walking into the cave, we are greeted by a carved bank of celestial musicians holding different musical instruments demonstrating the vibrant cultural exchange of the time. Such instruments as the konghou, pipa and waist-drums were introduced from Central Asia while panpipes and zithers originated from China. The cave is an invaluable resource for researchers on ancient China's music and dance.
Neatly arranged rows upon rows of tiny seated Buddha carved into the walls greet you upon entering Cave 15. There are more than 10,000 miniature Buddha carvings in this cave, thus the name Cave of Ten Thousand Buddha.
Royal stories are behind Caves 16 to 20, the oldest caves in Yungang. Each of the statues in the five caves symbolises an emperor from the Northern Wei dynasty, reflecting their belief that the emperor is a living embodiment of Buddha. The caves, collectively known as "Five Cloudy and Luminary Caves", were created in AD 453 to 462. According to the legend, one emperor was convinced by an adviser to renounce Buddhism. To the adviser's misfortune, the emperor followed his suggestion then immediately fell ill. After executing his non-believing adviser, the wayward emperor returned to the faith and quickly recovered from his illness. The succeeding emperor began construction of these caves as a sign of piety in hopes of avoiding his predecessor's fate. The Buddhas here are clad in robes with their palms pressed together in front of their chests, as a gesture of devotion.
Most of the caves were dug during the Northern Wei dynasty; however, Cave 3, the largest of the Yungang caves, was created by later artists during the Sui and Tang dynasties. The face of the cliff into which it was carved is about 24m high; on the upper central part are 12 rectangular holes that were used to hold beams that used to support a monastery. The cave is divided into inner and outer chambers. There is now only one Buddha statue and two bodhisattvas in the west end of the inner chamber. The faces of these images are full and smooth, the figures full-bodied. Because this cave was carved at a later period, the sculptural style here differs from that in the other caves.
Yungang Caves are famous for their depictions of the Buddha, but other celestial beings are also represented. There are minutely detailed bodhisattvas, disciples who have elected to forego nirvana in order to save others. Some caves are guarded by stone soldiers and others are covered with exuberant designs painted onto walls and ceilings. The mingling of different cultures in ancient Datong is vividly reflected in the cave art.
Unfortunately, pollution from this industrialised valley has had a profound effect on the statues. Soot has covered the exposed areas of many of the carvings, while their undersides, which are normally hidden in shadow, appear bright in contrast.
Besides the caves, there are many other sites of interest within driving distance. One interesting sight is the 1,500-year-old Hanging Temple. The temple is a Northern Wei dynasty structure that clings precariously to the side of the Heng Shan mountain range. Caves carved into the cliffs or along natural contours make up the rooms and walkways, and bridges connect the different halls. Rain or shine, a few dozen slender beams acrobatically balance the temple and visitors walking on top of the narrow squeaky walkways.
Back to the city, Datong itself is dotted with its own assortment of ancient landmarks, such as the Drum Tower, Nine Dragon Screen, and Huayan Monastery. The Drum Tower is located in the downtown area, rising above the shorter buildings of the city and making itself a key point of reference. The Nine Dragon Screen, a preserved Ming dynasty wall section, is 8m high, 45m long and 2m thick, about four times larger and 350 years older than a similar one in Beijing's Beihai Park. There are a few other minor dragon walls in Datong. The Huayan Monastery is unusual in that it faces east whereas most temples in China face south. It's one of China's few remaining wooden Buddhist temples.
Strolling outside the caves as braziers launch fragrant aromas into the air while the musky smoke from incense wafts from the caves, chimes from temple bells sail through the air as monks, dressed in their traditional garb stroll back and forth.
At night, the Da XiJie in the commercial ldistrict of Datong is filled with peddlers of local food and souvenirs. The cool air is filled with the aroma of various spices.