Longmen Grottoes are a series of Buddhist cave temples carved into the rock on the banks of the Yi River, south of the city of Luoyang, in Henan province, in China. The site includes some 1,350 caves and 40 pagodas, which are choke-full of statues of all shapes and sizes, ranging from 1 inch to the largest Buddha statue of 17 meters tall. There are as many as 100,000 statues carved out of the hard limestone cliffs. Stretching for 1 km along both banks of the river, the caves represent one of the finest examples of Chinese Buddhist art.
The Longmen Grottoes lie 12 km south of the historic Chinese city of Luoyang. Here are the two hills flanking the Yi River become very steep and cliff-like as they approach the river valley. It is here that the easily worked limestone was carved to produce the Longmen Grottoes.
Construction of the Longmen Grottoes began in 493 during the reign of Emperor Xiaowen and continued through the successive six dynasties, including Tang and Song, for a span of over 400 years. The most intensive period of carving dates from the end of the 5th century to the mid-8th century. About one third of these cave sculptures were carved during the Northern Wei Dynasty and two thirds during the Tang Dynasty. The style of sculpture, the design of clothing and the facial expression on statues, as well as carving methods show a clear progression in style over the half-millennium represented in the caves. The early caves have simple, rounded, formally modelled statues of Buddhist holy men, while those from the Tang dynasty are more complex and incorporate women and court figures as well.
The oldest and largest of the Longmen Caves is Guyangdong, located in the middle of the southern floor of the West Hill. The work of Emperor Xiaowen, it attracted carvings sponsored by many of his nobles and officials and religious dignitaries, who approved of his reforming policies. One of the best preserved of the major caves at Longmen, Huangfugong, is located to the south of the West Hill. Some of the largest statues were carved during the Tang dynasty. On Fengxiansi Cave, on the southern floor of the West Hill, are nine colossal statues dominated by that of Buddha Vairocana, with plump features and a compassionate expression.
The caves have suffered from significant vandalism and looting over the years, beginning with the anti-Buddhist movement of the 9th century. Destruction continued at the hands of souvenir-hunting Westerners in the 19th and 20th centuries, which resulted in many statues ending up abroad in such institutions as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Atkinson Museum in Kansas City and the Tokyo National Museum. During the Cultural Revolution, the site was attacked by the Red Guards who destroyed and decapitated many of the statues.
Today, the Longmen Grottoes are a protected site. In 2000, it was inscribed upon the UNESCO World Heritage List.
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