You already know the must-see sights in China: the Great Wall, the Forbidden City and the Terra Cotta Army. Prior to going to China, I had never heard of the Longmen Grottoes. After seeing them, I consider it a site not to be missed.
Visiting the Longmen Grottoes
The Yi River winds its way northward passing through the “Dragon’s Gate” and below cliffs which have been carved with images of the Buddha. A hundred Buddhas. A thousand. A hundred thousand.
The ever-accommodating limestone was carved into grottoes, pagodas, stelae and statues between the years 493 and 755 CE (most of the carvings are believed to date from the Tang Dynasty). There are at least 1,400 caves and as many as 100,000 statues. They vary in size from a few centimeters to 17 meters.
Located a few kilometers south of Luóyáng, in the Hénán province of China, the Longmen Grottoes are situated in a spectacular natural setting, and are listed and as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This means that you won’t have the place to yourself. But bucking the crowds along this one kilometer stretch is totally worth it. Basically, you’re in an outdoor art museum.
Damage to the Site
Sadly, the Longmen Grottoes are also one of the most damaged cultural sites in China. Murals were carried off to New York and Missouri, statues taken to Japan. Heads rolled during the Cultural Revolution. But when a place starts out with 100,000 statues, it can withstand a lot of looting and still be impressive, and the Longmen Grottoes are still very impressive.
My Favorite Buddha
I fell in love at the Longmen Grottoes. Towering above me, was a face I will never forget. Travel in Asia and you’ll see a lot of images of the Buddha; the Laughing Buddha, the reclined Buddha, the indentation in the ground known as a Buddha’s footprint. But without out a doubt, the Vairocana Buddha who is the centerpiece of the Longmen Grottoes is my favorite. He sits peacefully overlooking the river with a smile more sublime than Mona Lisa’s. He is 17 meters high and was carved in the year 676. It is speculated that the face was modeled after the Empress Wu Zetian. Wu was a powerful and controversial woman – the only woman to ever rule China in her own right. She rose from being a concubine and ruthlessly disposed of her enemies. But what a face! I sat on the ground, staring up at that face and honestly felt myself fill with a sense of peace. Surely that is what Buddhist art is meant to do.