Yungang Grottoes Datong China

I have had the good fortune to visit China on many occasions, and one of the delights I’ve enjoyed is to make new discoveries each time I visit.

There are many remarkable facets to China, and with a history of civilisation which pre-dates Christianity, you often stumble upon historical or cultural sites that are mind-blowingly magnificent.

One of those places was the Yungang Grottoes, which are located about 16 kilometres from the industrial town of Datong in Shanxi Province.

The Yungang Grottoes is one of the three major cave clusters in China. The Grottoes punctuate the north cliff of Wuzhou Mountain. The area was excavated along the mountain, extending 1 km from east to west, and reveals 52 caves and over 51,000 stone statues.

Started in 450A.D., Yungang is a relic of the Northern Wei Dynasty (386-534) and Absorbs Indian Gandhara Buddhist art. One distinction which separates the Yungang sculptures from its Indian counterparts is that these statues also developed traditional Chinese art which melded with social features of the time.

During the reign of Emperor Xiao Wen a monk named Tan Yao took charge of the construction of Yungang Grottoes. The largest cave is No.6. In this 20 metre-high cave stands a 15m high pagoda-like column decorated with Buddha statues and designs. On the four sides of the tower pillar, and on the east, south and west walls of the cave, are 33 embossed panels which depict the story of Saykamuni.

The Five Caves created by Tan Yao, with their strict unity of layout and design, constitute a classical masterpiece of the first peak of Chinese Buddhist art.

The Grottoes are amazing because of the intricate carving and the sheer size of some of the hand-carved caves and statues. I was lucky to see them in early autumn when the surrounding landscape was covered in snow and on a day when there were few other visitors there. I believe that these factors actually added to the rather eerie experience of wandering around the Grottoes as the silence and cold did rather imbue the Grottoes with a feeling of solitude.

Datong, which was known as Pingcheng in ancient times, became the capital of the Northern Wei Dynasty between 398 and 494 CE, and thus the political, economic, and cultural centre of their kingdom. It kept its importance up to 523, when it was deserted following a revolt.

One other feature of Datong can be found in the centre of the city and it is the large Nine Dragon Screen, a ceramic screen that was built during the Ming Dynasty 600 years ago and which is the largest of its type in China.

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