Buddhism has had a significant impact on China since its introduction from northern India during the Han dynasty in the first century CE. Buddhism teachings arrived in China through the Silk Road in the west, resulting in a plethora of well-known grottoes dotting this popular commercial path. In the 3rd century CE, Buddhism became common among the north-western tribes, and the northern emperors of China adopted it as their imperial religion between the 4th and 6th centuries. At that period, both royal families and commoners contributed to the construction of grottoes and temples.
The second grottoes were built during the Tang Dynasty, from the 7th to the 9th centuries CE, when the empire prospered under stable rule. We now have these impressive realms of wonders in sculptures and murals thanks to their tremendous efforts in making them. These artifacts can teach us a lot about this ancient culture. UNESCO has designated several grottoes as World Heritage Sites.
What are Buddhist Grottoes and what can you find inside the grottoes?
Buddhist grottoes are caves carved into the side of a hill. Cave temples are another name for them. Originally, Buddhist monks used them as places of worship and meditation. Many Buddhist caves became centers of worship and meditation over time, not just for the monks who lived there, but also for pilgrims and traders passing through. Buddhism became China's national religion between the 4th and 6th centuries, and it received generous donations from the wealthy.
Sculptures and murals dedicated to Buddha can be found preserved in the grottoes. The murals are all about Buddha's life and dreams of the afterlife, and the sculptures are all in the image of Buddha in various postures. The Mogao Caves in Dunhuang, also known as the library cave, were discovered in 1900 and contain an estimated 40,000 books, scrolls, booklets, and paintings on silk, hemp, and paper.
The History of Grottoes
Humans have felt obligated to construct structures in honor of their gods since the dawn of humanity. Caves have long been associated with mysticism and spirituality. They're a portal to the underworld, as well as a portal into the planet itself. Many cultures claim that cave dwelling creatures existed. Caves have long been revered as holy sites in India. Natural caves were thought to be sacred, but expanded or entirely man-made caves were also considered sacred.
Cave temples are made by excavating clusters of rooms or niches into the sides of cliffs and mountains to build cave temples. The practice began in India and spread to China through Central Asia with Buddhism. Buddhist monks were already using natural caves during the Buddha's period (around the 4th century BCE), such as the Saptaparni Cave southwest of Rajgir, Bihar in eastern India. Many people believe it was here that Buddha spent time before his death and where the first Buddhist council was held after he died (enter Nirvana). The Indrasala Cave was also used by Buddha for meditation, beginning a practice of using caves, natural or man-made, for religious purposes.
Early texts claim that rudimentary caves were used as dwellings and that they evolved over time into spaces with distinct architectural elements.
Why did they choose India to build cave temples? Because of poverty, a shortage of building materials, and the elements, they tried alternate methods for temple construction.
Why did ancient emperors donate to the building of Buddhist caves?
The construction of cave temples was a costly undertaking made possible by donations from emperors and noble families. Most emperors were Buddhists, and their donations to Buddhist caves helped justify their rule.
The Northern Wei rulers were ardent Buddhists, a foreign religion that was used as a theocratic force to govern the largely Chinese population's ideology and social life.
As China's first female emperor, Empress Wu Zetian of the Tang Dynasty ruled. The Empress encountered firmly held Confucian views against female rule while supporting Buddhism over Confucianism and Daoism as the preferred state religion. Wu used Buddhist scriptures to explain her rule, and she pioneered the development of various visual depictions of Buddha. Longmen, near her capital, has the most impressive stone temples and sculptures carved into grottoes. A statue known as the Grand Vairocana Buddha can be found in the largest cave. The colossal statue was carved in the likeness of Wu and is said to be made of limestone.
How were grottoes constructed?
The first step is to find the ideal spot. Buddhist cave sites were often chosen for their scenic beauty, often by monks who had experienced Buddhist visions or were enthralled by the sites' spiritual aura.
Cave temples are divided into two types:
The first is to carve a statue out of a vertical cliff and then build a wooden wall to cover it. They use a vertical excavation method, which means the workers began at the top of the original boulder and worked their way down, eventually erecting a wooden platform to hold the statues.
The second method is to carve a statue inside a cave that has been carved out. They'll start with the ceiling and work their way down to the ground. They'll set aside a spot on the wall for the statue.
What is China's top five Buddhist grottoes?
Mogao Caves in Dunhuang, Yungang Grottoes in Datong, The Longmen Grottoes in Luoyang, The Maijishan Grottoes in Tianshui, and Dazu Rock Carvings in Chongqing are the top five Buddhist grottoes in China.
Other Buddhist Grottoes in China Worth Visiting
Aside from the top five grottoes, China has a plethora of smaller grottoes.
On the Silk Road, it's in Wuwei County. It was built between the years 412 and 439 CE. Tianti means "sky ladder," while shan means "mountain." The site is a three-layered honeycomb of 17 caves. The largest cave measures 30 meters in height, 19 meters in width, and 16 meters in depth. It has a 15-meter-high and 10-meter-wide Sakyamuni statue, as well as smaller caves and murals on the outskirts. Some of the site's ruins have been retrieved for preservation by experts. To protect the caves from water damage, the local government constructed a 10-meter-high dam.
Dunhuang is 160 kilometers away. The Yulin River, which flows through the site and separates the two cliffs from which the caves have been excavated, is named after the eponymous elm trees that line it. There are 250 polychrome statues and 4,200 meters of walled paintings in the 42 caves, which date from the Tang to the Yuan Dynasties (7th to 14th centuries). The site was one of the first to be listed as a Major National Historical and Cultural Site in 1961.
The Tianlongshan caves are 40 kilometers southwest of Taiyuan, in central Shanxi Province. The caves of the Tianlongshan mountain range (also known as the Mountain of the Heavenly Dragon) are part of a well-known Buddhist grotto complex that dates from the Eastern Wei (534–550 CE) and Northern Qi (550–577 CE) dynasties to the Tang period (618–907 CE). The cave complex is made up of eight caves on the eastern mountain and thirteen caves on the western mountain. These caves house historically significant Buddhist art, including sculptures and carvings of Buddha, bodhisattvas, and other divinities. The sculptures, however, were severely damaged in the early twentieth century, with many of the statue heads being lost.