Hundreds of these spectacular cave art sites, or grottoes, still pepper China's mountainsides and rock faces, housing thousands-year-old sculptures and vibrant murals. These sites not only demonstrate their creators' commitment to their religion, but they also provide a fascinating insight into the multicultural community that flourished for a thousand years along the once-powerful Silk Road trade route that linked east and west.
Many cultural relics, especially religious grottoes, can be found along the Silk Road, attracting many tourists. Buddhists used to practice their faith by turning caves on remote mountains into shrines filled with carvings, paintings, and another religious art. These caves were created as Buddhist pilgrimage sites.
The Silk Road's history has been recorded in the caves. Elegant sculptures and fantastic mural paintings demonstrate ancient China's high degree of art. The eight most famous Buddhist cave complexes along the Silk Road are described below in order of importance.
The Longmen Grottoes
The Longmen Grottoes are in a great position, where two mountains (Mount Xiang and Mount Longmen) meet and the Yi River runs through them. The niches, which stretch for about a kilometer along a riverside hillside, resemble dozens of honeycombs dotting the landscape.
There are over 100,000 Buddhist images and sculptures, over 2,100 caves and niches, over 40 cremation urns, 3,600 engraved stone tablets, and over 2,100 caves and niches.
The stone carvings' grand scale is breathtaking. The Longmen Caves, as they are also known, have a significant historical significance in the history of world sculpture.
The Yungang Grottoes
With 252 caves and 51,000 Buddhist sculptures, the Yungang Grottoes are examples of classical Chinese Buddhist art from the 5th and 6th centuries.
The entire grotto complex is breathtaking, with intricate carvings. From east to west, it stretches for about 1 kilometer (0.6 miles). The sculptures are valuable and colorful, depicting the evolution of art, architecture, music, and religion at the time of their creation.
The Yungang Grottoes are known for Caves 5 and 6. In the fifth cave, there is a 17-meter-tall Buddhist statue. There are valuable sculptures portraying Shakyamuni's story inside the sixth cave.
Dunhuang's Mogao Caves
The Mogao Caves, also known as Mogao Grottoes, are situated in a desert on the steep cliff of Mingsha Mountain in Dunhuang.
There are 492 caves, 2,000 sculptures, and mural paintings covering 45,000 square meters. The mural paintings of Buddha and flying apsaras, as well as sutra drawings, are the most prominent features of the Mogao Caves. The vibrant and exquisite paintings would leave you speechless.
Just a few caves are open to the public, and photography is prohibited inside the caves to protect the mural paintings and statues. There are only 6,000 tickets available each day. Visitors can see the caves and paintings through high-definition videos and ball screen cinema, which have been created by the scenic area.
You must be in a party that is led by the scenic area's employees, whether you are on a group tour, an individual traveler, or on a private tour. Different tour groups will visit different caves, but all of the must-see caves will be included.
The Yulin Caves
They're also known as the Mogao Caves' sister caves. The excitement of being inside them does not equate to that of the Mogao Caves in Dunhuang, but the place is far less crowded.
There are 42 caves with 250 colored sculptures and mural paintings covering 5,000 square meters. The Yulin Caves' technical abilities and drawing designs are close to those of Dunhuang's Mogao Caves.
The Maitreya Buddha in the sixth cave is 25 meters tall and wrapped in gold foil, giving it a majestic appearance. The Eighteen Arhats of the 11th cave have expressive faces and poses.
The Maijishan Grottoes
The caves are cut into the face of a cliff on a remote mountain. The only way to get there is to take a steep stairway up the mountain, which is stunning but also secure because it is reinforced with cement.
There are 221 caves, 10,632 clay sculptures, and mural paintings covering over 1,300 square meters. Clay sculptures are popular in the Maijishan Grottoes. The tallest clay sculpture stands at 16 meters.
The sculptures in the Maijishan Grottoes are so lifelike that some of them also seem to smile at visitors.
Visitors are isolated from the caves by iron gauze to shield them, and the amount of tickets sold each day is limited to 6,400.
The Bingling Thousand Buddha Caves
The Bingling Temple, also known as the Thousand Buddha Caves of Bingling, is located on a cliff overlooking the Yellow River. This ensures that you'll have to take a ferry to get to the caves. Along the shore, you will admire the Danxia landform.
Unlike other caves, the majority of the Bingling Thousand Buddha Caves are made up of niches. There are 694 stone sculptures and 82 clay statues among the 183 caves and niches. The stunning mural paintings stretched for 200 meters around the 60-meter-high cliff.
The site houses one of China's largest surviving carved Buddha statues, dating from the Tang Dynasty (618–907). The statue is approximately 27 meters (89 feet) tall.
It is similar to larger giant statues that were installed in Central Asia around 250 years ago, demonstrating the region's cultural links.
In the ordinary caves and niches, you are permitted to take photographs and examine the paintings up close; however, you are not permitted to take photographs in the special caves and niches.
Mati Temple Grottoes
Mati Temple Grottoes are found in snowcapped mountains and have the highest altitude of any cave in China. Mati Temple Grottoes are unusual in that they contain not only caves but also Buddhist towers and temples.
North Temple, South Temple, Thousand Buddha Cave, Golden Pagoda Temple, and Upper/Middle/Lower Avalokitesvara Caves are the five sections of the Mati Temple Grottoes. The place was called Mati Temple (mati means 'horse's hoof') because of an interesting legend that a horse from heaven once left a mark from its hoof there. The horse's hoof can still be seen in the Mati Hall of Puguang Temple.
The Thirty-Three Heavens Cave in the North Temple region is the most popular feature of Mati Temple Grottoes. To get from one cave to the next, you must walk within the rocks on a narrow path.
The Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves
The Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves are found in the Flaming Mountains, which are red-colored mountains. Unlike other caves where you must climb up stairs, the Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves need you to walk down some stairs.
While there are 83 caves, only 40 have mural paintings that cover a total area of 1,200 square meters. While not all of the caves are available to the public, you will have the opportunity to visit hundreds of them and see the artifacts that are housed inside.
The most prominent cave, with a drawing of the Buddha's nirvana, is the 33rd cave. The Buddha's disciples' various emotions, such as happiness or sadness, are the focal point of the image.
The majority of the Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves were severely damaged, with the eyes of figures being dug out. Many paintings have fallen off the walls, and only a few of them can be seen. Only the surviving paintings may give an idea of how magnificent the caves once were.