Luoyang and Longmen Grottoes 


Multiple niches in Luoyang
Multiple niches in Luoyang

               Longmen Grotto in Luoyang is one of the four major Grottoes in China.  We have visited two already, Mogao in Dunhuang and Maiji Shan near Tianshui.  Unfortunately, on this trip we will miss Yungang Grottoes in Datong.  Which gives us an excuse to visit again. 

Luoyang is different than the other sites, but it is possible that it is in the presentation of the caves.  Kumtura, Kizil, Bezeklik, Mogao and Western 1000 Buddha Caves focused on larger caves which could include many people even to the size of caves for larger assemblies of worshipers.  Luoyang, like Maiji Shan, were mostly niches, which housed small and very large statues.  Few of the “caves” in Luoyang appeared large enough to allow large assemblies of worshipers.  I would call most of the work at Luoyang, niches.  However, while we were allowed inside Mogao and others, Luoyang was only viewed from the outside,  and the majesty of the cave may be lost. 

What is most impressive about Luoyang is the quantity of sculptures.  Every available cliff space is occupied by some sculpture.  Between niches are marvelous miniature carvings.  The wonderment at the extent of the work is startling.  Your eyes roam away from a major figure and then is confronted with some marvelous miniature with exquisite detail. 

               Luoyang was an ancient capital of China in the Northern Wei Dynasty (386-534) when it moved east from Xi’An.  The earliest caves at Luoyang date from the Norther Wei Dynasty, the early sixth century.   The Longmen Cliffs are on the bank of the YI River.  The western cliffs have the greatest number of carvings including the largest, the Fenxian caves.  They claim over 2,000 caves and niches and over 100,000 statues. 

               It does seem that the earliest caves are in the Northern portion of the Longmen Grotto, closest to the city and newer caves were sculpted later.  There are three Binyang caves.  The central cave is the oldest, Northern Wei, about 523 AD.  The Buddha in this cave has facial features typical of Northern Wei, elongated face, slimmer body a quite a humorous smile, the robe covering both shoulders and flowing robes with many folds.    Buddha is flanked by his disciples, Kapsyapa and Ananda. 

               North Binyang cave, to the right of the central cave was begun in Northern Wei but finished in Tang Dynasty.  This cave has the Buddha’s right hand in the Kapitthaka mudra, two fingers pointing upward, “removing fear.  South Binyang Cave was also begun in the Northern Wei Dynasty but completed in the Tang. 

               The major sculpture are in the Fengxian cave which is about 30 m x 40 m (100 feet by 130 feet).  The central Buddha is 17 meters, about 56 feet tall.  The cave was commissioned by Empress Wu Zeitian and it is said that the Buddha resembles the empress.  She was the most powerful woman in China since her husband, the Emperor, Gaozong, has a stroke and was incapacitated.  Five figures are in this cave, two flanking on each side.  On the northern side, the side accessible from the city of Luoyang are two Guardians, Vajripani first with quite a fierce look and strong pose, and then Vaisravana who is holding the protective stupa and is poised standing upon a vanquished earth spirit.  On the right of Buddha are two disciples, Ananda and Kapsyapa, Kapsyapa quite destroyed and a Bodhisattva. 

               The view for the east side of the river has a good view of the magnitude of the effort in carving the Longmen Grotto.

Maiji Shan

Tianshui and Maiji Shan

Maiji Shan; Cold, wet and rainy
Maiji Shan; Cold, wet and rainy


               The last segments of the trip require longer train rides.  Tianshui which is a must see stop for the grottoes at Maiji Shan is not on a high speed rail line.  Lanzhou to Tianshui is a six hour ride.   Although we had “soft seat” this train is still not as comfortable a higher quality first class seating.   Less leg room.  Otherwise, it does give me lots of opportunity to work.  Bless the portable computer with long life battery.

               Without the blessing of a high speed line, Tianshui station is undeveloped and rural.  Not having an escalator is, for me, a major issue.  Carrying a suitcase and a back pack up and down steps is difficult.  JoAnn, with her excellent communication skills is able to get assistance at will.  Even young women will carry her suitcase up and down the steps.   

               The next morning we awoke to a rainy day.  So far weather had been good, but today we faced a cold and wet day in the mountains.

               Maiji Shan is about 1 hour drive from our hotel and as we drove there was no break in the rain.  Arrived at the entrance and received a discount for old age.  Avoiding the 1 mile uphill walk, I bought the 15 RMB ($2 USD) tickets to ride the bus.  At the entrance were the hawkers with $3 plastic ponchos.  Cheap goods.  Mine began ripping as soon as I opened the bag.     

               Maiji Shan rises over 400 feet and the carvings are on the face of the mountain.  I estimate that the caves and niches rise two thirds of the way to the top.  The path is organized in a cycle so walking up the west face stairs, crossing over on the top walkway and then down the east covers the entire set of niches.  I have a problem with heights.  Going up was not a problem, but coming down the steps I never looked down but faced towards the rock face.     

               For this site I must apologize for the lack of organization.  Too cold and damp and unable to focus on photos and writing.  The niches had many fantastic elements that were worthy of photos, to the point that I was intent on taking pictures to capture key elements.

               The range of periods of carvings and statues is quite wide and allows us to see the evolution of Chinese Buddhist art.  The earliest caves at the Maiji Shan are from the Qin Dynasty (384 to 417 AD).  The Northern Wei period from 385 to 534 AD show a fusion of styles, Indian, Central Asian and Chinese styles.  The figures are slim, a bit less earthly and ethereal.  The Western Wei style (535 to 556 AD) continues the Northern Wei fashion with similar clothing and sender bodies.  The examples at Maiji Shan are more elegant and refined that Northern more touches which create a greater aesthetic sense. 

               The Northern Zhou period the figures became plumper and more round.

               Tang and Sui dynasties are the epitome of the sculpture styles.  There is also a mix of Hindu imagery during this period.  The seven Buddha Pavilion demonstrate the mixing of styles and traditions of many eras.  Most of the images are form the Northern Zhou but there are traces of Song, Ming and Qing periods.  In this pavilion Kapsaya and Ananda, two of Buddha’s disciples are pictured with facial features clearly Indian and not Chinese.  Warriors at each end of the pavilion are of Song dynasty. 

               I hope some photos can show these differences.     :     Expand your mind.  Stretch your body.

Bazeklik Grottoes


               About a 45 minute drive from Turfan is Bezeklik Grottoes.  The drive passes the famous Flaming Mountains which are red in sunlight.  Flaming Mountains were on the Journey of the Monkey King, the popular version of the story of the monk Xuanzang “Journey to the West.”

               Bezeklik Grottoes have a longer history than most, starting in the 5th century to the 12th  or 14th centuries.  The caves we saw this day were mostly of later era, 11th Century and showed significant Uighur influences.  Although the caves were cut into the mountain, there was significant building of bricks at the entrances.

Cave 17 – Dated 640 AD to mid-9th century.  It was a long rectangular cave, about 20’ x 8’.  Front niche for Buddha.  Buddha images on ceiling in squares.  Three large carved mandorlas on each side of cave with statues missing.  Images of Turkish donors.  Image of Pure Land Paradise.

Cave 16 – Date 8th century.  Vaulted ceiling.  Musicians playing instrument including Pipa, tom-tom, clappers, Bili (bamboo) flute; all instruments of Gaochang.  Also image of Buddha preaching

Cave 20 and 21 – Enter an antechamber with cave 20 straight ahead and cave 21 to the left.  Dated 10th century.  Another source claims Late Tang which ended in 907 AD.  High ceiling corridor to circumambulate around Cave 20.  Cave 20 was closed but there were cave images, probably reproductions, on the wall.  Many Uighur images:  16 donors, Merchants beneath Buddha offering gold, silver and horses.   

Cave 27 – Dated 12th Century.  Long and narrow cave, about 40’ x 10’. Portrait of a female Uighur Donor.

Cave 31 – Dated 11th Century.  Long cave 50’ x 15’ with vaulted ceiling.  1000 Buddha’s on ceiling.  Important image of musicians removed by Japanese expedition.

 Cave 33 – Dated 11th century.  Rectangle 40’ x 15’ with vaulted ceiling.  Many images of Buddha’s Life Story.   Above the central niche is an image of devoted and princes grieving at Buddha’s death.  Their dress is typical of Gaochang.  There is also an image of heretics playing instruments and celebrating Buddha’s death.     :     Expand your mind.  Stretch your body.

Kizil Caves

Kizil Caves

               Kizil are the better known of the Kuqa caves.  They are about 50 miles from the city of Kuqa and quite into the mountains.  They are on the Muzat River.  They date from the 3rd to the 8th centuries.  There are 269 existing caves in the Kizil group.

               Even driving you get the feeling of isolation that the monks were seeking.  You are driving through the Tarim Basin of sandstone cliffs with jagged edges jutting upwards at steep angles.  After the last mountain you come upon the Muzat River and the valley where the monks found peace and isolation.

               Kizil is prepared for tourists, although there were no English speakers at the gate or as guides.  We were told that only six caves were open that day and no amount of cajoling, or bribing was going to work to have them open one or two more for me.  They were quite strict about photos and required all cameras to be stored at the foot of the cliff face. 

               It was a walk and then a staircase with many steps up to the caves.  

               ”32” was a small chamber with a vaulted ceiling.  It was from the 5th century.  Central stupa with niche for Buddha statue, not present, and chamber behind stupa. 

               “34” is also from the 5th century.  It was a monk’s quarters.  A Big chamber with 1000 Buddhas ceiling.  It had the telltale red/Ocher color of the earlier periods.  The stone work in the corridor around the central stupa was elaborate. In the rear chamber behind the stupa there was a platform, empty now, for a Buddha statue in Parnirvana.  Hariti ate the sons of other people.  Buddha hid her son in a bowl.  Haritia saw the error of her ways and turned into a guardian deity of children. 

               “28” had a high ceiling but not arched.  It had many niches for Buddhas on the front wall.   The back wall had images of disciples.

               “8” was 7th century.  Vaulted ceiling with many good images.  The room was ringed with Jatakas.  After nirvana Buddhas body melted into sarira.  Eight kings in India sent troops to obtain the sarira.  The dispute was settled and the kings divided the sarira.  Many images of musicians and dancers.

               “10” Monks quarters.   A long entrance with a vaulted ceiling.  About 10’x10’.

               “17” from 6th century.  Smaller vaulted ceiling room.  Well preserved.  Many Jatakas including many images on ceiling.  Jakatas in the diamond pattern, each Jakata in one diamond. 

One story is of monkeys fighting with water sprites.  Monkeys are devoured by water sprites. The monkey king is teaching the monkeys to draw water through a reed.

Another is of a monkey who saved the  life of a person who fell in a pit and the person, ungrateful, smashed the monkey to death and ate it. 

  One of three monkey’s crossing the river with Buddha (?) body as the bridge.  Wish I knew this one because the image was quite well preserved.  Buddha on a white horse. 

Lunch at the restaurant at the Kizil Caves.  A young lady came up to us and offered to help us order since she was bilingual and we were clearly helpless Americans.  She turned out to be from San Diego although she graduated from Wuhan University.    She suggested we order the spinach dish since it was growing outside and would be picked fresh.

For me it is a pity that I do not have photos to increase the value of the descriptions of the caves.     :     Expand your mind.  Stretch your body.



               Kumtura is a lesser known Buddhist Grotto in the Kuqa region.  It dates from the 5th or 6th century.  It has about 112 caves.  The caves are in three periods, the first of the period of the Kuqa Kingdom is heavily influenced by the Gandarian Style with a central pillar.  The second period is of the 7th and 8th centuries with the Grand Anxi Militant Government Period.  The third phase is the Uighur Period from the 9th century and after. 

               Our guide, who did not speak English was quite adamant and vigilant about our taking photos, so our descriptions are not good.  Lesson learned and from now onwards, we are taking better notes.

               The five linked caves, 67 -62 are the ones in the photos about 20 feet above the river level.  They are on the Northern side of the grotto along the Weigan River.  They are claimed to be from the 7th to 9th Centuries.  They are accessed through a narrow staircase carved into the mountain.  None had any significant painting.  There were just a few isolated remnants   

The first “67” appeared to be an alcove for sleeping.  Very narrow corridor and sleeping area maybe 4 feet long.

“68” the next along the corridor had an arched ceiling.  

                “69” had a low ceiling.  A niche for Buddha and appeared to me that remains of square patterns.

               “70” had the remains of a Buddha statue.

               “71” had the Buddha body with the head removed.  It is probably in a Western museum.  In the chamber behind the Buddha was a platform that appeared to be for a Buddha statue in Para nirvana.

               “72” had the Buddha body in the niche.

               We entered he next set of three caves through an antechamber.  The main chamber “16” in the center was the largest with “15” to the right and “17” to the left.

               “15” was very small. Maybe a 6 foot long chamber

               “16” had the vaulted ceiling with 1,000 Buddhas.  The guide said it was actually 1224.  The faces were all different and they did not seem to be exalted.  I would guess they were the faces of donors.

               “17” This was slightly bigger than 15.

                Another set:

               “21” a small alcove.  Maybe sleeping quarters.

               “22” A large circular room.  Appeared to be living quarters with some platforms and what seemed to me to be fire pits.

               “23” Had an arched ceiling.  A niche for the Buddha. Painted ceiling well presser ved.  Text claims fifth century.         We also viewed, 58, 60 and 63.

               Kumtura was not well preserved but was a fascinating first look into Buddhist caves.     :     Expand your mind.  Stretch your body.

Silk Road – Starting Out

Silk Road Trip Preliminaries:

Seven days until we leave for China’s part of the Silk Road. Quite an itinerary. “Thirty Caves in Thirty Days.” Actually 10 cities in 22 days and 9 cave sites with hundreds of caves at each site. Start from the far west, Urumqi, we’ll trek eastward to Luoyang. Plane, train, boat, car and camel plus some hiking and maybe a donkey. The big stuff is set. Hotels, trains, and planes are reserved. On site details will depend on conditions. We’ll be flexible.

The passion for this trip was lit when I visited Luoyang and the Longmen Caves. Over two thousand, actually 2345, caves and niches and tens of thousands of statues carved into the hillside above the river Yi. Many of these statues are reliefs, carved in place from the mountain. Astounding degree of religious passion. Buddhism was expanding and caves were the means of the wealthy to display zeal and purchase merit. Like cathedrals of Europe, these religious efforts extended over centuries. We then visited Xi’An, the tomb of Emperor Qin Shi Huang and the famous Terra Cotta Warriors. We passed on visiting Xi’an on this trip, but the tombs and the  warriors are a breathtaking spectacle.

Our trip is to follow the Northern Portion of the Silk Road and visit the major Buddhist caves along the route. We start in the western Province of China called Xinjiang and pass into the Province of Gansu and the Hexi Corridor.  We finally end in Luoyang in Henan Province.

Urumqi – The Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region Museum – A great starting point for an overview of the history of the region. I heard it has a great collection of mummies.

Kuqa (Kuche) – This city is south of Urumqi and not part of the Northern Silk Road, but was a major cultural hub in the 3rd or 4th century. Visiting Kizil and hopefully Kumtura Caves.

Turfan (Turpan) – Back to the Northern route. This is not far from Urumqi and the next major oasis. Visiting Bezeklik Caves and Astana Tombs.

Dunhuang – The major tourist site along the route. Well known for the Mogao Caves and Yulin Caves.

Jiayuguan – No caves here, but the western end of the Great Wall and then the Weijin Tombs.

Zhangye – The Mati Si caves.

Lanzhou and Xiahe – Travel to the Labrang Monastery in Xiahe and then the Bingling Si caves.

Tianshui – Visit Maji Shan Caves.

Luoyang – Longmen Caves.

I have also omitted Yungang Grottoes in Datong. They are closer to Beijing and I hope to visit them in a future trip.

The goal is to see the nine Buddhist cave sites in ten cities in twenty three days. Follow, us on as we travel the route.     :     Expand your mind.  Stretch your body.