A hidden treasure trove of 50,000 sculpted stone Buddhas has been preserved for more than 1500 years in a warren of caves in China’s northern Shanxi Province.
In the 5th century, the emperor of China’s Northern Wei dynasty would pray for good fortune at Yungang, a ridge at the foot of the Wu Zhou mountains. The Emperor wanted to show his devotion by commissioning the making of a giant Buddha. To protect the Buddha he had it carved directly into the face of the cliffs at the mountain’s foot.
Over the next century, more than 50,000 Buddhas were added, carved into the cliffs along a half-mile stretch. They ranged from tiny devotional carvings just a few inches high, to massive sculptures of more than fifty feet. Many of the largest Buddhas were carved inside man-made grottoes in the cliff-face, protecting them from the elements and from marauders, and ensuring their almost perfect preservation over the last 1500 years.
Now the 250 caves and 51,000 Buddhas are considered a masterpiece of early Chinese Buddhist art and were granted World Heritage status by UNESCO in 2001. Relatively close to Beijing, the grottoes remain unknown to most non-Chinese travellers, who pass by Yungang on their way from the Great Wall to the terracotta warriors in neighbouring Shaanxi Province.
The caves are reached by passing through the Lingyan temple at the entrance to the grottoes, along a colonnade of carved pillars. Beyond, the long sandstone ridge is dotted with large and small caves through which you can wander at will. Each Buddha is magnificent in its detail, elegant and awe-inspiring inside the dark, cool and quiet caves. For more than 1500 years, pilgrims have journeyed here to seek blessings from the hand of Buddha. As you touch the smooth sandstone, you too feel blessed, filled with a sense of the sacred history of this ancient site.