Carved into the limestone bluffs of Xiangshan and Longmenshan mountains are the Longmen Grottoes, a timeless trove of Chinese Buddhist art dating back well over a millennia. Work on the grottoes began in about 494 AD, when the northern Wei dynasty relocated its capital to neighboring Luoyang, and lasted well into the Tang dynasty. The Longmen Grottoes are home to well over 100,000 statues, many of them nestled in an ancient labyrinth of caves and niches, and the countless inscriptions, steles and pagodas which decorate the site would take a lifetime to pore over.
While the Longmen Grottoes remain one of the richest testaments to China’s artistic and cultural heritage and constitutes one of the world’s most breathtaking masterpieces of Buddhist art, the site has undergone a series of trials and tribulations over the centuries. All but forgotten for hundreds of years after its formation, due to a cultural revival during the Ming and Qing dynasties the grottoes re-entered the spotlight nearly a thousand years after the first limestone carvings took shape. However, the grottoes had experienced significant wear and tear, and during the Second Sino-Japanese War, Japanese soldiers looted the site and removed much of the artwork housed within. Still, as you make your way through the hallowed chambers to Guyangdong, the oldest cave in the Longmen Grottoes, and stand before the stone Sakyamuni, flanked by two bodhisattvas, you cannot help but feel that the weight of the messages carved into the stone around you have endured over the centuries, lending clarity to China’s storied past.