It’s funny how hard it is for people to imagine China’s main religion when asked. It makes sense since the country hasn’t been big on religion lately until now when it seems to be slowly taking over the local population. And while the West of the country is maybe fairly Buddhist (and jade buddhas, prayer wheels are a common sight) it’s not always true in the rest of the country. During many Dynasties the main religion of the country was actually Taoism. Emperors were looking for longevity and so was the rest of the population. The arrival of Wu Ze Tian to power as the first Empress was going to bring Buddhism to a golden age and is bringing me to the Longmen Grottoes, one amazing site in the Henan Province.
A Buddhist site that has been recorded to exist since 493AD, the Longmen grottoes are surely worth your time and effort. Near the town of Luyong in Henan, they house thousands of Buddhas carving and represent some impressive skills. Sadly vandalised many sculptures have now lost their heads but enough of them can still fully be admired for small to bigger representation. Recognised as a UNESCO site in the year 2000, the site is well kept and preserved.
What are the Longmen Grottoes?
Those caves are the work of artists that were paid by rich families to carve Buddhas for them. The richer and the more important they were, the bigger the cave got. What makes Longmen so interesting though is the different styles that can be seen on each carving. The colours, the style change often and even Indian influences can be felt in some of the works done there.
From statues of 25mm to 17m, the craftsmanship is remarkable and you can still observe in some of the caves the colours of the past paintings that were done.
How do I get there ?
12km from the town of Luoyang, the site is easily accessible. Get a taxi or a bus. There is a 10 to 20min walk to the main site but it’s flat and really easy to do. A shuttle is available to get to the entrance but will not bring you back to the parking.
How much time should I spend at the Longmen Grottoes ?
I like to take my time. I’d probably spend a day there to take my time and stroll for a while in the area but to be honest half a day is enough. Try to couple your trip with a visit of the Shaolin temple over 2 days and with a bit more time get off the beaten path in the most populated provinceof China.
Good to know.
Luoyang is famous for its peony and once you get a ticket for the Longmen Grottoes you also get some free peony seeds from the shop near the caves. You might as well enjoy it! Show them your ticket and pick your seeds (they might give you one but you can choose).
The steps to the biggest carvings look steep and slippery but they are worth it. If you don’t like to walk take a few breaks. The view at the top is breathtaking.
History and Stories:
I like history, Chinese history even more, it’s so complex and still so foreign to me that there is a lot to learn. And I also love a good story… And for any women, Wu Ze Tian’s story is one of those that stays with you. First and only real Empress of China, she’s a big story of the Longmen Grottoes. It is said that the main Buddha was carved to represent her and that the Bodhisattva on her sides were made feminine to represent a time where woman could take a stronger position in the world. As expected, though this Empress did end up with a bad reputation (which is understandable due to the many murders she’s been suspected of to keep power, including those of her own children) and a recent TV Show in the country that has made many fans due to a bit too much cleavage on one of the episode.
There is many stories about the Longmen Grottoes and if you want to hear them while on site we recommend hiring a guide, though it is not necessary for you to understand this place. Interesting bit of Chinese history, we’d recommend this site for people that love art, history, religion but also to all the fans of The Empress of China.
Where is it on the map?
Have you been to any similar sites? What did you think about them? Tell us more about it in the comments.