A practice that originated in India around the third century BCE, cave temples are Buddhist temples that have been carved into the cliffs of riverside mountains to provide places for monks and laymen to worship and meditate. The custom spread through Afghanistan, across Central Asia and eventually into China through the Silk Road by the late fourth century CE.
One of these complexes, the Longmen Grottoes near the city of Luoyang, Henan province, runs for about one kilometer along the Yi River, a tributary of the Yellow River. There, 2,300 caves and niches were cut into the rock over a 400 year period, with 110,000 images of Wei dynasty actors, and Buddhas and Bodhisattvas from the evolving schools of the time. Some images are smaller than a hand; the largest is 17 meters tall. Longmen is a place of pilgrimage today, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to its treasure trove of artwork and the information provided by the inscriptions at nearly every relief.
Commissioned by emperors, members of government, officials, clergy, religious groups, and individual monks, nuns and laypeople, inscriptions carved into the rock tell researchers who ordered which images, when and why. Sometimes it was to gain a favorable reincarnation, sometimes to gain enlightenment, to thank Buddha for fulfilling a wish, providing a cure, or granting success in a military campaign.
Visitors to Longmen stroll along a shaded riverside path, climb stairways and traverse raised platforms that crisscross the rock face leading from one cave to the next and then back down again.
Although many of the sculptures have been decapitated by collectors, removed completely by museums or just plain vandalized, the Longmen caves are nevertheless a virtual stone museum depicting the era’s religion, art, architecture, calligraphy, dress and even medicine.
Close to the end of the promenade above a long, stone staircase appears the most impressive cave temple, Fengxiansi (‘Ancestor Worshipping Temple’), commissioned around the year 662 by the controversial Empress Wu Zetian (ca. 627-705). Today, since the original wooden roof no longer exists, Fengxiansi is an open air sculpture. Front and center is towering Lushenafo, the Buddha of Eternal Light, sitting on a lotus throne, looking out towards the river, ignoring the hubbub below.
- You can buy a ticket for a seat on one of the boats that transports visitors to the park entrance if you don’t want to walk the kilometer back.
- If you’re visiting Luoyang city in April, don’t miss the Wangcheng Park for the colorful, annual peony festival.
- Visit the enormous Luoyang Museum while in town. Guided tours are available, but bring your own translator.
- If you have time, stop by the White Horse Temple from the first century, considered to be the first surviving Buddhist temple in China.
- Stay at Christian’s Hotel, a well-appointed boutique hotel with excellent service staff and a wonderful all-you-can-eat dinner special, which includes a good selection from various buffets and, remarkably, it also includes the wine.