A stretch of rugged sandstone cliffs along the Wuzhou river valley, not far from the present-day city of Datang, is home to one of the world’s most extraordinary Buddhist monuments. Running for more than half a mile along the river, the cliffs were selected in 460 C.E. by the emperor Wencheng of the Northern Wei dynasty for a network of more than 250 exquisitely decorated Buddhist cave shrines. Horrified by the violent anti-Buddhist policies of his precursor, Wencheng employed tens of thousands of artisans to hew the grottoes from the solid rock as a monumental act of faithfulness.
Many of the artists who created the Yungang grottoes came promptly from working on the similar Buddhist caves in the far west of China, at the Silk Road site of Mogao, where they worked in styles derived from Central Asia and India, the homeland of Buddhism. These influences can be seen at Yungang, representing the peak of early Chinese Buddhist art, and the start of a intermediary phase to more purely Chinese styles. Imperial patronage ended in 494 CE when the Northern Wei decamped to Luoyang, hundreds of miles to the south, and the artists and sculptors of Yungang soon left to work on a new cave complex at Longmen, near the new capital. From then on, Yungang was left to the monks, pilgrims and, today, tourists.
These intricately sculpted and painted grottoes contain more than 50,000 statues and reliefs, from immense fierce Buddhist guardians to miniature Buddhas seated serenely in gracefully ornamented niches, framed by lotus petals, flames and countless spiritual beings. Some of the niches are carved to bear a resemblance to the elaborate, long-decayed wooden facades that once formed the entrance to the grottoes. Whereas some facades were replaced in later centuries, most of the grottoes are now open to the elements of nature. Despite this, and the present-day threat from sandstorms caused by deforestation, many of the figures retain their brilliant, vibrant colors after 1,500 years.
Buddha statues in the grottoes of Yungang, carved in their thousands in the 5th and 6th centuries CE as a great act of piety. Much of the stone surrounding these statues has weathered away, leaving them exposed.