Located 12 kilometers south of Luoyang in Henan province of China, the Longmen Grottoes or Longmen Caves are one of the three most famous grottoes in China. Apart from the Longmen Caves, the other two are the Mogao Caves near Dunhuang in Gansu Province and the Yungang Caves near Datong in Shanxi Province. With the passing of time the caves became famous for containing some of the finest examples of Chinese Buddhist art, which include tens of thousands of statues of Buddha and his disciples.
Many of the images of the Longmen Grottoes carved as outside rock reliefs, were once painted, while the inside artificial caves were chiseled from the limestone cliffs of two mountains, Xiangshan and Longmenshan, running east and west. As the Yi River flows northward between those mountains, the area was known as Yique or the Gate of the Yi River. The Dragon's Gate Grottoes, the alternative name of the Longmen Grottoes, was derived from the resemblance of the two hills that check the flow of the Yi River, like the famous Chinese gate towers that once marked the entrance to Luoyang from the south.
The grottoes consist of more than 2,300 caves and niches, containing almost about 110,000 Buddhist stone statues of various sizes, ranging from 1 inch (25 mm) to 57 feet (17 m) in height. Apart from that, they also contain more than 60 stupas (Buddhist Pagodas) and about 2,500 inscriptions carved on steles, which are actually stone slabs, generally taller than its width and usually used for funerary. Due to the abundance of stone steles, the area is often called the Forest of Ancient Steles.
Most of the major grottoes contain notable Buddhist sculptures and calligraphic inscriptions. Among the huge number of caves the Guyang, Binyang, and Linahua-dong caves are horseshoe-shaped. The Guyangdong or Guyang Cave, also known as the Old Sun Cave, is the largest, as well as the oldest among the Longmen caves. Other than that, the Binyang-dong, Lianhua-dong, Yaofandong, Shiku-si, Shisku and the Ganjing-si caves are also considered as main caves, among others.
The Binyang-dong consists of three caves. While the Shiku-si is a three-walled and three-niche cave, with seven images of Buddha carved on the lintel, the Lianhua grotto has a large lotus carved on its ceiling. However, in a sense, the Yaofandong is somewhat unique, as it contains small inscriptions of 140 prescriptions for a wide range of physical problems.
Considered as one of the most famous grottoes in China, the Longmen grottoes and niches are synonyms to the most impressive, significant and largest collection of Chinese sculptural art of the late Northern Wei and Tang Dynasties, during AD 316 to AD 907 and was entirely devoted to the Buddhist religion. Situated in a romantic natural environment, the caves were dug for over a period of several centuries and the most intensive period of carving dates from the end of the 5th century to the mid-8th century. The earliest caves, carved in the late 5th and early 6th centuries in the West Hill cliffs, include Guyangdong or Shiku Temple and the three Binyang Caves, all containing large Buddha figures.
It was followed by a decline of intense activity between AD 581 and AD 618, during the Sui dynasty and the beginning of the Tang dynasty, during the early 7th century AD. However, the activity was intensified again in the latter half of the 7th century AD, during the reigns of the Emperor Gaozong and the Empress Wuzetian. The final phase started during the latter part of the Tang dynasty, which continued till the Northern Song dynasty, between AD 755 and AD 1127, when the work on the grottoes declined sharply. In fact, the outbreak of warfare between the subsequent Jin and Yuan dynasties brought the end of the grotto carvings.
It is maintained that the most intensive period of the carving of the Longmen grottoes and niches dates from the end of the 5th century to the mid-8th century. The style of sculpture adopted in the Buddhist caves during the Tang Dynasty in the 7th and 8th centuries, especially the giant sculptures in the Fengxiansi Cave are the best representative examples of the Royal Cave Temples’ art, which has been subsequently imitated by many artists from various regions. But, the artistic achievements and the significance of the Longmen Grottoes gradually started to receive national and after that, international recognition during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1912) Dynasties.
The unique sculptural site was ransacked and plundered by the Japanese, during the Second Sino-Jap War (1937-1935). It had to suffer vandalism again in the 1940s, due to the political unrest prevailing in the country. Later, after the establishment of the People Republic of China in 1945, all the grottoes were declared as a protected area and finally, the Longmen Grottoes were enlisted in the UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 2000.