The Longmen Grottoes or Longmen Caves are one of the finest examples of Chinese Buddhist art. Housing tens of thousands of statues of Buddha and his disciples, they are located 12 kilometres (7.5 mi) south of present day Luòyáng in Hénán province, Peoples Republic of China. The images, many once painted, were carved into caves excavated from the limestone cliffs of the Xiangshan and Longmenshan mountains, running east and west.
The Yi River flows northward between them and the area used to be called Yique ("The Gate of the Yi River"). The alternative name of "Dragon's Gate Grottoes" derives from the resemblance of the two hills that check the flow of the Yi River to the typical "Chinese gate towers" that once marked the entrance to Luoyang from the south. In 2000 the site was inscribed upon the UNESCO World Heritage List as “an outstanding manifestation of human artistic creativity,” for its perfection of an art form, and for its encapsulation of the cultural sophistication of Tang China.
The earliest history of the creation of Longmen Grottoes is traced to the reign of Emperor Xiaowen of Northern Wei dynasty when he shifted his capital to Luoyang from Dàtóng; Luoyang's symbolic value is borne by the fact that it served as the historic capital for 13 dynasties. The grottoes were excavated and carved with Buddhist subjects over the period from 493 AD to 1127 AD, in four distinct phases. The first phase started with the Northern Wei dynasty (493 and 534).
During the period of 1368 to 1912, when two dynasties ruled in China, namely the Ming dynasty from 1368 to 1644, and the Qing Dynasty from 1644 to 1912, there was cultural revival and the Longmen Grottoes received recognition both at the national and international level.
There are several major grottoes with notable displays of Buddhist sculptures and calligraphic inscriptions. Some of the main caves and the year when work began within them include: Guyang-dong (493), Binyang-dong (505), Lianhua-dong (520s), Weizi-dong (522), Shiku-si (520s), Weizi-dong (520s), Shisku (520s), Yaofang-dong (570), Zhaifu-dong (ca. 636), Huijian-dong (630s), Fahua-dong (650s), Fengxian-si (672), Wanfo-si (670-680s), Jinan-dong (684), Ganjing-si (684), and Leigutai-dong (684). The Guyang, Binyang, and Linahua caves are hoseshoe-shaped.
Guyangdong, or Guyang Cave, or Old Sun Cave, is recorded as the oldest Longmen cave with carvings in the Northern Wei style. It is also the largest cave, located in the central part of the west hill. It was carved under the orders of Emperor Xiaowen.
The earliest carving in this limestone cave has been now predated to 478 AD, which has been inferred as the time taken by Emperor Xiaowen to shift his capital from Datong to Luoyang have very well sculpted Buddhist statues in niches in this cave.
Binyang has three caves of which the Middle Binyang Cave is the most prominent
Binyangzhongdong or the Middle Binyang Cave, is carved in the Datang style on the west hill, on the northern floor. It was built by Emperor Xuanwun to commemorate his father Xiaowe, and also his mother. It is said that 800,000 workers created it over the period from 500 to 523. In the main wall of this cave, five very large Buddhist statues are carved all in Northern Wei style The central statue is of Sakyamuni Buddha with four images of Bodhisattvas flanking it. Two side walls also have Buddha images flanked by Bodhisatvas.
Binyangnandong, or the South Binyang Cave, has five very large images which were carved by Li Tai, the fourth son of Li Shimin, the first Tang Emperor. He made them in 641 AD in memory of his mother Empress Zhangsun. The central image in in a serene appearance is that of Amitabha Buddha seated on a pedestal surrounded by Bodhisattvas, also serene looking in blend of the Northern Wei and the Tang Dynasty styles.
There are the several temples at Longmen Grottoes. Some important ones include Xiangshan temple, Bai Garden temple, and the Tomb of Bai Juyi. Others are Tongle temple, begun under Emperor Mingyuan; Lingyan and Huguo temples, under Emperor Wencheng; Giangong temple, under Xiaowen; and Chongfu temple, under Quianar.
Xiangshan Temple is one of the earliest of the ten temples at Longmen. It is located in the midsection of the east hill. The name 'Xiangshan' is derived from the name of the spices "Xiangge" found extensively on these hill slopes. It was reconstructed some time in 1707, during the reign of the Qing Dynasty patterned on an old temple that existed there. Longmen Grottoes Administration, expanded the temple in 2002, by adding the "Beltry, the Drum Tower, the Wing Room, the Hall of Mahavira and Hall of Nine Persons, Eighteen Arhats, the Villa of Jiang Jieshi and Song Meiling".
Bai Garden Temple:
Bai Garden is temple situated on the Pipa peak, to the north of the east hill (Xiangshan Hill). It was re-built in 1709 by Tang Youzeng of the Qing Dynasty. The temple is surrounded by thick vegetation of pine and cypress trees.
Tomb of Bai Juyi:
The Tomb of Bai Juyi on the east bank is of the well-known poet during the Tang Dynasty rule who lived in Luoyang during his later years. The tomb is located on the hill top. It is approached from West Bank after crossing a bridge across the Yi River. The tomb is a circular mound of earth of 4 meters height with a circumference of 52 meters. The tomb is 2.80 meters high and has the poets name inscribed on it as Bai Juyi.