Yungang Grottoes: Home of the Buddhas big and small

I have mixed feelings about this place. On the one hand, the thousands of Buddhas (51,000 to be exact) huge and tiny, carved from the sandstone hills leave me slack-jawed with awe. The thought that these have withstood the ravages of a thousand years, against storms and earthquakes and erosion, through war, revolutions and dynasties, that they still sit staring out into a landscape that has changed little, is really humbling. In their presence I feel like a speck of dust in the whole space-time continuum. When I touch the cool stone, and gaze up into the beatific smile of a 17-foot Buddha, I wish I could absorb and see what they have seen as silent sentinels of an ever-changing world. That – all that wonder – is why it is worth coming all the way out here to see these stately beings.

But on the other hand, this is also where you witness the hawkish avarice of the Chinese tourism machine at work. In the same vein with my other Chinese experiences, these encounters leave me baffled and conflicted.

Before you even reach the caves, you have to pass through a spanking new 1km-long tourism complex complete with ticket booths, info centre, restrooms, prayer halls, gigantic statues (which have no relevance to those you see within the actual grottoes), prayer halls, souvenir shops and one bronze tree (don’t ask).

When you’ve walked the long avenue of obelisks and elephant statues (below)…

…passed through the red-ribbon forecourt of a prayer hall (below)…

…tramped past a frozen moat (below), and begin to wonder where the kitsch ends and the real slice of history begins, that’s when you’ll see the beginnings of the yellowish brown slope and realise the caves are almost right before you. Incidentally the kids found the frozen pond very interesting since where we’re from, they had never seen any frozen object larger than a popsicle before – artificial ice rinks not counting.

The whole lead-up to the real attraction was new, huge, sprawling, and left me cold (both physically and emotionally). Perhaps they were trying to be impressive or perhaps to justify the big jump in admission charges, but to me, the whole place just looked fake and artificial with its newly constructed watch towers, halls, avenues; like an epic Zhang Yimou film set. It felt totally unreal in its spatial extravagance. And I guess, for all the newly constructed brouhaha, they charged entry fees of RMB150 per adult. This is a lot to pay. Perhaps foreign visitors can afford this. But the bulk of local people? For many, this is quite a sizeable chunk. I wonder how many locals living in Datong, for instance how many of those taxi drivers in the main railway square can  afford to bring their families here. They are lucky to live in the backyard of a World Heritage Site. Yet how many of those can afford to visit? Most of all, I wonder if any money goes towards any form of preservation of these outdoor art treasures.

We walked just a bit further to the wall of the hills, through an old gate and suddenly there we were. And one of the first caves we entered was this:

It was a stirring sight. This is Sui dynasty, circa 465. I was amazed that we were allowed entry into these caves. I thought they would have been off limits to preserve the statues, given that these were all about 1500 years old at least. These were huge and yet look at the detail, especially the detail on the smaller Bodhisattva. To give you an idea how huge, here’s lil Red in front of the big Buddha:

To carve this was no mean feat. In these caves, the statues sat behind doors and openings carved out of the hill. These afforded some protection from the elements and could be one reason why we still see them today in relatively good condition. Yet note how the smaller statue’s lower half has been eroded.

Some of the statues and caves had vivid colour but most have been scoured away by wind and time. You can see small holes in the statues which used to house pegs and a light frame of plaster which would have been painted. Over time of course, the pegs, plaster and paint disintegrated leaving the holes. Walk a bit further to the west and you’ll see this:

A beautiful wooden facade erected in the 1600s protected the statues within from the elements. The wood and the delicate latticework had the gracefully stately patina of age. These were designed to turn the caves into temples, to facilitate worship.

There is an entire section that was closed for restoration when we were there. Unfortunately part of the restoration involved the construction of another facade – this time not as elegant as the existing older facade. There were pictures of the new facade on the hoardings and all I can say is, it looks like a someone put a shiny tacky bit of tinsel among the gems nestled in a crown. But who knows, in another 500 years another tourist might say how beautifully this has aged. History after all, is relative.

Further down, the boulevard widens and you get to the oldest section of the caves. That’s when you see these stunners.

This is cave 20, the largest statue in the group and one of the earliest carved. Left to face the elements, it is amazing that the statue is not more eroded. Look at the huge fleshy ears! It is a common belief among the Chinese that the longer and fleshier the ear lobes, the longer the life expectancy.

I like this guy (below), his smile is so friendly and a teensy bit bordering on the impish, if dignified Buddha can ever be considered impish:

Beyond the stretch of bigger statues lie many smaller tiny caves. According to the guides, these are considerably newer and many were carved not by the monks who used to inhabit the caves, but by the local people:

The smallest statues were about 2 inches in height. In several cases, these tiny benevolent beings dotted the walls of the caves. Like this one:

Finally, not many realise that on the hills above Yungang sits one of the older sections of the Great Wall. Unlike the restored Ming walls near Beijing, these were made largely of banked earth. There is so much history in China, each sitting on different layers of time.

Overall I’d say Yungang is worth the trip. Look past the faux grandeur of the new complex and spend time with the Buddhas in their caves. As I reach the last of the smaller niches and look out across the hills, I felt glad to be here to see this now. While it has stood the test of time so far, the pollution and the coal dust of the many mines in the area will inevitably take its toll. Who knows if the grottoes will still retain their magnificence years from now?

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