Exploring the Yungang Caves

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The Northern Wei Dynasty and Their Supercalifragilistic Cave Projects

The Yungang Caves are located in Shanxi Province, China, about 16 km (or 10 miles) west of Datong. The caves were completed during the Northern Wei Dynasty (460-494 AD) – the longest and most powerful of the early northern Chinese dynasties, during which all things, including the building of massive cave projects, seemed possible.

Attaining Nirvana is Easier Said Than Done.

Seated in one of the first caves is a colossal Buddha looking down from a height of 17 metres (55.7 feet). The cave next to the Buddha’s features a two-storey pagoda that is 15 meters (49.2 feet) high. The walls of this pagoda and the cave walls around it have drawings depicting the life of the Buddha from his birth until the time when he achieved that rarest of the rarest states, nirvana. Reaching nirvana is no small feat and is not for the everyday willy-nilly couch potato. It involves a complete stripping of all desire, malice and ignorance within oneself and then joining God.

Shiva’s Cat Fight with a Snake Named Vasuki Results in a Blue Neck

The eighth cave features a famous statue of Shiva, one of the more important, weight-carrying gods of the Hindu religion, with eight arms and four heads and riding a bull. Shiva sports a blue neck, around which he wears a snake named Vasuki. The neck is blue because, as legend has it, during the time when the gods were churning the oceans Vasuki was a threat to the world, and the only way that this snake could be stopped was for the altruistic Shiva to hold the poison in his throat.

Shiva’s son is, by the way, Ganesha, he of the elephant-headed fame.

Strike up the Band

Cave number 12 contains a shrine and also a sculptured house made to look like a wooden structure, while on the cave ceiling above can be seen carved female musicians playing various instruments. The instruments include drums, flutes and, Pan’s personal preference for which he is named, the panpipes.

The Second Coming of Buddha Is to Be Found in Lucky Cave Number 13

“Lucky” cave number 13 features a cross-legged statue of Maitreya, who is said to be the “future Buddha” waiting to be born again in a period of decline to continue the teachings of the Buddha and to help people to attain nirvana. Others predict that he will preach for 60,000 years, at the conclusion of which, feeling dog-tired, no doubt, he’ll enter nirvana. The Maitreya statue is 13 meters (42.6 feet) high. Meanwhile, if the visitor still has an appetite for Buddha statues, there are seven more on the door arch of the south wall in this room. The sculpture art here is so well regarded that students have been studying them for centuries.

10,000 Buddhas and the Space They Occupy

The 15th cave is known as the Cave of Ten Thousand Buddhas, or perhaps informally as the Packed Like Sardines cave. Caves 16 to 20 have more elbow room, though, and are among the oldest in the Yungang network of caves. Each of these five caves represents one of the emperors from the Northern Wei Dynasty.

Cave 20 is one of the most popular caves despite one of the walls having been destroyed during the Liao Dynasty (916-1125 AD). It has a seated Buddha rising to almost 14 meters (46 feet) as well as a large standing Bodhisatvas, who is another Buddhist deity. The face shown on the Buddha is the same as the face of the Wei Emperor Wencheng.

The Pass to the Silk Road

The seemingly obscure, wind-swept desert location of the Yungang Caves was chosen because of its close proximity to the pass leading to inner Mongolia, and is the northernmost outpost of the ancient Silk Road. In the old days, the Wei rulers would come to the caves to pray for rain.

Since the Silk Road leads on to so many foreign lands, it seems only fitting that the sculptures in the Yungang Caves should have so many foreign artistic influences, including Persian, Byzantine, Greek and especially Buddhist Indian art. From areas such as these, over 40,000 workmen were recruited over a 100-year period to create the legacy of the Yungang Caves.