The Yungang Grottoes, formerly called Wuzhoushan Grottoes, are built at the foot of Wuzhou Mountain, located at west of Datong City. The number of Yungang Grottoes is 252 and there are 51,000 statues. The origin of these cavities, directly carved in the hollow of the mountain, dates back more than 1500 years. Formerly, wooden temples protected the entrances to these caves; but the fire destroyed these temples. They were then renovated. Currently, there are only three wooden temples protecting the entrance to the caves. There are no longer protection for the rest of the cavities and their entrances are directly on the outside.
The size of the Buddhist sculptures that adorn these cavities is very different. Some sculptures are between 10 and 30 meters high and some of them are of a few centimeters. Originally, most of the sculptures were painted but only a few statues currently have traces of paint. The weather and light deteriorate the paint layers.
The forms of the caves are a mixture of traditional Chinese art with styles derived from other countries. Indeed, there are influences of the Hellenistic style that has traveled all over Persia and arrived, via the famous Silk Road, in the region of Gandhara located in the northern part of India.
History of Yungang Grottoes
The city of Datong, formerly called Pingcheng, was between 398 and 494 the capital of the Wei Kingdom. Datong is located in the northern part of China. In the period of Wei Kingdom, The city became the center of politics, economics and culture. For almost thirty years, until 523, the city of Datong retained its major role in the kingdom. A revolt led it to decline and abandonment.
It took about 65 years to make the sculptures adorning the Yungang Grottoes; the beginning of the work began in 460 and ended in 525. This was a period of prosperity for the evolution of Buddhist rock art in the kingdom of the Wei dynasty. The flourishing of Buddhism developed when the first emperor ascended the throne. Since then, the monk Tan Yao began to work on the Five Caves. These cavities are the main point of reference for the development of Buddhist art in North China. The imperial court supported the Yungang Cave Project.
By the year 525, the work almost ended up, but monks and lower-ranking officers persisted in digging cavities to carve statues. In order to protect the Yungang Grottoes, buildings made of wooden huts were built in front of the cavities. These wooden monuments rested on octagonal pillars and each one was decorated with dozens of drawings representing Buddha. The caves were thus assimilated to the temples. A war that occurred in 1122 contributed to the destruction of the temples.
The Yungang Grottoes were inscribed on UNESCO World Heritage List in 2001.
Periods of construction
The caves were constructed during three distinct periods: the old period from 460 to 465, the average period from 471 to 494 and the recent period from 494 to 525.
Cavities built during the ancient period, composed of five main rooms, are so simple. This character makes them sublime. The monk Tan Yao led the works during the elaboration. Statues ranging in height from 13 to 15 meters were placed in spectacularly sized caves, dug to contain them. The ensemble is in the shape of a U and the vaulted ceiling is reminiscent of the thatched roofs of buildings dating back to ancient India. A door and a window complete the structure of each of the caves.
The central part of the caves is decorated with the most imposing figures, while the exterior facades have cavities adorned with thousands of Buddhist statues. This is the largest set of caves among those found on the Yungang site. There are also four groups of twin cavities and another set of triple caves at the Yungang site. A rapid evolution of the Han style occurred during this time; the themes are different from those used frequently before.
The caves of the recent period are located in the valley of the Dragon King Temple. The period from 494 to 525 saw the construction of over 200 caves and niches that are less imposing than the caves mentioned above. In fact, the cavities of the recent period are between the average and the small size, with non-regular or complex shapes. The doors of the cavities has carved decorations and they are in the cliff.
Tips to travel to Yungang Grottoes
You need half a day for visiting the Yungang Grottoes.
Name in Chinese is Yungang Shiku – 云冈 石窟
How to get there?
From Central Station, take the tourist bus line 603. The price is 3 RMB. Get off at Yungang (云冈) station.
You can also take bus number 4 at Datong Railway Station and get off at Xin Kai Li station. Then take the bus No. 3-1 to reach Yungang Grottoes.
It is advisable to take a taxi or hire a van from downtown Datong to the Grottoes directly. The cost would be about 50 RMB and it takes about an hour .
The ticket costs 125 RMB per person.
From 15 April to 27 October: 08:30 to 17:30
From 28 October to 14 April: 08:30 to 17:00
It would be better to start your visiting early in the morning. You can plan for a picnic, the park is ideal for that.