The Longmen Grottoes or Longmen Caves are situated near Luoyang, in Henan Province of China. These are one of the three most famous grottoes in China, the other two are, the Mogao Caves near Dunhuang in Gansu Province and the Yungang Caves near Datong in Shanxi Province.
The Longmen Grottoes are located 12 kilometers south of Luoyang in Henan province of China. The images in the caves, many of which were once painted, were carved as outside rock reliefs and inside artificial caves. They were excavated from the limestone cliffs of the Xiangshan and Longmenshan mountains, running east and west. The area used to be known as Yique (The Gate of the Yi River), as the Yi River flows northward between them. The Longmen Grottoes is also known as Dragon’s Gate Grottoes, and the name was originated from the resemblance of the two hills that check the flow of the Yi River, like the two similar parts of a gate. The grottoes consist of more than 2,300 caves and niches carved into stretch steep limestone cliffs that are over one kilometer in length. These caves and niches contain almost about 110,000 Buddhist stone statues, over 60 stupas (Buddhist Pagodas) and about 2,800 inscriptions carved on steles. It is necessary to mention here that, a stele is a stone slab, generally taller than its width, usually used for funerary. Due to abundance of steles, the area is also known as the Forest of Ancient Steles.
There are several major grottoes which contain notable displays of Buddhist sculptures and calligraphic inscriptions. Located in the central part of the west hill, the Guyangdong, or Guyang Cave, or Old Sun Cave, is the largest, as well as the oldest Longmen cave. Apart from that, the main caves include, among others, Binyang-dong, Lianhua-dong, Yaofandong, Shiku-si, Shisku and Ganjing-si. The Binyang has three caves. The Lianhua grotto has a large lotus carved on its ceiling. The Shiku-si is a three-wall, three-niche cave, with seven images of Buddha carved on the lintel. The Yaofandong is somewhat unique. It contains small inscriptions of 140 prescriptions for a wide range of physical problems. Among the caves, the Guyang, Binyang, and Linahua caves are horseshoe-shaped.
Situated in a romantic natural environment, the caves were dug from a one kilometer stretch of limestone cliff running along both banks of the river Yi. It is believed that the work at the Longmen Grottoes was undertaken over a period of several centuries and as such, it may be divided into four distinct phases. The first phase of work was done between A.D. 493 and A.D.534, beginning with the Guyandong, or Shiku Temple. It was followed by a decline of intense activity during the Sui dynasty, between A.D. 581 and A.D. 618, and the beginning of the Tang dynasty, during the early 7 th century A.D. It again witnessed another period of intense activity during the reigns of the Emperor Gaozong and the Empress Wuzetian in the latter half of the 7 th century A.D. The final phase took place during the latter part of the Tang dynasty through to the Northern Song dynasty, between A.D. 755 and A.D. 1127, which saw a sharp decline in the work on the grottoes. It was the outbreak of warfare between the subsequent Jin and Yuan dynasties that brought the end of the grotto carvings. However, it was during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1912) dynasties that the artistic achievements and the significance of the Longmen Grottoes gradually received national and, subsequently, international recognition.
During the second Sino-Jap war (1937-1935), the Japanese ransacked the site and took many ancient statues to Japan. It also suffered vandalism in the 1940s, as a result of some unavoidable political disturbances. Later, with the establishment of People Republic of China in 1945, all the grottoes were declared as a protected area, and much later, in 2000, the Longmen Grottoes were inscribed in UNESCO’s World Heritage List.