Buddhist Pilgrimage Sites: China

After the spread of Buddhism in China, pilgrimage became an important part of the devotional practice of monks and lay people. Chinese monks, such as Xuanzang, Faxian and Yijing, travelled from China to India to collect Buddhist scriptures to be translated into Chinese, to visit holy sites and to study in Indian monasteries.

In China, kings, merchants and devotees regularly visited Buddhist sites and sacred mountains to express their faith and acquire merits. Their offerings in money and valuable commodities, such as silk, were often used by the monastic communities to enlarge the sites or to erect votive steles, statues and niches with the names of the donors. 

Longmen Caves

Longmen Cave 19 view, China. ©John Huntington

Longmen Cave 19 view, China. ©John Huntington

Work at the Longmen complex began under the patronage of the Northern Wei court, shortly after their transfer to the new capital Luoyang in 494 AD, and continued for the following 400 years under the Buddhist rulers of the Tang dynasty, including Emperor Gaozong (c. 650-83) and his wife, Empress Wu (c. 690-705). The importance of imperial patronage in Longmen is attested by a scene in the Binyang cave, completed in 505, depicting a court procession with the Wei emperor, empress and attendants, carved in life-size and attending the consecration of the cave.

The complex includes 350 caves and a large number of smaller niches with thousands of statues, mainly located on the north bank of the Yi River. Here the cliff was carved with colossal images of the Buddha and bodhisattvas, flanked by guardian figures, donors and apsaras. Maitreya, the Buddha of the Future presiding over the Tushita Heaven, features prominently, following the diffusion of his cult in the 6th century. The popular appeal of this cult was due to the fact that worshippers could reach paradise through prayers and acts of devotion without undertaking a hard path of austerity and self-refinement.

Another important cult centred on Vairocana, one of the five transcendent Buddhas, whose worship became popular during the 7th century. A colossal statue of the deity, 15 metres high, dominates the group of statues commissioned by the emperors Gaozong and Wu Zetian in 672 for the Fengxian temple. The central figure is flanked by Ananda and Kasyapa, two Bodhisattva and guardians, all characterised by the same plasticity and naturalism that pervade the sculptures of the Tang period.

The Longmen complex offers invaluable information on the development of Chinese Buddhist art over four centuries. Indian and Central Asian influences were integrated and reinterpreted on the soft grey limestone of the site that provided a suitable surface for refined carvings.

Wutaishan

Wall painting of Wutaishan, Dunhuang

Mural painting from Cave 61 at Mogao Caves, Dunhuang, Gansu Province, China, dated to the 10th century, depicting Tang dynasty monastic architecture from Mount Wutai, Shanxi Province. Image taken from Patricia Ebrey's 'Cambridge Illustrated History of China', 1999. Source: Wikipedia Commons, 2008

Wutaishan (literally, the Mountain of the Five Terraces) in Shanxi Province is one of the Four sacred mountains in Chinese Buddhism. According to a passage in the Buddhist text Avatamsaka Sutra, the Bodhisattva of Wisdom Manjusri, or Wenshu, lived on a cold mountain in the northeast, which was subsequently identified by the Buddhist clergy with the Wutaishan.

It is recorded that the first temple on the mountain was built by the emperor Ming Di (ruled 57-75) of the Eastern Han dynasty. By the mid 7th century Wutaishan had become a sacred Buddhist site revolving around the cult of Manjusri, and a popular pilgrimage destination. Its fame was so far-reached that not only Chinese pilgrims but also monks and worshippers from Korea, Japan and India would come to its temples and monasteries. The pilgrimage of some foreign monks were recorded in travel diaries, poems and on wall paintings from Dunhuang. The monastic communities at Wutaishan were supported over the centuries by Buddhist emperors, imperial officers, local families, and worshippers. Several temples and monasteries were built on the mountain; among them, the mid 9th century Foguang shrine is the earliest Tang wooden building still existent in China, and its wooden sculptures are representative examples of the Buddhist art of the late Tang period.

Wutaishan continued to represent one of the most important Buddhist pilgrimage site over the centuries. During the 18th and 19th century, it became particularly popular with devotees coming from China, Mongolia and Tibet; Himalayan art featured prominently during this time. 

Xiantangshan Caves

Head of Buddha, Museum no. A.98-1927

Head of Buddha, grey limestone, carved with traces of pigment. Probably from the Xiangtangshan cave temples, Hebei Province, China 550-577 AD. Museum no. A.98-1927. Presented by The Art Fund

The Xiantangshan complex is located in Hebei province near the capital Ye of the Northern Qi dynasty (550-577 AD). Most of the Buddhist sculptures at the site, carved in dark limestone, have a sturdy appearance with full and imposing bodies, round heads and simple draped garments, reminiscent of an Indian  style developed during the Gupta period (320-600). Indo-Iranian and Sasanid influences  were integrated into the stone carvings on the walls and doorways, crowded with scrolls, flowers and architectural details.

Sculptures of Amitabha and the paradise he presides, the Western or Pure Land, were frequently carved at Xiantangshan. The cult of Amitabha became popular during the mid 6th century; most of its appeal consisted in the promise of a paradise that could be obtained by repeating the name of the Buddha with absolute devotion. Such popularity had an immediate effect onto the stone statuary commissioned for sacred places, where imposing sculptures and wonderful carvings of the Western paradise helped the promotion of the new doctrine to devotees and pilgrims.

Yungang Caves

Yungang Cave statue, China. Photograph by Felix Andrews

Yungang Cave statue, China. Photograph by Felix Andrews

In 460 AD the Northern Wei emperor Wen Cheng began the construction of the cave temples in Yungang, a site located near the ancient capital Pingcheng (now Datong) in Shanxi Province. The project intended to mark the restoration of Buddhism as state religion, and demonstrate the imperial support to the monastic community.

The complex includes 53 main caves, and a large number of smaller caves and niches, which were opened in the period between 460 and 535, when the court had already moved to the new capital Luoyang. The earliest five caves, completed between 460 and 475, were dedicated by the ruler Wen Cheng to the first five Wei emperors, and represented an act of expiation for the persecution against Buddhist devotees operated by his predecessor Tai Wu. The caves contain colossal figures of Buddha and Bodhisattva, between 12 and 17 m high; their huge dimensions were probably inspired by the monumental Buddha of Bamiyan in Afghanistan , and their style was indebted to Central Asian models imported by artisans coming from Dunhuang.

The inner surfaces of many caves at the site were carved with a multitude of seated and standing Buddhist figures, contained in niches divided by leaf-scrolls and architectural details of Gandharan origin. The figures are slender, with elongated faces and inscrutable smiles, and wear voluminous draped robes with characteristic 'fish-tail'-shaped ends. Devotees, attendants, flying apsaras, and stories from the previous lives of the Buddha were minutely executed around them, on the niches and on the pillars, transforming the whole space into a Buddhist universe.

In the centre of some cave chambers a large quadrangular pillar was carved in the shape of a stupa, following the Central Asian model originated from India; the pilgrims walked round them clockwise as a devotional act, while repeating mantras and prayers.

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