Buddhist Pilgrimage Sites: China

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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