Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Yungang Grottoes,UNESCO Heritage Site in China

Ever since I registered  myself for the the epic challenge of goUNESCO, ticking off the world heritage site has become my new craze. Its not that I have seen many World Heritage sites(WHI). But it is so much fun to add new sites to the  list.
During my recent visit to Beijing, I decided to visit Yungang grottoes, one of the world heritage sites in North China. It is 400 kms away from Beijing and is located in Datong, Shanxi province of China.  If you have already read my last post about Datong this will be in continuation to that. The Grottoes were reminiscent of Ajanta & Ellora caves in India. It looked more like Ajanta’s sibling.  Yungang Grottoes are caves famous for its early Buddhist sculptures.
Yungang Grottoes. Picture taken  from the West side
  I hired a taxi to visit Yungang Grottoes. The road is good  and it hardly takes 20 minutes to reach to the gate of this heritage site. After entering in, I headed towards the help desk to hire an English speaking guide. I never even thought I may not get one and will be left alone to explore. After exchanging some sign language and few words with the help desk lady I was made to understand that such  service is not available. 
Overview of Grottoes
 Now, there I was finding my way to the Grottoes. I had not googled much before going there. I just knew that there is an attractive  Buddha statue.

As I entered through a courtyard there was a huge wooden door which opened up into a corridor of stone pillars. They were very interesting in design. Each pillar had a base with women upholding the elephants and the elephants in turn holding the entire pillar on their back.  After crossing two bridges and few monasteries  I reached the  grottoes. There are no direction boards. So there are possibilities of you ending up in some other direction and again walk back to the Grottoes.
Elephant pillers
 These Buddhist caves were built on the  cliff of Wuzou mountain which is on the bank of Wuzou river during Wei dynasty during 5th century. There are 53 caves in Yungang Grottoes and in total 5400 statues. It is one of the protected relics of China. They are the first stone carved caves of China. Yungang  caves are said to be the combination of Chinese and Gandhara art. They say that there were 5 Indian monks who were part of the team of sculptors in the early period of cave construction. It spans from east to west for about 1 km.
We need to cross the bridge to reach Grottoes
 All statues are carved in sandstone towards the cliff. While upper body of the most of the statues are in good condition, lower body of most of the statues are in bad condition.  When  Wei rulers moved their capital  from Datong to Laulong, these caves were left unattended. Apparently all the caves had roof and housed in wooden structure. Wooden structures were destroyed during  war  and weathering effect has taken out roofing for some of the caves.  
Typical cave of Yungang Grattoes
Cave 16 to 20 are identified as the early caves. They also call it as as  Tan Yao caves named after the chief artist. Five Buddha  statues in these caves are said to be  symbolizing 5 emperors of Northern Wei dynasty. Buddha of cave  20 is an iconic statue of not only Yungang Grottoes but even Datong’s. Outside of the caves exists 1000 Buddha sculptures. It is the only cave  which is completely open to air.  Buddha of cave 20 is one my personal favorites.
The Cave 20 was under some restoration work  and I couldn’t get scaffolding free picture. The 5 Buddha statues are said to be  influenced by Indian Gandhara art. Buddhas eyes are  carved in detail with eye pupil embedded in black stone. This has made the face look more livelier. Long ears almost  touching the shoulders  are the  dominant feature of the  statue. This is said to be the master piece of early Buddhist sculptural art of China. This Buddha has dignified facial expression. Doesn’t  he ? 
Cave 20 My favourite Buddha
 Other Buddha statues of Cave 19 to  16 are Maitreya Buddha, Bodhisatva and Trikala Buddha. All have arched roof and an opening on the second floor where Buddhas face is visible and it looks like he is peeping through the window.
Smiling Buddha peeping from the window - Early caves

Cave 1,2,5,6 ,7,8,9,10 and 11 to 13 are considered to be middle period caves built between 471-494 A.D. They have less influence of Indian art   and represents more of Chinese art.
Cave 5 and 6 housed in wooden structures
 Cave  5 and 6 were different from other caves with colorful paintings and statues. These caves still have wooden housing. They have two chambers. Buddha statue in cave 5 with sitting posture is known as  great Buddha. It is 17 ft tall.  This is the tallest Buddha of Yungang Grottoes. As the cave is not so wide we can’t take pictures of entire Buddha statue. Photography was not allowed in these two caves and  I didn’t  observe the sign board. I had taken few pictures by the time I was warned.

Paintings on the wall of cave 6

Cave 5 - Built during middle period . It reflects more of Chinese art. Look at the face and clothes of the statue
Caves to the west of cave  20, and other small caves towards east are built after 494 AD. These are more of niches and they are very small caves. Statues in these caves are more of Chinese in nature, characterized by long thin neck and narrow shoulders. Cave 37 is a pagoda cave and  has pagoda at the center and multiple Buddhas are carved in rows on the surrounding walls.
Long neck and narrow shoulders of third phase caves

Pagoda cave 39
 There is museum after these caves which houses many statues from caves and excavated items of 5th century.I couldn’t go to the small grottoes towards the  East side. It started snowing . I had wasted enough time in watching other stuff than Grottoes. So had to return. 

You need one full day to appreciate the beauty of the grottoes and to soak in the calmness of Buddha all around. It was worth traveling all the way from Beijing.

Travel tips

  • Most of the travel sites I checked suggested for one day. When you travel next, plan for at least 2 days in Datong. You need a day to explore Yungang Grottoes
  • Entry fee to Grottoes is steep price of 120 Yuan/person. Yes it pinches. But worth it
  • Plan to hire an English speaking guide from Datong itself. Like me , you may not find anyone in Yungyang Grottoes
  • If you want to explore it by yourself, you can make a note from official website Yungang and take a print with you. You can appreciate the caves better
  • There are no sign boards or direction boards once enter the protected area. Carry a map with you
  • There is a lot of walking as Grottoes are spread along a km. You will end up walking about 3kms. Walking shoes are adviced

 Which is your favorite World Heritage site site ? Pls share


  1. Thanks for the photos and also for the travel tips - I'm sure they'd be very useful if I decided to go.

  2. Thanks Nathalie for stopping by. Pls let me know if I can be of any help to plan your trip :-)