Archaeology Magazine Archive

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Buddhas of Cloud Hill Volume 49 Number 5, September/October 1996
by James O. Caswell

China's earliest cave-temples reflect the imperial ambitions, religious sentiments, and sculptural artistry of a fledgling dynasty.

[image] Colossal sculpture, such as this Buddha figure (head is 13 feet high) in imperial cave 20, symbolized the power of the Northern Wei rulers. (Larry Garenstein) [LARGER IMAGE]

The 14 major cave-temples at Yungang constitute the earliest extant Buddhist site of major significance in China, and are comparable in importance to India's magnificent Buddhist cave shrines at Ajanta (see ARCHAEOLOGY, November/December 1992). Construction of the caves started in A.D. 460, during the reign of the Northern Wei dynasty, established by the Tuoba Tartars, a people of Turkic stock from central Asia who had invaded China in A.D. 386. Seeking to legitimate their rule and at the same time maintain their identity, they adopted Buddhism as a state religion. By doing so, they could claim they were culturally distinct from Chinese subjects who practiced ancestor worship, while using the organization of the Buddhist monastery as a model for their administrative bureaucracy. The first five grottoes built by the Northern Wei are called the Imperial Caves and functioned as political statements equating the emperor with the Buddha. They feature colossal statues of the Buddha. Later caves built by the Buddhist faithful reflected religious devotion; their sculptural decoration paid greater attention to religious themes and iconography. They are more spacious and often depict the Buddha clad in Chinese dress, an effort to make the religion comprehensible to native Chinese. Centuries of wind erosion, rock fractures, water seepage, and the depredations of thieves have taken their toll on the cave-temples. A team from the Getty Conservation Institute invited by the Chinese suggested ways of lessening the impact of weathering caused by pollution, wind, and rain.

© 1996 by the Archaeological Institute of America