The Xumi Mountain Grottoes

Dating all the way back to the Northern Wei Dynasty (386–535), the Xumi Mountain Grottoes are classed as one of the 10 most culturally significant Buddhist grottoes in China. On the eastern edge of Mount Xumi, eight red sandstone cliffs are speckled with over 160 hand-carved caves, 70 of which contain magnificent carvings, colourful murals, spectacular frescoes, and delicate inscriptions. The site’s star attraction is a 20-metre (65 ft.) tall statue of Maitreya[1] Buddha, who looks wistfully out into the surrounding countryside. To put that into perspective, it’s about four times as tall as an adult giraffe! However, there’s more to this scenic site than just one (very) big Buddha. 

Although the complex was originally built during the Northern Wei Dynasty, its construction spans five dynastic eras, as it was periodically added to right up until the Tang Dynasty (618-907). The grottoes are located along the Silk Road, which was integral to the dissemination of Buddhism in China. Their location along this trade route is palpable in the Indian and Central Asian motifs that appear in many of the sculptures and paintings. Grotto No. 33, with its square layout and partition wall punctuated by three portals, is a typical example of this, as it greatly resembles a traditional Indian temple. As time went on, the grottoes that were added and the art within them became distinctly more Chinese in style, demonstrating the gradual Sinification of Buddhism in China. 

The mountain’s name, “Xumishan” or “Mount Xumi”, is actually the Chinese variation of the Sanskrit word for Mount Sumeru, the cosmic mountain that rests at the centre of the universe according to Buddhism. It was originally known as Mount Fengyi, but this spiritual rebranding was thought to be a ploy to encourage more monks to travel to the site, live there, and help carve more grottoes. Talk about false advertising! Many of the caves have virtually no decorative elements and it is believed that they were used to house the resident monks. 

Nowadays the site has been separated into five main areas: Dafo or “Big Buddha” Tower, Zisun Palace, Yuanguang Temple, Xiangguo Temple, and Taohua Cave. Grottoes No. 45 and 46 are some of the most noteworthy, since they contain the largest number of statues, 40 of which are taller than the average person. Grotto No. 14 is believed to be the oldest and contains statues and paintings dating back to the early Northern Wei Dynasty. Though primitive in design and colour, they are resplendent in their simplistic beauty. Much of the statuary in this grotto resembles that of the famous Yungang Grottoes in Shanxi province and the Mogao Caves in Gansu province. 

Unfortunately, in spite of being designated a National Level Cultural Relic Protected Site in 1982, the Xumi Mountain Grottoes are currently at risk. Wind and sand erosion, unstable rock beds, earthquakes, and vandalism have already caused irreparable damage to the caves, and a recent study suggests that only about 10 per cent of them are in decent condition. The extent of the damage has led to the grottoes being listed as one of the Top 100 Most Endangered Historical Sites in the world. So be sure to catch them while you can, or risk missing out on this treasure trove of ancient Buddhist art!

[1]  Maitreya: In the Buddhist tradition, Maitreya is a bodhisattva who will appear on Earth sometime in the future and achieve complete enlightenment. He will be the successor to the present Buddha, Gautama Buddha, and is thus regarded as a sort of future Buddha.

The Three Pagodas

Rising up alongside the magnificent Cangshan Mountains, the Three Pagodas of Chongsheng Temple are an architectural wonder that is certainly protected by the gods. In 1925, during what was considered the most severe earthquake ever to hit Dali, only one out of every hundred buildings survived. Yet the Three Pagodas came out unscathed. Over a period of more than a thousand years, these towering monuments have witnessed numerous natural and man-made disasters, and have miraculously remained undamaged to this day. Nowadays they are the must-see tourist attraction in Dali and one of the few enduring remnants of China’s ancient past.

They are located about 1.5 kilometres away from Dali Ancient Town and rest at the foot of Yinglo Peak on the Cangshan Mountains. All three pagodas are made of brick that has been covered in white mud and they are arranged on the three points of a symmetric triangle. It is believed they were built for auspicious reasons as, according to local legends, Dali was once a swamp that acted as a breeding ground for dragons! When humans came to populate the area, they did not want to anger the frisky dragons, as it was well-known that dragons could cause natural disasters, so they built the three pagodas. Why, you ask? Because dragons are terrified of pagodas, of course! The ancient people believed these three pagodas would deter the dragons from returning and, as there hasn’t been a dragon sighting in over 1,000 years, I think we can firmly say that it worked.

The main pagoda at the centre, known as Qianxun Pagoda, is both the oldest and the most magnificent. The Nanzhao Kingdom (738-902) ruled over most of Yunnan during the Tang Dynasty (618-907) and King Quan Fengyou of Nanzhao built the pagoda sometime between 823 and 840 AD. At a colossal 70 metres (227 ft.) in height, it is one of the tallest pagodas in Chinese history. It is sixteen storeys high and is distinctly square-shaped, giving it a powerful elegance amongst the looming mountains.

As you marvel at this fine pagoda, it’s hard not to detect its resemblance to the Small Wild Goose Pagoda in Xi’an. Don’t worry; your eyes aren’t playing tricks on you! The designers of Qianxun Pagoda reputedly came from Chang’an (modern-day Xi’an) and this is why the pagoda is built in the traditional Tang-style. Tragically, the ladder that recently provided access to the upper storeys has collapsed so there is currently no way to climb Qianxun Pagoda.

In 1978, during a major restoration project, over 700 Buddhist relics, including statues made of gold, silver, wood and crystal, were found inside the pagoda. A number of ancient Buddhist documents and over 600 traditional medicinal ingredients were also excavated. These artefacts have provided historians with invaluable information about the history of the region, but have failed to answer the most pertinent question; how did so many people manage to miss spotting 700 statues? I could understand walking past a couple of statues without noticing them but not 700!

The two sibling pagodas were both built about 100 years after Qianxun and are each about 43 metres (140 ft.) tall. Unlike their big brother, their architectural style resembles that of the Song Dynasty (960-1279), as they are octagonal in shape and are ten storeys high. Behind the three pagodas, the Juying or “Reflection” Pond mirrors the image of the snow white towers jutting out amongst the mountains. For reasons unknown, one of the smaller pagodas leans slightly to the side and is reminiscent of Italy’s Tower of Pisa. If you fancy getting a fun snapshot of your trip, you can try “holding up” this pagoda in a photograph. You’ll end up with an interesting souvenir, but the other tourists might think you’ve gone a little crazy!

Chongsheng Temple, the pagodas’ mother building, was a Buddhist temple that acted as the royal temple of the Dali Kingdom (937-1253), which ruled the old Nanzhao Empire during both the Tang and Song dynasties. It was originally built around the same time as Qianxun Pagoda but was tragically destroyed during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) and had to be rebuilt in 2005. It is now a massive complex that winds its way up the Cangshan Mountains. If hiking isn’t your thing, on the nearby Marble Street you’ll find stalls where you can purchase locally made craftworks, marble carvings or brick-paintings.

Nowadays, tourists can visit both the temple and pagodas at almost any time. During the day, the pagodas rise up through the mist and stand tall, protecting the region from amorous dragons. At night, they are beautifully illuminated and appear almost ethereal, like towers from long forgotten fairy tales. If you’re taking a trip to Dali, set aside a few hours to make the trip and marvel at one of the last vestiges of the ancient Nanzhao and Dali kingdoms.

Kumbum Monastery

The Kumbum Monastery in Huangzhong County is considered the most prestigious “gompa” or Buddhist university monastery after the “great three” gompa of Tibet: Drepung Monastery, Ganden Monastery, and Sera Monastery. These four monasteries are basically The Beatles of the Buddhist world, with Kumbum being Ringo! It is located just 25 kilometres (16 mi) from the provincial capital of Xining and is dedicated to the Gelug branch of Tibetan Buddhism. The vast Qinghai Lake sprawls out nearby, reflecting the sapphire sky in its still waters, while all around birds can be heard softly chirping in the trees.

The founder of the Gelug sect, Tsongkhapa, was born in a nearby town known as Tsongkha in 1357. According to legend, several drops of blood from his umbilical cord soaked into the earth after he was born and a white sandalwood tree miraculously sprouted where the blood had fallen. The tree came to be known as the “Tree of Great Merit”, for its 100,000 leaves were adorned with images of Buddha and its bark bore mystic symbols. When it blossomed, it gave off an irresistible aroma that somehow settled the soul of anyone passing by.

In 1379, with the help of locals, Tsongkhapa’s mother erected a small temple and a stupa[1] on the site where her son was born. The temple was expanded in 1481 thanks to the support of wealthy nomads. Then, in 1560, a monk named Tsöndrü Gyeltsen arrived and decided to build a small monastery for meditation practice, which he called Gonpalung. Not long thereafter, in 1576, the famous Mongolian leader Altan Khan invited the future 3rd Dalai Lama, Sönam Gyatso, to Mongolia in an effort to help the dissemination of Buddhism.

On his way, Sönam spotted the holy tree that marked Tsongkhapa’s birthplace. He was so struck by the sacred tree that he commissioned Tsöndrü to build a larger monastery on the site and appointed him the head lama. The magnificent Kumbum Monastery was finally completed in 1583 and the Tree of Great Merit was surrounded by a protective fence. The name “kumbum” literally means “100,000 enlightening bodies of Buddha” and is derived from the 100,000 images of Buddha found on the leaves of the tree. By the 20th century, the monastery had been expanded to include thirty temples and fifty-two halls.

Nowadays, though the legendary tree unfortunately no longer stands, parts of it are now preserved in the stupa that rests in the Great Hall of the Golden Roof. Before the 1950s, the monastery supported a colossal 3,600 monks, although now there are only about 400. The majority are from the Tibetan ethnic minority, with the rest representing a mixture of Mongol, Yugur, and Han people. These monks are divided into four monastic colleges or “dratsang”: the Debate College, the Tantric College, the Medical College, and the Kalachakra[2] College.

Of these, the most popular is the Debate College. After all, who doesn’t love a good argument! During these heated debates, a student will stand in front of his seated teacher and think of a difficult question regarded the sutras[3]. Once he has thought of one, he will clap his hands loudly, extend his right arm to his teacher, and ask the question. Usually the teacher will only respond with cursory two or three words, but a longer response will elicit great joy from the student. Tourists are welcome to watch the debates and come face-to-face with this exciting practice.

The Great Hall of the Golden Roof sits at the centre of the complex and is its core building. It is so named for its remarkable three-tiered golden roof, adorned with patterns of lotus flowers and small statuettes of animals. From its colourful gates to the jade tiles and precious stones that are embedded in its walls, the hall is a luxurious feast for the eyes. Its main feature is an 11-metre-high (36 ft.) silver stupa that enshrines a gilded statue of Tsongkhapa. This stupa is surrounded by embroidered silk brocade, golden Buddha statuettes, burning butter lamps, and ornaments of all kinds.

Yet the monastery’s greatest claims to fame are its Three Treasures: Suyouhua or yak butter sculptures, embroidered silk brocade, and murals. Suyouhua are prepared at least three months in advance by resident monks for the grand butter sculpture show on the night of January 15th according to the Chinese lunar calendar. This art dates back over 1,300 years and involves a phenomenal degree of discipline. To prevent the butter from melting as they sculpt it, they must work in sub-zero temperatures and constantly dip their hands in freezing cold water. The elder monks must really have to butter them up so they don’t get cold feet!

Kumbum Monastery 01

[1] Stupa: A hemispherical structure with a small interior designed for storing Buddhist relics and for private meditation.

[2] Kalachakra: The term literally means “Wheel of Time” or “Time Cycles” and can be applied to both the practice and the name of the Tantric deity attached to it. It revolves around the concept of time and cycles, from the cycles of planets to the cycles of breathing.

[3] Sutra: One of the sermons of the historical Buddha.

The Labrang Monastery

With its white-washed walls and golden roofs, the Labrang Monastery rises up along the banks of the Daxia River in Xiahe County like an imperial palace hidden amongst the trees. Its location places it at an intersection between four major ethnic groups, the Tibetans, Mongolians, Han Chinese, and the Hui people, meaning that over the years it has been influenced by numerous cultures. It boasts the largest population of resident monks outside of Tibet and is one of six major monasteries dedicated to the Gelugpa branch of Tibetan Buddhism, standing alongside other prestigious academies such as the Drepung Monastery in Tibet and the Kumbum Monastery in Qinghai.

It was founded in 1709 by a first generation Jamyang Zhépa named Ngawang Tsöndrü (1648–1721), a title which meant that he ranked third in importance after the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama[1]. The northern district of Xiahe City is almost completely dominated by the monastery complex, meaning it’s largely regarded as a monastic city. Let’s just hope the locals don’t develop a holier-than-thou attitude! Unlike many of the cities dotted throughout Gansu province, over 50% of Xiahe’s population is made up of Tibetan people and this is reflected in the culture, architecture, and lifestyle enjoyed by the locals.

In its heyday, Labrang was home to nearly 4,000 monks, but these numbers rapidly declined due to disruption during the Cultural Revolution. The population is now capped at 1,800 monks, who travel from across China for the coveted opportunity to study there. During their study, each monk chooses to join one of the six dratsang or colleges within the complex, which each offer different specialities ranging from theology to traditional Tibetan medicine. From then on, the monastery’s library is their best friend, as it contains over 60,000 sutras[2] dedicated to various topics. Imagine trying to get through all of those in your lifetime!

The complex is separated into 18 halls, one golden stupa[3], and a sutra debating area, which are all a stunning mixture of Han and Tibetan architectural styles. There is even a museum within the complex, which features exhibitions of statues, sutras, and murals along with an array of Tibetan language books, history books, medicines, and other artistic objects that can be purchased.

The Grand Sutra Hall is the main area used for religious activities and its interior is delicately decorated with shrines, murals of Buddha, and bookcases stacked with sutra scrolls. Located just to its northwest is the Grand Golden Tile Hall, which is a six-storey building with a roof made from bronze tiles that are plated with gold. The architecture has a certain Nepalese flair and, within the hall, there stands a bronze statue of Buddha crafted by Nepalese artisans. In front of the hall gate, there stands a stele[4] with Han, Tibetan, Manchu, and Mongolian characters inscribed upon it by the Jiaqing Emperor of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912). As if being multilingual wasn’t impressive enough!

Another major highlight of the complex is the three-storey Barkhang, which is the monastery’s traditional printing press. Hidden down a small lane, this hall boasts rows and rows of over 20,000 wood blocks that are used for printing sutras and religious texts. Near to the Barkhang, the Hall of Hayagriva serves as a repository for vivid murals and contains a rare 12 metre (39 ft.) high statue of Hayagriva, the wrathful manifestation of the goddess Guanyin with six arms, three faces, and a characteristically fierce scowl. This is just one of the many thousands of statues scattered throughout the complex, some of which are made out of gold, silver, aluminium, bronze, wood, jade, and all manner of opulent materials.

Nowadays the monastery is still an important pilgrimage destination for Tibetans living across China. Vibrant and lively festivals take place here throughout the year, but none are more magnificent than the festivities that surround Losar or the Tibetan New Year. Each year during Losar, a huge Thangka or Buddhist painting is hung on the monastery’s Thangka Wall. Thousands of pilgrims travel to attend the celebration and then walk the kora path or pilgrimage circuit, which winds around the complex and is littered with colourful prayer wheels. So, if you’re taking a trip to Labrang, be prepared for lots of walking!

[1] The Panchen Lama: The highest ranking lama after the Dalai Lama according to Tibetan Buddhism.

[2] Sutra: One of the sermons of the historical Buddha.

[3] Stupa: A hemispherical structure with a small interior designed for storing Buddhist relics and for private meditation.

[4] Stele: An upright stone slab or pillar that bears an inscription and usually marks a burial site, like a tombstone.

Mati Temple

The name “Mati” literally means “Horse’s Hoof” and the temple was so-named because it houses the hoof-prints of a celestial horse. According to legend, as this horse descended from heaven to the mortal world, it landed on a rock with such force that it imprinted its hoof-prints onto it. This mythical rock has been preserved to this day and can still be found within the sacred Mati Hall. The actual name of the complex is Puguang Temple, as it was renamed during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), but the fabled hoof-prints are so integral to its reputation that most people still refer to it by its equine-inspired name. After all, when it comes to sacred animals, you better not horse around!

It was first built during the Northern Liang Dynasty (397-460) and was originally designed as a quiet place for study and meditation, but its illustrious reputation soon resulted in flocks of monks descending on the site. In its heyday, it’s rumoured that hundreds of monks lived at the temple. It was so popular that grottoes continued to be constructed and renovated right up until the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912). Some of them are up to 10 kilometres (6 mi) apart so, if you decide to make a visit, be prepared for lots of walking!

The 70 caves that make up the complex were hand-carved into the cliff-face of Linsong Mountain, about 65 kilometres (40 mi) north of Zhangye, and can be separated into 7 grotto groups: Mati Temple, Shenguo Temple, Qianfo or “Thousand Buddha” Caves, Jinta or “Golden Tower” Temple, Upper Guanyin Cave, Middle Guanyin Cave, and Lower Guanyin Cave.

The main Mati Temple, sometimes referred to as the “Thirty-Three Layers of the Heavens”, is the most striking looking, as it features 21 grottoes arranged in 7 levels that were made to resemble the shape of a pagoda. The Bodhisattva Tara is enshrined inside this temple for visitors to worship. Stairwells, hidden passageways, and balconies lead to the many grottoes that were hand-carved from the cliff-face by diligent monks, providing stunning views from both the ground and the dizzying heights of the upper caves. Of these grottoes, the Hidden Buddha Grotto is the largest one of its kind in existence in China!

The Thousand Buddha Caves are easy to navigate, since they are primarily in the form of a square. There are four main sites within these caves that together contain over 40 Buddhist statues and 300 square metres (3,230 sq. ft.) of stunning murals, which date back to the Northern Wei (386–535 AD), Western Wei (535–557), Yuan (1271-1368), and Ming (1368-1644) dynasties.

Unlike the other sections of the temple, it is important to note that the Jinta Temple is separate from the main temple complex and is actually about 15 kilometres (9 mi) away from Mati Temple. While this section of the temple is quite small, it is known for its statue of an Apsara, a female spirit associated with clouds and water in Buddhist mythology. It is also embedded on the cliff-face over 60 metres (196 ft.) above ground. To put that into perspective, it is so high off the ground that you could fit the White House under it three times over! Alongside the statue of the Apsara, the temple boasts over two dozen statues of various deity figures such as Buddhas and bodhisattvas.

With the snow-capped Qilian Mountains behind and the jade-hued grasslands stretching out in front, the scenery surrounding the Mati Temple is unparalleled in its natural beauty. It rests just outside of a small village that is also conveniently named Mati. It seems those hoof-prints really made their mark after all! Since the village is populated primarily by members of the Yugur ethnic minority, visitors to the area are also welcome to indulge in a few Yugur customs. From enjoying a cup of pure chang, a locally brewed wine made from barley, to sampling sumptuous chunks of traditional stewed lamb, you won’t want to miss out on a chance to connect with these gentle, nomadic people. If you want to extend your stay, you can even spend a few days in one of their yurts and take part in a few horse rides. Just don’t walk behind the horses, or you may end up with a sacred hoof-print on your head!



[1] Bodhisattva: The term literally means “one whose goal is awakening”. It refers to a person who seeks enlightenment and is thus on the path to becoming a Buddha. It can be applied to anyone, from a newly inducted Buddhist to a veteran or “celestial” bodhisattva who has achieved supernatural powers through their training.

[2] The Yugur People: Also known as Yellow Uyghurs, they are one of China’s 56 recognised ethnic groups and live almost exclusively in the Sunan Yugur Autonomous County of Gansu province. They are a nomadic Turkic-speaking people who primarily follow Tibetan Buddhism and are renowned for their beautiful folk songs.


Watch the video about Mati Temple:


Mati Temple is one of the many wonderful stops on our travel: Explore the Silk Road in China.


The Maijishan Grottoes


The drooping cypresses, wild flowers, and verdant grasses that surround the Maiji Mountains are a nature lover’s paradise, rich with inviting sights and fragrances. Yet break through the forest or look up through the trees and you’ll be met with the most awe-inspiring sight of all, a 16-metre (52 ft.) tall statue of Buddha that is over four times the size of a fully grown African elephant! This is just a small portion of the Maijishan Grottoes, a complex of 194 caves that have been cut directly into the cliff-face and filled with over 7,200 Buddhist sculptures and 1,000 square metres (10,700 sq. ft.) of intricate murals. They are considered one of the Four Grand Groups of Grottoes, standing alongside the Mogao Grottoes in Dunhuang, the Yungang Caves in Datong, and the Longmen Grottoes in Luoyang.

The mountain itself sits at an altitude of 1,700 metres (5,577 ft.) and is named “Maiji”, meaning “wheat”, “corn”, or “grain stack”, due to its unusual appearance. It is tall in the middle, narrow at the bottom, and completely flat on the top, meaning it resembles a stack of wheat. So be careful when you take photographs of this scenic spot, or they might come out a little grainy! The caves are separated by number, with numbers 1 to 50 on the western cliff-face and numbers 51-191 on the eastern cliff-face.

The sudden surge in popularity enjoyed by Buddhist grottoes started sometime during the Later Qin Dynasty (384-417), when Buddhism began making its way from India to China via the Silk Road. It gradually travelled through Gansu province thanks to the support of the Northern Liang Dynasty (397–460) and it was around about this time that construction of the Maijishan Grottoes began. Sometime between 420 and 422, a monk named Tanhong settled at Maijishan and began building a small monastic community there. He was swiftly joined by another monk named Xuangao, who brought 100 followers to the mountain, and eventually this community grew to be over 300 strong.

The grottoes’ unique location resulted in a strange mixture of artistic styles, as they rest near to the East-West route that connected Xi’an with Lanzhou and Dunhuang. This route eventually led as far south as India, and so their position at this pivotal crossroads resulted in the sculptors being heavily influenced by Indian and Southeast Asia styles of art. Although the earliest artistic influences came from Central Asia, sculptures from around about the 6th century have a much more southern India and Asian appearance. As the caves were renovated and repaired during the Song (960-1279) and Ming (1368-1644) dynasties, the sculptures took on far more central and eastern Chinese-style features.

Construction of the grottoes reached its peak during the Northern Wei (386-535), Western Wei (535–557), and Northern Zhou (557-581) dynasties, but continued well into the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1912) dynasties, representing over 1,000 years’ worth of effort and artistry. The earlier caves are far more simplistic in design and mainly feature a seated Buddha flanked by bodhisattvas[1] and other attendants. The most commonly used Buddha in these sculptures is known as Amitābha, the principal Buddha of the Pure Land branch of Buddhism.

He is well-known for his ability to enable his followers to be reborn into his heaven, known as the “Pure Land”, where they worship diligently until they are made into bodhisattvas and Buddhas in their own right. This school of Buddhism was hugely popular during the Western Wei Dynasty, hence why such emphasis was placed upon it in Buddhist grottoes at the time. After all, who could resist the opportunity to become worshipped as a demi-god?

The bodhisattvas who usually accompany Amitābha are Avalokitesvara on his right and Mahasthamaprapta on his left. Avalokitesvara is the most identifiable, as he is typically depicted with an image of Amitābha on his headdress and a small water flask in his hands. In a few more hundred years, Avalokitesvara will change genders and eventually reappear in the grottoes as the bodhisattva of mercy, known as Guanyin. That being said, when it comes to eternal enlightenment, it doesn’t really matter if you’re a man or a woman! Other statues include those of the historical Shakyamuni[2] Buddha and Maitreya[3], the Buddha of the Future.

Nearly all of the sculptures are made from a mixture of clay and some sort of binding agent, which has helped to preserve them. There are a few stone sculptures dotted throughout the complex that are made of sandstone, but bizarrely not the kind that is indigenous to the mountain. Instead, this sandstone is of unknown origin and to this day no one knows how these statues were made or how they were hauled up into the caves. Perhaps it was an act of God, or Buddha!


[1] Bodhisattva: The term literally means “one whose goal is awakening”. It refers to a person who seeks enlightenment and is thus on the path to becoming a Buddha. It can be applied to anyone, from a newly inducted Buddhist to a veteran or “celestial” bodhisattva who has achieved supernatural powers through their training.

[2] Shakyamuni: One of the titles of Gautama Buddha, the central figure and founder of the Buddhist faith. It is derived from the place named Sakya, which is where he was born.

[3] Maitreya: In the Buddhist tradition, Maitreya is a bodhisattva who will appear on Earth sometime in the future and achieve complete enlightenment. He will be the successor to the present Buddha, Gautama Buddha, and is thus regarded as a sort of future Buddha.


Maijishan Grottoes is one of the many wonderful stops on our travel: Explore the Silk Road in China

Shuanglin Temple

shuanglin Temple 02

Just 6 kilometres (4 mi) southwest of Pingyao Ancient Town, nestled deep within the countryside of Shanxi, the small village of Qiaotou hosts one of the most magnificent Buddhist temples in China. The Shuanglin Temple, which is included under Pingyao as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is noted not only for its venerable age but for the more than 2,000 painted statues that decorate its halls.

This vast collection, made by moulding clay over wooden frames, has earned the temple the nickname “The Museum of Coloured Sculptures”. They are not purely works of religious art, but instead are imbued with human features and attributes to symbolise the unification of the spiritual and the physical, or rather the connection between deities and human beings.

Unfortunately the lack of historical documents has meant that researchers currently do not know exactly when the temple was first built. However, the oldest stone tablet within the complex indicates that it was rebuilt in 571 AD during the Northern Qi Dynasty (550-577) and two huge locust trees, planted during the Tang Dynasty (618-907), attest to this ancient origin. It’s estimated that the temple itself is over 1,400 years old, although it underwent large scale restoration throughout the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1912) dynasties and much of its surviving architecture reflects those styles. Bear in mind, when you’re 1,400 years old, you need a little extra help to keep looking good!

Shuanglin Temple 03It was originally called Zhongdu Temple but was renamed Shuanglin during the Song Dynasty (960-1279). The term “shuang” means “two” or “double” while “lin” means “woods”, and together the name refers to one of Sakyamuni’s[1] sutras[2] in which he states that “nirvana is between two trees”. Unfortunately he never specified which two trees they were!

The many sculptures littered throughout the temple were carved between the 12th and 19th centuries. Their height varies from 30 centimetres (1 ft.) right up to nearly 4 metres (13 ft.) and the vast majority are of Buddha or various bodhisattvas[3], but a few are warrior guards, heavenly generals, and even common people. Their colourful backdrops are resplendent with mountains, rivers, clouds, flowers, and dense forests.

The complex is surrounded by a high wall with a gate, giving it the appearance of a fortress. Buddhism may be a peaceful religion, but it still has to protect itself! The inner temple consists of three main sections: the ten main halls in the centre; the sutra library and monks’ living quarters in the east; and a courtyard to the west.

In the Hall of the Heavenly Kings, a sculpture of the deity Maitreya sits at the centre, while the Four Heavenly Kings rest in the north. They are all 3 metres (10 ft.) in height and each one carries an implement of symbolic importance. The first has a pipa[4], which symbolises earth; the second has a sword, which represents gold; the third has a snake, which signifies wind; and the final one holds an umbrella, which unsurprisingly denotes water. Together these instruments are meant to bless the worshipper with good weather, abundant crops, and subsequent wealth. After all, who would pray for a bunch of snakes and umbrellas?

The Arhat Hall is home to a large sculpture of Guanyin, the Buddhist deity of mercy, flanked by eighteen sculptures of arhats[5]. The face and aspect of each arhat is different; one is drunk, one is sick, some are fat, and some are thin. They are all designed to show off the artisans’ particular skill at carving and among them the mute arhat is considered the most magnificent.

His facial expression is heavily exaggerated, with pursed lips, a deeply furrowed brow, and piercing eyes, and his chest and belly are distended, as if to suggest he is struggling to breathe. His expression, coupled with his posture, implies that he has seen much injustice in the world but, as a mute, can only communicate his frustration through his body language.

In the Thousand-Buddha Hall, there is another statue of Guanyin with her right leg bent and her left leg placed delicately on a lotus leaf. A wonderful sculpture of Skanda, the celestial guardian devoted to protecting Buddhist monasteries, is at her side. The 500 statues and paintings within this hall are often studied to help recreate traditional outfits of the Ming Dynasty.

Yet another statue of Guanyin takes centre-stage in the Bodhisattva Hall, but this time in the style of the Thousand-Armed Guanyin. Remember she’s the deity of mercy, not modesty! The statue does not literally have a thousand arms, but the many clawed hands that surround this figure are both strangely attractive and intimidating. It’s bad enough being tickled by just two hands, but imagine how it would feel with twenty!

[1] Sakyamuni: One of the titles of Gautama Buddha, the central figure and founder of the Buddhist faith. It is derived from the place named Sakya, which is where he was born.

[2] Sutra: One of the sermons of the historical Buddha.

[3] Bodhisattva: The term literally means “one whose goal is awakening”. It refers to a person who seeks enlightenment and is thus on the path to becoming a Buddha. It can be applied to anyone, from a newly inducted Buddhist to a veteran or “celestial” bodhisattva who has achieved supernatural powers through their training.

[4] Pipa: A four-stringed plucking instrument that has a pear-shaped wooden body and anywhere from 12 to 26 frets. It is sometimes referred to as the Chinese lute.

[5] Arhat: A “perfected person” who has achieved enlightenment by following the teachings of Buddha.

Join our travel to visit the Shuanglin Temple in Shanxi: Explore Chinese Culture through the Ages

The Yungang Grottoes

Yungang Grottoes01

At the southern foot of the Wuzhou Mountains, deep within the Shi Li River Valley, the Yungang Grottoes stretch for over a kilometre and are etched indelibly into the rock-face. Just 16 kilometres west of Datong City, this group of 53 caves, 252 grottoes, and over 51,000 statues and statuettes have inspired visitors from all religious backgrounds for centuries.

They were carved sometime between 453 and 525 AD, during the Northern Wei Dynasty (386-534 AD), and are categorised as one of the “Four Grand Groups of Grottoes” in China. The grottoes combine features from traditional Chinese art with those from foreign art styles, such as Greek and Indian, while the statues themselves range in height from 2 centimetres (0.7 in.) to 17 metres (56 ft.). So if you thought you were short, imagine being a thimble-sized statue next to one the size of an oak tree!

Yungang Grottoes04Unsurprisingly the grottoes were listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site in 2001 and are currently divided into three major groups open to the public: the east section (caves 1-4); the central section (caves 5-13); and the west section (caves 14-53). Cave No. 6 is the largest, with a height of about 20 metres (65 ft.), but it is Cave No. 5 that contains the exemplary 17-metre-tall statue of Buddha. Unfortunately, over a period of more than 1,500 years, many of the statues have been damaged by war, pollution, and natural disasters, so parts of the complex are periodically shut down for maintenance. After all, at the grand old age of 1,500, they certainly deserve a little face lift every now and then!

The construction of the grottoes can be split into three time periods: the Early Period (460-465 AD); the Middle Period (c. 471-494); and the Late Period (494-525). Those constructed in the Early Period are considered the most magnificent and contain the five main caves masterminded by the revered monk Tan Yao (caves 16-20). These particular caves are between 13 to 15 metres in height and are generally U-shaped with an arched roof, imitating the thatched sheds that were prolific in ancient India. Each cave has a door and a window, while the main part of the cave is taken up with the central statue and the walls are bedecked with carvings of thousands of smaller Buddhist statuettes. Just imagine all of those tiny eyes staring down at you!

Throughout the Middle Period, the artistic style became more traditionally Chinese and the caves themselves reflect the hall arrangement that was popularised during the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD). By the Late Period, the caves and statues had become much smaller in size and simpler in style, giving them a certain stately elegance. Perhaps they’d come to the realisation that, when it comes to spiritual enlightenment, size doesn’t matter!

The history of the Yungang Grottoes is inextricably tied with that of the Northern Wei Dynasty. After the fall of the Jin Dynasty (265-420), a Turkic nomadic tribe known as the Tuoba clan took control of northern China and established their own dynasty. With the exception of Emperor Taiwu, the Tuoba clan were devout Buddhists, predominantly for political reasons as the religion helped them maintain control of their territory. Sometime between 398 and 494, Emperor Xiaowen established Pingcheng (modern-day Datong) as their capital and it would remain this way until 523, when Pingcheng would be abandoned due to warfare.

Yungang Grottoes03Originally the emperor only commissioned five caves, to be built by Tan Yao and to depict the first five Wei emperors in Buddhist forms or as Buddha. These are now known as caves number 16 to 20 and were completed in 465 AD. From 471 to 494 the second phase of construction began and it is thought that caves 5 through 13 were built during this time. All of these grottoes were built under imperial patronage, but that unfortunately ended when the Wei court abandoned Pingcheng and moved their capital to Luoyang. In short, like water in the surrounding sands, the money dried up! All of the caves built after 494 are thought to have been financed privately, which may explain why they’re so small!

During the Liao Dynasty (907-1125), wooden structures were built in front of the grottoes in an attempt to shield them from weather damage and incorporate them into temples. These were known as the Ten Famous Temples but were tragically destroyed due to warfare in 1122. The stunning wooden temples that can be found in front of caves 5, 6, and 7 were built for a similar purpose during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) but appear to have survived intact. From the 1950s onwards, numerous restorations and preservation projects have been implemented to protect the grottoes from further damage.


The Yungang Grottoes is one of the many wonderful stops on our Cultural Tour in Shanxi.


Dazhao Temple

Dazhao Temple

Dazhao Temple is one of the oldest temples in Inner Mongolia dedicated to the Gelugpa branch of Tibetan Buddhism, throughout its long history and in spite of its beauty, it remained largely ignored for a number of years. Like the overlooked middle child, Dazhao simply wasn’t good enough to earn the kind of respect its older brothers in Lhasa enjoyed! Yet that would all change in 1586, after a visit from the 3rd Dalai Lama.

“Dazhao” literally means “Big Temple” and the temple itself was originally built in 1579, during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), in the city of Hohhot. In fact, Hohhot may not even exist if it weren’t for Dazhao. Altan Khan, the leader of a Mongol subgroup known as the Tümeds, began building the temple in 1557 in an effort to impress the Ming Court and established the city around the temple as a sort of hugely costly afterthought! Yet it didn’t reach the pinnacle of its fame until 1586, when the 3rd Dalai Lama visited the temple and dedicated a colossal silver statue of Sakyamuni[1] to it.

Silver Buddha DazhaoOvernight this appeared to elevate it in status from relative unknown to perhaps the most important Buddhist site in Inner Mongolia. The statue is so integral to the temple’s identity that many people still refer to it as Yinfo or “Silver Buddha” Temple. Thereafter it became a hotspot for ancient Chinese celebrities and was even blessed with a visit by the Kangxi Emperor of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) during the late 17th century. His visit was commemorated by a series of stunning murals, which have been beautifully preserved. Yet surprisingly this magnificent statue only narrowly escaped destruction!

During the Cultural Revolution, the temple was converted into a factory and all religious artefacts were meant to have been destroyed. However, at that time, the hall in which the Silver Buddha rested was being used as a storage room. When Red Guards came to ransack the remaining relics in the temple, they didn’t notice the statue behind all of the other stored goods and thus it was spared a gruesome fate!

Dazhao HohhotThe temple complex itself predominantly follows the Han-style of architecture, although the main hall represents a wonderful intermingling of Han and Tibetan features. The complex is separated into three parts: a two-storey hall at the front, the Jing Tang or Hall for Chanting in the centre, and the Fo Tang or Hall for Worshipping Buddha at the rear. The silver statue rests in the Fo Tang and has done so for the past 400 years. Towering in at an impressive 2.5 metres (8 ft.) in height, it is the largest of its kind in China and is about the same size as an Asian elephant!

It is considered one of the temple’s Three Treasures, along with the remaining murals and the vivid carvings of dragons engraved on two golden pillars that sit either side of the statue. Several of the murals, including those related to the story of Buddha, are now stored in Hohhot Museum in the interests of preservation. The entrance to the Fo Tang is flanked by two lifelike stone statues of lions, and delightful exhibitions of traditional musical instruments and Mongolian dragon sculptures can be found scattered throughout the complex. Just in front of the temple, an old well supposedly boasts the freshest and coolest spring water in the region, further adding to the mystical qualities of this ancient place.

[1] Sakyamuni: One of the titles of Gautama Buddha, the central figure and founder of the Buddhist faith. It is derived from the place named Sakya, which is where he was born.

The Mogao Caves

In the extreme northwest of Gansu province lie the cliffs of Mogao, forming the eastern edge of Mount Mingsha and rising over the Dachuan River just 25 kilometres (15.5 mi) southeast of Dunhuang. The 492 caves dotted across the cliff-face were each hand-carved and were used to store some of the greatest Buddhist art in history, including over 2,000 painted sculptures, thousands of murals, and all manner of beautiful relics.

This colossal achievement began sometime during the 4th century and ended roughly in the 14th century. Unsurprisingly it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987 and now remains one of the most popular attractions in Gansu. After all, when you’ve put one thousand years-worth of effort into something, you’d expect it to at least get noticed!

The cave complex is separated into two sections: the northern caves, which functioned as living quarters, meditation chambers, and burial sites for the monks, and are artistically quite plain; and the southern ones, which were used for pilgrimage and are far more decorative. Like the good cups and saucers, the best paintings and sculptures were wheeled out only for visitors!

The history behind these caves begins, rather unexpectedly, with failure! During the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD), an envoy named Zhang Qian was sent on an expedition to the ancient country of Bactria, but this venture proved unsuccessful. In a panic, the Han court built long sections of garrisoned walls along the northern frontier and, as a result, the city of Dunhuang was established as a military post in 117 BC. Rulers vied for control over this stretch of land since it contained the Hexi Corridor, which was an integral part of the ancient Silk Road and thus an invaluable asset at the time. Just imagine owning shares in Microsoft, and you’re on the right track!

mogao caves 02Frequent conflicts meant that Dunhuang would regularly be cut off from the imperial court for long periods at a time, and this enabled the city to become far more cosmopolitan. Merchants, scholars, and monks from across Asia would settle in the city, propagating anything from Buddhism and Nestorianism to Persian rugs and Egyptian cotton! Separated from the state as it was, this meant that the building of the Mogao Caves could begin in 366 AD, even though the imperial court didn’t acknowledge Buddhism as a religion until 444.

According to an ancient book known as the Fokan Ji by Li Junxiu, a monk named Le Zun started carving out the caves after he had a vision of one thousand Buddhas bathed in golden light. This is why the Mogao Caves are occasionally referred to as the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas. As more monks travelled to join Le Zun, the site swiftly flourished, although it initially served only as a place of meditation for monks and didn’t become a place of worship for the public until the Sui Dynasty (581-618). It reached its peak during the Tang Dynasty (618-907), when evidence suggests there were well over 1,000 caves. So it seems Le Zun’s vision was right, give or take a few caves!

Each cave was elaborately painted and served a purpose, whether it be to aid meditation, provide a visual representation of enlightenment, or simply to serve as a teaching tool for those who were unaware of Buddhist scripture. Yet interestingly not all of the caves are religious, as several of them depict secular themes such as pivotal moments in Central Asian history.

The complex boasts a great variety of painting styles, with the earlier caves showing more of a Western influence and those built during the Tang Dynasty onwards incorporating an amalgamation of Chinese and Central Asian styles known as the Dunhuang style. Some of the most decorated caves have paintings all over the walls and ceilings. It’s hard enough just painting a single room one colour, so imagine trying to cover it with beautiful murals!

In terms of the sculptures, the most famous are two giant statues of Maitreya Buddha[1], one towering in at nearly 36 metres (118 ft.) and the other a respectable 27 metres (88.5 ft.). The former was constructed in 695 and has had to be repaired multiple times, meaning only the head retains its original appearance. The latter was completed in 741 and is in far better condition, with only the right hand having been replaced.

mogao caves 03Towards the end of the Tang Dynasty, the site gradually declined and construction of new caves had ceased entirely by the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368). As Islam slowly conquered much of Central Asia and the Silk Road was superseded by sea-routes, the popularity of Dunhuang and Buddhism plummeted. During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), the city was steadily abandoned and the Mogao Caves were all but forgotten. The 20th century saw renewed interest in the site, where it became popular once again as a place of worship.

By this time, many of the caves had been blocked by sand and a Taoist monk named Wang Yuan-lu set about uncovering them. In 1900 he made perhaps one of the most significant discoveries of the 20th century; a walled-up cave containing 45,000 manuscripts! This vast ancient library housed 1,100 bundles of scrolls and over 15,000 paper books, ranging in topic from Buddhist scriptures to historical records. Unfortunately Wang opted to sell numbers of these manuscripts to foreign archaeologists such as Aurel Stein and his reputation suffered greatly as he was condemned for the loss of these artefacts.

The cave originally functioned as a memorial for a resident monk named Hongbian and served as his personal retreat during his lifetime. The documents in the cave range in date from 406 to 1002 and were found alongside other Buddhist paraphernalia such as figurines, textiles, and banners. It appears to have been sealed sometime during the 11th century, although historians are not exactly sure why. Some believe it was simply a repository for preserving documents, while others suggest that it was closed up to protect the contents from an incoming invasion. Perhaps, even in death, Hongbian was just a little tired of people constantly walking in and out of his private hideaway!

While the majority of manuscripts are in Chinese, several are in various other languages including Tibetan, Uyghur, Sanskrit, and even Hebrew. The grandest discovery came in the form of the Diamond Sutra, which dates back to 868 AD and is the earliest printed book in existence. The insight these works have given into the history of Central Asia is invaluable and the illustrious heritage of the site echoes throughout its many caves.

[1] Maitreya: In the Buddhist tradition, Maitreya is a bodhisattva who will appear on Earth sometime in the future and achieve complete enlightenment. He will be the successor to the present Buddha, Gautama Buddha, and is thus regarded as a sort of future Buddha.

Mogao Grottoes is one of the many wonderful stops on our travel: Explore the Silk Road in China