Times of India
Urmi Mukherjee, TNN | Dec 13, 2014, 12.32AM IST
The last rays of the sun sneak in through the rows of bone-dry poplars, bathing the sculptured wall murals depicting slices of the Buddha’s life in a yellowish hue.
The broad path leads through the murals to a neat row of three-tiered pagoda-style wooden structures that seem to be carved into the surface of the mountain.
As our Chinese guide starts narrating the history of the Yungang Grottoes, I can’t help but wonder, “Where exactly are the ‘caves’?” And then, as he ushers us in through the narrow path into the dark interiors of the ‘pagoda’, there is a collective gasp of wonder from the 20-odd group members.
We have to throw back our heads as far as possible to look up at the colossal structure towering over us.
The ‘pagoda’ is only a gate that leads into a cave, and standing out from the rock surface is a 17-metre-tall figure of the man who tied India and China in a common thread 2,000 years ago — The Buddha.
With 252 caves and 51,000 statues that reflect the first peak period of Chinese Buddhism art from the 5th to 6th centuries AD, the Yungang Grottoes near Datong city in northern China’s Shanxi province is now listed as a Unesco World Heritage Centre.
Several of the Buddha statues in the grottoes — spread over a kilometre — stand over 10 metres tall. In contrast, some of the smaller Buddhas — or Sakyamuni, as the guide calls him — in the wall are merely a few centimetres in height.
Adorned with beautiful carvings on the ceilings, walls and archways and painted with natural dye that includes gold dust, the Yungang Grottoes are currently being restored.
While a set of caves in the front has already been restored, another set at the back is still in its original shape, without the guard of the pagoda-gates.
Shanxi’s bond with Buddhism doesn’t end here. Barely an hour’s drive from the grottoes is another wonder created at approximately the same time as the cave sculptures — the Xuankong Temple.
Popularly known as the ‘Hanging Temple’, it’s the only shrine combining the three Chinese traditional religions — Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism.
Perched on a sheer rock face, supported by only wooden beams, it is worth a visit — if only to witness the limits of architecture… and how they have been crossed.
Listed in Time magazine in December 2010 as one of the “ten dangerous and magical buildings in the world”, the hanging temple has withstood scores of disasters, including earthquakes, in the last 1,500 years.
A walk up the narrow passages, through the nooks and corners of the semi-dark interiors, up the steep and narrow iron-plated stairs, with glimpses of the statues in niches once in a while, and the spectacular view of the rugged Hengshan mountains surrounding the temple left us with an experience like no other.
There’s more to do in Shanxi. Drive further south from Datong — which is just a two-and-a-half-hour drive from the Mongolia border — is the Wutai Mountain, “the largest and earliest international Buddhist ashram of China”, and another Unesco World Heritage Centre.
Mt Wutai (the name translates to ‘five-plateau mountain’) is about a four-hour drive from Taiyuan, Shanxi’s headquarters.
It is home to some of the earliest wooden structures — in the form of the Xiantong, Nanchan and Foguang temples, among a host of others.
Spending a few hours in the complex, sitting in the shadow of the pine trees frequented by magpies and adorned with colourful prayer flags, and watching the Han Buddhist monks go about their daily routine, is a meditative exercise, and well worth the experience. It’s a delight for shutterbugs: the temple complex makes for a stunning picture against the backdrop of the snow-covered north peak (3,061m) of the Wutai, also the highest point in northern China. Shanxi, however, is not only about Buddhism. A couple of hours’ drive south of Taiyuan is the Pingyao Ancient City.
Yet another Unesco heritage site, the walled city, which is still inhabited, has now been turned into a complex where for tourists to get a feel of traditional Chinese architecture, banking, judicial system and food. Even the local hotels offer the traditional way of living wrapped in the comfort of modern facilities. For shopaholics, the stores lining the roads of the ancient city are perfect for picking up souvenirs. If you are a foodie, Shanxi will thrill you. While Datong alone offers a host of seafood, Shanxi is home to more than 100 types of noodles. And if all that were not enough, southern Shanxi is home to the magnificent Hukou falls — the world’s largest ‘yellow’ waterfall. In short, Shanxi has something for everyone. Bon voyage!
(The writer was in China at the invitation of the China National Tourist Office)