China has four major Buddhist cave complexes - by far the most visited being the Longmen caves. Less well known are the Maijishan Grottoes. Situated in Gansu Province in the northwest of China, this astonishing example of cave architecture hewn from rock consists of over 7,000 Buddhist sculptures not to mention almost 1000 square meters of murals.
The name derives from that of the hill upon which the grottoes are built. It means wheat stack mountain and it rises 142 meters above the otherwise flat but lush landscape. It is believed that the history of the grottoes goes back to around 400AD when Buddhism reached China from India. There the traditions of cave shrines (see our fascinating article on Ajanta) extended in to the Chinese heartlands over the Silk Road.
In fact, Maijishan lies just a few miles south of the Silk Road and it was an obvious attraction to the monks and artists who traveled its route, some of whom chose to stay at the hill and begin the centuries long work on the grottoes.
One of the earliest written records of the place, is the biography of two monks, Tanhong and Xuangao who meditated there along with more than three hundred disciples. That was in 402AD but the greatest period of building was over a century later during the Western Wei and Northern Zhou dynasties. Yet even after the peak of construction in the late 500s the grottoes were continually added to, right up to the beginning of the twentieth century.
Immense Buddhas grace the almost perpendicular side of the mountain – the tallest is over 16 meters in height. The stairs which lead up and around the grottoes were originally made of wood but these have been slowly but steadily replaced by metal supports – for obvious safety reasons.
Nature wreaked havoc in 734 in the form of an earthquake which effectively split the grotto in to two – with just over 5- caves in the eastern section but a massive 140 in the western side. The sculptures have helped archeologists (from the 1950s onwards)to not only track the growth and advance of Chinese sculpture but the history and expansion of Buddhism in China.
The early sculptures are very much of the Indian school with the form evolving in to its own unique and indigenous representation of Chinese Buddhism. The sculptures here differ from those in other parts of China in as much as most of them are not carved directly from the rock.
The rock here is too soft for that sort of manipulation so the figures are, instead, clay models. Some are solid clay but many are built over a wooden frame. The few sculptures created from rock have been brought in from elsewhere.
Altogether the construction and constant restoration at Maijishan cover an incredible 12 Chinese dynasties. They represent a beautiful and graceful testament to the work and faith of countless generations of monks and artisans.