THE NINGXIA GROTTOES OES
Like the Yungang and Dunhuangh Grottoes, the Ningxia Grottoes are also cultural relics of the Silk Road, the artistic and historical values of which are by no means inferior to the others.
Windows to the Past
The Ningxia Grottoes leave one with a rather peculiar sensation. I’ve been to the “touristy” grottoes, like Yungang, Longmen and Dunhuang, at which one can always expect to encounter large numbers of other visitors. But when, after a lengthy journey, I finally arrived at the base of Xumi Mountain, in northwestern Guyuan City, Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, I experienced the precious relief of tranquility. There were no tourists there, just the compassionate, all-encompassing gaze of Buddha. Once in a while the odd song of a bird could be heard. Below there was a secluded valley, full of peach trees, which apparently in spring quietly transforms into a “river” of peace blossoms.
“This would be a great place to read!” one of my companions said. In fact, shortly afterward I found myself wanting to “read” as well, but not words on paper; instead what I wanted to read was the vivid history encapsulated in the sprawling grottoes within the mountains.
The Xumi Mountain Grottoes are not like Dunhuang and Longmen, which are hollowed out of the sides of open cliffs, so that they can be viewed in their entirety all at once; instead the Xumi Mountain Grottoes were created on the faces of eight connected cliffs like a long, winding path, running 1,800 meters north to south, and 700 meters east to west. Over 100 of these grottoes of all sizes face outward from their respective mountains, some overlooking a river, some nestled at peaks, and some secluded in crevasses. What’s especially unusual to see is that the grottoes from different eras are included, and were created consecutively.
From south to north the grottoes form eight different areas, forming a massive “book” that can be read like historical volumes. For example, the Zisun Palace section mainly consists of grottoes from the Northern Wei (AD 365–534) and Western Wei (AD 535–556) dynasties; while the Yuanguang Temple and Xiangguo Temple sections contain grottoes mostly from the Northern Zhou Dynasty (AD 557–581); and the Great Buddha Tower is a chapter from the Tang Dynasty (AD 618–907).
There are also numerous special “bookmarks”, namely unfinished grottoes, which are especially interesting in their own way: my guide told me that these often mark times in history when major events occurred,
such as the changing of a monarch or dynasty took place, royal decrees to destroy Buddhist artifacts were given, or troops arrived in the area. And the sudden cutoff of artifacts at Xumi Mountain, like a kite whose string has been severed, gives us insight on a unique circumstance here: once the Tang Dynasty had reached its pinnacle, no more grottoes were carved here, with even the Western Xia (Tangut Empire, AD 1038–1227) lords of the Ningxia region having abandoned the location, while artists continued to offer their exceptional skills to other grottoes, such as Dunhuang.
Despite this, the Ningxia Grottoes have much to offer as far as excellent chapters of the “book” go. The giant Buddha, carved from half of a mountain peak, is more than 3 meter taller than that at Longmen, and the Northern Zhou grottoes are particularly exquisite, even compared to the finest in all the country. The name of the mountain also bears special meaning, “Xumi” being the Chinese transliteration of the Sanskrit “Sumeru”, the tallest mountain in Buddhist folklore, which was said to consist of four types of precious stones, and was several dozen times the size of Earth itself. The fact that this mountain was given this name, despite the fact that it is not much more than 1,800 meters above sea level, and nestled among the Liupan Mountains, serves as testament to its level of importance at the time. As for the Shikong Great Buddha Temple carved out of stone, I’ve also heard an interesting phrase used to describe it: “the little Dunhuang of Ningxia that was once buried by the Tengger Desert”.
Grottoes of varying sizes were opened in the cliff of Xumi Mountain, the oldest being approximately 1,500 years old, most of which were constructed during a period spanning 300 years, from the Northern Wei Dynasty to Tang Dynasty. Photo/ Zhong Rong
These photos present one of the most brilliant of the Xumi Mountain Grottoes—the No. 45 Northern Zhou Grotto. The Buddha statues are large in number and the carving decorations on them are plentiful. Incense burners, flying apsaras and eight musicians playing instruments were carved on the center column of the cave. Some parts in the grotto are blackened by smoke and reveal that it was neglected and intentionally damaged.