China Scenic - - Contents - By Yang Xuanzhang Pho­to­graphs by Yuan Rong­sun, n, and as cred­ited

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.

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