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Henan Gongxian Grottoes

Summary of GongXian Grottoes

2.5 km Northwest of Gongxian County, Henan Province lies a treasure trove of Buddhist sculptures and statues--Gongxian Grottoes.
Construction began in 517AD during the Northern Wei dynasty (386-557), it underwent continuous expansion during the successive dynasties include the Eastern Wei, Northern Qi, Tang and Song. By now, 3 giant Buddha statues, 1000 Buddhism niches, 238 statue niches, 7700 Buddha statues and 186 inscriptions remain intact within its 5 main secluded cloisters.
map of gongxian grottoes map
Mimicing Longmen Grottoes in style, but dwarfed by it in size, Gongxian Grottoes is nicknamed as "the Minor Longmen Grottoes".
If you cannot make it to Longmen, Gongxian Grottoes with its azaming collection of vivid statues and relief sculpture masterpieces, will keep you fully spellbound.

 Gongxian Grottoes' 15 “king and Queen Worship the Buddha” relief sculptures are the Only Ones Remain Intact in China

The drawing card of Gongxian Grottoes is its unrivalled collection of “king and Queen Worship the Buddha” relief sculptures. In addition, its dainty statues hailing from the Northern Wei dynasty and the  flying apsaras are especially mesmerizing.

Four Features of Gongxian Grottoes


(1) Square-shaped Center Pillars

Featuring square-shaped center pillars and flat ceilings, Gongxian Grottoes differentiates itself from its peers include Yungang Grottoes and Longmen Grottoes with dome ceilings. To ensure safety, square-shaped center columns are widely used, this turnes out to be an action of “kills two birds with one stone”: on one hand, it can avoid the collapse of grottoes and on the other hand, more room is spared to contain  sculptures. 

the Exquisite Scupltures on the Center Column

 Decoration Pattern

(2) the “King and Queen Worship the Buddha” Relief Sculptures

Among the stone statues, it is the “King and Queen Worship the Buddha” relief sculptures which decorate each side of Number One, Three and Four grottoes’ doorways that are of significant value. Since Longmen Grottoes Bingyang Dong’s “King and Queen Worship the Buddha” sculpture has been stolen and transferred out the boundary of China under the joint effort of businessman and foreign imperialists, and displayed in America now, Gongxian Grottoes’ “King and Queen Worship the Buddha” sculptures are the only representative masterpieces remain intact in China. Among the eighteen “King and Queen Worship Buddha Relief Sculptures”, fifteen remain intact, which are the rare priceless treasures.
No.1. Grotto’s “King and Queen Worship the Buddha” sculptures, in particular, is the most exquisite and well-preserved. The relief sculptures themed with donors emerged at that time, but are hard to discern nowadays due to the wind erosion.

the "King and Queen Worship Buddha" Relief Scupltures Focus on the King and the Queen Separately

(3) Numerous flying apsarases  Carved along the Bottom of Wall

Along the bottom of grottoes’ wall, a large quantity of flying apsarases is carved. In terms of quality and quantity, they are unparalled.
In Yungang Grottoes and Longmen Grottoes, the flying apsarases are depicted above the wall, like the flying fairies, but in Gongxian Grottoes, they are depicted along the bottom of wall, aiming to highlight their identity as the Buddha’s music band and their mission is to entertain the rulers. These statues breathe of secular life flavor and revive the music instrument and performance scene 1400 years ago.

(4) The Unique Style of Statues
Both Gongxian and Yungang are carved during the Northern Wei dynasty.  Yungang Grottoes’ statues feature deep eyes, high nose, slim body as well as refined and detached airs, while statues in Gongxian feature square faces and tranquil expressions.
It is a fine example of stone statue art’s evolution during its transition from the Northern Wei to the Tang dynasty.

Statues here are dainty, vivid and exquisite. Gongxian Grottoes boasts square or rectangular chapels interspersed by ornate columns carved with niches in four sides. These niches house countless statues depicting Buddha, attendants, flying apsaras and demons, etc.

Key Chapels of Gongxian Grottoes

Gongxian Grottoes
is divided into East and West area. No.1. and No.2. Grotto sit in the West area, while Number 3, 4 and 5 Grotto claim the East area.
At 6.5 m in width, 6.5m in length and 6m in height, No.1. Grotto is the biggest, with a center column at 2.8 m in width and length, and a base measuring 3.5m in width and length. Two 3-meter-high Vajrapani statues guard the door on each side, near the Vajrapani there are 3 Buddhist statues remain intact today. The interior and exterior of Number One Grotto is consistent and magnificent. Number Two Grotto has been deserted since it is not suitable for carving. No 3,4,5 Grotto’s doorway are supposed to have 2 king kong statues, but only two king kong statues remains in Number Five Grotto, and one king kong statue remains in Number Four Grotto.
No.1. Grotto

No.1. Grotto is is a square grotto, 6m in width and length, most famous for the “King and Queen Worship the Buddha” relief sculptures with simple and vivid composition on two sides of the wall, these sculptures consists of 3 tiers and 6 groups, reflecting the royal family’s religious activities, are the well-preserved relief sculptures in China. The three “King and Queen Worship the Buddha” relief sculpture both sides focus on the king and the queen respectively. They boast harmonious layout, mature skills and vivid shape. Such masterpieces remain intact are rare in China by now. Dancers and monsters scatter along the bottom of wall.

In the middle of this grotto erects a splendid square-shaped column, whose four sides are carved with Buddha niches, sheltering one Sakyamuni, two attendants, two Buddha in each niche. The background of Sakyamuni is the flame pattern which symbolizes bright, under his seat lie two lions, and on his two sides, fly fairies and lotus flowers are carved symmetrically.

 Flying Fairies

 Flying Fairies

The top of the center column is decorated with lotus, color bells and ribbons, featuring exquisite handcraft and stately air. Around the center column, various King kong statues are engraved. Below the king kong statues are Buddha with terrifying looks and expressions.

The ceiling of the grotto is carved with One thousand Buddha Niche, Buddha statues engraved within them vary in attire, expression and posture. Under the One Thousand Buddha niches, a three-tier “King and Queen Worship Buddha” relief sculpture present itself elegantly, shedding light on the religious ceremony of Northern Wei dynasty’s ruler class. Outside of No one grotto, two 3-meter-high King kong statues guard the door on each side.

Number Two Grotto

Number Two Grotto is unfinished because of this grotto is not suitable for carving. Thus, there is only 3 Buddhism niches built during Northern Wei dynasty remain intact today. South of the center column, there niches are carved to shelter one statue of Sakyamuni, accompanied by his two attendants and two Buddha, all stand on the lotus flowers.

Number Three Grotto and Number Four Grotto

Their layout resemble that of Grotto one, just smaller in size. Their square-shaped center column’s four sides are decorated with Buddha niches. The Grottoes’ east, west and north walls are engraved with Buddhism niches, while the south walls are decorated with the “King and Queen Worship the Buddha” relief sculpture. These two grottoes feature flat ceiling and decoration patterns of lotus or fly fairies placed into the checks orderly.

Different with Number One and Number Three Grotto, Number Four Grotto’ center column is divided into two layer of niches, the upper niche houses the main Buddha, which was colored during the Tang dynasty. And its “King and Queen Worship the Buddha” relief sculptures on the south wall have two layers on the left and four layers on the right (Number One and Number Three Grotto have 3 layers on both sides). Besides, under the left side of the relief sculpture, there is a mural which is rare seen in central China at that time.

Number Five Grotto

No Five Grotto is 3.2 m in length, 3m in height, the smallest among them. The ceiling is decorated with square pattern called Zaojin. In the heart of Zaojin, a lotus flower is in full blossom. Fly fairies gather around the lotus. Each corner of the ceiling is carved with Buddha statues. The whole composition is very luxurious. Outside of this grotto, two magnificent king kong statues guard the door. Both sides of door are decorated with inscriptions span from Northern Wei to Tang dynasty and one nine-story Buddhism tower is carved with unique layout.

the Decoration Pattern on the Ceiling called "Zaojin"

The Main Achievement of Gongxian Grottoes

Constructed around the late period of the Northern Wei dynasty, it represents the highest achievement at that time. Together with Longmen Grottoes, Yungang Grottoes, they form the first peak of stone sculpture art. Gongxian was constructed when the Buddhism prevailed under the government’s support.

Three traits make Gongxian Grottoes unusual:
First, the whole layout, include the façade of grottoes, the exterior of grottoes and the composition of statues, is brilliant and impeccable.
Second, the grottoes kept evolving, such as the square-shaped center column took shape. Second, the niches advanced to a higher level and Buddha statues’ new attire patterns emerged.
Third, “King and Queen Worship the Buddha” relief sculptures of grand scale were created. A sense of integration is brought out by the harmonious attires and figures. Various decorations bring much diversity to the whole picture also.

Gongxian Grottoes’ statues, with the majority hailing from the Northern Wei dynasty, and  a considerable number dating back to the Northern Qi and Tang dynasties, mirroring various influences. Their outstanding quality indicates their imperial background. Gongxian Grottoes marks the second climax of stone statue construction wave successive to Longmen Grottoes.

Further Reading: Stone Grotto Art

Stone Grotto Art is themed with Buddhism stories.
Stone Grotto art budded during the Northern Wei and Jin dynasty and reached its heyday during the Sui and Tang dynasties, thanks to the never-ending cultural exchanges.  For those discerning travellers, you can perceive a palpable trace of Indian and Greek culture influences. The traditional painting, architecture and carving techniques are combined into the creation of stone grottoes also, mirroring the Buddhism and its assimilation process by the Chinese culture. It is the living museum for people to study Buddhism history, social history, art history and cultural exchange history. Stone Grotto Art is closely associated with Buddhism, serving the Buddhists mainly. They vary in different time and space.

Further Reading: Thousand Buddha Niche

Thousand Buddha Niche was made in 666AD TO 667AD during Tang dynasty, it is 1.5 m in height, 2.1 m in width. 999 little Buddha statues, together with one sitting Buddha, make up one thousand.

Statues built during Northern Wei dynasty here quite different from that of Longmen Grottoes


Copy of Inscriptions


The "King and Queen Worship Buddha" Relief Sculptures in Number One Grotto


Statues carved along the bottom of Wall


The "King and Queen Worship Buddha" Relief Sculptures

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