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Xumishan Grottoes


Mount“Xumishan” , the center of the universe

According to ancient Indian myth, Xumishan is the king of all mountains and the center of universe.  Buddhism doctrine holds that the universe consists of three parts: the upper, middle and lower part. The upper parts is the infinite star-studded universe, and above the dome of universe (also the peak of Xumishan) sits the Paradise dwelled by Buddha Dishi. On each four direction of the middle part sits a magnificent palace which represents the four continents in myths, and the lower part is Xumishan, the dwelling place of human being, which is comprised of nine mountains and eight oceans.


 Xumishan,the king of all mountains and the center of universe according to Buddhism Myth

 Ancient Stone Scupltures


 Grotto 10

 Xumishan mural

 Located in Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, 55km from Guyuan city,Xumishan Grottoes is a sparkling gem along the Silk Road and one of the top 10 ancient Buddhism grottoes in China. Its history can be traced back over 1500 years ago. In terms of scale, the style of its statues and artistic value, Xumishan Grottoes can rival that of Yungang Grottoes and Longman Grottoes. 

Elevated at 2003 meters, Xumishan belongs to the liupanshan mountain range. Featuring purple sandstone outcroppings, grotesque stones, crystal brooks and enticing scenery, the surrounding is postcard-perfect.  Unlike other grottoes which claim only one stone cliff, Xumishan Grottoes are scattered along eight mountaintops, and connected by winding walkways or staircases.
map of xumishan grottoes

Construction of Xumishan Grottoes began during the reign of Emperor Xiaowendi in the Northern Wei Dynasty (477-499), and during the Northern Zhou and Tang dynasties,  it reached the peak of glory. Successive dynasties like Western Wei, Northern Zhou,Sui, Tang,Song,Ming,Qing have witnessed their continuous expansion. The site’s 22 best preserved grottoes are strewn within 5 scenic sites: Dafo Tower, Zisun Palace, Yuanguang Temple, Xiangguo Temple and Taohua Cave.
Xumishan Grottoes house a treasure trove of over 350 statues, 33 calligraphy inscriptions and 7 frescos.

In 1982, Xumishan Grottoes were enlisted as a National Level Cultural Relic Protected Site, and by now, this site has been listed among the top 100 endangered architectural and cultural sites in the world.

 Xumishan Grottoes Echoing Each Other Among 8 hills

 Temple on Cliffs


Highlights of Xumishan Grottoes 


Behind the carving of Xumishan Grottoes lies various motivations. On one hand, this site is built to sustain trade along the Silk Road and enhance the cultural exchange between the Oriental and the Occidental. On the other hand, as  pious Buddhists, the rulers of the Northern Zhou Dynasty determined to spread Buddhism and to reinforce Guyuan City’s status as a political, economy, military powerhouse.

According to archaeologists, each dynasty has left their imprints on Mixushan Grottoes. Among its over 130 grottoes,
70 radiate with resplendent statues and murals, while the homely 60 ones, are speculated as the living quarters of the monks. By now, each grotto is classified and recorded during the iconographic program.
By now, Xumishan’s remaining 130 grottoes cluster in eight separate mountains. Form south to North, they are Beidafo lou(North Big Buddha palace), Zisun Gong (Descendents Palace), Yuanguang Temple, Xiangguo Temple, Taohua Dong(Peach Blossom Cave), Songshu Wa (Pine tree lowland), Sange Yao( three grottoes), Heishi Gou (Black Stone Groove) respectively, and each has its own iconographic program.

Xumishan Grottoes Fall into Three Categories

Xumishan Grottoes fall into three categories:
(1)rectangular grottoes serving as monks’ dormitories
(2) rectangular grottoes with Buddha statues with niches 
(3) grottoes with a centre column.
Grottoes with a centre column mainly belong to the Northern Wei and the Northern Zhou Dynasty. According to experts, Xumshan Grottoes is the watershed differentiating the earlier gottoes with latecomers, such as Yungang Grottoes and Longmen Grottoes. A careful look at these stone statues, you can see the evolution history.

Xumishan Grottoes in Different Dynasties


Zisun Gong houses the majority works of Northern Wei Dynasty (386-557), with grotto 14、24、32、33 as representative. They are mainly fashioned with a center column measuring 3m to 4.5m in height. Around the column, statues are carved and piled up on four directions.
Grotto 32 has 7 tiers of Buddha statues, which is quite impressive, while the upper niche of Grotto 24’s tower column is engraved with Buddhism stories.

Statues of Northern Wei Dynasty(386-557)

 Grotto Fashioned with a Centre Column

Grottoes of the Northern Zhou Dynasty (557-581) feature large and exquisite statues, excellent examples including Grotto 45, 46, 51 and 67. All of them revolve a pagoda-shaped column hallowed with fabulous niches on four sides. Among them, grotto 45 and 46 are the most dazzling ones.
Consisting of front chamber, master chamber, left wing and right wing chamber, Grotto 51 is famed as “the jewel in the crown of Xumishan Grottoes”. Measuring 13.5 in width and 10.6 in height, its master chamber ranks as the biggest chamber in Mixushan Grottoes with a center column. Inside of grotto 51, three Buddha statues measure 6 m in height are the rare masterpieces of that era.

Statue of Northern Zhou Dynasty

Buddhism-themed Fresco in Xumishan Grottoes

Grottoes of the Sui Dynasty (581-618)and the Tang Dynasty(618-907) mainly occupy Northern Xiangguo Temple, among them the majority were built in the Tang Dynasty.
Spanning 4 to 5 square meters, these grottoes house rows of statues. Grotto 105 ,also known as Taohua Dong, is a big one. Inside of it stands a 6-meter-tall column. Grotto 5(Bei Dafo Lou) houses a 20.6-meter-tall seated future Buddha, it is one of the few big statues hailing from the Tang Dynasty. Though protected by a large fence, it is subject to erosion and weathering.

 It takes 25 Years to finish this 20.6m High Statue based on Emperor Wu Zetian's look. These grottoes, big and small, scatter among the seven cliffs and cater to the shape of mountain, connected by crooked paths snake their way which extend as long as 2 km.

Though we cannot say this statue dwarfs Longmen Grottoes Fengxian Temple’s Lushena Bubbha, it is 2m taller. The Statue assumes a kingly air, overlooking the mountains. Though it is carved out of a rare complete giant stone, its shape and carving techniques are as refined as that of clay sculptures. It has flowing lines and exquisite details.
Some scholars put that this Buddha statue was built during the reign of Wu Zetian, the only female emperor in China’s history. With benevolent expression, round face and big ears, it evokes  the giant  Lushena  Buddha statue in Longmen Grottoes. It mirrors a perfect blend of feminine charm and divinity. 

Flourish or Disappear? The Future of Xumishan Grottoes


Though under protection by China since 1982 as a National Level Cultural Relic Protected Site, and enlisted among top 100 endangered architectural and cultural site worldwide, Xumishan Grottoes fall prey to wind and sand erosion, earthquakes, looting, vandalism, vibration from a modern roadway nearby, improper and insufficient management.

No doubt to preserve Xumishan Grottoes is the top concern and priority of government now, but how to preserve it, especially matters. Some experts try to record them by digital equipment, in the hope of save them for future study. China's State Bureau of Cultural Relics already strives to protect the site, however, this magnificent, yet little-known site’s future, is really bleak and unclear.

The Evolution History of China's Buddhist Grottoes

Grottoes’ style varies in different period.

Stone statues from the Northern Zhou Dynasty are characterized by high and straight noses, reflecting the strong India influence.

Statues from the Eastern Jin Dynasty feature slim faces and drop shoulders, with the whole body lost amid loose robes. An excellent example is Luoshen Fu (Eulogy of Luoshen Goddness) composed by Gu Kaizi in the Eastern Jin Dynasty.

Statues and murals of the Sui Dynasty, characterized by longer upper bodies, shorter legs, square faces and short necks, sparkles with the perfect blend of simplicity and majesty.

In the Tang dynasty, the technique of stone statues was horned to perfection. Plump figures clad in elegant and luxurious attires, reflect the economic prosperity and artistic achievment of that legendary era when China was the most prosperous country in the world.

Author: Sophia          Posted on Jun 9,2012
Yuanyang Travel Tips
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