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Eyes in the rock

Publication Date : 21-05-2013


Tens of thousands of statues of the Buddha and his disciples look down on a river valley from the Longmen Grottoes


Making our way along the stone pathway, we commence our approach to the Big Vairocana Buddha of Longmen Grottoes by scaling a vertiginous flight of stairs set parallel to the cliff. Slowly ascending the steep steps and negotiating the 90-degree turn to face the sheer wall, my first sight as we reach the top is the majestic head of the Buddha - whose eyes appear to fix mine in its gaze.

"Mysterious, indeed," I tell Noi Na, my Chinese tour guide, as I make an eye contact with the glaring eyes of Vairocana, who the Chinese believe is one of the Buddha's incarnations.

Chiselled by Chinese artisans around the 670s, the Vairocana Buddha of the Longmen Grottoes measures about 17 metres from the grotto floor to its halo. Each of its ears is two metres in length. With a Roman-style toga draped across the shoulders and torso, the Big Buddha is reminiscent of the art of Gandhara. The features are plumpish and set in a peaceful and natural expression.

With that mysterious gaze and smile, the Big Vairocana is sometimes billed as the Chinese Mona Lisa.

Siddhartha Gautama as Mona Lisa? The Chinese guide smiles enigmatically then relates a much stranger tale.

"The Buddha's face," she begins, gesturing towards the chubby-faced carving in the cliff, "was made to resemble Wu Zetian's face".

Perhaps, this is a Chinese parody - making the face of Buddha a semblance of Wu Zetian's. Siddhartha Gautama was an Indian prince; Empress Wu Zetian was a woman, and given her proclivity for eliminating her perceived rivals through various unsavoury means, could hardly be considered an inspiration, let alone an ideal, for the Buddha's merciful face.

The ruler of China between 690 and 705, Wu was China's first-ever Empress. To secure her energy as well as her throne, the empress revealed her ruthless, cruel side, which included killing her newly born daughter. Along with Qin Shi Huang, King John of England and Genghis Khan, Wu Zetian holds a place in Top 10 of the World's Most Evil People of Ancient Times. The empress, however, also showed a fanatical interest in religion, becoming a key patron of Buddhism.

"We have to take the bad with the good, don't we? Everything has two sides - or three, perhaps in China," I tell Noi Na, as we roam the grotto.

In fact, the Big Vairocana Buddha is only a small part of the Longmen Grottoes, or the Dragon Gate Grottoes as they are known in Chinese.

More than 1,400 caves were excavated from the limestone cliff that stretches 12 kilometres each side of the Yi River in Luoyang, Henan province. The grottoes, big and small, house more than 2,000 steles and inscriptions plus well in excess of 100,000 statues of the Buddha and his disciples, ranging in size from a few centimetres in height to more than 17 metres.

"The grottoes served as an important place of worship for about 250 years from the Northern Wei to Tang dynasties," says the guide.

Back in the 670s, an era when Chinese Buddhism was flourishing, the Longmen Grottoes drew emperors, empresses, members of the royal families, generals and patrons of Buddhism to this place of worship. The Empress Wu, says the inscription on southern site of the chamber, donated a thousand strings of her rouge and powder money to complete the Big Buddha of Vairocana.

But time passed, people died and Buddhism went out of favour. The Longmen Grottoes were abandoned, rediscovered and looted before being inscribed on the Unesco World Heritage list in 2000.

Today, thank to China's tourism boom, the heritage site draw flocks of foreign tourists eager to admire these masterpieces of Buddhist rock carving. The highlight is, of course, the Big Vairocana Buddha in Fengxian, the largest cave on the west hill of the Longmen Grotto.

Looming to the right and left are colossal guardians on the walls of the stone chamber, who gesture and glare at visitors. In the centre of the sheer wall of limestone is the seated figure of Vairocana Buddha. You won't see its arms and crossed legs: the Big Buddha was partly maimed through periods of vandalism and China's Cultural Revolution that destroyed pretty much everything that made them Chinese.

Before leaving the huge chamber behind, I make final eye contact with the Big Vairocana. Those mysterious eyes, which could vanquish any evil spirit, seem to giving me their blessing.


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