"Maijishan" Niangniangba by mke1963
Niangniangba Travel Guide: 9 reviews and 13 photos
Maijishan is a cultural stopover on the route that Buddhism took from the dusty plains of South Asia to the rice and wheatfields of China. As trade along the Silk Road developed and society established itself beyond the Chinese heartlands, so markets developed all along the treacherous route between Chang'an (present day Xi'an) and Constantinople (present day Istanbul). With the merchants and traders came the monks, lonely passionate figures. Many sought more spiritual resting places than the bustling markets on the way, and monasteries became established along the route, many of which were built in the sandstone cliffs of nearby mountains. So the Buddhist grotto complexes grew from one small cave of devotion to bigger complexes as at Dunhuang, Maijishan and Luoyang. Over the centuries, these grew further as the devotes, the humble and the rich created, or paid for someone else to create, beautiful paintings and sculptures of Buddha and the Buddhist scriptures. As well as mystic representations of the Buddha's life, these art forms also portray life through a thousand years in China and Central Asia: many of the representations include local people going about their daily business, and local agriculture, plants, trees and lifestyles are clearly depicted.
Maijishan, or Wheatsheaf Hill, lies some 45km southeast of the city of Tianshui and is aptly named, for the red sandstone rock pushes up sharply from the surrounding valleys. As the cliff face with the grottoes faces broadly south, there is no gasping view as you approach. Indeed the access road passes so close to the cliff that overhanging trees prevent a full view of the complex. It is only by walking into the valleys to the south that the visitor can get the trademark view of the huge Buddha gazing out towards the Xiaolong Mountains, which are a western extension of the Qinlingshan.
The main caves are in two broad rows between 20 and 80 metres above the ground. Sadly, substantial earthquakes, including a devastating one in 734, the 22nd year of Tang Emperor Kaiyuan, damaged or detroyed many of the early works. This earthquake destroyed the entire middle section of the complex. The earthquake was a significant shock for the monks and local people, who had formerly only seen the area as a safe haven. Building moreorless ended with the earthquake, and the grottoes were abandoned. Some parts were restored in 848. It also explains why there is only one Tang grotto (Cave number 137)and the partial remains of the Niuertang hall (cave number 5).
The classic sculptures date from the Northern Wei, Western Wei, Northern Zhou, Sui and Tang period; the art in the caves from the Five Dynasties, Song and subsequent periods are generaly copies or restorations of earlier works created before the 734 earthquake. However, the site makes it possible to see the development of Chinese Buddhist art through much of history. By the time work ended, more than 7,000 statues had been completed and more than 1,300 square metres of fresco and painting in 194 caves and niches. In many ways, Maijishan is better for the visitor than the Mogaokou at Dunhuang, simply because so many more caves are open and accessible at Maijishan.
In addition, if you arrange beforehand it should be possible for extra caves to be opened in addition to the 'standard' ones on the normal tour. Sadly most of the frescos have disappeared, weathered away by the rain and wind over the centuries. Less well-known is that Maijishan has a huge collection of early Buddhist documents and scriptures, many of which have yet to be studied. Some claim that the trasures of the Maijishan documents may be superior to those found at Dunhuang.
Generally, the sculptures were made of clay and then put into the caves, as the Maijishan sandstone is unsuitable for fine carving. Around thirty caves contain statues of the Northern Wei, Western Wei and Northern Zhou periods with their more static Indian styling, all either expressionless or looking rather fierce and monumental. Later statues are more lively and have finer features.
Historical records also suggest that first a temple, Reiyingsi, was built by Yaoqin, and the gottoes followed. There is a fascinating historical story of why this particular spot was chosen for the grottoes, other than the rather obvious reason that there was a huge cliff of soft limestone which probably already had naturl caves and depressions suitable for placing small sculptures.
The rock face had three springs which kept issuing water even in times of drought, so they assumed spiritual properties for the local people. Over time, the presence of the three springs were credited to the Bodhisattvas Manjusri, Samantabhadra and Avalokitesvara (Wensu, Puxian and Guanyin in Chinese). The springs got such a reputation for providing water that the area and the temple quickly became known as Wuyio or "No worry". An emperor, impressed by the phenomenum, gave local lands to the monks. The site became a good, reliable and safe place for monks to meditate, and by the time Tobasi established the Northern Wei dynasty in 386, it was already well established as a religious site.
One of the puzzling features of Maijishan is exactly how the scultures were placed, as they had to be carried in by hand, and there are few signs of a framework on or around the cliff to make this possible. The theory is that great piles were built of timber were constructed, or even just piled up against the cliff. It must have been precarious as there is little flat ground at the foot of the cliff. It is said that the use of timber for this activity denuded the forests all around; fortunately, the woods have recovered and the whole maijishan is now also a forest reserve. The area has a well-deserved reputation for being wet, and is even termed "The Magic Mist of Maijishan": true to form, on my visit, fine rain fell the whole time I was there.
Before the great earthquake, and also in periods up until the 19th century, there were buildings built at the front of the cliff face
Of the remaining grottos they date from the following periods:
Later Qin and Western Qin Dynasty (383-434): 10
Northern Wei Dynasty (412-532): 74
Western Wei Dynasty (535-589): 16
Sui Dynasty (589-617: 8
Northern Zhou Dynasty (689-713): 39
Tang Dynasty (618-906): 1 1/2 (see above!)
Song Dynasty (961-1277): 14
Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368): 2
Ming Dynasty (1368-1644): 6
Qing Dynasty (1644-1911): 3
The next step on the Silk Road westbound is Tianshui. Eastbound, it's getting close to the end of the journey, and the next stop is Baoji.
Also, don't miss the virgin boy and virgin girl statues in Cave 123 at the end of the same row. Both wear clothing... more travel advice
Historical records show that the first caves were decorated in the Later Qin dynasty (384-417). The earliest proven cave... more travel advice
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