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The Yungang Grottoes (a.k.a. Yungang Caves) are one of three major Buddhist caves complexes in China. The other two that are just as significant are Luoyang's Longmen Grottoes and Dunhuang's Mogao Caves. The Yungang Grottoes are located about 16 km west of the city of Datong (Shanxi province). At this amazing cave complex that was built in the 5th and 6th century during the period of the Six dynasties, visitors will find 254 caves carved into the limestone cliffs at the northern side of Wuzhou Mountain. Out of this total number of caves, 45 are classified as major grottoes and the remaining 209 as secondary caves. In addition to the caves, there are also about 1,100 niches at the site. Both caves and niches together contain about 51,000 statues. Whereas the smallest of these statues is only 2 cm tall, the biggest one measures 17 meters.
The caves and grottoes at this UNESCO world heritage site that stretches for about 1 km from east to west are dispersed in three distinct groups: an eastern, middle and western group. The eastern group of caves is mainly built in the style of pagodas and the caves in the western group are either small or mid-sized with niches. The caves in the middle of the complex contain Buddha statues at their center and are made up of front and back chambers. The walls and ceilings of the middle caves are furthermore carved with sculptures.
The five caves 16 - 20 in the eastern part of the complex are the oldest. They were carved under the leadership of a monk named Tan Yao between 453 AD and 465 AD at a time when Buddhism had begun to spread along the Silk Route into China. The Northern Wei dynasty was one of the first to accept Buddhism as their state religion and Datong (then named Pingcheng) was their capital. All five of these early grottoes are very similar in their layout and design and each contains a Buddha statue with the features of one of the five emperors Taizu, Taizong, Shizu, Gaozong and Gaozu.
The group of middle caves includes the caves 1, 2, 12, 13, the unfinished cave 3 and the twin caves 5/6, 7/8 and 9/10. All these caves were built during a second construction phase from 471 AD onwards until the imperial court of the Northern Wei dynasty moved to their new capital of Luoyang in 494 AD. Most of the middle caves are made up of a front and back room. The walls and ceilings of the middle caves are adorned with sculptures and a Buddhist statue stands in their center. The largest of all the caves at the Yungang Grottoes - cave No. 6 - is 20 meters tall and features a central pillar that is decorated with Buddhist statues and designs. The east, south and west wall of the cave also features Buddhist designs such as the story of Sakyamuni that is told on 33 embossed panels.
Since the imperial court no longer financed the construction of additional caves at the site of the Yungang Grottoes after its move to Luoyang, the rest of the caves had to be financed by private donors. The late caves and niches that were constructed in the western part of the complex between 494 AD and 525 AD are therefore either small or of medium size. The caves 4, 11, 14 and 15 are the most noteworthy among this final group of caves.