A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2000, the Longmen Grottoes are one of China’s most treasured cultural attractions. The site comprises a series of caves and Buddhist statues etched out of the limestone cliffs, extending for around one kilometre (0.6 miles) either side of the River Yi, south of the city of Luoyang, Henan province.
They were originally carved by the Northern Wei Dynasty over 1,500 years ago in 493 CE, though the work continued over the following six centuries through several other dynasties, until civil war in the 12th century brought the project to an end. During that time some 2,345 grottoes were created containing 2,500 inscriptions, 60 pagodas and over 100,000 statues ranging in height from just a few centimetres to a whopping 17 metres (57 feet).
The creation of the Longmen Grottoes is characterized by four distinct phases, reaching its artistic peak in the seventh century during the Tang Dynasty, when Chinese Buddhism experienced a boom in popularity. It’s during this era that the elaborate Fengxiansi Cave with its giant statues were made.
While there were long periods of neglect when no further carving took place and the Longmen Grottoes were left to ruin, no vandalism of any significance took place until the 20th century – notably by Japanese looters during the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945). Since the People’s Republic of China was formed in 1949, the ancient religious site has been protected as a national monument by China’s Ministry of Culture.
Though a large proportion of the Longmen Grottoes remains free of vandalism, the fact it’s carved from soft limestone makes it very vulnerable to weathering.
For the last 60 years or so, efforts have been made to protect and even restore these relics.
An itinerary was first made before a weather-monitoring station was created to establish the atmospheric conditions in the area. Restoration followed in the form of clearing vegetation from the rocks and paths, building walkways and railings and, most importantly, preventing water seeping through the rock and eroding the sculptures by strengthening their plinths.