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Creating the caves

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Over the years, 1350 caves, 750 niches and 40 pagodas containing 110,000 statues were carved out of the limestone cliffs bordering the Yi River to create the Longmen Caves. Stretching more than one kilometre in length, the carvings were commissioned by emperors, the imperial family, other wealthy families wanting to buy good fortune, generals hoping for victory, and religious groups. The Toba Wei began the work in 492 AD, when they moved their capital to Luoyang from Datong, where they had carved the Yungang Caves. At Longmen, they adapted their art to the different requirements of a harder, limestone surface. Three sets of caves, Guyang, Bingyang and Lianhua, date from this early period. Work continued for five hundred years and reached a second peak under the Tang, particularly under Empress Wu Zetian, a devoted adherent of Buddhism.

There’s a clearly visible progression from the early style brought from Datong, of simple, rounded, formally modelled holy figures, to the complex and elaborate, but more linear, Tang carvings, which include women and court characters. In general, the Buddhas are simple, but the sculptors were able to show off with the attendant figures and the decorative flourishes around the edges of the caves.

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