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Yungang Grottoes | Discover 1500 years of History in 254 Caves

by Steven
Published: Last Updated on

During my world trip in 2018, I visited the amazing Yungang Grottoes near Datong. This complex with 52 large and a lot more small caves has been on the UNESCO World Heritage List since 2001. It also belongs to one of the three most important Buddhist cave complexes in China, along with Longmen and Magao. And with an extraordinary history of over 1,500 years old, Yungang Grottoes is a gem to visit.

Planning to visit the city of Datong in Shanxi? If so, don’t skip the Yungang Grottoes. In this article, I will explain the history of this beautiful complex and you will read all about the main grottoes that can be visited.

*This article is also available in Dutch (Grotten van Yungang).

The magnificent Yungang Caves near Datong in China

In this article about the Yungang Grottoes

Useful websites Datong & China

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History of the Yungang Grottoes – More than 1,500 Years Old

The history of the Yungang Grottoes goes back to the period of the Northern Wei Dynasty (386-534). At that time Pingcheng, present-day Datong was the capital of this dynasty. Although under Emperor Wu (424-451) Confucianism was a major influence and Buddhists were especially persecuted, it was his successor who commissioned the Buddhist monk Tan Yao to carve “his” Five Caves in 460 AD.

Through the Northern Silk Road, Buddhism arrived in this region and this had its influence on the many caves that were carved by 40,000 workmen in the following years. Because of the Silk Road, you can recognize many different cultural expressions in the grottoes, from Hellenistic to Persian and Indian influences.

The monk Tan Yao built 5 caves in China
The monk Tan Yao came to the Wuzhou Mountains and began work on his Five Caves

That so much of this cave complex remains may perhaps be called a miracle. Sandstorms from the Gobi Desert, the heavy mining industry around Datong, and the Cultural Revolution around 1960 have done the caves no good. Especially during the Cultural Revolution, many engravings were damaged and bullet holes can still be observed in some places.

The entrance to the temple in Yungang Park, China

Sightseeing – A walk around the complex + Explanation

A visit to the Yungang Grottoes takes about 3 to 4 hours. Besides the caves, you will find the modern visitor center, a street with several eateries and stores, and a temple that has no history but is quite nice to walk through. But of course, the main attractions are the Grottoes. The route is simple, starts at number 1, and is more or less in one straight line until you have had almost all of them. Below is a brief description of the most important places in this complex.

A temple in Yungang China
At the entrance to the complex, you will find this temple. A little history, this shrine was not put here until much later, but still interesting to stroll through before you go to see the caves.

Grotto 3

Of the first 4 caves, the third cave is particularly special. This once contained a temple and now you can admire a sitting Buddha and two bodhisattvas. A bodhisattva is in Buddhism a being that strives for enlightenment. Most people skip the first four caves, but oh well… you’re there now, aren’t you?

Grotto 3 with Buddha and two bodhisattva
Grotto 3 with Buddha and two bodhisattva
Entrance to caves 5 and 6
The entrance of grottoes 5 and 6 is graced by a beautiful temple

Caves 5 and 6

Grottoes 5 and 6 can be entered through a temple built in the Qing dynasty. In cave 5 you will find a giant 17 meters tall Buddha. This is the largest you can find here in Yungang. Unfortunately, much of the frescoes have been damaged.

The most impressive cave is number 6. Covering an area of 1,000 square meters, it is one of the largest in Yungang and there is plenty to see. For example, the entire interior is painted with Buddhist stories and in the middle, you will find a stupa pillar. Most impressive are the many beautiful drawings that you can find everywhere in the cave.

The remarkable Cave 6 in Yungang
The interior of cave 6 is impressive

Grotto 8

This cave is especially famous for statues and drawings of Indian Gods and Goddesses, including Vishnu and Shiva.

Cave 8 with drawings of Indian Gods Vishnu and Shiva

Grottoes 16-20, the oldest part, made by the monk Tan Yao

Grottoes 16-20 are the five oldest caves in Yungang. In cave 19 there is a Buddha 17 meters high, but the most famous cave is number 20. Here once stood 3 Buddhas that were supposed to represent the trinity: the historical, the present, and the future Buddha. The left-hand Buddha has disappeared….

The oldest caves in the complex are numbers 16 to 20

Datong Yungang Museum

After you have gone through all the caves, you can visit the Datong Yungang Museum. In this spacious museum, you will find an explanation of the history of the Northern Wei Dynasty. The museum is not large but definitely recommended to learn more about this impressive empire.

The modern Yungang Museum near Datong, China
The modern Yungang Museum provides information on the history of the Northern Wei Dynasty

Finally, Yungang Park is not a large park, but it is certainly fun to walk through. On the side of the Shili River, you can take a look at an old coal mine, which now houses a museum.

The temple entrance of the Yungang caves in China
The caves are impressively covered by facades of temples

Practical information about visiting the Yungang Grottoes

Are you convinced by now to visit these extraordinary grottoes near Datong? A ticket to the complex costs 150 yuan and the complex is open daily from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm (summer). In some of the caves, it is allowed to take pictures, although my experience is that Chinese people also take pictures in caves where it is not allowed. The information in the park is both in Chinese and in English, but if you really want to know more about this complex then the Audio Guide is a must. For more information visit the website of Yungang.

How to get there?

The Yungang Caves are located about 15 kilometers west of the city of Datong in the Wuzhoe Shan Mountains. The best way to get there is by cab, but it is also easy to reach by bus. From the old train station, a bus leaves every 10 to 15 minutes to the Yungang Caves.

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