Rock on Buddha

From The Optimist Magazine

Summer 2014


By Elleke Bal

Stay awake. Watch and reflect. Work with careful attention. In this way you will find the light -within yourself.” This instruction for novice monks comes from the Buddhist -Dhammapada scriptures, but such careful attention also applies to the way monks and artists have been constructing Buddhist temples by hollowing out rock faces for centuries. As if searching for the light within themselves, they have carved out rocks to let the light of the earth shine on what was invisible and unpolished before.

The Chinese Yungang Grottoes (photo 1)—grottoes being caves that are used by humans—are located on the southern slopes of the Wuzhou Mountains, in the Shi Li River valley, west of Datong. The idea of constructing Buddhist temples in caves was brought to China from Central Asia, where monuments like these had been constructed for centuries. Buddhism arrived here via travel on the ancient North Silk Road. The statues of the Yungang Grottoes were completed in sixty years (460–525), and from that moment on, these caves have been the center of Buddhist art in northern China. 

Just like the Yungang caves, which lie in an isolated area, stunning Buddhist caves are found in the remote southern hills of Karen State, in Myanmar. The seventh-century -artwork of the Kawgun Cave (photos 2 and 5) consists of thousands of tiny clay -Buddhas and carvings plastered all over the walls and the roof. The cave temple was hardly accessible to outsiders for a long time because of insurgencies in the country. It is a tourist destination now, but unfortunately many
local people haven’t heard about this temple. Myanmar also houses other –
stunning temple complexes, like the caves of the Mrauk-U archaeological site (photo 4).

Going back even further are the Buddhist caves of India. Ellora is an archaeological site northwest of the city of Aurangabad in the Indian state of Maharashtra (photo 3, previous page). All the temples here—Buddhist temples as well as Hindu and Jain ones—are carved out of solid rock and represent the epitome of Indian rock-cut -architecture in the fifth to seventh centuries. These caves consist mostly of monasteries, with living quarters, bedrooms and kitchens.

One of the most impressive cave shrines in Thailand is Tham Khao Luang (photo 6), a stalactite-filled chamber in Phetchaburi Province. Imagine reaching the cave after descending a steep set of stairs. When you are here at the right moment, the sunlight will illuminate what is the central focus of all Buddhist caves: the Buddha statue.

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