Found in the Henan Province in China, the most rural part of the country, the Longmen Grottoes are declared as a UNESCO World Heritage site, one of China’s 38. The largest sculpture carved out of the stone sits at 56.23 feet tall, and is a statue of the Vairocana Buddha, considered to be the highest and most trancendental buddha in the Kegon school.
Overall, the Longmen Grottoes contain more than 100,000 statues situated among 2100 “niches”, or small caves. These caves were originally carved during the reign of the Northern Wei Dynasty, beginning in AD 493, when Emperor Xiaowen moved the capital to the nearby city of Luoyang. They were built by monks and craftsmen as part of a tradition the Northern Wei Dynasty had for building stone temples (as seen at the Yungang Grottoes, constructed earlier), as a way to pay tribute to various emperors and Buddhist deities.
Each cave appears to tell a separate story. The Middle Binyang Cave, one of a series of three caves whose construction lasted 24 years, contains statues which the Emperor Xuanwu built to release the souls of his parents from purgatory. The Yaofang Cave, built beginning in AD 520 during the late years of the reign of Emperor Xiaoming, contains 30 statues and was not completed until the reign of Emperor Wenxuan of the Northern Qi Dynasty, 500 years later. The Wanfo Cave, built during the Tang Dynasty, contains 15,000 sitting statues of bodhisattva Maitreya, and was built because the Empress Wu Zetian believed she was Maitreya reincarnated from heaven.
The tradition continued into the Tang Dynasty, not halting until 705 AD.