Amidst tranquil woods, winding paths and running brooks, cattlemen direct their herds. While some men wield their whips lightly over the animals, others get together and chat. Among them a man sits playing a bamboo flute and another with his chest bare, lies on a rock sleeping. A crane approaches the flute player as if to take a rest and drink from the river.
This is a typical scene of a 27-meter-long rock carving in Dazu County, 162 kilometers west of Chongqing, the largest city in southwest China. This particular carving imparts to viewers not only a moment of serenity but a Buddhist teaching as well: One can free oneself from earthly worries by self-cultivation and does not need to go beyond his own inner world to find the truth of Buddhism.
There are many other carvings like this at the site that tell Buddhist doctrines through the lives of ordinary people. Dazu County has over 70 grottoes. Baoding Grotto, 15 kilometers northeast of the county seat, is the largest and best preserved and is a key cultural relic site under state protection.
Over 50,000 Buddhist, Taoist and Confucian rock carvings and 100,000 characters of inscriptions are scattered around Dazu. They date back more than 1000 years. The grottoes were first chiseled in the early Tang Dynasty (618-907), flourishing in the late Tang and the Song Dynasty (960-1279).
Compared with the famous grottoes of northern China, the Dazu Grottoes are more secular and real to life. They are rich for their both images and inscriptions and are considered an art treasure house that reflects the period's society, philosophy, religion and folklore. In late 1999 UNESCO listed Dazu Stone Carvings as a world cultural heritage site. Now China has 23 cultural and natural heritage sites listed by UNESCO.
"The stone carvings are remarkable for their high aesthetic qualities, their rich diversity of subject matter, both secular and religious, and provide a glimpse into the life of China during this period," remarked UNESCO'S Beijing Office. Many of the carvings in Baoing Grotto reflect religious doctrines, though what viewers may see are representations of familiar, secular life. For instance, a set of carvings teaches the Buddhist doctrine of never killing living things through a story about a woman and her farm of chickens. Early in the morning, the woman lets out the chickens. However, she does not realize that by pecking at the earthworm, her chickens have committed a sin.
Another set of carvings reflects the introduction of Confucianism, a development in the Song Dynasty. The concept of filial piety is imparted through scenes of a woman praying to Buddha so that she can conceive a son. Then it continues depicting how she goes through the burdens of pregnancy, the pain of giving birth and the hard time of bringing up the child. Beneath the carings is a depiction of Hell where the unfilial ones are being punished. This set of carvings, composed of 11 scenes, has a real life touch and epitomes the lives of the time. "Dazu Grottoes fully deserve the title as a cultural and art treasure house," says Li Fangyin, a researcher specializing in Dazu stone carvings. Besides images of Buddha and Bodhisattva, other carvings depict characters of different ages and statues, including monarchs, ministers, military officers, high and low-ranking officials, jailers, executioners, monks, rich and poor people, folk art performers, and so on. Their clothing and tools reflect the secular life of the time.
Points out that of China's over 100 grottoes, the Dazu Grottoes are the only ones that were implemented according to an overall design.
Baoding Grotto, for instance, shows traces of a general design in the composition of the carvings. Starting from the south entrance and going east, visitors can see four sets of carvings that teach people how to rid oneself of earthly worries and the Buddhist theory of punitive justice. Going westward, visitors can see three sets of carvings that tell how to acquire Buddhism's truths and obtain enlightenment.
"The carved images at Baoding never repeat, but you can tell that they are correlated," says he. "This can only be achieved through an overall design." The location of the carvings reinforces this design. The carvings that reflect Hell were done on the cliffsides at the low and uneven terrain. The soothing scene of cattlemen and their herds is found on the sunward cliffside that rises and falls gently.
Li further pointed out that the ancient artisans at Dazu used many clever innovations. The carvings at Baoding engraved on the three cliff sides of a U-shaped valley. A huge protrusive rock forms a ceiling above the three cliffsides, protecting the carvings from the erosion of rainwater.
The water drainage method used for the grotto is very unique. One carving in the grotto depicts the scene of newly born Sakyamuni being bathed by spring water. The carvers did not chisel patterns of water drops on the cliffside. Instead, they channeled spring water to flow out of the mouth of a carved dragon, hence giving liveliness to the carving and solving the drainage problem at the same time.
In the carving of Herding Cattle, the carvers chiseled an image of a cow by the side of a drainage groove, giving a touch of motion to the entire carving.
Besides drainage techniques, The Bodhisattva of Wisdom carries in the hand a stone pagoda that is one meter high and weighs about half a ton. The hand alone can not support the weight, so the carvers diverted the weight through the loose sleeve of the kasaya that drapes from his wrist to the knee. Thus the stone pagoda has stood in the hand securely for 800 years.
Visitors with a careful eye can find such structural innovations at Dazu. This is why the carvings have survived many centuries and remain in good condition.