Time-honored rock carvings of Buddhas, known as the Dazu Grottoes, lie tranquilly about a two-hour drive west of the hilly metropolis of Southwest China's Chongqing Municipality.
High on the cliffs and still colourful, the carvings tell stories spanning the past 1,300 years.
In fact, the Grottoes of Dazu, which literally means "harvest and abundance (dafeng dazu)," are considered among China's four primary centres of Buddhist grottoes. The others are Dunhuang in Northwest China's Gansu Province, Yungang in North China's Shanxi Province and Longmen in Central China's Henan Province.
What distinguishes Dazu from the other three is that its carvings are not exclusively of Buddhist figures. There is also stone art of the indigenous Chinese religion, Taoism, as well as that advocating Confucianism.
Tantric Buddhism from India and the Chinese Taoist and Confucian beliefs are seen together at Dazu to create a highly original and influential manifestation of spiritual harmony.
The eclectic nature of religious belief in later imperial China is given material expression in the exceptional artistic heritage of the rock art, according to experts.
The Dazu carvings are believed to represent the pinnacle of Chinese rock art for their high aesthetic quality and diversity of style and subject matter.
In all, the carvings and 100,000 characters of inscriptions dot 75 sites around the 1,390-square-kilometre mountainous county.
So much so it was put on UNESCO's World Heritage List at the end of 1999.
The inception of the carvings started in the first years of the Yonghui period (AD 650-655) in the early Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) and continued until the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties.
As Buddhism spread throughout China, people showed their faith through rock carvings. Even as constant warfare weakened northern China after the Tang Dynasty, rock carving continued in the area.
With support from local affluent families, temples and religious devotees, artisans continued working in Dazu through the Qing Dynasty, with work peaking during the Song Dynasty (960-1279).
The carvings include not only statues of Buddha and Bodhisattva, but also that of ancient Chinese monarchs, ministers, military officers, high and low-ranking officials, jailers, executioners, monks, rich and poor people and folk art performers. The carvings were done in complicated art forms, but through simple and elegant lines and patterns.
(China Daily December 4, 2002)