Guardians of heritage

By Wang Kaihao | China Daily | Updated: 2022-04-28 08:11
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Generally considered to represent the highest achievement of Tang Dynasty sculpture, Fengxian Temple was carved between 672 and 675. [Photo by Zeng Xianping/for China Daily]

Restorers battle against the clock to protect cultural treasures from the ravages of time, Wang Kaihao reports.

The statue is a reassuring presence, a calming feature. As if relishing and bathing in the eyesight of Lushena Buddha, an atmosphere of tranquillity and dignity envelops visitors.

For 1,350 years, that 17-meter-high statue has stood in the most hallowed cave among the Longmen Grottoes, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Luoyang, Henan province.

Nonetheless, for Liu Jianshe, the Buddha's charm may not be as impeccable as it is in the enthralled minds of tourists. Over the past half century, his everyday job was to patrol, scrutinize and check his beloved Lushena (the Chinese translation of Sanskrit word vairocana meaning "illuminator") and other Buddhist statues all across Longmen, one of the world's largest grotto temple sites.

The slightest crack did not evade his keen eyes. But even he could not stop the ravages of time. Regrettably, rocks become unstable and the statues are aging, which is inevitable.

"As long as I have strength, I'll carry on the duty," says Liu, 67, from a village only about 5 kilometers from the grottoes, laughing. "Thank goodness, I'm still healthy."

In 1971, Liu followed his father to join a squad of 30-odd restorers to protect the cave in which the Lushena Buddha is located. The cave is named after Fengxian Temple, a site which was in front of the Buddha statue during the Tang Dynasty (618-907) but no longer exists.

Liu recalls that almost every family in his village then had a member who was a stonemason.

"I don't know how many generations of my ancestors dealt daily with stones, and some of them probably carved those grand statues," Liu says, proudly. "We know how to take care of stone best."

In his home village, there was also a Buddha statue with an inscription indicating it was carved in the year 1000. It was considered almost a patron, protecting generations of villagers who had created marvels through chisels and hammers. It is now in the custody of the Longmen Grottoes Research Academy.

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