Nestled amidst the rugged terrain of China’s Silk Road, the ancient grotto temples are a testament to a time gone by. Crafted in the 3rd century, these caves carved into mountains or rock evolved into a pivotal form of Buddhist art in China. For thousands of years, their intricate architecture, cliff-side sculptures, niches, and murals have withstood the test of time. Today, they require vigilant guardianship to protect their rich history and legacy.
These grotto guardians, often depicted in films with a veil of romance, live starkly different lives. Many of them have dedicated decades, living in these ancient caves, ensuring their protection. Their reality is one of isolation, monotony, and at times, danger. Their commitment transcends job descriptions, becoming a core part of their identity. They are the live-in protectors of these relics, ensuring the longevity of such incredible pieces of art and spirituality.
Yuan Rongsun, a passionate Chinese photographer, has spent nearly two decades capturing the essence of these guardians. Through his lens, Yuan highlights the ordinary yet profound sacrifices made by these individuals. “Their unwavering commitment ensures that these cultural treasures, hidden away in remote mountains, can still be discovered and appreciated,” Yuan remarks. His mission is to tell their stories, stories that often go unheard.
One such region is Anyue county in Ziyang, Sichuan, home to 179 registered grotto temple relics. Predominantly featuring large Buddhist sculptures from the Song Dynasty, the craftsmanship and diversity of the Anyue grottoes are unparalleled. Protecting these scattered grottoes is a mammoth task, especially considering the threats they face, such as weather erosion and theft.
Technological advancements, like infrared alarms and surveillance systems, offer some level of protection. However, the true vanguards are the elderly guards and their loyal dogs. Yuan recounts meeting Zeng Xiangyu at Mingshan Temple in Anyue. Zeng, now in his seventies, has been a temple guardian for years. Under his and his canine companion Black Tiger’s watchful eyes, thefts have reduced significantly. Despite the local government’s modest food stipend for Black Tiger, Zeng often supplemented it from his pocket. Though Black Tiger has since passed on, the memories of his dedication continue to live on in Zeng’s heart.
Yuan’s journey has brought to light the stories of over a hundred such guardians. His photographs have found their way into books like ‘Grottoes in Bashu’. While these stories have touched many and garnered significant public attention, Yuan believes that the onus of making a long-term impact lies with the government.
He observes a multitude of challenges, from inadequate pay for the guardians to insufficient local government funding and a shortage of skilled professionals in relic protection. However, Yuan remains optimistic. The national government’s focus on cultural relic protection, along with beneficial policies, has led to progress. From bolstering public education and allocation of funds to cracking down on relic crimes, efforts are being amplified.
The modernization of these remote regions is evident. Roads have been built, and communication has been enhanced. Today, guardians have phones to report any emergencies, a significant step from the days Yuan began his photographic journey.
“The improvement in the guardians’ working conditions and their overall lives is palpable. We’re moving in the right direction, and there’s hope for even more progress,” Yuan concludes with a hopeful note.