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I’m on spring break this week, which means time to relax and explore my own backyard:  Washington, D.C.  Yesterday, I visited the Sackler Gallery’s newest exhibit, “Echoes of the Past:  The Buddhist Cave Temples of Xiangtangshan” (pronounced “shahng-tahng-shahn”).  The word translates to “Mountain of Echoing Halls” and refers to two groups of caves: northern Xiangtangshan and southern Xiangtangshan.  The statues of the Buddha on display are larger than life and are definitely worth seeing.

According to Sackler’s website, the cave temples ”are a group of Buddhist worship halls or shrines hollowed from limestone cliffs with carved sculptural images.”  They date back to the Northern Qi (pronounced “Chee”) dynasty (550-577) and “were created with the support of the royal family and officials and the advice of Buddhist monks active in the area around the capital.”

Because of the fine quality of the sculpted figures, in the early 1900’s looters began to cut off the heads and hands of many of the statues to sell on the art market.  The result is an empty mountain of echoing halls.  On display at the Sackler are a handful of the large statues.  There are at least three statues of the standing Buddha completely intact, dressed in ornately carved robes, and they are nearly twice the size of an average person.  There are also giant hands in various Buddha poses.  One of the most remarkable figures is an enormous head of a smiling Buddha that hangs to scale near the top of the ceiling, encouraging visitors to bask in the blissful gaze of the Buddha.

The exhibit also includes a three-sided screen room with the cave walls projected on all sides, meant to give the impression that you are standing in one of the caves.  The feel is at times dizzying but the images are vivid and stunning to behold.  The yellow 3D images are superimposed onto the screens where otherwise missing pieces would exist.  The yellow images are a reminder of the looting that destroyed the sacred caves.  Of course, the irony is that had the looting never occurred then, we would not be able to stand near the very statues now.

The exhibit, although small in size — there are only about three rooms of the large figures — is grand on another scale:  the reminder that man could create such monumental figures with great care for detail out of supreme devotion to a higher being.  It is worth a visit.  The Sackler Gallery can be accessed through the Freer Gallery which sits to the west of the Smithsonian Castle on Washington, D.C.’s national mall.  The free exhibit is open now until July 31, 2011.

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