Ancient Charm Remains Intact

Since it spread into China some 2,000 years ago, Buddhism has experienced many rises and falls.

Most Buddhist monasteries and temples have suffered various batterings over the ages, from such things as fires, earthquakes and vandalism, and witnessed renovations to varying degrees. Many of them have been so patched up that they are no more than restorations.

Bao'en Temple in Pingwu County, however, has maintained its original charm.

The temple is one of the largest in Southwest China's Sichuan Province, and one of the best-preserved in the country.

The temple was constructed between 1440 and 1460 during Emperor Yingzong's reign (1427-64) in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), by the governor of Pingwu and his son.

Measuring 278 metres from east to west and 100 metres from south to north, most of the original building remains.

The monastic complex features some architectural characteristics, such as the glazed tiles on its roof, which are more commonly found on the imperial buildings of North China.

Grateful to the emperor for letting them build the temple on such a large scale, the constructors named it "Bao'en," which means "paying a debt of gratitude."

In 1956, the Sichuan provincial government proclaimed the temple one of the most important cultural spots in the province. In 1996, the temple joined the State cultural relics protection list.

Although the temple, about 320 kilometres northwest of Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan, might be a bit of a trek for the average tourist, it still warrants a visit.

There is a big square in front of the temple on which stands two 7-metre-high stone dhanari columns.

Dhanari - a peculiar Buddhist monument that originated some time in the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-960) - is a hexagonal column on which are engraved Buddhist scriptures in Chinese as well as elaborate patterns.

Stone steps lead visitors onto a terrace about 6 metres above the square, on which stands the entrance hall of the temple.

With its overhanging gable roof and shaded partly by a large cypress tree, the hall looks as imposing as large temples in North China. The hall contains exquisite painted clay statues of two gate deities.

The temple layout is typical of most Chinese Buddhist temples.

The major halls are constructed along a central axis and the minor halls and subsidiary buildings follow transverse axes. The buildings are connected by galleries and form a series of rectangular courtyards.

The entrance hall stands on the central axis, which runs east-west. Behind it on the same axis are the Tianwang (Heavenly King) Hall, the Main Hall and the Wanfo (Ten Thousands Buddhas) Hall.

There are three stone bridges spanning a rectangular pond in the courtyard between the gate and the Tianwang Hall.

With their elaborately carved railings, the bridges are reminiscent of those in front of the Tian'anmen in Beijing, only much smaller.

A 13-metre-high two-storey bell tower stands on the south side of the courtyard. The double-eaved structure supported by 16 timber columns shelters two iron casting bells, which is rare, as a bell tower usually houses only one bell.

The bigger bell, weighing 5,000 kilograms, was cast in 1446, and the smaller one, weighing 2,500 kilograms, was made in 1472.

According to local historical records, a serious earthquake struck the area in about 1470. After the earthquake, the tower started to lean backwards. To rebalance the building, the small bell was cast and hung from the front beam.

The Tianwang Hall houses painted clay statues of the Four Heavenly Kings, warrior attendants of Buddha. It has an exquisitely painted ceiling with colourful flowers.

The double-eaved structure is crowned by a roof of glazed black and green tiles. Glistening under the blue sky, it looks majestic.

The dougong, or brackets, supporting the hall's roof are also conspicuous.

Dougong are an assemblage of a number of blocks and arms. The function of dougong is to transfer the load from the horizontal member above to the vertical member below.

As one of the most important elements of traditional wooden structures in China, dougong has helped numerous traditional buildings stand for ages.

A total of 48 kinds and 2,200 sets of dougong were used to support and adorn the structures in the Bao'en Temple, which has won it a reputation as "a museum of dougong."

On a north-south transverse axis between the Tianwang Hall and the Main Hall, the Dabei Hall and the Huayan Hall face each other. They house two of the most important cultural relics in the temple.

On a lotus throne in the centre of the Dabei Hall stands a 9-metre-tall golden statue of Guanyin, or Avalokitesvara, the goddess of mercy, which has 1,004 hands and eyes.

The body of the goddess was carved out of a nanmu tree. With its clusters of hands, the splendid piece looks like a blossoming flower and gives the temple a touch of magic.

The Huayan Hall contains a precious zhuanlun cang, a revolving sutra cabinet.

Taking the form of a double-eaved pavilion, the revolving sutra cabinet is an octagonal wooden structure that turns on a pivot at the centre of the hall. The huge structure can still be turned smoothly.

Around the sutra cabinet stand four timber columns, which are entwined by four 7-metre-long golden dragons.

Dragons can be found everywhere in the Bao'en Temple, something that required the authority of the emperor. It is said that there used to be some 10,000 figures of dragons in the complex.

The Main Hall is the most important building in the Bao'en Temple. It has a roof covered with glazed green tiles and a ceiling with colourful paintings.

Enshrined in the front part of the hall are golden clay statues of three Buddhas. There is a 2-metre-high wooden board in front of the central Buddha's lotus throne, on which has been written "Long live the present emperor!"

The interior walls of the hall are covered with delicate murals. They vividly portray 12 different Buddhas.

On the wall behind the statues of the three Buddhas are three surfing Buddhas riding the waves on their distinctive mounts - a white elephant, a green lion and a golden unicorn.

Two double-eaved octagonal pavilions stand in the courtyard between the Main Hall and the Wanfo Hall.

A small bell was hung from each of 16 flying eaves of the pavilion. They sound pleasant in a gentle breeze.

The Wanfo Hall is the last structure on the central axis. With a height of 24 metres, the triple-eaved building has two storeys.

The hall contains about 300 square metres of exquisite murals. They portray dozens of 3-metre-tall respected Buddhist figures. Their lively composition, smooth lines, concise strokes and rich colours mean that they are considered among the best works of the Ming Dynasty.


People's Daily Online ---