TOP 12 ASIAN TEMPLES TO VISIT THIS FALL
By: Lisa Crawford
With fall upon us, you may be looking for your next escape. Why not head to Asia and check out one of their beautiful temples? Here are our top 12 “must see” Asian Temples to discover this season.
Borobudur Temple – Indonesia
Located on the island of Java, the magnificent Borobudur temple is the world’s largest Buddhist monument, an ancient site widely considered to be one of the world’s seven wonders. The temple sits majestically on a hilltop overlooking lush green fields and distant hills. Built in the 9th century during the reign of the Syailendra dynasty, the temple’s design in Gupta architecture reflects India’s influence on the region, yet there are enough indigenous scenes and elements incorporated to make Borobudur uniquely Indonesian.
The monument covers an enormous area, and is a marvel of design, decorated with 2,672 relief panels and 504 Buddha statues. Borobudur Templet was built without using any kind of cement or mortar, and is like a set of massive interlocking Lego blocks held together without any glue.
The temple is decorated with stone carvings in bas-relief representing images from the life of Buddha. Commentators claim that this is the largest and most complete ensemble of Buddhist reliefs in the world, unsurpassed in artistic merit.
The best way to explore this site is on foot. As you climb to the top of this magnificent temple you will marvel at the intricate detailed stone carvings displayed on the temples walls. Guides are available for around Rp 50,000. This is a wise investment as a guide will be able to walk you around the site and explain the history of the temple, beginning with its construction during the Syailendra dynasty. The stone carvings attached to the temple display legends and stories which have great philosophical significance.
Labrang Monastery- China
The Labrang Monastery is one of the six great monasteries of the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism. Labrang is located in Xiahe County, Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Gansu, in the traditional Tibetan area of Amdo. Labrang Monastery is home to the largest number of monks outside of the Tibet Autonomous Region. Xiahe is about four hours by car from the provincial capital Lanzhou.
Labrang Monastery is situated at the strategic intersection of two major Asian cultures—Tibetan and Mongolian — and was one of the largest Buddhist monastic universities. In the early 20th century, it housed several thousand monks. Labrang was also a gathering point for numerous annual religious festivals and was the seat of a Tibetan power base that strove to maintain regional autonomy through the shifting alliances and bloody conflicts that took place between 1700 and 1950.
The monastery complex dominates the western part of the village. The white walls and gilded roofs feature a blend of Tibetan and Indian Vihara architectural styles. The monastery contains 18 halls, 6 institutes of learning, a gilded stupa, a sutra debate area, and houses nearly 60,000 sutras.
It has a Buddhist museum with a large collection of Buddha statues, sutras and murals. In addition, a large amount of Tibetan language books, including books on history is available for purchase, together with medicines, calendars.
Kinkaku-ji – Japan
Located in Kyoto, Japan, Kinkaky-ji is a Zen Buddhist temple that is one of the most popular buildings in Japan, attracting a large number of visitors annually.
Kinkakuji is an impressive structure built overlooking a large pond, and is the only building left of Yoshimitsu’s former retirement complex. It has burned down numerous times throughout its history including twice during the Onin War, a civil war that destroyed much of Kyoto; and once again more recently in 1950 when it was set on fire by a fanatic monk. The present structure was rebuilt in 1955.
After viewing Kinkakuji from across the pond, visitors pass by the head priest’s former living quarters (hojo) which are known for their painted sliding doors (fusuma), but are not open to the public. The path once again passes by Kinkakuji from behind then leads through the temple’s gardens which have retained their original design from Yoshimitsu’s days. The gardens hold a few other spots of interest including Anmintaku Pond that is said to never dry up, and statues that people throw coins at for luck.
Continuing through the garden takes you to the Sekkatei Teahouse, added to Kinkakuji during the Edo Period, before you exit the paid temple area. Outside the exit are souvenir shops, a small tea garden where you can have matcha tea and sweets (500 yen) and Fudo Hall, a small temple hall which houses a statue of Fudo Myoo, one of the Five Wisdom Kings and protector of Buddhism.
The Khajuraho Group of Monuments is a group of Hindu and Jain temples in Madhya Pradesh, India, about 175 kilometres southeast of Jhansi. They are one of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites in India.
Khajuraho is located in the forested plains of the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh in the region known as Bundelkhand. The place is at a considerable distance from most cities and town centers of the state. The art of Khajuraho attracts many visitors.
The art of Khajuraho has a long history. Today, the art of Khajuraho is world-renowned. The beautiful temples that dot the town of Khajuraho are believed to have been built by the mighty Chandela rulers in the 9th and 10th century AD. The engravings on these temples are highly sensual and erotic and much has been discussed regarding their symbolic importance. Tantricism and the Shakti cult, where the pancha makaras (five tenets), namely, matsya (fish), madira (wine), maithun (sexual activity), mamsa (meat), and mudra (gesture) were to release the human spirit from the bondage of the flesh, have been described as the possible explanations for the sculptural sensuality of Khajuraho.
Out of 85 temples, only 20 have survived the ravages of time. Made of sandstone blocks fitted together, the temples are aligned east-west. For convenience, these may be divided into western, eastern, and southern groups of temples.
Meenakshi Amman Temple – India
This ancient Hindu temple is covered in thousands of colorful statues and has a long mythological history.
When the feeling of getting caught in worldly affairs becomes foreboding, the only rescue left is in the embrace of God. One such embrace is found at Meenakshi Amman Temple, affectionately referred to as ‘Athens of the East’. Devotees have to reach to the southern bank of River Vaigai of Madurai city in Tamil Nadu state. The popularity of the temple has made the city so well-known that people know it as ‘Temple city’ more than its name Madurai itself. Dedicated to Goddess Parvati, referred to as ‘Meenakshi’ and her husband Lord Shiva who is better known as ‘Sundareswarar’, the temple forms the geographical and cultural centre of the city.
The temple is believed to have come into existence when the King of Devas, Indra, found the sacred ‘Suyambu Lingam’- a form of Lord Shiva, discovered at Kadambavanam and enshrined at Madurai. However, the building that now stands is a result of Sadayavarman Sundara Pandyan in the 12th century followed by the extensions made by Nayaka rulers between 12th to 18th century.
Angkor Wat – Cambodia
Angkor Wat, in its beauty and state of preservation, is unrivaled, and recognized as the largest religious monument in the world. Its mightiness and magnificence bespeak a pomp and a luxury surpassing that of a Pharaoh or a Shah Jahan, an impressiveness greater than that of the Pyramids, an artistic distinctiveness as fine as that of the Taj Mahal. Angkor Wat is located about four miles north of Siem Reap, south of Angkor Thom. Entry and exit to Angkor Wat can only be accessed from its west gate.
Angkor Wat was built in the first half of the 12th century (113-5BC). Estimated construction time of the temple is 30 years by King Suryavarman II, dedicated to Vishnu (Hindu), and is a replica of the Angkor Thom style of art.
Covered galleries with columns define the boundaries of the first and second levels. The third level supports five towers –four in the corners and one in the middle and these comprise the most prominent architectural feature of Angkor Wat. This arrangement is sometimes called a quincunx. Graduated tiers, one rising above the other, give the towers a conical shape and, near the top, rows of lotuses taper to a point.
Angkor Wat is a miniature replica of the universe in stone and represents an earthly model of the cosmic world. The central tower rises from the center of the monument symbolizing the mythical mountain, Meru, situated at the center of the universe. Its five towers correspond to the peaks of Meru. The outer wall corresponds to the mountains at the edge of the world, and the surrounding moat the oceans beyond.
Shwedagon Paya- Myanmar
The Shwedagon Pagoda, officially named Shwedagon Zedi Daw and also known as the Great Dagon Pagoda and the Golden Pagoda, is a gilded stupa located in Yangon, Myanmar
No visit to the Union of Myanmar is complete without a visit to the 2,500 year- old Shwedagon Pagoda, which enshrines strands of Buddha’s hair and other holy relics. Located west of the Royal Lake on 114 -acre Singuttara Hill in Yangon, Shwedagon Pagoda is the most sacred and impressive Buddhist site for the people of the Union of Myanmar.
It is clearly one of the wonders of the religious world. Shwedagon Pagoda is a repository of the best in Myanmar heritage – architecture, sculpture and arts. The Shwedagon Pagoda consists of hundreds of colorful temples, stupas, and statues that reflects the architectural era spanning almost a 2,500 years. To understand this monumental work of art and architecture, visitors will experience an insider’s view of this magnificent symbol of Buddhism to the lives of the Myanmar people. Shwedagon Pagoda forms the focus of religious as well as community activities – the bustling about of devotees and monks washing the statues, offering flowers, worshiping, and meditating. Shwedagon Pagoda is administered by the Board of Trustees of Shwedagon Pagoda.
The pagoda is said to contain eight hairs of the Buddha, a fact that only adds to its prestige. The stairways and bridges leading into the main sanctuary serve the thousands of pilgrims who flock here, and flower and book stalls, peddlers of religious souvenirs and tea shops do a brisk trade during the Shwedagon’s long hours of opening.
Punakha Dzong – Bhutan
The Punakha Dzong, also known as Pungtang Dechen Photrang Dzong is the administrative centre of Punakha District in Punakha, Bhutan. Punakha Dzongkhag has been inextricably linked with momentous occasions in Bhutanese history. It served as the capital of the country from 1637 to 1907 and the first national assembly was hosted here in 1953. It is the second oldest and second largest dzong in Bhutan and one of the most majestic structures in the country.
Two major rivers in Bhutan, the Pho Chhu and Mo Chhu, converge in this valley. Punakha Dzong is built at the confluence of these two rivers and is an especially beautiful sight on sunny days with sunlight reflecting off the water onto its white-washed walls.
In addition to its structural beauty, Punakha Dzong is notable for containing the preserved remains of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, the unifer of Bhutan as well as a sacred relic known as the Ranjung Karsapani. This relic is a self-created image of Avalokiteswara that miraculously emerged from the vertebrae of Tsangpa Gyarey the founder of the Drukpa School when he was cremated.
Punakha is located in the western part of Bhutan, and is the winter home of the Je Khenpo, the Chief Abbot of Bhutan. Punakha has been of critical importance since the time of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel in the 17th century.
The Eternal Spring Shrine – Taiwan
The Eternal Spring Shrine was built in 1958 to commemorate the 212 workers who died during the construction of the Central Cross-Island Highway. Its unique location recessed into the side of the mountain and Tang Dynasty architectural style makes this shrine one of the most famous scenic spots in Taroko National Park. Natural spring water empties into the Liwu River below through the front of the shrine, giving it a surreal look, as if it were actually pouring forth from the heavens above. This is the Eternal Spring Waterfall, and it makes for an ideal photo opportunity.
In 1987, the cliff by the river collapsed and destroyed the old pavilion next to the Eternal Spring Shrine. It was reconstructed and opened to the public again in 1997.
Typically, it takes 20 minutes to make the walk through mountain tunnels to reach the shrine. However, if you would like to challenge yourself, there is a 2.2km long trail behind the shrine with steep stairs called the “sky ladder”, leading to Guanyin Cave, Taroko Tower, and the Bell Tower. This trail leads to a suspension bridge and eventually to Changuang Temple. The trail and associated scenic spots and temple offer a spectacular canyon view and a chance to appreciate the hard work and sacrifices engineers and construction workers made generations before.
Jokhang Temple – China
The Jokhang, also known as the Qoikang Monastery, Jokang, Jokhang Temple, Jokhang Monastery and Zuglagkang, is a Buddhist temple in Barkhor Square in Lhasa, the capital city of Tibet. Included on UNESCO’s World Heritage list in 2000 as part of the Potala Palace, the Jokhang Temple is located in central Lhasa. With an area of 25,100 square meters (about six acres), it is the ultimate pilgrimage destination for Tibetan Pilgrims.
The Jokhang Temple was built on the former site of a lake. According to legend, the lake site was chosen after many failed attempts to build a temple in the region. Prior to this, every time a monastery was built, it would collapse. Confused by this phenomenon, Princess Bhrikuti turned to Wen Cheng for help. Being a learned woman, Wen Cheng told the Princess that the geography of Tibet was very much like a hag, with the lake at the heart. In order to build the monastery, Wen Cheng advised they must demolish the hag by filling and leveling the lake using 1,000 goats to carry soil from a mountain far away. When the construction work was done, it was called Ra-Sa-Vphrul-Snang (‘ra’ meaning goat and ‘sa’ meaning earth in Tibetan) to commemorate those goats.
Whether the legend is true or not, this temple brought Buddhism into this land and became an inseparable part of Tibetan history and culture. The city of Ra-Sa grew around the temple and over time, become known as Lhasa, a holy land.
The statue of Sakyamuni is a rare treasure. When Sakyamuni was alive, he disagreed with the idea of ‘personal worship’ and did not allow likenesses of himself to be created. Only three statues, designed by he himself, were permitted to be sculpted during his lifetime. The first is a likeness of him at age eight; the second shows him at age twelve when he was still a prince of India; and the third is of him as an adult. The statue kept in the Jokhang Temple is the statue of Sakyamuni at age of twelve. It was presented to the king of the Tang Dynasty and brought to Tibet by Princess Wen Cheng.
Wat Pho – Thailand
Wat Pho, also spelled Wat Po, is a Buddhist temple complex in the Phra Nakhon District, Bangkok, Thailand. It is on Rattanakosin Island, directly south of the Grand Palace
The highlight for most people visiting Wat Pho is the Reclining Buddha. The figures here are impressive: 15 metres tall, 46 metres long, so large it feels like it has been squeezed into the building. The Buddha’s feet are 5 metres long and exquisitely decorated in mother-of-pearl illustrations of auspicious ‘laksanas’ (characteristics) of the Buddha. The number 108 is a significant number, referring to the 108 positive actions and symbols that helped lead Buddha to perfection. You’ll need to take your shoes off to enter, and if you would like a little good luck, we recommend purchasing a bowl of coins at the entrance of the hall which you can drop in the 108 bronze bowls which line the length of the walls. Dropping the small pennies in makes a nice ringing sound and even if your wishes don’t come true, the money goes towards helping the monks renovate and preserve Wat Pho. As this is a revered image, all visitors must wear appropriate clothing; this means no exposed shoulders or skin above the knee.
Wat Pho also has good English speaking guides who will provide interesting information for around 200 – 400 baht, depending on how many people there are in your group and how good your negotiating skills are. If you prefer, you can wander alone. Recommended sites include four chapels that contain 394 gilded Buddha images; long lines of golden statues from different parts of Thailand sitting in the lotus position. Finally, in the courtyards at Wat Pho Temple are some comical looking Chinese statutes that were once uses as ballasts on ships and 91 chedis (or stupas) decorated in ceramic pottery flowers and colourful tiles.
Swayambhunath Stupa – Nepal
Swayambhu is an ancient religious architecture atop a hill in the Kathmandu Valley, west of Kathmandu city. The Tibetan name for the site means ‘Sublime Trees’. Legend says that once the Kathmandu valley was a lake in which Swayambhu hill existed as an island. On top of that hill stood a natural crystal stupa. Buddha, when visiting the place, declared that it was a wish-fulfilling stupa and whoever is touched by the wind that passes over the stupa receives the seed of liberation from the cycle of existence.
The stupa represents Buddha’s mind. To visit a stupa is said to be the same as meeting a Buddha in person. It offers peace, freedom and joy to the whole world and ultimately helps us to obtain perfect enlightenment. Just seeing, hearing about, reflecting upon, or touching a stupa fosters peace and even spiritual release. The stupa pacifies physical and mental difficulties such as sicknesses, famine and conflicts in all areas and directions.
The Swayambhu Stupa or Caitya stands on the highest point of the twin-peaked hill rising at the center of the Kathmandu Valley. Climbing up the long row of steps on the hill’s eastern side and mounting the last section of stairs, one is directly faced with the Buddha’s eyes painted on the top of the stupa. When walking around the stupa clockwise, one passes five shrines symbolizing the mandala of the Five Buddha families, represented by Akshobhya, Ratnasambhava, Amitabha, and Amoghasiddhi; the 5th Buddha Vairocana is placed next to the shrine of Akshobya. The shrines between them contain different forms of the female bodhisattva Tara .
Near the Swayambhu Stupa a shrine has been erected where Manjushri stood to empty the lake and left his footprints on sacred ground. These monuments mark the birthplace of the Kathmandu Valley, which developed into the country of Nepal.