The turning of the wheel

The turning of the wheel of dharma: the Buddha's first sermon in Sarnath. Fresco in the Jing'an Su, Shanghai
The turning of the wheel of dharma: the Buddha’s first sermon in Sarnath. Fresco in the Jing’an Su, Shanghai

The Jing’an temple is a large and beautiful temple in the middle of Shanghai, and is probably high on every tourist’s list of things to do. It turned out that this was almost the last thing we did during our stay in Shanghai. When we came back to Shanghai from our trip to Hangzhou, we took the metro to Jing’an. It was well past noon, and as we emerged from the metro station into the food court of a large departmental store, we stopped for lunch. We had the noodle soup which had become the mainstay of our lunches, but then got snagged by the many sweet shops around. We emerged near the entrance of the temple loaded with boxes of Chinese sweets.

The entrance to the temple is marked by a huge column topped by a brass copy of the lion capital of Sarnath. This was the symbol of the first Indian empire: the Maurya empire of the 4th century BCE, the same empire that adopted Buddhism as a state religion and then exported it to the world. Interestingly, over two thousand years of separate cultural evolution, the lion capital has remained a symbol of the state in India, but become a symbol of the Buddhist religion in China! We sat near the base of the symbol of our nation, and tried out the sweets. Chinese sweets are completely different from the Indian variety: they are not so sweet (sugar was, after all, one of the technologies that India gave to the world), and they have interesting but mild flavours. They look like Japanese mochi or daifuku, but the ones we had were not made of rice and beans.

We paid our entrance fees and entered into the usual chaos of a temple in China: incense, monks in BMWs, lots of young people praying, and children donating money. We passed through this into the side chapels on the ground floor. One was made of camphor wood. The carving was beautiful. We walked up the imposing staircase to the main temple with its immense bronze Buddha. While crossing the Himalaya, the Buddha turned from an emaciated ascetic (bhikshu) into a well-fed god. Behind the imposing statue was a large fresco telling the story of Gautama, the Buddha. The four main sections were his birth and encounter with the misery of life, the enlightenment, the sermon of the turning of the wheel, and the mahaparinirvana.

We walked on to a corridor which flanks the main temple, and goes round it to the drum and bell towers with a chapel to the Maitreya Bodhisattva, shown, as always in China, as the laughing Buddha. The temple and towers are dwarfed by the high-rise buildings around it, but the glitter and ornamentation seems to outshine these newer buildings.


Author: I. J. Khanewala

I travel on work. When that gets too tiring then I relax by travelling for holidays. The holidays are pretty hectic, so I need to unwind by getting back home. But that means work.

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