Tranquility recalled

As a tourist, perpetually on a short time-budget, I don’t seek out tranquility. So I’m all the more appreciative of it, especially when it comes on you inside the crowded and noisy Six Banyan Tree temple in Guangzhou, where people are busy exchanging money for spiritual satisfaction. I paused inside a hall with vast statues of various Buddhas and saw this scene. The image of the world’s most famous ascetic juxtaposed with a priest waiting patiently for his next customer was something one could not pass up.

Suit of Jade

The short-lived Qin empire, the first empire of China, fell by 206 BCE. Much was happening in India at the time: the Maurya empire was at its peak, the Gandhara kingdoms were rising in modern day Afghanistan, the first kingdoms of South India were being established. The Nanyue kingdom was one of the successor states of Qin, covering what is today Northern Vietnam, and the Chinese provinces of Guangxi, Guangdong, and Yunnan. Han, another of the successors of Qin, was in conflict with Nanyue and occassionally dominant. I found this background when I visited the massive museum built over the mausoleum of the Nanyue king Zhao Mo, discovered in 1983 CE in the Yuexiu district of Guangzhou.

The museum is very close to the Yuexiu Park metro station. We arrived an hour short of closing, enough time for the museum, as it turned out. The mausoleum is the usual mound over small burial chambers. We climbed down, and walked through these low stone-lined chambers. Zhao Mo died in 122 BCE. Since the first emperor’s tomb has never been excavated, this is possibly the oldest tomb of a Chinese king which has been examined properly in modern times. All the artifacts found here are in the museum above the digs.

The star of the show is undoubtedly the full-body jade suit in the featured photo. The Chinese belief that jade preserves the body is likely to be the reason it enclosed the king’s body inside his wooden coffin. The rest of the things (and people) in the mausoleum were meant to serve him in afterlife. There was a lot of jade in evidence (the bowl and the belt buckle in the photos caught my eye). Gold and silver were present, but in smaller quantities. The museum of full of beautiful items, but there is little explanation. That’s part of the reason why an hour here was more than enough.

The six banyan trees

Our temple circuit of the Yuexiu district of Guangzhou had taken in Confucianism, Islam, Daoism, and was to end with the Buddhist Temple of Six Banyan Trees (Liurong Si). Unlike the other three, Buddhist temples in China are never oases of peace or calm. People come here to ask for their needs, and it seems that enough people feel that their prayers and answered to keep more coming. Crowds peak before the national university entrance exams (the gaokao), but this was off season.

On the day of the New Year’s Lantern Festival there are long queues here to light incense. As we entered, a monk seated at the door handed us some of the sticks to light. We looked admiringly at the obviously powerful Dwarpalas. One of them serenely played a lute while crushing evil-doers under his feet. Another kept a watchful eye on a pagoda, presumably this very one, while doing heavy crushing with feet. Being pretty non-evil, we passed unscathed to deposit lit incense sticks into the large pot in the middle of the courtyard kept for this purpose. We are not only non-evil, we are also polite guests.

Between the Dwarpalas was an enormous laughing Buddha. It is so strange that a wandering monk who roamed another country, preaching the virtue of becoming nothing (nirvana), has become confused with jolly old Ho Tei, a monk from the 11th cetury CE. We went into the Daoxian Baodian (Great Buddha) hall to see the three brass statues that are supposed to have been made in the 17th century CE, during the time of the Kangxi emperor. These Qing dynasty statues (featured photo) represent Amitabha, Gautama, and the Apothecary (left to right). I liked the pink lotus flowers with hidden LEDs in the ceiling above them.

The statues of the Buddha in a niche outside the pagoda which you see in the photo here was decidedly different in style. The features are Indian, for one thing. The very ornate bronze piece below the pedestal could be from the Indonesia or Thailand, but the simple brass one could well be from India. There was no plaque here which I could translate. The other photo shows a martial figure. At first look I’d thought it could be the emperor Ashoka, but then found it could perhaps be Weituo, a general who had a hand in recovering the relics after they were stolen.

The Flower Pagoda (Hua Ta, above) is the center of the temple. It holds the ashes of a particularly saintly Cambodian monk, which the temple was constructed to hold. The pagoda would have been built in 537 CE, rebuilt after being destroyed in a fire in 1057 CE, survived the Mongol invasion, but had to be rebuilt after another fire in 1373 CE, and restored in 1900 CE, during the last decades of the empire. The name of the temple has an equally tortuous history. It was called the Baozhuangyan temple at the time of its founding, then became the Changzhou temple, and later the Jinghui temple, before a 10th century poet, Su Dongpo, named it after the six banyan trees he saw here. The banyans are long gone.

The famous five

Although I’d managed to figure out the shortest walks between the various temples in this neighbourhood of Guangzhou, I hadn’t factored in the time that it would take us to see each of them. So, by the time we arrived at the impressive gate of the Temple of the Five Immortals (Wu Xian Guan), we were pretty far behind our schedule. Still we paused to admire the two stone qilin flanking the entrance. The qilin are described in the West as unicorn, but these had no horns. They are shown with the head of a dragon, but with an animal body with four hoofed legs. These had a body which looked scaled, but probably represent flames. Qilin are shown in flames. Their use as doorkeepers in this Taoist temple probably has the symbolic meaning that only good people can pass between them.

It seems that the five immortals arrived in this place during the 9th century CE riding goats of five different colours, and gave a present of rice to the people of this place. This said to be the origin of the name of the city; according to this etymology, Guangzhou means the city of goats. We never got to see the five goats statue in nearby Yuexiu park, so it was good that I’d taken photos of the stone goats in this temple. These are apparently the petrified remains of the goats that the immortals rode. According to plaques inside, the temple was founded in 1377 CE, in the spot where a shrine stood earlier. The main wooden structure is said to have survived since the founding of the temple. Given the many disasters which the city passed through, I wonder how accurate this claim is. However the woodwork is certainly admirable.

An important thing to see here is the stone with a couple of depressions. These are called the footprints of the immortals. The bit of water which has collected in the depression and the large number of turtles basking on the stone make it an obviously lucky and powerful spot. We joined the few other people who were busy taking photos of this site. North of the stone is a small garden, which looked inviting. We walked along it and saw the famous bell tower called the First Tower of Lingnan (below).

The tower holds the bell cast during the founding of the temple, and therefore dating back to the foundational years of the Mings, and the early years of the Hongwu emperor. Since China was still in an unsettled state at this time, I wonder whether the idea was to use this bell partly as a military warning system. The founding of the temple carried the symbolism of a China reunified under an emperor who claimed that he was the Son of Heaven. The bell is massive, and the tower apparently serves as a resonating chamber for it. As we left I wished we’d had the time to explore this place more slowly.

The Smooth Pagoda

It took us a little effort to find the address of the Guang Ta (meaning smooth pagoda). Not unsurprisingly, it can be found on Guangta Road. It is a quiet neighbourhood, and when we got to the 36 meters high structure, it was unmistakable. A man sitting and watching me take photos called out from inside a shop “It is more than a thousand years old.” I was surprised that he spoke English, and turned to thank him. The earliest version of the tower is supposed to have been built on this spot in the 7th century CE, so it was about 1300 years old. Tradition has it that it was Abu Waqas, one of the companions of the prophet, who arrived in Guangzhou and had this minaret and the associated mosque built in 627 CE. There is some controversy about this claim, although the date of founding of the mosque is unchallenged. I could imagine the confusion that a tall structure like this must have created locally, leading to it being called a smooth pagoda. In any case, it has long been regarded as a landmark in Guangzhou. This is likely to be of fairly recent vintage.

The Huaisheng Mosque has burned down and been reconstructed many times, but its date of founding would make it one of the oldest mosques anywhere in the world. Having seen the Grand Mosque of Xi’an some years ago, we were prepared for the very Chinese layout, with a succession of courtyards leading eventually to the prayer hall at the northern end, which you see in the photo above. The large paved courtyard in front of it is meant to hold people who do not fit into the main hall. We peered through the doors of the hall. The layout is what you expect in a mosque: a minbar (pulpit) at the western end next to the main mihrab (prayer niche). In front of this is a large open hall which would, during prayers, hold the ranks of the people who come here to pray.

The calligraphy above the minbar captivated me. I don’t read Arabic, but I could figure out that the leftmost group contains the characters for Allah. The calligraphy is recognizably Arabic, but the look is influenced by Chinese writing. It is interesting in the same way as the architecture of mosques in China. The basic purpose of the mosque is retained in the minaret, the prayer hall, and the courtyard. However, the architectural sensibility within which these elements are placed are very different from the design which has spread with the Arab diaspora. The 13th century churning of the world in the wake of the Mongol invasions must have brought the two traditions into contact, but did not destroy them. The thought that the world is large enough for these two styles to coexist makes me happy.

I turned around to see that another group of visitors had arrived and were busy taking photos of each other. They were speaking some dialect of Chinese, but had distinctively different features. I suppose they were visitors from one of the western provinces. As you can see in the photo, the woman is wearing a headscarf and the men have caps; this is a strong indication that they are muslims. You can also see a low fence around the courtyard. This is said to have been built during the Tang dynasty, although the modern version is made of concrete.

As we left we saw that above the exit was a juxtaposition of two different traditions of calligraphy. The Arabic has the pride of the place, but below it, embedded into the stone, is an incription in Chinese. The Chinese calligraphic tradition asks us to admire the fluidity of the strokes. The Arabic tradition emphasized the decorative quality of the entirety of the inscription. It is interesting to see them together.