The 1,500-Year-Old Hanging Temple Suspended 246 Feet Above Ground on a Cliff
Located near Mount Heng in Shanxi Province of North China is a tourist spot that could easily be among the top ranks of architectural wonders of the world. Known as the “Hengshan Hanging Temple” or just the “Hanging Monastery,” it is an ageless structure that withstood the ravages of time. The temple gets its name from the fact that it was built into the cliffside high above the ground as if to defy one of the most fundamental laws of physics – gravity. But that isn’t the only intriguing thing about the temple, and here’s why.
The 1,500-Year-Old Hanging Temple Is the Only Existing Place in the World that Serves Three Religions
Legend has it that the construction of the Hanging Monastery was started by a single man, a Taoist monk named Liao Ran, back in 491 CE. It was a time of political chaos as well as great cultural confluence as the Northern Wei Dynasty began to introduce policies, language, and religious ideologies from South China with the ultimate goal of unifying China under one rule. The result was that North China, which was predominantly Buddhist, welcomed Taoist and Confucian philosophies.
As with most monasteries, it was built in a location that is far away from busy cities and their noise, close to peaceful natural sounds for quiet meditation. But what’s unique about it is that it served all three major religions of China – Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism – and operated as a travel lodge for weary travelers who were reluctant to stay at places that worshiped a religion different from theirs. It was a safe haven during a time of civil war and rebellions with some Northern ethnic groups who found the compulsory assimilation of Southern culture disagreeable.
The Temple Is Built Into the Cliff Face 75 Meters Above the Ground
At Mount Heng are the two peaks, Cuiping and Tianfeng, that form a gorge with Hengshan between them. The temple is tucked into a niche on the steep face of Cuiping Peak, 75 meters (246 feet) above ground, not because monk Liao Ran was afraid of bandits, but so that it will be protected from floods and erosion from runoff water. The cliff face above the temple juts forward so that it is sheltered from the sun, rain, and wind, protecting it from possible weather damage.
The entire temple was built from wooden frame structures, with the main supportive structure hidden inside the bedrock of the cliff. It stretches 32 meters long and has three sections – the South Pavilion, the North Pavilion, and the bridge between them.
Over the next 1,400 years following the first construction work, several repair works were done, and extensions were built. The edges of the pavilions are also supported by wooden beams that were inserted into holes two to three meters (seven to 10 feet) deep into the cliff face. However, these beams were actually a modern addition to provide a more sure structural integrity to the temple for its preservation and the safety of visitors.
The Hanging Temple Holds 40 Halls with Shrines for 80 Statues
The North Pavilion is a three-story building that is four meters wide and seven meters long. It holds several statues of Confucius, Laozi, and Shakyamuni. The South Pavilion is also a three-story building but is eight meters long. It holds the biggest hall, which houses the tallest statues in the temple. The bridge that connects the two pavilions is 10 meters long and has another small pavilion on top with a shrine for worship. In total, there are 40 halls and 80 statues, which are made from various materials, including iron, bronze, stone, and terracotta.
From the ground, the temple is accessible via a zig-zag of wooden plank roads supported on one side by the cliff’s rock. Since heavy loads could damage the temple structure, only 80 visitors are allowed to enter at any given point in time.
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