More than a quarter of all people in the world belong
to Eastern religions, which include Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikhism, and
Taoism. These people worship in temples, which are architecturally as
diverse as the religions are different from each other. From the ancient
ruins of Ankor Wat to the distinctly modern Wat Rong Khun, there are
hundreds if not thousands of amazing temples in the world.
I have long been fascinated by the temples and sacred
sites of Eastern religions. After doing an article on some amazing
churches from around the world (10
Divinely Designed Churches), itĘs only right that we do a follow up on
the ten most fascinating temples in Asia. Here they are, in no particular
TigerĘs Nest Monastery
TigerĘs Nest Monastery, perched precariously on the
edge of a 3,000-feet-high cliff in Paro Valley, is one of the holiest
places in Bhutan. Legend has it that
Guru Rinpoche [wiki], the second Buddha, flew onto the cliff on the
back of a tigress, and then meditated in a cave which now exists within
the monastery walls.
The monastery, formally called Taktshang Goemba, was
built in 1692 and reconstructed in 1998 after a fire. Now, the monastery
is restricted to practicing Buddhists on religious retreats and is
off-limits to ordinary tourists.
Wat Rong Khun
Wat Rong Khun in Chiang Rai, Thailand is unlike any
Buddhist temples in the world. The all-white, highly ornate structure
gilded in mosaic mirrors that seem to shine magically, is done in a
distinctly contemporary style. It is the brainchild of renowned Thai
artist Chalermchai Kositpipat.
Actually, the temple is still under construction.
Chalermchai expects it will take another 90 years to complete, making it
the Buddhist temple equivalent of the Sagrada Familia church in Barcelona,
Wat Rong Khun, the White Temple. Image:
Wat Rong Khun, from a distance. Image:
Details of the temple roof. Image:
The ornately detailed arches. Image:
Alicia Lim [Flickr]
Buddha sculpture, gilded with mosaic mirrors. Image:
The hands of hell want your change. Image:
Prambanan is a Hindu temple in Central Java,
Indonesia. The temple was built in 850 CE, and is composed of 8 main
shrines and 250 surrounding smaller ones.
Nearly all the walls of the temple are covered in
exquisite bas relief carvings, which narrate stories of VishnuĘs
incarnations, adventures of Hanuman the Monkey King, the
Ramayana [wiki] epic and other legends.
Though not the biggest temple in Indonesia (Borobudur
is larger - see below), Prambanan makes up in beauty and grace for what it
lacks in size.
PrambananĘs main complex. Image:
Six of PrambananĘs eight main shrines. Image:
Prambanan at night. Image:
Bas-Relief at Prambanan. Image:
No one knows exactly when the
Shwedagon Paya [wiki] (or Pagoda) in Myanmar was built - legend has it
that it is 2,500 years old though archaeologists estimate that it was
built between the 6th and 10th century.
Now, when people say "golden temple" they usually mean
that the structure is golden in color. But when it comes to the Shwedagon
Pagoda, golden literally means covered in gold! In the 15th century, a
queen of the Mon people donated her weight in gold to the temple. This
tradition continues until today, where pilgrims often save for years to
buy small packets of gold leafs to stick to the temple walls.
As if all that gold wasnĘt enough, the spire of the
stupa or dome is covered with over 5,000 diamonds and 2,000 rubies
(thereĘs even a 76 carat diamond at the very tip!). And oh, the temple
housed one of the holiest relics in Buddhism: eight strands of BuddhaĘs
Shwedagon Pagoda and its golden stupa. Image:
Dust Mason [Flickr]
Shwedagon Pagoda at night. Image:
Temple of Heaven
The Temple of Heaven [wiki] is a Taoist temple in Beijing, the capital
of China. The temple was constructed in 14th century by Emperor Yongle of
the Ming Dynasty (who also built the Forbidden City) as his personal
temple, where he would pray for good harvest and to atone for the sins of
The TempleĘs architecture is quite interesting:
everything in the temple, which represents Heaven, is circular whereas the
ground levels, which represent the Earth, are square.
The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest at the Temple of Heaven, Beijing.
Image: Saad Akhtar [wikipedia]
Close up of the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest, Temple of Heaven.
Details of the roof of the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest. Image:
Ceiling of the Imperial Vault, Temple of Heaven. Image:
Chion-in Temple [wiki] was built in 1234 CE to honor the founder of
Jodo (Pure Land) Buddhism, a priest named Honen, who fasted to death in
the very spot. At one point in time, the complex had 21 buildings but due
to earthquakes and fire, the oldest surviving building is from the 17th
Visitors to the Chion-in Temple must first pass
through the largest gate in Japan: the two-story San-mon Gate. The temple
bell is also a record setter: it weighs 74 tons and needs 17 monks to ring
it during the New Year celebrations.
Another interesting feature of the Chion-in Temple is
the "singing" floor of the Assembly Hall. Called a uguisu-bari or
nightingale floor, the wooden planks were designed to creak at every
footstep to alert the monks of intruders!
Chion-in TempleĘs Main Gate. Image:
A building in the Chion-in Temple complex in winter time. Image:
Details of the Chion-in Temple roof. Notice a feudal familyĘs crest
stamped on the roof tiles, as a symbol of their patronage. Image:
The Nightingale Floor construction. Image:
In the 19th century, Dutch occupiers of Indonesia
found a massive ancient ruin deep in the jungles of Java. What they
discovered was the complex of Borobudur, a gigantic structure built with
nearly 2 million cubic feet (55,000 m≥) of stones. The temple has nearly
2,700 relief panels and 504 Buddha statues.
Until today, no one knows for sure when and why it was
built, nor the reason for its complete abandonment hundreds of years ago.
Some scholars believe that Borobudur is actually a giant textbook of
Buddhism, as its bas reliefs tell the story of the life of Buddha and the
principles of his teachings. To "read," a pilgrim must make his way
through nine platforms and walk a distance of over 2 miles.
The upper level of Borobudur. Image:
Inside each of the lattice stupa is a Buddha statue. Image:
Jin Aili [Flickr]
A bas relief in Borobudur. Image:
The Harmandir Sahib (meaning The Abode of God)
or simply the
Golden Temple [wiki] in Punjab, India is the most sacred shrine of
Sikhism. For the Sikhs, the Golden Temple symbolizes infinite freedom and
The site of the Temple began with a small lake that
was so peaceful that even Buddha came there to meditate. Thousands of
years later, Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism also lived and meditate by
Construction of the Golden Temple began in the 1500s,
when the fourth Guru of Sikhism enlarged the lake that became Amritsar or
Pool of the Nectar of Immortality, around which the temple and the
city grew. The Temple itself is decorated with marble sculptures, gilded
in gold, and covered in precious stones.
Golden Temple, from a distance. Image:
Saurabh C [Flickr]
The Golden Temple of Amristar. Image:
Saurabh C [Flickr]
The Golden Temple of Amritsar at night. Image:
Saurabh C [Flickr]
Vishnu Temple of Srirangam
The Temple of Srirangam (Sri
Ranganathaswamy Temple [wiki]), in the Indian city of Tiruchirapalli
(or Trichy), is the largest functioning Hindu temple in the world (Ankor
Wat is the largest of all temple, but it is currently non-functioning as a
temple - see below).
The temple is dedicated to Vishnu, one of three Gods
in Hinduism. Legend has it that a long time ago, a sage rested and put
down a statue of Vishnu reclining on a great serpent. When he was ready to
resume his journey, he discovered that the statue couldnĘt be moved, so a
small temple was built over it. Over centuries, the temple "grew" as
larger ones were built over the existing buildings.
The temple complex is massive: it encompasses an area
of over 150 acres (63 hectares) with seven concentric walls, the outermost
being about 2.5 miles (4 kilometers) long! The walls demarcate enclosures
within enclosures, each more sacred than the next, with the inner-most
enclosure is forbidden to non-Hindus.
The Temple of Srirangam is famous for its gopurams
or entrances beneath colorful pyramids. The temple has 21 gopurams total,
with the largest one having 15 stories and is nearly 200 feet (60 m) tall.
Temple of Srirangam, with its colorful gopurams. Image:
The largest gopuram of the Temple of Srirangam. Image:
Subash Chandran [Flickr]
The carved pillars in the Srirangam Temple complex. Image:
Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, and Bayon
Last but definitely not least is the largest temple in
history and the inspiration to countless novels and action movies of
Hollywood: Ankor Wat.
Angkor Wat [wiki] was built in the early 12th century in what is now
Cambodia. The world famous temple was first a Hindu one, dedicated to
Vishnu. In the 14th or 15th century, as Buddhism swept across Asia, it
became a Buddhist temple.
The Western worldĘs got a glimpse of Angkor Wat when a
16th century Portuguese monk visited the temple and eloquently described
it as "of such extraordinary construction that it is not possible to
describe it with a pen, particularly since it is like no other building in
the world. It has towers and decoration and all the refinements which the
human genius can conceive of." His words still rang true today.
Tourists visiting Angkor Wat usually also visit the
nearby ruins of Angkor Thom and
Bayon [wiki], two fantastic temples that serve as the ancient capital
of Khmer empire.
Angkor Wat. Image:
The face of Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara at Angkor Thom.
Image: Manfred Werner [wikipedia]
Bayon, which described by Maurice Glaize, an Angkor conservator of the
1940s, as "but a muddle of stones, a sort of moving chaos assaulting the
Image: Charles J. Sharp [wikipedia]
Entrance to Bayon. That man on the bike is carrying coconuts. Lots and
lots of coconuts.
The faces of Bayon. Straight out of Indiana Jones, man!
Image: Henry Flower [wikipedia]
Here are some more amazing temples and sacred places
that just couldnĘt fit in the list above:
Potala Palace and Jokhang Temple
Potala Palace [wiki], built on top of the Red Mountain in Lhasa,
Tibet, China was built by the first emperor of Tibet in 637 CE. The
current palace was re-constructed in the mid-1600s by the fifth Dalai
The Palace consists of two main buildings, the Potrang
Karpo (White Palace) and Portrang Marpo (Red Palace). It was the chief
home of the fourteenth and current Dalai Lama until he was forced to flee
to India when China invaded Tibet in 1959. It is now a state museum.
The White Palace. Image:
Jokhan Temple [wiki] is the spiritual center of Lhasa and is
considered the most important and sacred temple in Tibet. The temple was
built in 642 CE and has since housed the single most venerated object in
Tibetan Buddhism: a statue of
Gautama Buddha [wiki], the founder of Buddhism.
The city of Lhasa has three concentric paths that
pilgrims use to walk to Jokhang Temple. Many actually prostrate themselves
along these routes in order to gain spiritual merit!
Two golden deers flanking a Dharma Wheel and a golden bell at the roof of
Pilgrims prostrate themselves in front of Jokhang. Image:
Varanasi in India is not a temple, but ais ctually a
famous Hindu holy city, located at the banks of the Ganges River. It is,
however, often called the "City of Temples," where almost every road
crossing has a nearby temple. A center of pilgrimage (as many as a million
pilgrims visit Varanasi each year), the city has links to Buddhism and
Jainism as well.
Sunrise at the Ganges River in Varanasi. Image:
Temples are everywhere in Varanasi. Image:
Pilgrims believe that bathing in the Ganges River will cleanse them of
Jackson Lee [Flickr]