Hengshan Hanging Temple
By Chandana Ranaweera
The Hanging Temple, also known as Hengshan Hanging Temple, Hanging Monastery or Xuankong Temple is located on a cliff near Mount Heng in Hunyuan County, Datong City, Shanxi Province, China. The closest city to the temple is Datong which is located about 64 kilometres to the northwest. The structure of the temple which seemingly defies gravity has made it a popular tourist attraction and locally known as the Hanging Temple.
The history of the temple goes well over 1500 years back. According to legends it was built by one monk named Liaoran in 491 CE, towards the end of Northern Wei Dynasty. The temple consists of 40 halls and pavilions and they are all built on a cliff at an elevation of 30 metres above ground level. The walls of the temple buildings are essentially plastered to the cliff and the whole structure is firmly supported by pillars of oak.
In many ways, the Hanging Temple is much like Sigiriya — our own rock fortress. Among the frescos found on the walls of the temple are beautiful paintings depicting the history of different dynasties of China. The colour combinations and the style in which the people have draw are distinctly oriental but the difference in style by no means makes it hard for us to admire them.
There are 78 religious statues found inside the temple. These statues which are vividly crafted out of copper, iron, terracotta, and stone, and they are found in the 40 halls and pavilions of the temple. Interestingly these statues don’t belong to one religion but rather includes three, namely; Buddhism. Taoism, and Confucianism. The distance between north end and the south end of the temple is distinctly longer than that is from east to west. As you enter from the south entrance it gets higher and higher as you are climbing towards the top of the mountain. The brief layout of the temple includes Qielan Hall (Hall of Sangharama), Sanguan Hall (Hall of Three Officials), Chunyang Hall, Hall of Sakyamuni, Hall of Three Religions, and Guanyin Hall. The majority of Buddhist statues are found in the Hall of Three Religions along with statues of Taoism and Confucianism. The statue of Sakyamuni (Gautama Buddha) in enshrined in the middle while the statues of Lao-Tze (founder of Taoism) and Confucius (founder of Confucianism) are placed on either side of it. This reflects the religious harmony among the three religions which existed during Ming and Qing dynasties. In the ancient times, Datong had served as a transit hub for people travelling through the remote Datong terrain and the temple is believed to have provided a spiritual break from the tiring journeying for people with different kinds of faiths.
In 386 CE, the Toba tribe from Turkey who had been there in China had taken the political turmoil of the country at the time to establish their own dynasty. This dynasty was later called the ‘Chei Dynasty of the North’ and they chose Datong as their capital. This was a time when China was going through some turbulent times, politically and socially, and the temple was providing house to many different faiths, despite the Cheis being strong Buddhists, can be seen as an attempt to create harmony among communities.
Although the halls and pavilions of the temple are filled with religious statues and paintings which can calm you down give out a spiritual bliss, the temple from the outside is not necessarily so calming. In fact, the layout of the temple and how it feels as if it is going to collapse in any second is enough to make any visitor think twice before entering the temple and to make anyone’s heart beat louder in their chests. In 2010, Time magazine included the Hanging Temple in their top 10 list of most dangerous buildings in the word and it has made the temple even more popular tourist destination, especially among the foreign travellers. Today, many foreign tourists from countries such as UK, Germany, Italy, and USA visit Datong to see this amazing marvel of architecture. With the historical value, jaw-dropping scenery, sculptures, and paintings, the Hanging Temple is not just an architectural wonder but also a clear example of how talented and skilled the ancient Chinese artists were.
(Translated by Sanuj Hathurusinghe)