Religion has always played a monumental part in shaping humanity, civilizations, politics, culture, dress and behaviour. In fact, it filters down through all levels of functioning society regardless of our own religious stand. Such divine ineffability has allowed leader and labourer to build glorious structures, sometimes humble but more often than not, extravagant show-pieces to honour the gods. While others have used the camouflage of religion to glorify their ego, building beautiful works as a lasting legacy of their power and self-aggrandizement. But it can not be denied, the scope of human ingenuity, design and the three-dimensional realization of that design is profound and remarkable. More incredible in an age devoid of computers, electricity, heavy transport and protective safety measures!

In this two-part article, we discover ten different temples, all with compelling backgrounds. Built by hand, either from an empire, dynasty or those within a religious order. All are open to the general public and stand as a testament to humans varied interpretation of what or whom exactly rules over us.

The Fire Temple near Baku Azerbaijan

The Fire Temple near Baku Azerbaijan

The Fire Temple of Baku – Azerbaijan

While partaking in a pagan purification rite at the age of 30, Zoroaster experienced a divine vision of Ahura, a single supreme being which conceived Zoroastrianism, the worlds oldest monotheistic faith. Its roots may exceed 4000 years when it was the state religion of three Persian dynasties. With the birth of Islam in 632AD, the Muslim conquests soon followed, forcing the Parsis (Zoroastrian refugees) to relocate to India. By the Middle Ages, significant Indian communities were residing throughout Central Asia, including Baku. Vessels plying the Caspian sea came from the labour of skilled Indian shipbuilders and Indian merchants controlled trade continuing up the Grand Trunk Road (modern-day Pakistan).

Known as Ateshgah from the Persian word Atash for fire, this small temple was used as a Zoroastrian place of worship. Constructed between the 17th-18th centuries until its closure in the late 19th century when the reduced Indian population made it unviable. The land, fed by natural gas through seven vents caused fires to burn spontaneously. The locals already worshipped such a phenomenon long before the consecration of a temple. As fire was symbolic of the creator, both in Hinduism and Zoroastrian, it provided the ideal place to establish their faith. In fact, there has been widespread debate that the temple’s origins were Hindu in regards to the trident on top of the central altar, but the waters are muddied by the strong similarities both faiths share. Zoroastrian is pedestalled by the four elements, cornerstones of their belief: Badi (air), Abi (water), Heki (earth) and Ateshi (fire). The traveller James Bryce noted in 1876 the gas as naphtha, a mineral product, rising from strong springs. All this had dried up by the late 1960s when a gas pipe was installed to feed the eternal flame at the temple’s altar.

Small temple within a sea of monks quarters Labrang China

Small temple within a sea of monks quarters Labrang China

Xià Hé Monastery – China

Seen as the leading monastery for Tibetans outside their homeland, these intensely important complex witnesses a constant stream of Buddhist pilgrims. Monks draped in ochre robes glide past pilgrims circling ivory-white chörtens, before continuing to spin long lines of dazzling prayer wheels. Along the kora – a clockwise circumambulation around the temple’s periphery, it’s not uncommon to see devoted pilgrims prostrate themselves along the entire course. Dropping to their knees, spreading themselves forward, fully horizontal before bringing themselves up on the spot where their outstretched hands reached. From that mark, the movement begins again and so forth. Consigned in an act to receive further merit. For many Buddhists who undertake the softer approach, it’s considered vital and meditative, that such action purifies negative karma and increases insights towards the path of enlightenment.

The surrounding area, striking and mammoth, was once part of the Tibetan region of Amdo. The complex, established in a long steep valley, eyed upon by the wise mountains of Southern Gansu, sits above the Sang-Chu river. At its core is Labrang, one of six monasteries that make up the Gelugpa (Yellow-Hat) sect of Tibetan Buddhism. After the reincarnated Rinpoches (living Buddha’s) of the Dalai and Panchen Lamas, the third in line is the Jamyang, whose seat is held at Labrang. The first Jamyang, Ngagong Tsunde founded the site back in the early 18th  century. At its zenith over 4000 monks were resident here, but those numbers soon fell during Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Today, spaces are restricted to approximately 1200. Within the walls of  Xià Hè, amongst the smaller temples of Manjushri and Serkung, and the grey mosaic of private residences are several monastic colleges. Unveiling a capacity for knowledge ascribed to theology, medicine, astrology and law.

Temple of Baalbek Lebanon

Temple of Baalbek Lebanon

Temple of Baalbek – Lebanon

Considered to be one of the most important and impressive Roman monuments in the Middle East, the Acropolis of Baalbek resonates beauty and religious adornment at every angle. A World Heritage site, its best explored during the cool hues of early morning or late afternoon, when golden light drapes itself over the columns and shadows mark the land like gigantic candles.

Surprisingly, little is known about Baalbek. Emperor Antonius Pius possibly commissioned the acropolis during the second century AD. After that little is known until a German team commenced excavations in 1898. The temple of Jupiter, finished in 60AD, was approached through two courts lined with pillars, passing a sacrificial altar then entered by a monumental staircase. Befitting in size and magnificence to the final sanctuary with its remaining half dozen columns, each 22m high. A second temple referred to as ‘the little one’ by the Romans, in honour of Bacchus, came into effect ninety years later. Built on Jupiter’s south side, it questions the Romans definition of ‘little.’ Unlike Jupiter, who was seen as the King of the Gods, associated with the sky and thunder. Bacchus, stood accredited with agriculture and wine, often called upon to promote the growth of crops and orchards. Generally depicted as a god of trees and forests contributing additional powers over fertility and celebration. The walls still show scenes of the gods at work and in play, further evidence alongside the foundations about Baalbek’s scope and emphasis.

Faces of Bayan Angkhor Cambodia

Faces of Bayan Angkhor Cambodia

Bayon, Angkor – Cambodia

In 802AD, Jayavarman II, self-declared devavaja (God-King) became the first in a long succession (38 more) who ruled over the most powerful kingdom in S.E. Asia. Each King was adding their own, ever ambitious building projects to Angkor, the political and spiritual core of the Khmer Empire. Huge temples and palaces, irrigation systems and walled cities. The scope of construction caught the eye of the neighbouring Siamese, who, after repeated attacks, sacked the complex of Angkor in the fifteenth century.

Hidden amongst the green entanglement of the jungle, Angkor remained lost until her discovery by westerners in the 19th century, which rapidly ignited hefty international interest. The ruins of Angkor Thom, which must have resembled a set piece for Indiana Jones, were found by Father Bouilleraux, a French Missionary, 2km north of the Empires showcase Angkor Wat. Built-in the late 12th century, the final capital of the Angkor era, Thom stood defended by high walls and a 100m wide moat. At its centre stood Bayon, a unique, small pyramid temple surrounded by fifty-four towers. Each side displaying a considerable stone carved face argued to be the image of Jayavarman VII, that followed the lines of the compass points. Where ever you stood in the temple grounds, it was said that at least twelve enigmatic stone faces were watching you. Those gigantic faces, now coated in patches of moss, weathering and weeds, gain even greater romance under the eerie glow of a full moon.

The main temple of Janraisig behind Gandan Khiid Mongolia

The main temple of Janraisig behind Gandan Khiid Mongolia

Gandan Khiid – Mongolia

Gandantegchinlen Khiid to give it its full name means ‘the great place of complete joy.’ Though it ended, by being a complete lack of joy during the purges of 1937, when Mongolia’s religious heritage was all but buried under Choibalsan’s leadership—pre-empting Mao’s cultural purges by several decades. Gandan Khiid then stood as a monastery show-piece, impressing visiting dignitaries who required somewhere proud and thrilling to tour. Though it wasn’t until 1990 that the full river of Buddhist ceremonies was allowed to flow again, held back by years of political persecution.

The Didan-Lavran, a two-storey temple accommodated the 13th Dalai Lama during his visit near the beginning of the 20th century. Close by, around the Ochidara temple, rises the statue of Tsongkhapa, founder of the Yellow Hat order which includes Labrang at Xià Hè. The righteous and magnificent Migjid Janraisig Süm statue, looming high into the rafters, and tanned with a coppery glow, stares over you. Its hollow interior contains 27 tonnes of medicinal herbs, hundreds of sutras, two million bundles of mantras, and unbelievably an entire ger (tent) with all its furniture. The Migjid Janraisig Süm presence is made all the more spellbinding when seen through flickering shadows made ghoulish by lines of animal-fat candles. Which by their considerable numbers, help give false movement to row upon row of tiny bronze Ayush, the Buddha of longevity.

Facts:

The Fire Temple can be reached by taking Bus #184 from Koroglu metro station to the last stop. The temple is just on the right in the suburb of Surakhani. Tickets cost $2.50. Open from 10:00 – 18:00 daily.

Xià Hè town just to the east offers a selection of hotels and small restaurants that are familiar with the presence of foreign tourists. One excursion worth doing is hiring a vehicle out to Trakkar gompa, set at the base of a sharp ridge and engulfed by the Ganjia grasslands. Taxis can be negotiated in town. Chinese guides offer tours around Labrang monastery, but some might find this controversial in consideration to Tibetan culture here.

Baalbek, 86km northeast of Beirut can be done as a day trip but its recommended to stay in the town of Baalbek itself. Allowing greater time and freedom to explore the site which includes an in-depth museum in several languages inc. English, French and Arabic. The town has a few hotels and restaurants, and accessing the temple can be done on foot.

Angkor – The variety, size and distances of Angkor’s temples (over a hundred) means it’s not practical to cover it in a single day. Multi-day tickets – up to a week were available. I certainly recommend visiting some of the temples multiple times at various stages throughout the day. Independent travel will allow you to escape the groups and enjoy places like Bayon to yourself. Hiring a motorbike with driver will make exploring much more practical and relieve the discomfort of slogging long distances through the humidity. If you are in a group, consider hiring a tuk-tuk or taxi. The nearest town, Siem-Reap is packed with hotels, restaurants and facilities that accommodate the high tourist numbers bound for Angkor.

Gandan Khiid is easily reached on foot from Mongolia’s capital Ulaanbaatar. It is worth being here before religious ceremonies begin at 10 am. Some of the chapels close by the afternoon once recitals have finished.