Karl’s Chronicles Article 38 Temples In Ten – Part II
A temple twisting like a helter-skelter while another takes you from debauchery to nirvana in five levels. The concept of religion, with its duties and rituals, has manifested some striking if a little eccentric design. But all shared one commonality, to promote the glory of their god or gods. Aside from Khajuraho’s nondescript location, most temples sought out a position of grand beauty. Spectacular backdrops to promote the serenity and magnificence of the deity in question.
In this second part of Temples in Ten, we look at five more places of worship, where human submission has aspired to deep religious, spiritual and philosophical beliefs. Evermore remarkable for being hundreds and hundreds of years in the past.
Kōngtóng Shȃn – China
Set at 2100m, the picturesque Kōngtóng Shȃn, part of the Liùpán mountain range on the Gȃnsù – Ningxià border, yields over 42 Qin and Han temples along its network of paths. Meandering up, over, and around its summit, with ornate pavilions perched high on forested precipices. Once the abode of the Eight Immortals and a hermitage for wandering ascetic priests. The mountain became an all-important centre for Taoist monks, one of a dozen principal peaks in the Taoist world.
The mountain was first mentioned by Zhuang Zhou (399-295BCE), an exemplary figure in classical philosophical Daoism. Part author of the Zhuangzi, a compilation of naturalist reflections on normativity, written during the Warring States when Chinese philosophy was enjoying a golden era of profound thought. Kōngtóng Shȃn also embraced a rare visit from the Xuanyuan Huangdi, better known as the Yellow Emperor. A deity in Chinese religion referred to as a cosmic ruler and cultural icon, absorbed into the legendary and mythical Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors.
Khajuraho – India
Wielding power for close to five centuries, the Chandela dynasty eventually fell to the conquests of the Mughals. But the Chandela left behind the profound creativity and artistic might of Khajuraho -a family of temples built between 950-1050AD. The area, unpopulated, dry and unremarkable has continuously baffled historians and scholars. Why such architectural scope and religious significance ended up where it did? Why? is soon succeeded by How? when incredible labour, much of it highly skilled would have been necessary. The temples stand as a beguiling example of Indo-Aryan architecture, a significant portal left by its stone-masons and sculptures of Indian life over a millennium ago. Time weathered walls come alive with warriors, musicians, myths and divinities, moving from light to shadow as the sun slides west across a sultry sky. But the light unveils a shock on sensitive and puritanical eyes, a cardinal blush that has made Khajuraho wildly famous. Its representations of highly erotic images, of couples caught in revealing positions that promoted the acrobatic sensuality of the Kamasutra. Forming conventional interpretations across the stonework, the exotic dancing apsara (nymphs), the subservient surasundari who waitresses on the gods and the mythical sardula – a beast spliced from a lion, a human, and frequently from other animals.
Borobudur – Indonesia
High and mighty, the truth will out. The journey progresses from suffering and ignorance of sinful earth to the peace and realization of divine heaven. Climbing across five levels of the worlds largest stupor, which traces the path to enlightenment—guiding the visitor around its retracting circumference a total of ten times, a distance close to five kilometres. The first levels deal with man’s early existence, portrayed in thousands of reliefs that line the passageways. At the fifth level, the passageways give-way to an open platform known as the Sphere of Formlessness, marked with a central bell-shaped stupor and 72 smaller ones, each containing a Buddha statue. Set to an endearing backdrop of fields and volcanoes, the temple of Borobudur is rightfully the greatest, single-piece architecture anywhere in South East Asia.
The Sanjayas who had started work on a Hindu step pyramid were forced to abandon their project and flee east by the Buddhist Saliendras. The Saliendras used the Hindu foundations as the platform for Borobudur, continuing with construction right up to the close of the eighth century. The structure required 1.6 million blocks of volcanic rock and took over seventy years to finish. A century on, plagued with cracks and structural instability from the waterlogged ground, the Saliendras gave up the site. It wasn’t until 1815 when English explorers rediscovered the buildings grandeur and religious importance that Borobudur received the attention it deserved.
Costing $21 million, UNESCO commenced an ambitious restructuring project in the early 1970s to break down Borobudur, block by block, changing the waterlogged ground for a concrete foundation, before the arduous and meticulous challenge of reassembly.
The Kumbum – Tibet
Easily the largest and most striking chörten in Tibet, the Kumbum – 10,000 Images Stupa stands within the grounds of the 15th century Pelkhor Chode Monastery. The 32m high chörten, resembling a structure caught between a beehive and a wedding cake rises above the wool-producing town of Gyatse. Nine tiers high and capped with a gold-like crown, while following Buddhist tradition, the structure contains 108 small chapels. The Kumbum was initially commissioned by a local prince and aligned with Pelkhor, whose compound once comprised 14 other monasteries and three different branches of Tibetan Buddhism. The entire site didn’t stand exempt from the violent hands of the Cultural Revolution, where much of the chapels statuary was damaged. The murals, influenced by Newari (Nepali) artisans and Chinese form, have weathered the years much better, portraying an amalgamation of traits that conspire a style distinctly Tibetan.
The chapels honour various deities, changing in character as one ascends with the first floor honouring Sakyamuni, Sukhavati (Pure Land of Bliss), Öpagme (Infinite Life) and the Past Buddha of Marmedze. By the time you stagger breathless onto the fourth floor, the small recesses offer dedication to teachers, scholars and translators. One conjecture that doesn’t need translating is the sheer eminence of the place, standing in the Nyangchu valley, overlooking the muddy flat-top houses of Gyantse, as proud as a king at the head of his army.
Djemila – Algeria
Founded under Emperor Nerva (96-98AD), the ancient Roman settlement of Cuicul, more commonly known as Djèmila shone as a precedent of Roman architecture in North Africa. Inline to their preference of stunning locations, Djèmila, cast across a rocky spur between the Guergour and Betame wadi’s, doesn’t underwhelm. Originally Cuicul was marked as a military garrison, but by the third century, the settlement had advanced beyond the ramparts. Cuicul soon required the symbols and structures that bore allegiance to an expanding affluent population. The temple of Septimus Severus, Caracalla’s Arch, a civil basilica, public baths, and sumptuous villas floored with exquisite mosaics. Growth continued under the Severan Emperors who were North African by origin, which saw the construction of the Severan family temple. The emergence of a cathedral and a church with adjoined baptistry in the 4th century performed to a strengthened position of Christianity. Understood to be the biggest of the Paleochristian period.
When Rome fell, Cuicul was slowly abandoned. Though Muslims soon came to dominate the area, it was never reoccupied. Befittingly, the name Djèmila means beautiful in Arabic, which goes some way in explaining the sites excellent preservation—agreed by UNESCO who awarded Djèmila, World Heritage status in 1982.
Pingliáng, the nearest town to Kōngtóng Shȃn is 11km away and offers a few budgets places to stay. Numerous restaurants and food stalls can be found around Sizhong market. The ticket office for Kōngtóng Shȃn is located on her north side, from where it’s a further 3.5km to the mountain itself. Minivans can be hired from Pingliáng while Jingyuan bound buses pass the main entrance. It might still be possible to stay on the mountain at Kōngtóng Shānzhuāng. For those put off by the ascent, Kōngtóng Shȃn is served by a cable car that leaves close to the reservoir under the mountains southern face.
Generally occurring between February and March, the week-long Khajuraho Festival of Dance showcases the sublime beauty of Indian classical dancing, exemplified by the enchanting backdrop of Khajuraho’s temples. There are plenty of temples to explore, with the western group and a spread of singular temples in the opposite direction, that a couple of days are advisable. Khajuraho offers a vast range of accommodation for all budgets and restaurants to match. Due to its remoteness, a lot of visitors slip it in between Varanasi and Agra in Uttar Pradesh, changing at Satna four hours away when making for Varanasi.
Many people make the forty-kilometre journey from Yogya to Borobudur as a day trip. Though it’s possible to stay close to the temple, allowing for early morning exploration before the tour groups arrive. Borobudur used to be part of a collection of four temples, linked by a sacred path. Candi Mendut, 3km east has been restored and open for viewing. Public transport from Yogya passes the site otherwise its 10 minutes by taxi from Borobudur.
Not far from the Kumbum is the old fort Dzong, standing triumphant above Gyantse. Looking across the valley and its shadows of deep colours tripped and pedestalled by the high altitude air. Gyantse has a range of accommodation and simple restaurants. I would recommend a visit here on one’s own merits, away from tours and intrusive schedules.
Djèmila lays 50km northeast of Setif, the nearest main town with suitable accommodation and restaurants. Chartering a taxi with several hours waiting time is the most straight forward option. Just beyond the entrance gate is a very informative museum with displays of stone and mosaic work and plenty of archaeological finds. As Algeria is firmly off the tourist radar, you can guarantee you’ll enjoy much of Djèmila to yourself.