The Buddhist temples and monasteries of China are so numerous they’re nearly impossible to count. Nearly every community has a temple at its center.
Buddhist temples offer limitless photographic possibilities. Though they run the gamut from modest village temples to opulent royal temples, most follow the same layout.
The Features of Buddhist Temples
Before you set out to photograph a temple, learn what it is you’ll be looking at.
According to The Temple Trail, temples generally share the same format:
- the paifang: a symbolic, decorative entrance or gateway
- a screen wall (y?ngbì) or shadow wall (zhàobì): a wall or screen placed at the entrance to keep out evil spirits
- an entrance gate or gatehouse
- a courtyard with a brazier that does not function as a brazier, but as a place where visitors can toss coins
- a drum tower
- a bell tower
- hall of the heavenly kings: four gods are represented, one for each cardinal direction
- courtyard between the hall of the heavenly kings and the main chamber
- the main chamber: typically houses the most important Buddha image, Sakyamuni
- other shrines: the larger the temple, the more shrines
- cloisters are small buildings surrounding the temple that are used for a variety of purposes such as housing for monks, guest rooms, or shops
- a pagoda or tower: not every temple has one
The Best Buddhist Temples to Photograph
The White Horse Temple in Luoyang, Henan is likely the oldest temple in China, dating to approximately 68 AD. Locals recommend visiting this temple in April or May, or later in the year between September and November.
Features of the White Horse Temple include red walls, a towering pagoda, and a beautiful natural setting of pine trees and cypress groves.
Another ancient Buddhist temple that visitors to China flock to is the Xiangguo Monastery. This one was built in 555 AD during the Northern Qi Dynasty and is located in Kaifeng City, Henan Province.
The Xiangguo Monastery presents as the quintessential Buddhist place of worship with dramatic green-tiled sweeping roofs. The structures have suffered floods and fires but are more beautiful than ever.
The Famen Temple is located in Xi’an, one of China’s most beautiful areas.
The temple just outside of Xi’an is the icing on the cake. This area is home to the world-famous terracotta warriors at the Mausoleum of Qin Shi Huang, a history museum, and a seven-story-high goose pagoda.
Because four relics that proved to be directly related to Buddha were found here in 1987, this temple has become a destination for Buddhist pilgrims.
The most stunning feature of this temple is the Namaste Dagoda, an immense golden, diamond-shaped structure with a pagoda at its center.
Off the Standard Tour Route
The Lingyin Temple in Hangzhou is not one you’ll run into along a standard tourist route, though it is a very popular destination in itself.
Millions of tourists flock to China every year, and you don’t want to come home with the same photographs as everyone else.
A trip to Hangzhou offers parks, gardens, and many temples. Artists have flocked to this area, a short train ride from Shanghai, for centuries.
The Lingyin Temple is described as one of the largest and probably the most visited Buddhist temples in China, domestic tourists… that is.
This temple features a huge laughing Buddha and “A magnificent statue of Sakyamuni, the founder of Buddhism, is located in the very heart of the Hall of the Great Hero, the main hall of the temple. The 19-meter tall statue is seated on a 10.5-meter high lotus flower amidst great red pillars and murals.”
The Shaolin Temple, constructed in 495 AD, is most famous for Chinese Kung Fu. At the outset, many of the monks were not steeped in religion and knew a martial art upon coming to live in the temple.
The Shaolin Temple became famous for the Shaolin School of martial arts that developed with the intermixing of 1000 or more monks from different disciplines.
The temple is located in DengFeng, Henan. Its peak season is March through November.
Jokhang Temple in Lhasa as the “holiest site for Tibetan Buddhist Pilgrims”, boasting a life-sized Buddha statue, set against the striking white washed walls.
The roofs are gold, featuring birds, bells and intricate figures rich in symbolic meaning.
Since 1409 the Great Prayer Festival has been held at Jokhang sometime between January and March, depending on the Tibetan calendar. Thousands of monks arrive to perform religious ceremonies.
Though they share a similar set of features, all temples are different, a reflection of the period they were built in, as well as a reflection of the people of the village or city.
Trip Advisor has received many reports from tourists who say the Wannian Temple in Emeishan stands out as quite different from others they’ve visited.
The Wannian Temple is one of eight main Buddhist temples at Emei mountain. It sits 1020 meters above sea level and is perhaps most famous for its golden Buddha atop a white elephant.
The Wannian Temple is most famous for the Beamless Hall. Other features include an idol known as the Puxian Buddha and a Tooth of Buddha, so a perfect choice for the dentists among you 😉
It’s the Beamless Hall that sets the architecture of this Buddhist temple apart from others. “The Beamless Hall is 56 feet high and resembles a Mongolian yurt, with a dome roof and square floor, which are said to represent the ancient ideals of the sky (found in the dome) and the earth (in the square floor),” writes Wind Horse Tour.
What Suits you Best
Only you know what setting best suits your photographic skills and areas of expertise. China is home to hundreds of Buddhist temples as well as other holy sites. It’s also a land of diverse people and a wide range of natural beauty.
Book a trip to China today and don’t forget your camera!