Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Beijing: Temple Of Heaven (天壇)

The Temple of Heaven Park is one of Beijing's most impressive and beautiful parks. We arrived bright and early at the park's northern entrance, in time to catch the morning rituals of Beijingites in the beautiful and green North park.

As we entered the park, this was the scene that greeted us: trees and green grass everywhere - a stark contrast to the dull grey concrete that is Beijing. There were people everywhere practicing taiqi and other morning activities.

A group of ladies were gaily twirling their colourful batons to the tune of lively traditional Chinese music.

Another group of ladies were playing a kind of game which was a cross between pingpong and tennis, using enlarged bats to hit tennis-sized balls up into the air and catching them in a very graceful manner.

And where were the men, you ask? Well, they were more interested in pursuing less strenuous activities, like enjoying a live musical performance with traditional Chinese instruments like the erhu and pipa.

Fancy a sing-a-long? Then just grab a songbook and join in the scores of impromptu choirs scattered along the corridors. Perfect pitch not required. ;)

These guys seemed to be playing a boardgame using domino tiles.

This is the North Heavenly gate. The central door is decorated with nine rows of nine golden knobs; the number 9 symbolising the emperor.

This is how tall the doors were. As you can see, they are very red as the colour is considered very auspicious. Actually just about everything here has an auspicious meaning built into it, whether it is the colour or the shape or the number of items or the direction which it faces.

This is the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests (祈年殿). It is a circular building with a triple-eaved umbrella roof, mounted on a three-tiered marble terrace. It was where the Emperor prayed for good harvests. Built in 1420, (and rebuilt after a lightning incident in 1889 burnt the original to the ground) the building itself is completely wooden, with no nails or cement.

One of the side buildings that housed various altars which complemented the main one in the temple.

This urn is actually larger than it looks in this pic. It's about the size of a small elephant and stands as tall as an average human being. Really!

This elaborate arched structure is actually just a gate to the next temple beyond. The central larger door is reserved for the Gods while the Emperor and temple officials use the smaller side entrances.

And beyond that red arch, lies the Imperial Vault of Heaven complex. The buildings here looksed like miniature versions of the ones I just saw at the Hall of Prayer.

The buildings lie enclosed in a circular area completely walled in by the Echo Wall. Due to its extraordinary acoustic qualities, if you whisper directly into the wall, someone on the other side of the complex might be able to hear you. Except, of course, when there is a horde of tourists, in which case, even shouting out loud might not be effective.

The centrepiece is of course the Imperial Vault of Heaven (皇穹宇) which once housed the spirit tablets used in the winter solstice ceremony.

By this time the sun was quite high in the sky. And yet it was still very very cold, about 8ºC, I reckoned. It was rather unusual for me, a person who lives in hot and balmy Malaysia, to be able to feel the rays of the sun shining down on me, and yet be almost shivering and having my fingers and ears numb from the cold.

Down the road, we entered the Round Altar complex. It is surrounded by three layers of walls complete with sets of entrances for the gods, emperors and temple officials.

The Round Altar (圜丘) is an empty circular platform on three levels of marble stones. The geometry of this platform revolves around the number 9 which, in short, is considered a very heavenly number.

Ok, get ready, here are a few numbers for you. The top tier, which symbolises heaven, has nine rings of stone. Each rings has multiples of nine stones, so that the ninth ring has 81 stones. The middle tier - earth - has the 10th to the 18th rings, while the bottom tier - humanity - has the 19th to the 27th rings. The number of stairs and balustrades are also multiples of nine.

And in the centre of the upper terrace, there is a small stone mound where it is said that if you stand on it and say something, the sound will be amplified (by nine times, perhaps).

This is the ZhaoHeng Gate which is at the southernmost point of the entire park. It is through this gate that the emperor would enter the Temple complex as it is considered auspicious to enter through the south and then proceed northwards.

However it was through this gate that we made our exit. I wonder if this will affect my personal feng shui.....

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